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A flurry of unfair associations

By Ben Fritz
January 13, 2004

On a number of issues, partisans from both sides have been engaging in cheap attacks recently, using irrational associations to connect their opponents with hated groups and people.

One of the most controversial was a New York Times column by David Brooks in which he implicitly accused critics of President Bush's foreign policy of anti-Semitism. Discussing criticism of the alleged influence of the so-called neoconservative movement on Bush's foreign policy, Brooks wrote in a parenthetical comment that for critics, "'con' is short for "conservative" and neo is short for 'Jewish.'" He then said of critics, "Still, there are apparently millions of people who cling to the notion that the world is controlled by well-organized and malevolent forces. And for a subset of these people, Jews are a handy explanation for everything." He also claimed critics of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), a neoconservative think tank, view it as "sort of a Yiddish Trilateral Commission, the nexus of the sprawling neocon tentacles."

As Josh Marshall and Bob Somerby have pointed out, this is a clear attempt to associate criticism of President Bush's foreign policy or neoconservatism with anti-Semitism in readers' minds. Certainly some criticism of neoconservatism or the Bush foreign policy team has had an anti-Semitic bent. However, Brooks uses a classic trick of punditry by failing to make such distinctions so that it seems that all critics of neoconservatism are anti-Semitic. He thus ends up implicitly lumping together a whole range of criticism, including that of former General Wesley Clark, the Democratic presidential candidate.

In an email sent to readers concerned about his column, Brooks attempted to deny the implications of his column, writing:

I wasn't saying anything about people who criticize neocons' ideas. The column wasn't about that at all. It was about people who imagine there is a shadowy conspiracy behind Bush policy. Second, I explicitly say that only a subset of the people who talk about the shadow conspiracy find Jewishness a handy explanation for everything. I have no idea how large a subset that is, but judging from my e-mail it is out there.

Brooks' column did include references to some fringe groups, such as one with a website that allegedly said Vice President Cheney organized a hunt of humans. But it also referred to many serious critics with inflammatory descriptions, such as foreign press reports that detailed what Brooks calls the "conspirators" and articles he described as detailing how "a bunch of 'neoconservatives' at [conservative magazine The Weekly Standard] had taken over U.S. foreign policy." By using language like "taken over," Brooks is lumping together critics with conspiracy theorists, implying that all criticism of the neoconservative influence on the Bush administration inferred that a coup had taken place.

Brooks has not been the only commentator making unfair attempts to group his opponents with hated figures and beliefs, however. Another recent controversy has concerned outrageous comparisons between Bush and Adolf Hitler. As we have noted, Bush-Hitler associations have been a recurring problem on the left, and last week New York Post columnist Ralph Peters compared former Vermont governor Howard Dean and his supporters to Nazis.

The debate is centered on MoveOn.org's contest to pick an anti-Bush ad to run on television during the week of the President's State of the Union address. Two of the more than 1500 ads submitted to the contest that ran on the site featured explicit comparisons between Bush and Adolf Hitler (the scripts of both can be read on the Republican National Committee website).

After the ads were denounced by RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, MoveOn took them down and expressed its regret that they made it through the screening process. MoveOn was right to apologize for showing the ads on its site. Moreover, its claim that the RNC and Gillespie "have falsely accused MoveOn.org of sponsoring ads on its website which compare President Bush to Adolf Hitler" is unpersuasive. From his first mention of the ads on Fox News Sunday, which came a day before MoveOn's response, Gillespie has accurately pointed out that the Nazi comparison ads were available on the MoveOn site and that the group had stated in the contest rules that it would not carry ads that were "inappropriate for television." Clearly, the group did not create or explicitly endorse the ads, but MoveOn is responsible for letting them through the screening process, mistake or not.

Commentator Alexander Cockburn then threw fuel on the fire in a column that appeared in The Nation magazine. Responding to the controversy, he quoted from a piece by David Lindorff in CounterPunch in which Lindorff writes, "It's going a bit far to compare the Bush of 2003 to the Hitler of 1933. Bush simply is not the orator that Hitler was. But comparisons of the Bush Administration's fear mongering tactics to those practiced so successfully and with such terrible results by Hitler and Goebbels on the German people and their Weimar Republic are not at all out of line." Cockburn calls this statement a "measured assessment of the two leaders' rhetorical talents" that "indicated appropriate objectivity." He then goes on to state that, "My problem with the Hitler-Bush pairing is not so much the comparison per se, which is solidly in the respectable mainstream of political abuse." Such outrageous comparisons should not be considered part of any mainstream, however. By endorsing them, Cockburn is attempting to excuse a vile attack.

Unfortunately, comparisons to Nazis continue to be made - and not just for President Bush. On Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" last Friday, host Bill O'Reilly described the American Civil Liberties Union as a "fascist" group. "The ACLU doesn't care about the law or the Constitution or what the people want," O'Reilly said while criticizing a lawsuit the group filed against the city of San Diego for renting space to the Boy Scouts due to its exclusion of homosexuals. "It's a fascist organization that uses lawyers instead of Panzers," referring to the German tanks used in World War II.

Neither President Bush nor the ACLU can fairly be compared to Nazis, nor should legitimate criticism of President Bush's foreign policy be smeared as anti-Semitic. These unfounded comparisons are little more than attempts to avoid serious argument through irrational association.

Related links:
-Peters plays the Nazi card (Brendan Nyhan, 1/7/04)
-Spinsanity on comparisons to terrorists, Iraq and the Taliban

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