Whether it appears on Facebook, Twitter or a dozen other similar venues, a high percentage of online discussions—whatever the topic—eventually devolve to the point of invective, pejorative, and name-calling. The apex of this is often considered to be something called “Godwin’s Law.”
Dictionary.com defines Godwin’s Law as “the proposition that the longer an internet argument goes on, the higher the probability becomes that something or someone will be compared to Adolf Hitler.” And once someone plays the Hitler card, his or her position is often denounced as lunacy.
Notwithstanding the fact that most sites and groups don’t have official rules for arguing, Godwin’s Law has come to be very well-known in online circles. To some extent, the logic behind Godwin’s Law—simply, that absurd comparisons illustrate that one’s position is grasping at straws and straw men—is sound.
Similarities between today and pre-war Germany?
Of course, the potential problem with Godwin’s Law is that—while comparing anything or anyone to Nazis or pre-war Germany is seen as off-limits—it serves to mock any comparison with those things that are logically comparable. (“How could you say that Kim Jong-Un is anything like Hitler—that’s ridiculous and stupid!)
But if all comparisons are off limits, that creates a willful blindness to similarity. It’s as though we are expected to learn from the mistakes of history, except the biggest mistake, which we’re not supposed to talk about. That’s not only intellectually dishonest, it is dangerous.
Are there similar trends emerging in our own time and place?
To help determine if there are similarities between our time and pre-war Germany, we can turn to Pope Pius XI. In 1937, a full two years before Hitler’s tanks rolled into Poland to start World War II, Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical called “Mit Brennender Sorge” (With Burning Sorrow) that assessed the terrible situation in Germany at that time. The pontiff’s observations and laments about the terrible things that were already happening in Germany should give rise to present concerns.
Lack of charity and respect
Echoing two thousand years of teaching and practice, Pope Pius writes that if one is lacking “fraternal love,” he or she “gives evidence of deplorable blindness and injustice.” Though perhaps every age could be criticized for a lack of fraternal charity, on an absolute basis if not on a comparative one, our age seems to celebrate that lack.
There used to be a time (and not too long ago in America) when it was commonplace to convince others of your position by winning over their minds and hearts. Clearly, there were many exceptions to this, but people typically used a combination of data and anecdotes to advance a position, and a dialogue would ensue.
Now, we just shout each other down. (Think of a Hitler speech—a steady stream of dogmatic shouting.)
Exhibit one: any cable channel at any hour of the day.
If you’re a twentysomething, you might think that this cable news conduct—shouting matches, incredulous glances, and eye rolls designed to ridicule someone and his or her position—have always been the norm. However, it wasn’t always this way.
Take a look at William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” show from several decades ago. Buckley often disagreed with his guests, but he countered their positions with logic and wit. While he might have illustrated the fallacy in another’s argument, he never belittled his guests. Milton Friedman had a show in which he exhibited a similar demeanor.
Alas, those days have passed.
Of course, this attitude is not confined to cable news, but has spilled over into interpersonal relationships. People are not just shouted down on cable news; they are shouted down at Christmas parties and living rooms for having the “wrong” political views.
Political party allegiance over truth
The Orwellian view that “the party is always right” was a facet of Nazism, but it has become pronounced in America: it’s not just “the party” but my particular faction of the party that is always right. It’s an up-at-dawn, us versus them mentality. Increasingly, “them” seems to be anyone who is not “me.”
It would be easy to dismiss this as a political issue, but this divide is pre-political. The division is deeper than Democratic versus Republican, and lack of respect for one another—though worsened by the ubiquitous news cycle of politics—is a symptom of a pre-existing condition.
Our present age seems to have an outright refusal to view anything in any other way than our own. If someone views an issue any differently than we do—whether it’s immigration, the efficacy of mask-wearing, or tax rates—they must be wrong. There’s only one possible explanation for their disagreement with me: they simply don’t have the facts (and/or intelligence) that I have. Since we don’t even leave open the possibility that we might be wrong, no difference of opinion is tolerated. Kindness dictates that we assume the best in our neighbor, but all too often, we see the worst—and we are encouraged by others to see the worst in our neighbors and view them with suspicion.
The deification of government
Simultaneously to friends and neighbors lacking charity and trust in one another, an overreliance and exaltation of government has filled the void. While people are not to be trusted individually, government agencies are to be trusted collectively—and absolutely. This is the view that—for whatever ails us or whatever we think ails us—only government can save us. And this “only the government can save us” mentality spills over into a growing dislike and distrust of religion and those who practice it.
Of course, this was a prevailing attitude in prewar Germany. In his encyclical, Pope Pius warned that some people were elevating the state and government beyond their natural limits of authority; Pius admonished the person who “divinizes” the government “to an idolatrous level.” Isn’t that happening in the Western world today?
If government is the entity in which you put your ultimate faith, you have divined the government and made it your strange god.
And, as it turns out, government is a jealous god.
The fact that church services are seen as “non-essential” during this pandemic is not new; religion is increasingly viewed as non-essential anyway, pandemic or no pandemic. But it’s seen as even worse than non-essential, but outright dangerous to society. What the response to Covid-19 has done is unmask a deep and growing anti-religious bias in America, one that insists on a false dilemma of patriotism versus religious practice. Specifically, attending church is viewed as an unpatriotic act because it causes potential viral spread for no legitimate reason.
The message is clear: now’s the time to put your faith in governor—not God.
These words of Pope Pius were written four generations ago, but they could have been written yesterday:
“In your country, Venerable Brethren, voices are swelling into a chorus urging people to leave the Church, and among the leaders there is more than one whose official position is intended to create the impression that this infidelity to Christ the King constitutes a signal and meritorious act of loyalty to the modern State.”
A violent assault on religion
Between 2015 and 2018, the number of antisemitic attacks nearly doubled, including the horrifying attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in which eleven people were murdered. The attacks on Catholic Churches have also been on the rise. Just in the month of July alone, numerous statues of Jesus and Mary have been beheaded, pro-life memorials have been overturned, and numerous incidents of arson have been committed.
It is troubling that these attacks do not appear random as much as they are copycat actions.
What it also troubling is the fact that these actions, notwithstanding some notable exceptions, are not considered newsworthy. When racism is spoken, when swastikas are spray-painted on temples, and when churches are desecrated, a civilized society should condemn these actions in certain terms. Currently, however, there is a disturbing reticence to do so.
It is not simply that Western society is showing some similarities to pre-war Germany, but that the similarities become clearer almost by the day. To reiterate an earlier point, these are not political developments, per se, but rather societal ones. They exhibit a breakdown of community and society, as well as a rejection of the common good. Therefore, the common good is ours to restore and nourish, beginning in our homes and communities.
In the articles to follow, we will examine what it means to resist evil and some of those men and women who resisted the lies of the Nazis four generations ago. Hopefully, their stories will inspire us to help restore the common good.
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