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Contact Lux Libertas
A brief history of Kristallnacht analogies.
By James Taranto
January 27, 2014
If Tom Perkins of San Francisco was trying to be provocative, he succeeded. In a letter to the editor that appeared in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Perkins, a founding partner of the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers venture-capital firm, drew a parallel between Nazi Germany’s “war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews,” and “the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich.’ ”
He described some of the local manifestations of “a rising tide of hatred of the successful” and concluded: “This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?”
Today’s New York Times column from Paul Krugman, titled “Paranoia of the Plutocrats,” typifies the prog-left’s reaction. “You may say that this is just one crazy guy,” Krugman writes. “But Mr. Perkins isn’t that much of an outlier.” Rather, according to Krugman, Perkins belongs to “a class of people who are alarmingly detached from reality”:
Every group finds itself facing criticism, and ends up on the losing side of policy disputes, somewhere along the way; that’s democracy. The question is what happens next. Normal people take it in stride; even if they’re angry and bitter over political setbacks, they don’t cry persecution, compare their critics to Nazis and insist that the world revolves around their hurt feelings. But the rich are different from you and me.
Are they? A little context is in order here. Krugman notes that Perkins isn’t “even the first finance titan to compare advocates of progressive taxation to Nazis.” (Nor is he in fact the latest; his letter is about what he hears as a hateful tone, not about taxes or any other substantive question of policy.) Krugman cites an earlier example, from 2010.
But Kristallnacht references have been a part of public debate for decades. And their use hasn’t been limited to “finance titans” or people on the right. Blogger Ed Driscoll notes an example nearly a quarter of a century old: a March 1989 op-ed titled “An Ecological Kristallnacht. Listen.”
“In 1939, as clouds of war gathered over Europe, many refused to recognize what was about to happen,” wrote the op-ed’s author. “In 1989, clouds of a different sort signal an environmental holocaust without precedent. Once again, world leaders waffle, hoping the danger will dissipate. Yet today the evidence is as clear as the sounds of glass shattering in Berlin.” (Kristallnacht actually occurred in 1938.) In case that wasn’t heavy-handed enough, he also invoked Neville Chamberlain.
The author of that piece was one Albert Gore, then junior senator from Tennessee. It appeared–where else?–in the New York Times.
The Gore piece is a weird mix of overheated rhetoric and utter banalities like “The 1990′s are the decade of decision.” (Glad that’s over with!) And with a few changes of dates and other numbers, the same piece could probably run today. Environmentalist rhetoric hasn’t changed much more than the global climate has–though on second thought, perhaps the former has gone up a few degrees: We noted in 2007 that one newspaper columnist was likening those who deviate from global-warmist dogma to Holocaust deniers.
In March 2010, Krugman’s then-colleague Frank Rich experienced 1938 flashbacks. Congress had just enacted ObamaCare, by a partisan vote and over public opposition that was both broad and intense. “How curious,” Rich wrote, “that a mob fond of likening President Obama to Hitler knows so little about history that it doesn’t recognize its own small-scale mimicry of Kristallnacht. The weapon of choice for vigilante violence at Congressional offices has been a brick hurled through a window. So far.”
Ninety-one Jews were murdered on Kristallnacht, and some 30,000 were rounded up and taken to concentration camps. In the 2010 “vigilante violence,” not only was no one killed, but the Daily Beast’s John Avlon reported only four windows hurt. Yet Avlon was as excited as Rich: “The parallels, intentional or not, to the Nazis’ heinous 1938 kristallnacht . . . are hard to ignore.” (As an aside, has an adjective ever done less work than that “heinous”?)
Avlon’s warning wasn’t based only on the four broken windows. He also cited a blog post in which an Alabama “militia leader” fantasized: “If we break the windows of hundreds, thousands, of Democrat party headquarters across this country, we might just wake up enough of them to make defending ourselves at the muzzle of a rifle unnecessary.” That turned out to be quite a big “if.”
