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Columbia Missourian

COLUMN: Save the Nazi references for actual Nazis

By Jessica Stephens
February 3, 2011 | 12:15 p.m. CST

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."