Victor Davis Hanson catches the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait making an analogy so disgusting that I almost have to believe Chait is simply too stupid to understand the implications of what he wrote — because the only other conclusion is that he has absolutely no sense of where the boundaries of even minimally civil public discourse are. Hanson wrote a review of Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir in which he included the following sentence: “‘Take away the insurgency in Iraq,’ an acquaintance once told me, ‘and Donald Rumsfeld would have been a sort of icon of postwar America.’”
Chait’s appalling response:
Right, if you imagine that the most important thing he did was a huge success rather than a huge failure, then he’s be remember [sic] as a huge success. Not as a huge failure. Likewise, if Lee Harvey Oswald had killed someone who was about to assassinate President Kennedy, rather than assassinating President Kennedy himself, he’d go down in history as a hero.
You can be sour about Rumsfeld’s tenure at the Defense Department all you like, and plenty of people are. But offering a cutesy analogy between Rumsfeld and Lee Harvey Oswald has lowered Chait to a base level of rhetorical crassness to which even his questionable standing as an exceptionally graceless writer and amazingly crude thinker had not yet fallen. Now it has. Congratulations.
Podhoretz is betraying here a common confusion between comparisons and analogies. An analogy between A and B does not imply moral parity between A and B.
So, for instance, the statement "John Podhoretz rules Commentary with the ruthless style of Kim Jong-il," would be completely unfair. Kim Jong-il is responsible for the death and brutality of millions, whereas Podhoretz has only brutalized the English language. On the other hand, the statement, "John Podhoretz is to Norman Podhoretz and Kim Jong-il is to Kim il-Sung" would imply that John Podhoretz, like Kim Jong-il, acquired his job in nepotistic fashion and has performed miserably, without drawing any moral parallel between him and the North Korean dictator.
Last week Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania violated a major taboo. He was trying to argue that the Democrats had no grounds to complain that the Republicans were breaking Senate rules in their effort to ban judicial filibusters. His argument was that the Democrats themselves had broken the rules by filibustering judges in the first place.
Here's how Santorum put it: "The audacity of some members to stand up and say, 'How dare you break this rule.' It's the equivalent of Adolf Hitler in 1942 saying, 'I'm in Paris. How dare you invade me. How dare you bomb my city? It's mine.' This is no more the rule of the Senate than it was the rule of the Senate before not to filibuster." ...
To be sure, Santorum's point (like most of Santorum's points) was wrong. Democrats did not break the rules by filibustering a judicial nominee. The practice is well established, and Republican senators such as Majority Leader Bill Frist have participated in such filibusters themselves. Nonetheless, Santorum was clearly not trying to argue that filibustering judges is as bad as invading France.
In general, I think our political culture has too many humorless scolds searching for things to be outraged about. Specifically, people need to understand that historical analogies are a useful way to express ideas, and they almost invariably they tend to involve analogizing somebody to a really bad guy. No sentient being thinks I'm calling Rumsfeld a murderer.