Most readers will be familiar with “Godwin’s Law” – coined by lawyer Mike Godwin, who observed in 1990 that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches [100 per cent].”
Godwin’s Law remains as true as ever, especially on Twitter, where the term “Nazi” is thrown around casually by trolls looking to up the rhetorical ante on “neo-con” or alt-right. What’s worse, the trend is metastasizing to the offline world, especially on campuses, where even the mildest expression of conservative ideology can draw instant comparisons to jackboot fascism.
One infamous recent example centred on a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., Nathan Rambukkana, who was caught on tape dressing down a graduate student, Lindsay Shepherd, after she showed her class a Jordan Peterson video that Rambukkana disliked. In that video, Peterson talked about pronoun usage, not the gassing of Jews. Yet Rambukkana told a weeping Shepherd that showing the clip was morally tantamount to “neutrally playing a speech by Hitler.”
Of course, real white supremacists do exist in Canadian society. These include Michael Thurlow, whose political club put up amateurish Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-Indigenous posters celebrating “the founding Europeans of Canada” at the University of New Brunswick earlier this year. But whether or not Thurlow’s club (grandly titled the National Socialist Canadian Labour Revival Party) actually exists, or (as I suspect), he’s just a one-man outfit, it’s important to keep the scale of threat in perspective.
Matthew Sears, a UNB professor of classics and ancient history, declared that Thurlow was “a literal Nazi.” And when a debate broke out about whether repugnant viewpoints should be censored or merely condemned, free-speech advocates (including myself) were slammed for “running interference for literal Nazis.” This term – “literal Nazi” – is now something of a meme, as with the title of a recent Vice article, which informed readers that “a Literal Nazi” – not just a figurative Nazi – “Will Be a Republican Congressional Nominee.” The subject of that article, Arthur Jones, is indeed a disgusting specimen who denies the Holocaust and stages celebrations of Adolf Hitler’s birthday. But he’s not an actual Nazi – a word that refers to members of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.
Yes, some attention-seeking schoolboys may still carve swastikas into desks (as they did in my day). A few of them grow up and spray-paint tombstones, or set up wing-nut Facebook pages, or even sneak onto the ballot of major parties in no-hope districts. But unlike “literal Nazis,” they do not run concentration camps or invade European countries – because the Nazi party hasn’t existed for more than 70 years.
These aren’t “literal Nazis,” in other words. They’re hate-addled idiots playing Nazi dress-up.
When I note this distinction to others, I’m sometimes told that it’s pointless (or even cynical) to “split hairs endlessly over white nationalism and white supremacy and Nazism and neo-Nazism.” But words do matter – especially when you’re talking about the most malignant political and ideological force known to mankind.
And history matters, too. There are murderous psychopaths in every society – and always will be. The particular horror of Nazism was unleashed because one of those psychopaths seized the entire German machinery of state, and then systematically indoctrinated tens of millions of people with a program of vicious anti-Semitism and warmongering bloodlust. The idea of such a creed tempting any significant constituency in modern Canada – a liberal, multicultural, Judeophillic country led by a softie prime minister who cried when he met Syrian refugees at the airport – is farcical.
Does Thurlow himself believe he’s a real, “literal” Nazi? Maybe. But even if he did, why does this cretin get to insist on his preferred marketing term – especially one that’s historically inaccurate? Just call him a hater and be done with it. By calling him a “Nazi,” we vastly exaggerate the threat he poses to a society that overwhelmingly reviles his opinions.