Menachem Z. Rosensaft argues in the Jewish Daily Forward that the likening of Barack Obama to Hitler by Rush Limbaugh (and others, while we’re at it) is the “functional equivalent of calling for an act of violence against the president of the United States.” He offers in comparison the atmosphere that preceded the assassination of Yitzak Rabin in Israel. The always reasonable and sage Norm Geras (long to be honored as an author of the Euston Manifesto) gets it wrong this time, I think, in disagreeing. He thinks such comparisons “poisonous” and objectionable, to be sure, and he rightly, I think, admonishes those on the left who object to this talk concerning the left’s frequent comparisons of George W. Bush to – well, consider the tyrant of your choice. (I recall, as one example, Tony Kushner comparing the evil of George Bush and Saddam Hussein.) But Norm considers, still, that this “doesn’t amount to calling for violence against the president.”
Well, what is a functional equivalent? It isn’t the original thing or act itself. It isn’t similar in kind but different in degree or in certain attributes. It isn’t an actual plot to murder, or a scream of “Kill him!” or “Go get him!” or “Death to tyrants!” But it functions in such a way as to reasonably produce the same result.
What might lovers of liberty do in the face of perceived tyranny or someone who, in Limbaugh’s words “ruled by dictate”? In the decades of hindsight-hypothesizing that have transpired since the reign of Nazism, and the tyrannies and mass murdering regimes of twentieth century Communism, what mental game has been more often played than the hypothetical of “What if someone had assassinated Hitler at the start?” “Would it be right to do it?” is the moral puzzle so commonly presented? On both the right and the left, “Death to tyrants!” is a call that many would answer – in the face of whom they truly believed a tyrant. And who more than many on the right espouses the hallowed lesson of Munich – no appeasement of dictators?
no one who proposes a comparison between two persons is thereby committed to the view that they are alike in all respects. Therefore ‘functional equivalent’ is too strong. There may be some – loonies as may be – who think that Obama’s health policies bear comparison with those of the Nazis, but for whom saying so doesn’t amount to calling for violence against the president.
Of course, Obama’s proposed health care policies bear no comparison with anything Nazi-like in nature, but one cannot, anyway, make limited analogies to Hitler and Nazis. These are representations of the most virulent racism and tyranny imaginable. To invoke either is to evoke all they represent. That most people will not be directed to violent ends does not negate the line of reasoning such speech can very logically produce, given the premises, or the reasonable expectation that those voicing such speech should recognize a logical entailment of the words they speak.
Obama’s person and skills, the magic of his rise and victory, lulled many historic fears. But a bracing splash of reality must remind us that it was only to be expected that the first African-American president would produce the kind of hatred and fear-mongering that Obama handled with such aplomb during the campaign. It was, really, bound to be so. It was not bound to be so, however, that John McCain, a man many believed – even those who were not his conservative compatriots – had it in him to be, in the second historic moment of his life, a far better man than he found it in himself to be. It was not bound to be that he would inaugurate this cycle of conservative hate speech by tolerating it at campaign events and releasing his ignorant Pandora into the world, from whose box we get, most recently, “death panels.” It was not bound to be that the Republican Party, in its wilderness hour, would hearken back to its ugliest, insular traditions and nature. Or maybe it was.
If one of the worst things that could happen in the political and cultural life of this world today were to come to pass – some harm to Barack Obama – who would not look, but they themselves in their craven self-defense, to Limbaugh and his like as the cause?