Nuance and Nazis
Has the New York Times gone soft?

The American Spectator, June 2009

It appeared in the April 1 edition, but otherwise there was no reason to think David Leonhardt's New York Times column was a joke. It was, however, a shock:

In the summer of 1933, just as they will do on Thursday, heads of government and their finance ministers met in London to talk about a global economic crisis. They accomplished little and went home to battle the crisis in their own ways. More than any other country, Germany--Nazi Germany--then set out on a serious stimulus program. The government built up the military, expanded the autobahn, put up stadiums for the 1936 Berlin Olympics and built monuments to the Nazi Party across Munich and Berlin. The economic benefits of this vast works program never flowed to most workers, because fascism doesn't look kindly on collective bargaining. But Germany did escape the Great Depression faster than other countries.
An obvious rejoinder is that Germany also began mobilizing for war "faster than other countries." But Leonhardt saw a positive lesson in the Nazi experience: "Stimulus works."

This argument is remarkable not because of its merit or lack thereof, but because it appeared in print at all. Not long ago it was considered terribly insensitive to praise anything about the Nazi regime. To do so was seen as countenancing or even denying the Holocaust. Leonhardt, well aware of this erstwhile taboo, opened his column by acknowledging that his analogy was "uncomfortable" and "a little distracting." Later he observed that "no sane person enjoys mixing nuance and Nazis"--not that this stopped him.

The weakening of this taboo is not necessarily an outrage. One ought to be able to take for granted that the Holocaust was a singular evil while considering other aspects of the Nazi regime in a detached manner. But the recent writings of a colleague of Leonhardt's cast a more troubling light on the Times's changing attitudes toward Nazism.

Roger Cohen, who writes for the Times op-ed page, has produced a series of apologias for the Islamic Republic of Iran--a regime whose rulers do deny the Holocaust while at the same time proclaiming their ambition to repeat it. In 2005 Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, infamously said that Israel "must be wiped out from the map of the world." To be sure, Cohen disapproves of such threats. But he disapproves far more strongly of those who take them seriously.

In February, Cohen visited Iran, where he interviewed a handful of Jewish citizens. (Iran's Jewish population is estimated at 25,000, down 75 percent since the 1979 Islamic revolution.) He found that Iran's Jews lead a life of "relative tranquility" and approve of the ayatollahs' rule. A synagogue in Iran's third-largest city displayed a banner reading "Congratulations on the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution from the Jewish community of Esfahan." One Iranian Jew told Cohen he believes Israel is "criminal."

Although Cohen is probably in no danger of winning a Pulitzer, this performance was worthy of Walter Duranty, the notorious Times correspondent whose dispatches from 1930s Moscow included such classics as "Russians Hungry, but Not Starving," "Red Army Is Held No Menace to Peace," and "Stalinism Solving Minorities Problem." The Cohen column prompted much fierce and devastating commentary (including from my column on the Wall Street Journal's website). That criticism got under Cohen's skin, and he devoted a second column, in early March, to answering it.

Cohen was particularly irked by "American Jews unable to resist some analogy between Iran and Nazi Germany." Ordinarily, a comparison to Nazi Germany is a crude way of denouncing an opponent or his position: Barack Obama is a great orator; Hitler was a great orator, too. Canada uses the metric system; Nazi Germany used the metric system, too. This is almost always a logical fallacy, known informally as the argumentum reductio ad Hitlerum: falsely imputing evil to one's opponent by means of an irrelevant Nazi comparison.

Yet if ever such an analogy is appropriate, it is in this case. Iran's rulers not only have expressed the desire to exterminate Israel's six million Jews, but they are also seeking the means to do so in the form of a nuclear weapon. Cohen evaded this obvious point. Instead he argued that "Iran's Islamic Republic is no Third Reich redux" because "Iran has not waged an expansionary war in more than two centuries," because Iran's regime does not "require the complete subservience of the individual to the state," and even because the regime does not operate with "trains-on-time Fascist efficiency."

This is the precise inverse of the usual reductio ad Hitlerum. Cohen is falsely diminishing the Iranian regime's evil by dwelling on irrelevant differences with Nazi Germany. His observation that Iran lacks "Fascist efficiency" is especially telling in this regard, and it makes Leonhardt's praise for such efficiency seem all the creepier. Iran's inefficiency not only is morally irrelevant but has diminishing practical importance. The possession of nuclear weapons makes it possible to commit murder on a Hitlerian scale without anything approaching Germanic competence.

In an April column, Cohen finally addressed the Iranian nuclear threat--by dismissing it as an Israeli fabrication. Previous Israeli leaders predicted that Iran would acquire the bomb by 1999 or 2004, and this did not happen. Therefore, Cohen reasoned, Israel is "crying wolf." Never mind that the last time the boy in the fable cries wolf, there is a wolf.

Never mind, either, that the U.S. government (under Presidents Clinton and Obama as well as Bush), America's European allies, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and to some extent the governments of Russia, China, and some Arab countries have all taken Iran's nuclear ambitions seriously. Apparently the Israelis have managed to fool everyone except Roger Cohen into believing a threat they know is phony.

But if the Israelis are lying when they say Iran is a threat to them, the Iranians are telling the same lie when they issue threats against Israel. Why? According to Cohen, Iran's rulers are motivated by a concern for peace, human rights, and nonproliferation. I am not kidding. He actually published the following words:

One way to look at Iran's scurrilous anti-Israel tirades is as a provocation to focus people on Israel's bomb, its 41-year occupation of the West Bank, its Hamas denial, its repetitive use of overwhelming force.
Israel, Cohen claims, is motivated not by an aversion to being obliterated but merely by a cynical desire "to lock in American support and avoid any disadvantageous change in the Middle Eastern balance of power."

America should say no, Cohen asserts, because "Israeli hegemony is proving a kind of slavery." That statement seemed especially ugly, and a Google search showed why. In 1939, Der Stürmer published an editorial by Julius Streicher titled "The Way to Slavery," which declared that "what one calls democracy today is concealed Jewish domination."

Of course the Times is not the Stürmer, and Cohen is no Streicher. The latter was actively promoting evil; the former, one must assume, is fatuously trying to explain it away. But Cohen's faint echo of the rhetoric that led to the Holocaust suggests that more respect for postwar taboos would be good for the Times's moral hygiene.

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