09 March 2013

Godwin's Law

You have most likely heard of Godwin's Law.

I developed Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

I seeded Godwin's Law in any newsgroup or topic where I saw a gratuitous Nazi reference. Soon, to my surprise, other people were citing it - the counter-meme was reproducing on its own! And it mutated like a meme, generating corollaries like the following:

  • Gordon's Restatement of Newman's Corollary to Godwin's Law: Libertarianism (pro, con, and internal faction fights) is the primordial net.news discussion topic. Any time the debate shifts somewhere else, it must eventually return to this fuel source.
  • Morgan's Corollary to Godwin's Law: As soon as such a comparison occurs, someone will start a Nazi-discussion thread on alt.censorship.
  • Sircar's Corollary: If the Usenet discussion touches on homosexuality or Heinlein, Nazis or Hitler are mentioned within three days.
  • Van der Leun's Corollary: As global connectivity improves, the probability of actual Nazis being on the Net approaches one.
  • Miller's Paradox: As a network evolves, the number of Nazi comparisons not forestalled by citation to Godwin's Law converges to zero.

Eric Raymond describes a common reaction to the awareness which Godwin's Law brings us.

There is a tradition in many groups that, once this occurs, that thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress.

But this presents a problem. Fascism and Nazis are a real thing. How to deal with that?

Journalist David Neiwert writes about the far right in the United States, and so comparisons involving Nazis are necessary for him. In his great long essay Rush, Newspeak, and Fascism, he grapples with the challenge.

I've kind of viewed Godwin's Law, or at least its overeager invocation, as symptomatic of the larger problem I hoped to confront with this series: Namely, an almost frightened refusal by most Americans, right and left, to come to grips with the meaning of fascism, and how that blind spot renders us vulnerable to it.

When I first began seriously studying fascism some years back, one of the first things that struck me was how little I — or anyone I knew — actually understood what it meant, in spite of the fact that it, alongside Communism, was one of the two major political phenomena of the 20th century, both of them radical anti-democratic movements that the American system was forced to confront and defeat.

Virtually every educated person I know (and many less-educated people as well) has a relatively clear and at least semi-informed understanding of what Communism is, what its origins are, what are the basic elements of its ideology. Moreover, wariness of Communist influence is a virtual byword of the American worldview.

In contrast, hardly anyone I know understands just what fascism is. At best, they vaguely comprehend it as a kind of heinous totalitarianism, identified specifically with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. There is a great deal of confusion about its ideological orientation, embodied in the now-common conservative canard that “Hitler was a socialist.” Mostly it is just flung about — mostly by leftists and thoughtless liberals, but in the past decade by conservatives too — as a catch-all term for totalitarianism, or worse yet, as a substitute for “police state” (which is not the same as fascism).

Hardly anyone can identify any tenets of fascism; most of the time its manifestations are understood almost as extrinsic infestations of a virulent hatred and violence, brought on by such influences as propaganda and “brainwashing.” As I discussed in Part 11, though, this model is faulty; what is now clear about totalitarianism of all stripes is that it arises when certain ideologies and movements interact with personalities configured by “totalist” predispositions. That is to say, it cannot be imposed from without unless there is concession within; its audience is not a blank slate, but people who willingly join in.

In the case of fascism specifically, the lack of an ideological core or easily recognizable signifiers (beyond, of course, such images from fully developed fascism as goosestepping stormtroopers and mass rallies) is a large part of the reason it's so little understood.

None other than Mike Godwin himself says that one can and must make the comparison sometimes.

American history has its own flirtations with fascism and racism and militarism, and people have believed in any and all of these things, so with certain individuals it has to come up from time to time. So it’s not the case that the comparison is never valid. It’s just that, when you make the comparison, think through what you’re saying, because there’s a lot of baggage there, and if you’re going to invoke a historical period with that much baggage you better be ready to carry it.

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