Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Godwin's law and politics

Did you ever hear of Godwin's Law? It's an observation about Usenet, a discussion forum that predates the web, but I think it applies to all online forums. The law says that, as the length of a Usenet discussion increased, the probability that there'd be a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis approached 1 (which is certainty).

Now, some people include something like "and whoever makes the comparison has lost the argument". This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the point of the law.

You see, on Usenet, if a discussion continues a long time, people care about it, and usually, if they care about it, there will be an argument somewhere. And if people argue long enough, the argument takes on a life of its own, and reality kind of fades out. People stubbornly refuse to back down from untenable positions, and refuse to grant an inch of slack to their opponents. Sooner or later, either someone will make a grossly unfair comparison of a person to Hitler, or a position to one held by the Nazi Party, OR, someone will take a stance that is comparable to one of Hitler or the Nazi Party.

People get blinded by the argument; the argument becomes everything to them.

You don't believe me? I was personally involved in a discussion in which there was a huge, heated discussion about whether a person in a hotel lobby would be arrested for loitering, because that person had a large, orange "Star Wars" blaster in his hands. It seemed extremely important at the time. Most of these people were ordinary, everyday folks who would have scoffed at the idea that they'd be involved in such silliness... but there they were.

That's the kind of thing that happens when winning the argument seems more important than anything else. It's not just about winning the argument, it's also about seeing that horrible, evil, inhuman monster that you're debating lose.

Does anyone else notice any similarities between this and the current political climate?

Now, I'm going to make something clear here: I'm not making a Hitler/Nazi comparison. I'm just saying I know how discussions end up having those comparisons, once the fight has become a convenient substitute for reality.

For example, there are people who think President Bush plans to become a dictator of the United States. This is ridiculous; just look at the man over the past few weeks, and you know he's going to be pretty damn eager to leave come 2008. And there is a lot of nastiness that's not fair that's being directed at Bush... people who call him the "Chimperor", people who mock him because he's not a polished public speaker, and people who don't understand that, if he was as stupid as they claim, he couldn't have gotten an MBA from Harvard Business School.

But on the other side, you have people who are so wrapped up in winning, and in seeing the Democrats lose, that they're not even really looking at what they're supporting.

Look, there are a lot of honorable conservative commentators... people who would look at the current detainee bill, and say it was a terrible bill under any other circumstances. They're people who would have told you, five years ago, that they'd never support crap like this. And yet, there they are... because they don't want to lose.

And so, some of the people who should be sounding the alarm, who should be saying that this is a terrible bill, are blinded by this.

Look: who wants an innocent person held? No one. It's bad for freedom, it's bad for justice, and it's bad for America. So, why not grant habeus corpus rights, where the US either has to show there's a reasonable cause to hold someone, or let them go? It will clog the courts? Then we need more judges, more law clerks, and/or better processing of the court cases. The US can afford to expend the resources necessary for justice!

Who wants America to use torture? Come on; Nixon and Ford didn't need to use torture; Carter didn't need to use torture; Reagan and Bush I didn't need to use torture, and they all faced the threat of total nuclear annihilation. We don't need to use torture to handle a bunch of terrorist punks. We just have a President who doesn't have the courage or faith to trust that righteousness can win the day.

And who wants to expose people to unfair trials? No one. These people are accused of terrible crimes, and it would be an absolute travesty of justice to convict an innocent person of such terrible crimes. Yet the rules under consideration run a terrible risk of convicting the innocent.

This is a terrible bill, by the standards of both liberal and conservative thought. But the conservatives aren't speaking out... because they're blinded by the battle.

So, a lot of people think the bill is no big deal.

The people who are supposed to provide moral leadership have decided that they'd rather let themselves be blinded by the fight, and argue about something as stupid as - but infinitely more serious than - an orange Star Wars blaster.

We have to open their eyes.

Talk to your Senators, quickly. The House has already decided the love of the fight was more important than justice.

They're people who would have told you, five years ago, that they'd never support crap like this

In March 2003, when the whole Dixie Chicks thing was going down, I thought our country was experiencing hysteria but would eventually get over it. When GW's numbers started hitting the high 30's, I thought we were getting there. Now the worst legislation of my lifetime is being passed without a whimper of a fight, I'm afraid my initial assumption about "getting over it" was wrong.

I know how you feel. This is what scares me the most about this bill, and the lack of common outrage.

There was a quote I saw during the Schiavo saga... paraphased, "unlike the war in Iraq or the detainee abuses, this is a real moral issue!"

Because, you know, there wasn't a lot of noise being made about how war, and treatment of other human beings, were moral issues.

There were only two hopeful thoughts I had.

One, maybe the Dems would filibuster the bill. "Yes, we said we wouldn't. We lied."

And second, that they were letting it pass so they could use it as a weapon. That they would finally find both backbones and passion, and make the election about protections of the innocent people who get caught up in the grinder.

I'm afraid I'm just not willing to believe either is going to happen.
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