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COLUMN: Save the Nazi references for actual Nazis

Thursday, February 3, 2011 | 12:15 p.m. CST; updated 9:53 a.m. CST, Friday, February 4, 2011

*CORRECTION: The name of the Fox News president is Roger Ailes. An earlier version of this story included an incorrect name.

On Jan. 28, a group of 400 rabbis published an open letter to Rupert Murdoch letting him know they’d had enough of Glenn Beck.

The list of people who’ve had enough of Glenn Beck can hardly be limited to 400 rabbis, but in this instance, a philanthropic foundation called Jewish Funds for Justice bought a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal to publish the letter, which asked that Beck be reprimanded for making “literally hundreds of on-air references to the Holocaust and Nazis when characterizing people with whom (he disagrees).”

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The group was specifically referring to Beck’s treatment of Holocaust survivor George Soros, whom Beck has called “the power behind the throne of the Progressive movement” and who has been a favorite punching bag of Beck’s this year. Those who signed the letter took offense both at Beck’s casual references to the Holocaust and to Fox News president Roger Ailes’* earlier dismissal of similar complaints as coming from “left-wing rabbis who basically don't think that anybody can ever use the word Holocaust on the air."

I wholeheartedly agree that Beck needs to drop the constant Nazi comparisons. But Beck is not the only public figure who relies on trite Holocaust references, and he’s not the only one who needs to stop.

People at all levels of public influence need to use Third Reich comparisons sparingly because few current or historical events compare. There are plenty of reasons we all need to tone down the Nazi talk:

1. Comparisons to Hitler are too commonplace to inspire fear, or even thought.

Last month, Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, drew criticism when he compared Republicans to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in their repeated insistence that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed last year is “a government takeover of health care.”

The accusation got Cohen mentioned in a few news programs, but I doubt it persuaded anyone who was against universal health care to change his or her stance. After all, most of us have seen enough posters of President Barack Obama — and before that of George W. Bush — with Hitler mustaches drawn onto them to not even flinch at such comments.

Hitlerizing the discourse isn’t limited to one political party, and it isn’t even limited to politicians. A few weeks before the 2008 presidential election, an episode of “Family Guy” showed a button for the McCain/Palin campaign on a Nazi uniform.

The problem with such vague comparisons is they tend to come with flimsy support at best. Did the “Family Guy” clip tell us why we are to believe that Hitler would have pulled for McCain? No. The show’s writers didn’t seem to think the assertion needed any defense. And as much as I hate “Family Guy,” it’s hard to expect the show to defend Nazi comparisons when political leaders such as Cohen are making the same kind of accusation backed by just as much factual support.

Because none of these comparisons to the Third Reich comes with substantive proof, accusations that political opponents are emulating Nazi Germany have turned into signals that the speaker hasn’t put thought into his or her beliefs and instead has resorted to the lowest common denominator of scare tactics.

2. Comparisons to Hitler trivialize the Holocaust

I went to high school a few years after the iconic “Soup Nazi” episode of “Seinfeld” aired in 1995. My school’s librarians were notoriously ill-tempered, and many of the students took to calling them “book Nazis.” In my personal experience, I’ve been called a “grammar Nazi” more times than I care to think about.

The problem with these casual references to Nazism is that denying a customer soup, being curt with a library patron and pointing out a pronoun/antecedent disagreement simply do not compare to participating in genocide.

I was lucky enough to grow up in the D.C. area, where I was a short drive away from many of the country’s best museums. A few years after the Holocaust museum was opened, my eighth-grade English class took a field trip there.

It’s hard for me to keep straight what I learned about the Holocaust in the museum and what I learned in class a few weeks earlier. But burned into my brain from that visit is walking through rooms filled with the shoes of Holocaust victims. After seeing a floor covered with the shoes of hundreds of people whose lives were taken from them systematically, it’s hard to take Hitler comparisons seriously, whether they refer to George Soros, the proprietor of a soup restaurant or a House Republican.

3. Constant Nazi references cause us to overlook other important aspects of German culture

In what is without a doubt the most well-known scene in his 1970s sitcom "Fawlty Towers," Monty Python alumnus John Cleese plays a hotel manager who brings a German patron to tears because he can't help making constant references to World War II. Cleese has maintained that the scene doesn't satirize Germans, but people who insist on equating modern Germans with Nazis.

