David R. Henderson  

Henderson's Godwin's Law

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If you read blogs much, you've probably come across Godwin's Law. Godwin's Law states:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

I think it's basically correct.

However, one could formulate another law that relates to Godwin's Law. Call it "Henderson's Godwin's Law." It goes like this:

When people in a political discussion want to put down other people who even mention Hitler, they will invoke Godwin's Law even if the person compared no one to Nazis or Hitler.

We saw this recently in the case of the junior U.S. Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz.

At one point in his 21-hour speech in the U.S. Senate, Cruz made the case that we should not take as given that opposing something is futile just because many people say that opposing something is futile. He gave a number of instances. One of them was many people's thought that man could never land on the moon. Another instance was this:

If we go to the 1940s, Nazi Germany--look, we saw it in Britain. Neville Chamberlain told the British people: Accept the Nazis. Yes, they will dominate the continent of Europe, but that is not our problem. Let's appease them. Why? Because it can't be done. We cannot possibly stand against them.

In America there were voices who listened to that; I suspect the same pundits who said it couldn't be done. If this had happened in the 1940s, we would have been listening to them. Even then they would have made television. They would have gotten beyond the carrier pigeons and letters and they would have been on TV saying: You cannot defeat the Germans.

Of course, as we all know, someone did land on the moon and the German government was soundly defeated.

Now here's what Washington Post blogger Alexandra Petri wrote about that segment of the speech:

We even got some Nazi analogies, just proving that Godwin's Law holds for filibusters as for online discussion. Godwin's Law states that as a discussion goes on the probability that someone will be compared to Hitler approaches one.

So whom exactly did Cruz compare to Hitler? No one. He was making a point. He was saying that when we have a cause, we shouldn't give up, even when it looks as if the other side will win.

I'm not defending Cruz's strategy. My friend Alan Reynolds has said well why Cruz's strategy is probably a poor one.

What I am saying is that in discussing opposition to Hitler, Cruz did not compare anyone to Hitler and he did not say that ObamaCare was Naziism. All he did was use a number of historical incidents of defeatism and show that in each case the defeatism was unjustified.

Alexandra Petri: meet Henderson's Godwin's Law.

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
Duncan Earley writes:

I think any Nazi comparison counts as Godwins law not just with a person. Cruz said "someone" when he should of said "someone or something"

Its a cheap form for debate. Basically a variant on the good old strawman or if you prefer the Chewbacca defense. You say something that no one can disagree with, e.g. Nazis are bad, and then tie your argument to it, e.g. If giving up is okay then Nazis must be okay. In older internet forums its considered end of thread and the person who invoked the Nazis is seen to have lost the argument as they had to resort to the lowest comparison.

Radford Neal writes:

Duncan Earley: The quote from Cruz in the post does not contain the word "someone", so I've no idea what your first paragraph is supposed to mean.
Your second paragraph also seems to have nothing to do with what Cruz said.

Another longstanding internet tradition is posting comments without reading the original post, after having scanned its text for keywords that trigger a reaction. It's a lot more destructive of discussion than the occassional use of Nazis when making a point. Really, we're supposed to try to ignore one of the biggest events of the 20th century in all discussions? Why, exactly?

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

"Really, we're supposed to try to ignore one of the biggest events of the 20th century in all discussions? Why, exactly?"

Because 99% of the time on the internet, the online conversation would be more interesting and more informative without Nazis being involved. We willingly sacrifice the 1% of well-done Nazi comparisons for that noble cause. The only Godwin's Law exception that I'm aware of is the "XKCD Defense," when you're actually talking about history.

Les Cargill writes:

Obamacare is an extension of a principle "begun" by Otto von Bismarck. SFAIK, comparing people to Bismarck gets you blank stares, not Godwin Awards... but if you consider WWI as a vain attempt by the French to get out of reparations for the Franco-Prussian War...

Greg G writes:

Godwin's Law is true but trivial.

As every discussion grows longer the probability of every type of comparison gets closer to 1.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

The Washington Post reported today:

Representative John Culberson of Texas was so enthused that he yelled, "Let’s roll!" after hearing Boehner’s [government shutdown] remarks. Culberson later told reporters he was alluding to the cry of United 93 passenger Todd Beamer.

Perhaps the next generation's Godwin's Law will be Osama Bin Laden and 9/11 comparisons.

ChrisG writes:

Godwin's Law fails by it's own criteria: it refers to Hitler.

John B writes:

Curiously we are always being reminded that in order not to repeat the same mistakes, we must always remember the war and the hideous NAZI regime and learn lessons from it, but then we are chastised when we do.

It seems Godwin's Law is better named Godwin's Defence, the trump card to shut down any conversation pointing to parallels, in order to escape due critique.

