Invoking Hitler's Name: A User's Guide

11/11/2011 03:34 pm ET | Updated Jan 11, 2012

On November 9, celebrity chef Mario Batali made the mistake of comparing Wall Street bankers to Hitler. (He also threw Stalin in there, but let's keep this simple.) Like so many others before him, Batali found out that carelessly invoking the H word is asking for trouble.

Well-heeled Wall Streeters -- who are a key part of his clientele -- belched indignantly and threatened to boycott his restaurants. Quicker than the kitchen magicians at Babbo can whip up your Two-Minute Calamari (Sicilian-Lifeguard Style), Batali apologized.

This tempest in a mussel pot is likely done, but let's draw one quick, non-culinary lesson from it. If you're speaking in a public forum or standing within a meatball's throw of the media, be very, very careful with your references to Hitler. In fact, be very, very careful with your references to Hitler no matter what. Which merits a "duh" -- and yet people keep lunging for his name.

Two obvious points. (1) Hitler and Nazi Germany were largely responsible for the deadliest war in human history, which resulted in somewhere between 50 and 70 million deaths. (2) Hitler and Nazi Germany were responsible for the deliberate, systematic killing of about 6 million Jews and millions of other innocent people, from homosexuals to Soviet POWs.

More "duh": Because he was so evil, Hitler's name carries unmatched weight. And precisely because of that unmatched weight, many of us at one point or another (including people at Fox News, despite their denials) are tempted to holler Hitler when we feel strongly that someone has done something very bad.

The Wall Street bankers are like Hitler! Obama is like Hitler! Bush and Cheney are like Hitler! And so on. The problem is that invoking Hitler's name just about never adds anything positive to the debate.

Instead, what inevitably happens is this: after someone drops the H bomb, the target gets incensed; then the media reports both the name-calling and the incensed reaction; then the bomb-dropper issues an apology and/or an explanation (the latter of which usually elicits further incensed reaction); and the initial point gets lost entirely. Batali may have had a reasonable criticism to make about bankers, but it's now buried. All that remains is a Hitler kerfuffle. (For a bit more about how Hitler references end up debasing arguments on the Internet, read up on Godwin's Law.)

So what about sticking to this simple guideline? Unless the person you're criticizing (1) is responsible for the deaths of millions of people and/or (2) has led a horrifically effective program of genocide on a massive scale, don't use Hitler as a comparison.

Which means that very few people merit the Hitler label. Who does? Joseph Stalin. Mao Zedong. Pol Pot.

To put it another way: Here in the U.S., your political opponents and others you disagree with or disapprove of are not like Hitler. In your estimation, they might be very bad people. Even wicked. Fine. Find another comparison.

Last year, Glenn Greenwald and Joe Klein got into it over the Nazi labeling game, and when it comes to, say, military history, references to Nazi Germany might in some instances be illuminating. But pointing at people here in America and calling 'em Hitler? Nope.

After what happened over the last two days, I think Batali gets this. Here's hoping the rest of us do, too.

Now, please pass the calamari.