The Obama-Hitler meme has been repeated ad nauseum during the Notre Dame commencement controversy, threatening to become a self-sustaining corollary to Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies. It is the verbal equivalent of the gruesome anti-abortion plane banners being flown around campus, and likely as effective. It is also a fatuous comparison, made worse by the fact that it is so often invoked by those who insist they didn’t really mean that, not at all!
The latest chapter involves an interview that Patrick Reilly, the trenchant head of the university watchdog, the Cardinal Newman Society–and a leader activist in the anti-Notre Dame campaign–gave to NPR. My transcript of the relevant passage is at the end, and you’ll see that Reilly does invoke the Hitler (and KKK) analogy even as he says he is not. Sort of. At America’s blog, Michael Sean Winters denounced Reilly’s claim in this post, for which Reilly posted a comment reading thusly:
I DID NOT COMPARE OBAMA TO HITLER. THAT IS LIBEL. In fact, I twice stated that I was NOT comparing the two, just to ensure that radical partisans would not deliberately ignore the context of my argument, but there’s no stopping Mr. Winters, is there? Anyone who cares about what Winters says needs to listen to the interview — at about 6 minutes into it. I argued that Notre Dame’s defense for honoring President Obama – that they are honoring only part of an individual, despite clear conflict with his public actions and positions — is ludicrous. I stated clearly that I was offering extreme examples of how Notre Dame’s position could apply to a KKK member or a Hitler, assuming they have certain qualities worthy of admiration. I know — big mistake ever to mention Hitler, it was certainly an extreme example and perhaps a less volatile figure could have made the point without getting slammed by deceitful people like Winters. If Winters doesn’t remove his blog immediately and publicly apologize for the deliberate libel, America will have lost any credibility it still had.
This morning, Winters fires back with the classic rejoinder against McCarthy, “Have you left no sense of decency?” Winters picks apart Reilly’s invocation of libel, but gets at the crux of the matter here:
But, if Mr. Reilly’s aim was only to make an admittedly complicated point, why not compare President Obama to, say, Richard Nixon. “You can’t applaud Nixon for the Clean Air Act and forget about Watergate,” he might have said. After all, comparisons achieve moral clarity when comparing apples to apples, or presidents to presidents. Or, he might have said, “You can’t forget the dropping of atomic bombs on the innocent people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in deciding whether or not to honor the memory of Harry S. Truman.” But, Mr. Reilly did not invoke these more proximate comparisons, did he? And, that tells us more about Mr. Reilly than it does about President Obama.
Indeed. So here is the transcript as I typed it out. You can also listen to the entire interview here–the relevant part is near the end, about 6 minutes in. Reactions?
REILLY: “Take an extreme case–and I’m not comparing the two individuals–but if you were to take a Ku Klux Klan member or an Adolph Hitler and honor them for things you think that they’ve done well…You can’t separate the individuals from their very public persona.”
INTERVIEWER: “Do you really mean to compare President Obama with Adolph Hitler or a Ku Klux Klan member?”
REILLY: “I absolutely said I don’t. What I’m saying is that you can’t separate an honor for an individual from their very public actions, and President Obama in his first 100 days is much more identified with his support for abortion rights than he is for any social justice issue. That’s what he’s acted upon, and that’s been his focus of his own decisions.”
Follow-up thought: However disingenuous Reilly’s comparison/non-comparison, his view that Notre Dame is honoring Obama because of his abortion rights stand is wrong and colored, I think, by his skewed view–as stated near the end–of Obama’s first hundred days as focused on abortion. It’s not. Reilly has a certain lens, and can’t see beyond it, or can’t see what others do, which is why there will always be this complete disconnect between him and the public.