The scene was written 35 years ago and thousands of miles away, but part of what makes it funny today (besides John Cleese's hilarious goose-stepping) is that it reflects a mentality that exists today: Some of us can't hear a German accent without thinking of Hitler.

Germany has given Western culture Beethoven, Goethe and Martin Luther, among countless other thinkers. Regardless of your personal taste or theological inclinations, it’s impossible to ignore the significance that German music, art, philosophy, literature and religious movements have had on our own culture. If all we see is the regime of the Third Reich when we look at Germany, we’re overlooking an abundance of people whose creative work has had an immeasurable impact on Western thought, and we ignore the creative work Germans have produced since.

I am not suggesting that we ignore that chapter in German history, or even that we don't discuss it openly and often. But shouting "Nazi" every time someone disagrees with you eventually diminishes the horror we should feel when we think about the Holocaust. We need to be careful to keep Holocaust references in their place. That place isn't Glenn Beck's show (or any other forum for political mudslinging), and it isn't in casual jokes.

Jessica Stephens is a master’s candidate in the Missouri School of Journalism and an assistant news editor at the Columbia Missourian. She is very good at grammar, but she will give you a 30-minute lecture if you ever call her a "grammar Nazi."


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Comments

Michael Williams February 3, 2011 | 3:40 p.m.

"But shouting "Nazi" every time someone disagrees with you ..."
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Good article. Now, if we could just convince some folks that it's a conversation-stopper "shouting 'Racist' every time someone disagrees with you."

(Report Comment)
Chip Leaver February 3, 2011 | 4:19 p.m.

Representative Cohen was pointing out that the propaganda techniques that Fox uses are very similar to the propaganda techniques that the Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels used. Lies, repeated over and over again, until they become truth in the minds of those listening to the lies.

This is a form of propaganda and I don't see why it is off the table for discussion, unless, like Beck has done, you use it to smear the name of an individual who was merely trying to survive during the Holocaust as was fourteen year old George Soros.

When you see any form of media or government using such techniques, and in objecting to it, and pointing it out, if you cannot compare it to the most widely known propaganda campaign in all of history, then how would you suggest it be explained?

Your position on this is like saying that we can never use the term, "mushroom cloud" again, to describe the blast of an atomic bomb, because of the number of people killed when we dropped just such bombs on Japan. That too was loss of life of epic proportions, but is describing something that led up to the deaths of so many in any way disrespecting them? I think not. And too, we are to learn from history, not bury our heads in the sand.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks February 3, 2011 | 5:28 p.m.

I think it is funny how no matter what side you are on the other person is always wrong and you are correct. Your person can say no wrong.

Beck and other do toss around specific terms. Yes a lot of the programs being pushed forward these says are Socialist in nature and the only way to relate them to anything is to use Nazi. It would be better to just use Socialist or Chinese. But that is not as IN YOUR FACE!

"Lies, repeated over and over again, until they become truth in the minds of those listening to the lies."

This was probably perfected by the left and a majority of progressives in seats of power. Unfortunately while most of us just laugh it off or shake our head in disbelief we have to come home and watch the nightly news on NBC and see the media who are supposed to be the ones blowing the cases wide open with research and truth are just adding to the lies.

(Report Comment)
Amber Hanneken February 3, 2011 | 8:47 p.m.

No reference to Godwin's Law? For shame.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin'...

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley February 3, 2011 | 9:10 p.m.

Complete B.S.!

Do you want to just do a way with free speech now all in one lop, or will you just continue to try to "chip away" at it little by little?

Don't forget Jessica, that same freedom of speech that you are complaining about is the same freedom of speech that allows you to write the article that you just wrote...

Anyone that wants to limit a particular type of speech because they don't like it, really has no idea what our Constitutional Rights are about..

If you don't like Glenn Beck, turn the channel!

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Chip Leaver February 3, 2011 | 9:54 p.m.

Corey Parks said: "This was probably perfected by the left and a majority of progressives in seats of power", in reference to my statement about telling lies over and over again until some people perceive them as a truth.

Is that so Corey? I notice that you said, "probably", which leads me to wonder if this is your own original thought, and if so, what do you base it upon? If it is not your original thought then whose thoughts are you repeating? Is this one of those lies, (accusations of misdoings without any merit) that I was talking about that gets told over and over again?