We have one more example, this one from March 2003:
By and large, recent pro-war rallies haven’t drawn nearly as many people as antiwar rallies, but they have certainly been vehement. One of the most striking took place after Natalie Maines, lead singer for the Dixie Chicks, criticized President Bush: a crowd gathered in Louisiana to watch a 33,000-pound tractor smash a collection of Dixie Chicks CD’s, tapes and other paraphernalia. To those familiar with 20th-century European history it seemed eerily reminiscent of. . . . But as Sinclair Lewis said, it can’t happen here.
The ellipsis is in the original; the reference was deliberately imprecise. Some bloggers at the time assumed the author had Kristallnacht in mind, but we tend to think not. A ritual of destroying musical recordings (a quaint notion in 2014, when you’d have to crush Kindles and iPods) is more redolent of a book-burning than a pogrom, and Lewis’s satirical novel “It Can’t Happen Here” was published in 1935, predating Kristallnacht.
But the 2003 column was unmistakably a Nazi allusion. The American dictator in Lewis’s story was based on a combination of Hitler and Huey Long, and by 2003 nobody was making ominous allusions to the Kingfish.
The author of the 2003 column, you may or may not be surprised to learn, was former Enron adviser Paul Krugman, who turns out to know quite a bit about paranoia himself. The anti-Dixie Chicks rally seems ludicrous in retrospect, but Krugman saw it as a product of an elaborate conspiracy “promoted by key players in the radio industry–with close links to the Bush administration,” specifically Clear Channel Communications, which Krugman described as a “behemoth” that “increasingly dominates the airwaves” and “is notorious–and widely hated–for its iron-fisted centralized control.”
Krugman was constrained to admit that the Louisiana rally was organized by a non-Clear Channel radio station, but we suppose that just goes to show how diabolically effective these conspirators were in covering their tracks. “There’s something happening here,” Krugman intoned. “What it is ain’t exactly clear, but a good guess is that we’re now seeing the next stage in the evolution of a new American oligarchy. As Jonathan Chait has written . . .”
We stopped reading at that point, figuring it couldn’t possibly get any better.
At this point we’d like to remind you that “normal people take it in stride” when they lose policy debates; “even if they’re angry and bitter . . . they don’t cry persecution, compare their critics to Nazis.” But “the rich are different from you and me.”
Well, from you anyway.
Before we leave the subject, let us return to Perkins’s concluding question: “Is . . . ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?” “Unthinkable” is a word with some nuance; Merriam-Webster‘s definition amounts to three different meanings: “impossible to imagine or believe : too bad or shocking to be thought of.”
Back in 2010, this columnist found it impossible to believe that massive political vandalism, never mind violence, was about to break out. But obviously it was not impossible to imagine. Among mainstream liberal commentators, Rich and Avlon were far from alone in imagining it. And assuming Avlon’s militia leader was on the level–that he wasn’t some kid or left-winger pulling a prank–at least some on the fringes of the right entertained the same fantasy but were at best equivocal as to whether it was “bad or shocking.”
Here’s a similar fantasy on the left, published by the Puffington Host just this past Saturday:
People ask me all the time why we don’t have a revolution in America, or at least a major wave of reform similar to that of the Progressive Era or the New Deal or the Great Society. . . .
At some point, working people, students, and the broad public will have had enough. They will reclaim our economy and our democracy. This has been the central lesson of American history.
Reform is less risky than revolution, but the longer we wait the more likely it will be the latter.
The language is daintier than that of Avlon’s militia leader, but the similarity is unmistakable: Both men crave ideological victory and openly entertain fantasies of violence should it fail to materialize.
No, we’re not worried that Robert Reich is actually going to lead a violent revolution. That, too, he has in common with Avlon’s militia leader. But note that Reich is, at least by the left’s standards, a respectable, mainstream figure–formerly a cabinet secretary, now a professor at prestigious UC Berkeley and sometimes a contributor to the New York Times.
The left’s revolutionary fantasists, to a far greater extent than the right’s, occupy positions of real influence, and perhaps also power. That would seem to justify at least a modicum of worry.
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