As the last two posts from me indicate, I've been reading Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder. Nazi and Stalinist atrocities have taken up enough mental real estate of late that I dreamt last night that my old elementary school was an underground prison.
But these atrocities are in a sense all around us; their memory is omnipresent, from their rather central role in school curricula to the use of Nazi and Soviet history as the ultimate in taboo humor. They inform our discourse, and similes involving them are ubiquitous.
Most of these similes are too stupid to take seriously. Comparing Obama to Hitler is so self-evidently moronic that I half suspect that no one truly believes it, people just want to believe it. But more insidiously, some people use deliberately vague terms as a way to invite comparison between the democratic welfare state and authoritarianism. Such comparisons are as useless and unenlightening as they are offensive.
They are not obvious, however. Because one can define one's terms to make such a comparison true, in a trivial way. You can, for instance, define all those who do not believe in absolute individual liberty as 'statists' or 'collectivists.' By this definition, Roosevelt, Stalin and Hitler are all 'statists.' But in so doing you have done nothing -- you've just invented a word that means 'everyone that disagrees with me' and applied it appropriately. Such a word is not a term of history, but merely a propaganda tool, a linguistic trick designed to paint all your opponents with a Stalinist brush.
You may protest, that this is a philosophical term, one that accurately describes people's values, to which I would reply, simply -- hogwash. On the contrary, such a way of speaking shows a perversely abstract way of viewing human belief, human morality and human action, where the bad thing about Stalin was not that he murdered millions, but that he did not believe in individual property rights. Interestingly, on this point the libertarian agrees with the 1930's Communist apologist, who saw Stalin as just another progressive fighting for equality.
By their fruits ye shall know them. Any term that turns us away from the actual impact that ideas have on human beings is a perversity, an intellectual temptation to lose sight of our fellow man. To guard against this we must view 20th century atrocities not as myths or abstractions, but as historical facts, the products of particular systems. Not merely a watchword for everything we hate.