Everyone's a Nazi now: Godwin's 'Hitler' law now applies offline and online


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The Independent Online

What do Russian President Vladimir Putin and Baz the cat from Tredworth, Gloucestershire, have in common? Both were last week compared with Hitler, with consequences far beyond the insult's initial sting. Poor Baz, who has fur-markings above his lip resembling a toothbrush moustache, was found beaten and left for dead in a dustbin. His owner believes the attack was motivated by the cat's unfortunate resemblance to the Nazi leader.

Meanwhile, Prince Charles is enduring his own stint in diplomacy's dustbin, after reportedly likening Putin's annexation of Crimea to Hitler's wartime expansionism. In the past, Putin has endured unflattering comparisons with a bull terrier and Dobby the elf from Harry Potter, but it is only this latest insult that has sparked a diplomatic crisis.

In defence of Putin, Russia's outraged media chose to attack. Pravda cited the Nazi sympathies of Edward VIII (Charles's great-uncle) and reminded its readers of Prince Harry's decision to wear a Nazi uniform to a fancy dress party in 2005. And it's not only in Russia that the comparison has been rejected. Putin's supporters in the UK include Ukip's leader, Nigel Farage, and he should know. The first records of Farage being denounced as a fascist date back to his schooldays and, earlier this month, he used the term himself to denounce non-violent anti-Ukip demonstrators in Edinburgh.

It is no mystery why these words have evolved into all-purpose insults. Whatever their differences, the countries that fought in the Second World War have always had one point of common consensus: Hitler's Nazis were a real bunch of bastards. It's no mystery, then, that Nazi and fascist have lost their original meaning, but it is regrettable.

The online version of the Oxford English Dictionary defines "fascism" as, specifically, "An authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organisation" and "Nazi" as "a person with extreme racist or authoritarian views". In practice, however, these terms are used to refer to all of the above, plus the flight attendant who charges you for excess baggage and the boss who makes you stay late on a Friday night. Godwin's law – "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1" is now as applicable offline as on.

Fascists should be called out as fascists – especially since many of Europe's far-right parties now seek to repackage their ideology in a more palatable, populist guise. For these terms to be of any real use as political criticism, they have to retain a specific meaning. Unfortunately, the overuse of the Nazi jibe has given it its own special place in the lexicon of rude words. This is an insult both trite and shocking, and, therefore, ultimately meaningless.

Biscuit bard speaks to us all

Let us recite some poetry: "The first victim of/retail customer service/is sincerity". No, it's not Keats. This haunting haiku is one of several penned by the self-styled "Bored Baker", an anonymous Sainsbury's worker whose notes were found in packets of Sainsbury's Taste the Difference cookies last week. The supermarket chain was quick to silence the biscuit bard and customers were reassured that he/she had left the company. If there's one thing the all-powerful customer won't tolerate, it's a service worker who talks back.

In case you were wondering, the second, third and fourth victims of retail customer service are kindness, compassion and mutual respect. Channel 4's documentary series The Complainers identifies a new breed of consumer who, empowered by Twitter, has developed increasingly high expectations of organisations and waning tolerance for any they deem to fall short.

The number of complaints made to British organisations has doubled in the past year, which means an increasing proportion of the workforce are employed as customer service staff, people whose job it is to absorb without complaint the stress, aggression and petty grievances of a nation.

The super-complainer, on the other hand, sees no irony in hectoring service industry workers about respect and courtesy. Customer service might be getting better but human beings are getting worse.

My Romanian neighbours

This week, in a refreshing twist on Farage's racist fantasies, I will be moving in next door to a family of Romanians. Until then, I remain a naturalised resident of the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, one of 16 areas deemed "high-risk" for voter fraud in last week's local elections.

Judging by the national media, you'd think getting to a polling station in Tower Hamlets involved scaling an obstacle course of hook-handed hate preachers, rotting halal carcasses and Korans piled 10 foot high. This was not my experience. I simply walked to the polling office, judged the candidates on their policies and exercised my democratic right.

There are some people for whom any election in a 36 per cent Muslim borough will always be suspicious. For them, "The Islamic Republic of Tower Hamlets" (to borrow a BNP phrase) is an exotic outpost where they do things differently. In fact, the biggest obstacle democracy faces here is the same one it faces everywhere else in Britain; old-fashioned voter apathy.

Political views aren't contagious

June Sarpong, whom you may remember as a presenter of Sunday morning hangover television T4, has been announced as a Newsnight contributor, a move that one newspaper described as "the latest in a string of left-wing journalists to work for Newsnight". That's odd, because I don't remember Sarpong ever interrupting Vernon Kay to deliver a rant on Marx's theory of historical materialism. But maybe I was out of the room.

The main evidence for this claim seems to be her attendance at a 2005 "Labour rally" (also known as a charity event for World Poverty Day) and the fact that Sarpong dated the Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, more than a decade ago. Until former Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik is declared a card-carrying member of The Cheeky Girls, it seems unfair that long-extinguished romantic liaisons should be taken as proof of political allegiance. I'd be more worried about Sarpong breaking into a bout of tuneless karaoke in the middle of the headlines. On that issue, her track record sings for itself.