March 9, 2005

Dead Metaphors In the Making: McCarthyism, Holocaust, Nazi

Outgoing Colorado University President Betsy Thompson announced just before calling it quits that a new era of "McCarthyism" is besetting the universities.

This claim is patent nonsense when applied to the hounds baying for the resignation of pseudo-Indian art-forger Professor Ward Churchill. Churchill, in turn, is in Dutch for calling the dead, well, at least the stockbroker dead at the World Trade Center, "little Eichmanns." Doddering relic Sen. Robert Byrd has been the butt of criticism for comparing a possible Republican attempt to restrict the right to filibuster Presidential nominees to the behavior of Hitler when he first came to power.

Others have divagated at length on the accuracy of these particular statements, and I will leave that task to them. What interests me instead is the continued currency of three memes commonly used as epithets:

  • "McCarthyism" and its variant, "witchhunt."

  • Comparison of any pattern of cruelty or murder to the "Holocaust."

  • The more general and someone less severe "Nazi" analogy, whether applied to George Bush, Bill Frist, or an arrogant dispenser of soup on the TV comedy Seinfeld.

These epithets are in constant use, and like any metaphor in constant use, they tend to flatten and become divorced from their original meaning. Take the term "shibboleth," which originated in a Bible story in which the choice of pronouncing the word as "shibboleth" or "sibboleth" meant death for those who used the wrong dialect.

Judges 12:4 (NIV) Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, "You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh."

Judges 12:5 (NIV) The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, "Let me cross over," the men of Gilead asked him, "Are you an Ephraimite?" If he replied, "No,"

Judges 12:6 (NIV) they said, "All right, say "Shibboleth." If he said, "Sibboleth," because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.

Today a "shibboleth" is defined here as no more than a " A word or phrase identified with a particular group or cause; a catchword." Only to those familiar with the Bible story does it connote a massacre of a particular tribe.

The term "McCarthyism" and its partner "witchhunt" are now a dime a dozen. "McCarthyism" is used mostly, but not exclusively, by liberals and leftists to tag critics with irresponsibility and a desire to suppress speech they disagree with. Most of the people who use it know very little about McCarthy or his era. McCarthy, of course, was right on the central themes of his message -- American communists were subservient to a hostile and murderous state, Stalin's USSR, and had obtained substantial influence in the New Deal government, the unions, and the nation's cultural life. In a time of conflict with the USSR and its philosophy, sometimes hot as in Korea, and sometimes "cold," as in occupied Germany, explaining these facts and exposing secret communists in such places was a legitimate exercise, as I discuss in more detail here.

The related "witchhunt" analogy comes from the late Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible. The pressure on certain witnesses to "name names," or identify other communists and ex-communists, was analogized to the use of torture on accused witches to force them to identify others. It was a silly analogy to start with because few "victims" in the McCarthy era were accused entirely falsely, nor was torture a part of the process.

People today use "McCarthyism" to denounce any unwelcome questioning of the political views of others. Incredibly, Betsy Hoffman, a university president, no less, compared the statements of those who said they'd like Ward Churchill fired to the McCarthyism of myth -- a reputed use of power to suppress legitimate dissent and social criticism.

Whether one thinks that not firing Churchill for his disgusting remark is a price we pay for First Amendment liberties, or whether one thinks that the Republic will survive if, in a time of war, a repulsive fraud is canned for his repulsive remarks, the remarks are repulsive and unworthy of any substantive defense, and those who object to them neither intend to nor are likely to usher in an age of intolerance and autos-da-fé.

All this may be true, but the "McCarthyism" meme used to define any systematic attack on critical speech is no doubt here to stay, used not just by liberals and leftists, but by center-rightists as well as a kind of terminological judo.

A second series of historical events, the murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis, now conventionally and inappropriately called the "Holocaust" (because the Biblical holocaust was part of a religious ritual, and there was nothing sacred or holy about the Nazi mass murders), is used to refer to everything from other genocides, to Israeli misdeeds against Palestinians, to the factory farming of chickens, as in PETA's notorious "Holocaust on your plate" campaign.

The Holocaust is a far more horrible and emotional concept than McCarthyism, and the battle over who can appropriate it for what purpose rages on. There are those who contend it is unique and incommensurable with any other event or series of events in history, while others would confine its use to mass genocides such as in Rwanda or Cambodia. In part this notion of the Holocaust as sui generis is part of an effort to use horror at the Nazi murders as an emotion-evoking symbol to try to unify an otherwise discordant Jewish community, and to discredit criticism of Israeli policy.

Even Israeli opponents of Ariel Sharon's planned evacuation of Gaza use Nazi-era phrases like Judenrein (clean, or empty of Jews). The phrase, and the concept, in short, are undergoing generalization, to the extent that it is becoming a virtually "dead metaphor."

Dead metaphors, by definition, normally go unnoticed; people are typically unaware of the origin of words. For instance, consideration is a metaphor meaning "take the stars into account", mantel means "cloak or hood to catch smoke", gorge means throat, and so forth for thousands more.
"Holocaust" is just coming to refer to any acts of cruelty applied to large groups.

Inappropriate, and in the case of PETA, disgusting, but probably inevitable.

The related "Nazi" term is less emotionally charged than "Holocaust," and is now used to refer to any form of harsh or authoritarian behavior. On the comedy show Seinfeld, a nasty soup-seller is referred to as the "Soup Nazi." Rush Limbaugh coined the term "feminazis" to refer to aggressive, know-it-all feminists. And Sen. Byrd compares a possible restriction on filibusters to the political process that led to dictatorship and the death of 40 million people in World War II. If people were more circumspect, the Nazi analogy would be reserved for the Saddam Husseins of the world, torturers, totalitarians, and exterminationist racists. But people are not circumspect, and "Nazi" is on its way to becoming a dead metaphor. It's no doubt a dishonor to the victims of the real Nazis, but it's a common usage, and there's not much to be done about it.

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