''Don't mention the War''. (TM) Basil Fawlty.

If Godwin's Law is breached so often, maybe it is strong evidence of just how much Fascist and National Socialist tendencies exist masquerading in one form or another as ways to cure perceived social and economic ills.

MG writes:

If "Godwin's Law" is supposed to be act as an admonition against bad faith in debate, as opposed to an observation of a peculiar likelihood in word usage, then Henderson's Law is much better. Essentially, just judge for yourself who appears to be engaging in bad faith. In this case, I suggests it is not one whose unambigious argumentative point is being supported by examples othar than those involving World War II references - Man on the Moon, etc.-- but rather the other whose subliminal argument is based on the misapplication of a quote.

Bill Seitz writes:

Seitz's Law: crappy writers will name-check contemporary pseudo-Laws in an effort to seem not-clueless.

NZ writes:

Most people simply think Godwin's law means something like:

"Referencing Hitler or the Nazis makes you less credible and voids your argument."

That's what I thought it meant.

David R. Henderson writes:

Referencing Hitler or the Nazis makes you less credible and voids your argument.
I think it's more specific than that. Read my post above carefully. My point is that Godwin's Law is being abused.

Of course, the comparison Cruz was trying to make was with Neville Chamberlain, not Hitler. I.e., avoiding taking the unpleasant task because you fear the short-term consequences (politically) will only postpone the reality, not eliminate it.

And the great irony with Chamberlain's rush to Germany to appease Hitler in 1938, was that if he'd done nothing, and Hitler had given his army the order to take Czechoslovakia, the German General Staff had a plan (that would have been triggered by that order) to arrest Hitler.

That behavior by Chamberlain and Daladier, to give in to Hitler, made the German army re-think its hostility to him; that maybe Hitler wouldn't be the disaster they feared after all.

Duncan Earley writes:

@Radford Neal:

Yes I misquoted. I was referring to the quote from Alexandra Petri not Cruz.

@David R. Henderson:

I have issues with Obamacare as much as any free market ideologue, but using any comparison to the Nazi's is just a way to try and compare the other side to pure evil. Its just name calling.

That is the POINT of Godwins law. Invoke the comparison to the Nazi's and you are just comparing your opponent to pure evil. LAME.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Duncan Earley,
I refuse to argue with you until you show evidence that you have read my post carefully.

NZ writes:

@David Henderson:

Yes, you're probably right that Godwin's Law means something more specific than what I wrote. I'm saying that I misunderstood Godwin's law to mean something more general, and I think most other people do too.

Mike Rulle writes:

Godwin's law. He was being sardonic, yet surprisingly accurate.

But there is rarely ever a good reason to use it, unless the analogy is truly appropriate.

There are likely thousands of analogies one could make about Nazis and Hitler, which, if taken literally, are not "offensive".

For example, "Hitler loved his German Shepard Blondi, not unlike how the president loves his Portuguese Water dogs.

Or, "Brooklyn has become a home for many microbreweries, reminding one of some of the smaller "beer houses" in Nazi Germany".

Or, "like most Nazis, Tea Party proponents love their mothers".

My point is: what is the point of ever bringing up Nazis in any political analogy, it just smells.

Duncan writes:

@David R. Henderson:

Apologies if I am coming across as aggressive or harsh. Its not meant that way.

To me the the point of your post appears to be that Godwins law is being abused. If I have missed the point then again I apologise. However in the example you give I think Godwins law is appropriate. The Senator invoked giving up against the Nazis as an indirect comparison to giving up against Obamacare.

Shane L writes:

Yes good call by David, Godwin's Law is more fun than universal and there are times when mentioning World War II make perfect sense.

I do question Ted Cruz's statement about Chamberlain, incidentally:

Neville Chamberlain told the British people: Accept the Nazis. Yes, they will dominate the continent of Europe, but that is not our problem. Let's appease them.
Did he? Chamberlain was the one who declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland. Surely his goal was the containment of German power in Europe, but without another catastrophic war. He certainly wasn't proposing a hands-off "that is not our problem" policy in Europe!

I'm getting distracted by the history now, but some readers might be interested in this amazing speech given by Churchill on Chamberlain's death. A quote:

"It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart-the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged."

David R. Henderson writes:

@Shane L,
Good point. Thanks for the quote.

Duncan Earley writes:

Shane L said:

"Yes good call by David, Godwin's Law is more fun than universal and there are times when mentioning World War II make perfect sense."

Do you feel the same sense of fun when the left use the "Think of the Children" argument to make a comparison?

The point of Godwins law is deeply serious as are your quotes. We should only invoke that comparison when it is really relevant otherwise it become white noise.

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