It seems to me that it is one of those talking points that we hear day in and day out, meant to brainwash the masses, that Fox has gushing forth like the Niagra Falls of propaganda, on a daily basis.

Oh and btw, Ms. Stephens, Cohen never called anyone a Nazi, which seems to be the main theme of this article, generally stating that calling anyone a Nazi is a bad idea and that we should call only a real Nazi a Nazi but you tossed Cohen, who simply spoke about a form of propaganda in the bag with Glenn Beck who actually has called people Nazi's hundreds of times, shook them up and basically called them one in the same, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Personally I feel that in the current political climate that is what those who are politically correct are obliged to do, so as not to offend, which is something that I find to be, rather offensive.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire February 3, 2011 | 10:04 p.m.

I have to register my complaints here too. Some of the people that they have been erroneously labeling as Nazis would give the people who actually were the Nazis a bad name. So they should just stop it now.

(Report Comment)
Jessica Stephens February 3, 2011 | 10:44 p.m.

Chip, I see your point and I appreciate your sharing point of view. You're right that Cohen didn't specifically call anyone a Nazi. I still feel like saying something along the lines of "The Republicans are using the same methods the Nazis did" is resorting to a scare tactic, but it could be that you and I are simply interpreting Cohen's statement differently. When I was a child and got in trouble with my mother, I used the same idea of repeating a lie to try to convince her I shouldn't be punished (it never worked). Repeating a lie was a Goebbels tactic, but I don't think that means I was thinking like Goebbels. I don't deny that legislators and pundits against universal health care have been very careful in their word choice, such as deliberately using the phrases "Obamacare" and "government option" to put a negative light on the other side's stance, but people all over the political spectrum resort to that sort of manipulation. I feel like there's a difference in scope and intention, but as I said, I can see why you have a problem with my lumping Cohen's accusation in with some of the other examples I mentioned. Again, I appreciate your taking the time to share your point of view.

Ricky, the message I intended to send was that people shouldn't make thoughtless references to the Holocaust, not that people shouldn't be allowed to make these references. People have very few limits on what they're free to say, but that doesn't absolve them from the responsibility to think before they speak. I'm sorry if I didn't make that clear.

And Amber, thank you for letting me know about Godwin's Law. I'm shocked I'd never heard of it. I feel more culturally literate now.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley February 3, 2011 | 11:11 p.m.

Ricky, the message I intended to send was that people shouldn't make thoughtless references to the Holocaust, not that people shouldn't be allowed to make these references. People have very few limits on what they're free to say, but that doesn't absolve them from the responsibility to think before they speak. I'm sorry if I didn't make that clear.
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Jessica,

Here is where we differ.

The burden of being responsible in these situations does not fall upon the idiot that makes such horrible references to quell his speech; but upon us to tolerate his non-sense.

I expect that you will understand the concept, where few others will; since you have been and are being educated in these exact matters..

You understand of course that the 1st Amendment is not and never was about protecting "popular speech". You understand that the 1st Amendment has always been about protecting unpopular speech, speech that some people just don't want to hear and find unpleasant. If this were not the case, then we'd have no need to put any protections on what we can say; because we'd all just say what everyone else wants to hear.

The difference is this; allowing people to call others Nazis, and make references to the Holocaust just gives some people a terrible illustration of the past. Not allowing people to call others Nazis and make references to the Holocaust starts us on our way back to that terrible past and terrible place........

There is a greater danger in limiting our freedoms than there is in allowing some of the discomforts that come along with them…..

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Chip Leaver February 4, 2011 | 12:20 a.m.

Ms. Stephens, thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions. I think the difference here is that you cannot compare a child's lies to those of media outlet that calls itself a news organization, adding insult to injury by using the term, "fair and balanced", while it is very clearly acting as an arm of the Republican party.

I feel that MSNBC is biased as well, but have yet to hear them making outright statements that the citizens on the right are our enemies, who are out to destroy the country, our way of life, our religion, kill our grandparents with death panels, and should be shipped out to another country, etc., etc., etc..

