This is what happens when I start reading everything as if it’s a student paper

by zunguzungu

In a blogpost worth reading for other reasons (some nice thoughts about whether the Berkeley Law school has any business trying to fire John Yoo for his extracurricular activities), Sandy Levinson makes this quick aside:

“Lest there be any confusion, I do not in the least believe that Hitler and Bush are comparable, and I do believe that the United States has all sorts of good reasons to embark on gaining “actionable intelligence” about people, especially if unaffiliated with traditional states, who wish us harm.”

This is a pet peeve of mine, so forgive me. Bush and Hitler, or MLK and Hitler, or anyone and anyone, absolutely are comparable to each other, in the sense that it is possible to compare them. And we should compare them. After all, if we couldn’t compare them to each other, it would be impossible to say that we find, for example, the civil rights movement to be a generally better thing than the German National Socialist party. And I would say that is a kind of statement we would like to make.

I’m being pedantic, so maybe the only reason it lodged in my mind was because I get generally peeved when people do this. And on a certain level, it is beside the point. If Sandy Levinson wrote that “Hitler and Martin Luther King are not comparable,” we would certainly not understand him to be implying that that the jury is still out on the matter. It’s settled here in the United States: we have streets named after MLK, while the Charlie Chaplin mustache has become, um, frowned upon.

That’s not the way he’s using the phrase, though, so maybe I would suggest he doth protest too much. After all, while one need doesn’t need to disclaim an outlandish comparison (like MLK vs. Hitler), Levinson needs to disclaim this one because, on at least some level, it actually makes sense as a comparison. A comparison between MLK and Hitler is a pointless exercise (and doesn’t need to be disavowed), but things like the Bush presidency’s enthusiasm for unfettered executive authority, its propensity for wars of choice, and its Manichaean sense of morality all make the specter of totalitarianism on the horizon at the very least a plausible thought experiment or question.

One point to make, then–and this is my pedantry again–is that a comparison has to have already been made in order for him to write that the two are not comparable. What he means, in other words, is that they are comparable (and he’s compared them), but that such a comparison reveals that the two are dissimilar to an extreme. Fair enough. Since there are two similarly different meanings for the word (comparable as able-to-be-compared, and comparable as significantly similar), he’s fudging the meaning here, implying the latter but actually meaning the former. And that’s fair enough, too: a good writer uses ambiguity like a painter uses paint.

The thrust of that ambiguity, however, is to foreclose the comparison in the first place. And maybe that’s what bothers me. Books like this silly thing get written because calling the Bush people “fascist” would lead to an engagement with what makes fascism what it is, and an application of that to the present situation. You may not find Dick Cheney to be exactly the moral equivalent of Benito Mussolini, of course (and I think you’d be right to draw some fairly substantial distinctions between them), but if you want to know what a very extreme extension of the War-On-Terror’s marriage with Capitalism-There-Is-No-Alternative ideologies might look like, if you want to know what we need to be on guard against, you might want to think about such things. Those kinds of books exist to make that sort of thinking impossible.

So it bugs me when someone like Levinson does something so similar. Because Levinson and Jonah Goldberg are comparable, and on the basis of that comparison, I deem one to be a shameless and fairly dim hack while the other is a thoughtfully engaged scholar whose prolific writing on the web bolsters his formidable reputation.