House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde was widely mocked for trying to draw a connection between President Clinton's misbehavior and Adolf Hitler's Final Solution. But his attempt to illustrate the importance of equality before the law by pointing to Auschwitz was just a particularly conspicuous example of a rhetorical tic that afflicts people across the political spectrum.
Hyde's use of the Holocaust, though wildly inappropriate, was hardly the most egregious in recent memory. One of my favorite quotations in this genre was offered up years ago by Ingrid Newkirk, founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"Six million Jews died in concentration camps," Newkirk said, "but 6 billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses." The quote wonderfully encapsulates both the crude moral equation at the heart of the animal rights movement and the obtuseness of zealots who cannot step outside their own perspective to understand how others perceive them.
Newkirk's blithe comparison is typical of a movement intent on obliterating distinctions that most of us take for granted. The Animal Liberation Front offers this defense of attacks on mink farms and other bastions of specieism:
"If we are trespassing, so were the soldiers who broke down the gates of Hitler's death camps. And if we are vandals, so were those who destroyed the gas chambers of Buchenwald and Auschwitz."
In the face of such an appalling premise, it may seem beside the point to note that Buchenwald had no gas chambers (ALF's sloganeer was probably thinking of Birkenau). But the mistake reflects the ignorance and shallowness of self-styled moralists who are interested in the Holocaust purely for its propaganda potential.
When professional activists use this sort of language, they are being deliberately provocative. More troubling, perhaps, is the unthinking resort to Holocaust terminology by people with strong opinions but weak vocabularies.
A recent New York Times article about suburbs overrun by deer quoted a New Jersey woman who likes to feed the animals and opposes the hiring of sharpshooters to thin out the herd. "This sharphooting idea is horrible, insane, barbaric," she said. "It reminds me of the Final Solution."
For such people, the Holocaust is more a symbol of evil than a historical reality, a vision of hell on earth that, like the original hell, can be summoned up whenever emotions run high. It is still a bit of a shock, however, to see respected, mainstream journalists relying on this crutch in writing, where they have the opportunity to look over their words and think better of hyperbolic analogies.
In his book Smokescreen, New York Times reporter Philip Hilts likens tobacco industry employees to "the guards and doctors in Nazi death camps." Criticized for this by a reviewer, Hilts claimed his point was that people who work for cigarette companies are psychologically similar to people who worked in Auschwitz and Treblinka, not morally on par with them.
But as Hilts surely knows, tobacco's opponents for years have charged cigarette makers with mass murder. A 1986 editorial in The Journal of the American Medical Association called for "a declaration of all-out war" to save "the victims of the tobaccoism holocaust." The state of Florida recently started airing a TV ad that shows Hitler watching as tobacco executives in hell accept an award for "Most Deaths in a Year."
While Hilts has tried to distance himself from the sentiment underlying such messages, Molly Ivins has embraced it. "To be blunt about it," the syndicated columnist wrote last summer, "the tobacco industry has murdered millions of people. Morally, it is just as guilty as Adolf Hitler."
A letter to the editor in The Richmond Times Dispatch complained that Ivins's comparison "trivializes the horror and brutality that millions of people were forced to suffer in Nazi Germany–and forced to suffer is the issue here. The consequences of smoking can be sad indeed, but all smokers initially make the choice to start smoking. No man, woman, or child was ever dragged from his or her home, transported like cattle to a concentration camp, and then tortured or murdered by a tobacco company for refusing to smoke cigarettes."
The letter is perfectly right, of course, but the need to write it is depressing. Either Ivins does not understand such distinctions or does not care about them. I'm not sure which is worse.