The Republican National Convention has been entertaining. So too, the commentary. Lots of desperate writers, few of whom have expertise in anything at all, struggling to think of something original to say. MSN Slate's Chris Suellentrop built an entire column on a bad pun. If the pun is bad, the column is worse. But sometimes a column can be so bad, it's inspiring. This one inspired me. It opens innocently enough:
There's an old rule of thumb in high school and college debating: The first side that is forced to bring up Hitler to defend its case automatically loses.
Right. The Hitler rule. Often, though not always, when someone brings up Hitler, it is because the person has run out of arguments and is pushing for an emotional reaction. Similarly, when people call Bush a fascist or Kerry a communist, it is because they cannot communicate an argument with substance. Fair enough. But Sullentrop promptly throws the baby out with the bathwater by saying if you expand "the Hitler rule to include all references to World War II, President Bush would have lost this election on a technicality several years ago."
Such a "rule" would be absurd, of course, but Suellentrop never gives any indication that he realizes that. If we can't make references to instructive events in world history, if we can't use the past to guide us and to give us insights into what might happen in the future, we might as well give up all pretense of being thoughtful and responsible, might as well sit around watching MTV all day. Why stop with WWII? Why not prohibit all references to the fall of the Berlin wall? Tien-a mien square? The first gulf war? Anything historical at all?
Suellentrop doesn't really have an argument, just a glib attitude and a witless pun: (Dubya Dubya II, yuk-yuk-yuk). Giuliani talked about Winston Churchill in his speech. Suellentrop criticizes this. It is prohibited by the Suellentrop rule, of course. Why on earth should it be wrong to make a reference to Churchill and his early recognition of the theat posed by Hitler? Questions of when and where to use diplomacy, when it is appeasement and when it is not, which dictators have demonstrated a willingness to abide by agreements and which have not, are certainly fair game. Appeasement of Islamic extremist organizations IS something to worry about. Reasonable people can disagree about whether Giuliani's implicit analogy is well taken, but this issue is and ought to be a part of the civic debate. There is substance to the argument. If the analogy is flawed, it should be carefully rebutted--NOT PROHIBITED.
He goes on to compare references to WWII to the knee-jerk way in which the extreme left calls every military endeavor "another Vietnam." But these arguments rarely even attempt to explain how a given military action resembles Vietnam, other than by being another military action. In Ho Chi Minh, the U.S. opposed an extremely popular leader in Vietnam, the founder of the nation, their George Washington. Very hard to make that argument about Afghanistan, Iraq, or, Kosovo.
Suellentrop appears to believe we are in a setting in which the most serious threats can be difused by international organizations and through diplomacy, or that international organizations should at least play a larger role in U.S. strategy. It is his only argument of substance. He is entitled to argue this, and some people make the argument quite well. What he is not entitled to do is to contrive an infantile "rule" whereby those who disagree with him automatically lose. It is bizarre and childish to assert we should not be using historical events to illustrate points of disagreement.
There is much to criticize in the Republican National Convention. Oddly, Suellentrop has managed to find a point of substance, and then to argue that it should not have been there. The Republicans may be wrong or they may be right, but the debate is necessary. And history is a compelling way to make the argument. Alas, this is what a deadline does to some writers: it leads them to sell their souls for a bad pun.
To paraphrase a pithy maxim: Those who forget history (or would prohibit others from remembering it) are doomed to become smug Washington correspondents.
In any event, this truly bad column did inspire me to think bout "the Hitler Rule". Here comes the economics part this posting: How does signaling theory apply? Which kinds of references these days signal prejudice, desperation, or shallow thinking--and why? Are there other "Hitler rules"?
Stay tuned, if you find this notion entertaining.
More to come.
(Duty calls. Must finish devising a final exam for my economics undergraduates...)