Basically I cannot condone a news organization that works 24/7 to turn Americans against Americans. They seem to be determined to create a great divide amongst the citizenry of this country and I just don't feel that is what our public airwaves should be used for, or what our country needs, at this time or any other. If our history teaches us anything, it is that we must struggle against certain elements in our society for progress, but we have made progress despite our struggles.

In past civil conflicts such as during the times of slavery, we fought amongst ourselves over the right to own and keep slaves. That didn't turn out so well, as many lives were lost, but in the end, our fellow citizens of African American heritage were indeed freed.

Though not as severe as a civil war, there were other times when the country was greatly divided, such as the Vietnam war, and the Civil rights acts, but in both of those things, the fight was worth it in the long run, as the war was abandoned and the civil rights were granted.

So what are we facing now that would serve us well to be divided, with the help of a major news outlet? Is it the issue of taxation that in essence was just letting the tax breaks resulting in an increase in the amount of 3% for the rich expire, making them go back to the taxation rates of the Clinton administration? Doesn't sound like something that should make the masses, who btw are NOT rich go into such a frenzy does it?

(Report Comment)
Chip Leaver February 4, 2011 | 12:29 a.m.

Part two: Or maybe the granting of civil rights to gays? Or could it be because we would like to find a way to grant the opportunity for affordable health care to the working class? I said the working class because basically the poorest people have pretty much a full coverage plan with Medicaid. The elderly with Medicare, the veterans with Tricare, all government run healthcare, used by millions of Americans, who are glad to get it and would be destitute in many cases, did they not have it. So who does that leave out? I'll tell you who. It is the men and women working those low wage jobs that offer no insurance. Yes, working people.

Is any of that as such a bad thing for us to be looking into and trying to solve? Bad enough to have a network working like there is no tomorrow to demonize anyone who is for those things and not against them?

Surely we as a country, can pull together and work on whatever problems that face us, whether it be the rights of all of our citizens for health care, choice in whom they marry, or for crying out loud, letting the wealthiest of the wealthy's tax rates return to what it was during the Clinton years. Those years when we did have jobs and a surplus, instead of massive debt.

We have of course heard that letting them keep their money would stimulate job growth, but they have been keeping this money for 10 long years and job growth has done what since that time?
My point is that I have no respect for anyone who tries to drive a wedge between Americans, because after all, we are all in this together. If we were to work together, and pull together, to solve our problems, this nation would be much better off.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley February 4, 2011 | 2:58 p.m.

I am not sure that you understand Chip, that in the USA our government seems to favor adversarial systems rather than collaborative systems in the "decision making process"...

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Chip Leaver February 4, 2011 | 3:18 p.m.

I wasn't talking about the goverment Ricky. When I spoke of pulling together I meant the citizens. When I renounced division I was not referencing the government either. I was speaking of a network that is nothing more than a servant of the corporate elite operating as an arm of the right wing, under the guise of a news organization.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks February 4, 2011 | 6:17 p.m.

I am sure it is my own personal belief as I am not that old to have been around during the 30's and early 40's. I also do not have a TV that gets more then 3 channels with my antenna so if anything I came upon the beleifs by watching the main stream news and what I catch listening to people talk.

I do not have a dog in this fight. I simply stated that I am not one of those people that give reporters and new anchors a pass because they are in print or on TV. It was only 10 or so years ago when they actually reported on stuff and not helped spread there on politics. Or maybe they did and I was just too young to notice. But I do think that as much as this country has been divided in the last election I don't believe we have seen anything yet. Just wait 2 years. I could see revolts from both side.

And in case no one has ever pointed it out to you before. You have every right to get upset or name call networks whatever you wish but as least realize in doing so you are no better then them. You seem very polarized.

For every yin there is a yang. Both are guilty of politicking and when another party tries to pop up they join together to crush it.

"I feel that MSNBC is biased as well, but have yet to hear them making outright statements that the citizens on the right are our enemies, who are out to destroy the country, our way of life, our religion, kill our grandparents with death panels, and should be shipped out to another country, etc., etc., etc.."

Google is your friend. Start with Matthews, Olbermann and Maddow and the such. You will find most of their comments just as evil as anyone you have mentioned if not more.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks February 4, 2011 | 6:31 p.m.

I do hope though that you find or get what your looking for. Good luck to you.

(Report Comment)
Chip Leaver February 4, 2011 | 7:46 p.m.

