Invoke the Nazis and you’ve lost the argument

Lord Carey's reference to the Third Reich in the context of gay marriage was a fabulous example of Godwin's law

Philip Hensher
Saturday 13 October 2012 15:28 BST

There’s an internet law, now more than 20 years old, known as Godwin’s Law of Nazi analogies. “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches.” The law perhaps ought to be introduced into everyday life. The phenomenon of the absurd, exaggerated comparison, made, apparently, in all seriousness, got a fabulous example this week.

Lord Carey, speaking at a fringe meeting of the Tory conference, said that the name-calling of those opposed to same-sex marriage was reminiscent of the early days of the Third Reich. He said: “Remember the Jews in Nazi Germany. What started against them was when they were called names. And that was the first stage towards that totalitarian state.”

It’s a marvellous idea. If you think that the choice of who you want to marry ought to be your own decision, and not the decision of the leader of some religion you don’t believe in, then, obviously, in Lord Carey’s eyes there is absolutely nothing to distinguish you from Baldur von Schirach.

Even the Tory fringe might have been expected to greet this ludicrous claim with howls of laughter. For the rest of us, it is entirely possible to observe that Lord Carey, for instance, is a pillock, wazzock and berk of the first order without showing the faintest signs of wanting to smash his windows or shepherd his children into a gas chamber.

Churchy people seem rather prone to these comparisons. The great lawyer F E Smith was an intelligent and amusing man. He was the one who, when the judge said, “I confess I am none the wiser, Mr Smith”, replied: “But very much better informed.” When a Bill was introduced in 1913 to disestablish the Anglican Church in Wales, however, Smith said that it was “a Bill which has shocked the conscience of every Christian community in Europe”.

In response, G K Chesterton, in one of the funniest poems in the language, wondered whether Russians and Bretons were truly shocked in places “where Establishment means nothing/ And they never heard of Wales/Do they read it all in Hansard --/With a crib to read it with… Chuck it, Smith!”

The favoured point of comparison, for decades, is with the Nazis. An amusing web designer launched an add-on to remove every mention of Justin Bieber from your personal settings of the internet, if you so choose. A fan wrote a letter from Sweden. “What you’re doing is going back to World War II all over again. Hitler wanting to erase Jews from society – you want to erase Justin Bieber...” The American radio presenter Glenn Beck once compared the National Endowment for the Arts to Goebbels. The strategy was termed by the philosopher Leo Strauss, as long ago as 1951, the Reductio ad Hitlerum.

Quite a lot of us have loosely referred to an officious minor bureaucrat or attendant as the Recycling Nazi or (in a car park) a Little Hitler. But George Carey gave every sign of believing what he said. Does he really think so? Does he honestly think that Ben Summerskill of Stonewall resembles Goering in any way? Does Angela Eagle remind him of Eva Braun?

Are Old Compton Street and Vauxhall on a Friday night reminiscent of an assembly of Gauleiters? Does he think that a sinister collection of A-gays are at this very moment assembling in a lakeside villa to agree methods of putting evangelical Christians to death?

Really? Honestly and truthfully? Or are gay people and Nazis actually quite different from each other? The consequence of Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies is that, the second the comparison is made, the argument is deemed to have been lost. The moment that a former Archbishop of Canterbury stood up and said that anyone opposing the anti-gay marriage movement was a Nazi in the making, the argument was over.

No stupidity like corporate stupidity

Solenne San Jose, from Pessac in France, decided to close down her mobile account with Bouygues Telecom. The company agreed, and sent her a bill. When she opened it, the bill was for €11,721,000,000,000,000.

Anyone can make a mistake, but what followed was a glorious sequence of corporate stupidity. At first, she was told that there was nothing they could do to amend the computer-generated statement and later offered to set up instalments to pay off the bill – it would work out, in fact, at €2.25bn a week for the next 1,000 years, a repayment plan that might cause even Greece to worry. Only after some days did Mme San Jose get them to accept that it would not be possible to run up a bill of 11 quadrillion euros in a lifetime of mobile telephone calls, even at the customary extortionate rates.

Obviously, sooner or later a glaring cock-up like this is going to be put right by even the most obtuse of utilities. But in a week when the energy utilities here decided to put their prices up yet again – British Gas by 6 per cent, the Scottish SSE by 9 per cent – it is interesting to note the immediate and resolute resistance to suggestions of illegitimate overcharging. Asked for 11 quadrillion euros, we would probably persist with our objections. A couple of hundred pounds – I think our utilities might well successful browbeat us into submission.

I once found that British Gas had been overestimating my usage by a few points every quarter, and after three years had accrued hundreds of pounds of my money. It eventually returned it, but without apology or the payment of interest for this unauthorised loan. I suppose I should be grateful it was only two noughts, not 12.

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