This weekend Congressman Charles Rangel compared the Tea Party to Jim Crow era white segregationists of the '50s. "It is the same group we faced in the South with those white crackers and the dogs and the police," he remarked of the Tea Party.
Historical comparisons are almost never accurate. Present day circumstances are almost never identical to history, despite the cliché that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
The Tea Party may have some racist members, but the movement has never advocated segregation. Instead of talking about the Tea Party's actual policies on guns, immigration reform and the like, Rangel makes a completely erroneous historical comparison. This is not the way to win an argument.
These knee-jerk historical comparisons only serve to trivialize historical realities and distort the truth.
George Zimmerman's acquittal has also been compared to the racial injustices of the pre-civil rights South, even though Zimmerman is Hispanic and race never entered the trial. Such arguments minimize the true racial injustices of unprovoked mob beatings, lynchings and hangings by the Ku Klux Klan. There is no historical comparison of that to a classic murder trial, where a defendant is claiming self-defense.
We also see erroneous historical comparisons with the all-pervasive Nazi card. Some commentators claim that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza is similar to the Nazis treatment of Jews. Or conversely, that Palestinian treatment of Israelis is akin to Nazi treatment of the Jews. Both comparisons are not only hyperbolic, but patently false.
As tragic as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be, it is incomparable to the ghettos, slave-labor camps, and gassing deaths of 6 million Jews.
Philosopher Leo Straus coined the term reductio ad hitlerum to refer to the "fallacy that consists of trying to refute an opponent's view by comparing it to a view that would be held by Adolf Hitler or the Nazi Party."
After the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, Vice President Joe Biden discussed possible executive action in an effort to combat gun violence. Some conservatives immediately began comparing the president to Hitler and Stalin. The Drudge Report ran a picture of Hitler and Stalin with the caption, "White House Threatens Executive Orders on Guns."
Historical analogies are almost always ridiculous, offensive and inaccurate. Calling someone you disagree with a Nazi, fascist or white supremacist does not advance your argument.
Whether it's liberals like Rangel invoking the civil rights era against the Tea Party, or conservatives like Drudge comparing Obama to Hitler, such childish attempts at historical comparison merely trivialize atrocities and serve to demonstrate an erroneous understanding of history.
ELIYAHU FEDERMAN has appeared in the NY Times, ABC News, CNN Money, Yahoo News, USA Today and elsewhere. The opinions expressed here are solely his own. Follow him on Facebook.
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