Corey said: "And in case no one has ever pointed it out to you before. You have every right to get upset or name call networks whatever you wish but as least realize in doing so you are no better then them".
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Well Corey, I am not seeking to be better than them, but I am nowhere near in the ball park of bad with them. I am an individual, giving my own opinion on what I have been observing. I haven't called anyone a Nazi for trying to survive the holocaust, I haven't stated over and over again that the citizens whose beliefs are different than my own should be run out of this country. I haven't called them traitors, suggested that they were out to kill every single thing that we hold dear in this country or really any other demeaning thing, other than to question their intelligence, which is something that I have done time and again, but for good reason. Anytime you vote against your own interests, it does make me wonder, and rightfully so, in my opinion. Anytime that you vote for the rights of corporations and or foreign countries to funnel tons of anonymous donated monies into swaying our elections to benefit those same corporations, giving them carte blanche to do harm to the citizens, yourself included, it does tend to make a person wonder about what it is that you are thinking.
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You also said: "Google is your friend. Start with Matthews, Olbermann and Maddow and the such. You will find most of their comments just as evil as anyone you have mentioned if not more".
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Can you give me your definition of evil, as it does seem to vary from person to person? I watch nothing but news, and I watch every channel and every program, as my time will allow, and I can tell you now that nothing on MSNBC or CNN can compare when it comes to mass brainwashing and outright, in the open, propaganda, including deliberate lies to divide the masses, the way that Fox does in order to further the agenda of one party.

Oh and Corey, if your ideas and thoughts are your own about your statement that "This was probably perfected by the left and a majority of progressives in seats of power", when referring to the repetitive lies, I wish you would give us a post on exactly what lies it was that the left told so many times, on the air, that they have trained the right to do it. So in essence you seem to be saying that the right is doing it, but it's the left's fault. Can you back that up?

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush February 7, 2011 | 3:29 p.m.

Great article, Ms. Stephens!
I'm trying to understand the state of mind that asking someone to think a bit before escalating political speech to comparisons with genocidal historical actors is akin to loping off the First Amendment.
<sigh>
That level of paranoia is way over my head.
Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful article.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley February 7, 2011 | 3:49 p.m.

I'll imagine there are probably a lot of things "over your head", Gregg...

But in this case, read the paragraph below:
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"The list of people who’ve had enough of Glenn Beck can hardly be limited to 400 rabbis, but in this instance, a philanthropic foundation called Jewish Funds for Justice bought a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal to publish the letter, which asked that Beck be reprimanded for making “literally hundreds of on-air references to the Holocaust and Nazis when characterizing people with whom (he disagrees).”
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And just tell me when you read this: "which asked that Beck be reprimanded" in that paragraph, exactly who do you think this The Jewish Funds for Justice is asking to reprimand Glenn Beck?

The Wall Street Journal?

The People That Read The Wall Street Journal?

Maybe the People That Sell The Wall Street Journal At Their Streetside Magazine Stands?

Who do you think has the authority to reprimand Glenn Beck?

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush February 7, 2011 | 6:21 p.m.

Clearly, I'm not the smartest guy in the room wherever I go.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley February 7, 2011 | 7:15 p.m.

No, but I am! So, just trust whatever I say.... LOL.

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
frank christian February 7, 2011 | 8:18 p.m.

Jessica - You included rep Cohen as having received criticism for his tirade about Nazis and their propaganda. ( A better example of that would be the liberal media and their blitzkrieg blaming S. Palin and republicans for the Tucson shooting.) He was roundly reprimanded by most on the left. Should you not have mentioned that while chastised for "Nazis", he was handsomely commended for furthering their contention that Republicans are liars? Are you selective in your choice of "trite references"? Shouldn't All insulting language be considered in a piece like this? Might have to omit Beck and Fox News, of course. Should we wonder why you you pick Beck's use of the Holocaust when folks around the world, particularly in Iran are publicly claiming it didn't happen? I agree with Mr. Williams above, will your next article be about the word, racist? Probably have trouble putting Beck in it, as well.

I'll finish with my old contention. "Fox News says things Liberals don't want to hear."

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire February 7, 2011 | 8:42 p.m.

Send the FOX news racists to IRAQ!!!

(Report Comment)

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