Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ignorance lurks behind these ridiculous analogies

One of the many things that annoy me is inapposite and ridiculous analogies between some event and some other past event. It does not matter from which side of the political divide the analogy comes, it is rarely illuminating and most often completely wrong. But almost every time the analogy serves to make present events bigger, more important and, if needs be, more horrific.

No, capping housing benefits in order that people should live where they can afford to rather than where they want to is not "tantamount to fascism", as I was told on a forum. Quite the opposite. Nor is it anything like the Final Solution, as Polly Toynbee opined, though, apparently, she was forced to apologize; nor is it anything like ethnic cleansing as our own Mayor the egregious Boris Johnson pointed out (he, too, was forced to back down but did so extremely ungraciously).

I was overjoyed to read an article by that highly admirable historian Michael Burleigh on the subject in the latest issue of Standpoint.
Why do so many people accept such analogies? They surely reflect a nation's psyche, even when the experience of one country (say Britain and France in the 1930s) is actually being incorporated into that of another, as has happened with fears of appeasement in the US.

Looking to the past is part of any nation's sense of identity, whether for lessons to avoid or stirring examples to pursue. Simon Schama and David Starkey have built careers as pundits out of what are at best tenuous analogies with the remoter past and our present and future. The grim, thuggish, bureaucratic reality of Labour is unnecessarily dignified by comparing it with machinations at the court of Henry VIII.

Historical analogies also provide us with a reassuringly manageable cognitive map or route through a chaotically frightening present. Although there are significant differences between, say, parochial Irish Republican terrorists and the global jihadists, some take comfort in the delusion that a peace process lurks behind every corner. Everything can be negotiated if reasonable men sit down and settle. If it can't, then the "spirit of the Blitz" will see us through, even though "then" enemy aliens and Nazi sympathisers were also quarantined in internment camps and prisons.

For that is surely another reason for historical analogies. Our country is so partially and poorly informed about foreign affairs, not least by the likes of John Simpson, that it needs to be mobilised around sentimentalised snippets of a past it also hardly knows, which on closer inspection was less sentimental about our enemies than we like to think.
It is not just foreign affairs we are poorly informed on and ignorant about (one could argue that such ignorance was always present) but history in general. Past events are seen as mere sound-bites with no knowledge attached. Therefore, it is easy to draw inappropriate analogies.


  1. I've often wished that William L. Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich should be required reading for everyone who wants to comment on politics. At the very least it would cut down (I hope) on people making these sorts of puerile Hitler/fascism analogies.

  2. Absolutely. I am fed up with those idiotic comparisons.