Ted Cruz’s (R-I Will Not Eat Them On a Train) fauxbuster against ObamaCare this week may have one beneficial effect on political discourse: his invocation of Neville Chamberlain was so ridiculous that it might finally force the end of the tiresome (yet tireless) ‘appeasement’ argument.
Long story very short: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938 to discuss the re-appropriation of the Sudetenland, then a part of Czechoslovakia, as means of satiating Hitler’s aggression and keeping Britain out of war. It didn’t work; Hitler pocketed the Sudetenland and then helped himself to all of Czechoslovakia, and then on to the rest of Europe.
Chamberlain’s agreement is seen by many as emboldening Hitler, and has since become known as “appeasement,” a shorthand for failing to squash evil in its adolescent stage. As with many historical analogies, it is overused. And as with many World War II analogies, it is wildly overused (something about the hideous grandeur of that war compels people to point at it). In contemporary discourse, “appeasement” now simply means any possible act of capitulation, often in foreign conflicts, but, as Cruz showed, liable to be tossed out anywhere.
There are two primary problems with this, the first well-illustrated by Cruz: Hitler’s cataclysmic tragedy was an historically-specific event, and the more specificities you shave off it, the less an analogy to it applies. (See Mother Jones’ excellent “10 Things That Are Really Like Nazis.”)
This is the basic sub-logic beneath Godwin’s Law: Hitler comparisons work negatively. In almost any scenario, your inimical subject will have at least one thing in common with Hitler, be it that they’re a head of state or are wearing pants; but in most cases, sharing one small quality with Hitler simply serves to illuminate all the far more germane things you don’t have in common with him. Hence why the comparisons of the Affordable Care Act to “1930s Germany,” so popular in 2009 and 2010, rang loudly but false: only by ignoring nearly every single aspect of the Nazi Regime could you make that analogy work, which meant the analogy didn’t work.
Ditto Cruz’s appeasement analogy: pretty much every detail of the actual events, or even political strategy, of Munich have to be elided to make its comparison to Cruz’s “stand” against ObamaCare valid. It got so fuzzy that many had difficulty working out who corresponded to which historical referent in Cruz’s scenario.
But Cruz’s use of the argument was pure self-aggrandizement. The second and more serious problem with the analogy was better embodied by Secretary of State John Kerry’s use of the “Munich moment” in pitching missile strikes on Syria. It was a far worse case of the Munich argument, as, unlike Cruz’s, Kerry’s iteration was made and taken seriously as a push toward military intervention.
In this case, it was not a lack of circumstantial correspondence that made the analogy objectionable (though an argument against “Assad=Hitler” could certainly be made), but the fact that the risible level of rhetoric to which it committed us was nearly too high to climb down from. As many critics of the 11th-hour deal to secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles pointed out, our negotiated settlement put us into a tenuous agreement with the very person we had just compared to the greatest monster of the Twentieth Century. How could we think Assad a Hitler one day and a leader we needed to trust—to the point of his remaining in power to execute the deal—the next?
This is not an argument against the Obama administration’s diplomatic solution to the chemical weapons issue, which was welcomed by all except the hawkiest of hawks, but against using a conceit that sets the stakes of inaction at their world-historical peak. The Obama administration very nearly put themselves in a spot in which they couldn’t have accepted a peaceful solution because they had argued so viscerally for force; they almost analogized us into war. If you do in fact think that Neville Chamberlain recklessly allowed World War II, of what merit is potentially igniting another global conflict merely to counter his example?
NB: As not every Hitler comparison is inapt, so too does a Munich reference sometimes apply. All the more reason not to overuse it.
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