On the Importance of Making Historical Comparisons

I am happy to see Professor Hajjar defend Robinson’s academic freedom (and thus hers) even though she would not herself have made the comparison. She provides a model for all to follow. If we prize an open democratic society, we should all defend academic freedom, as well as the freedom of speech we all enjoy, even for relevant speech with which we disagree.

However, I don’t agree with her statement, “You don’t evoke Nazis unless you’re talking about Nazis.” That’s a poorly formed thought. The email evokes the Nazis for the purpose of comparing oppressive state tactics carried out against marginalized peoples. This is a legitimate exercise.

What are the reasons for not evoking Nazis unless you are talking about the Nazis? Because it is mistaken? Should we then stifle a social scientist who compares Iran to Nazi Germany even though such a comparison is rather obviously erroneous?

It is quite obvious that we can’t debate whether the comparison is erroneous if we are not allowed to evoke it. This is the purpose of the classroom (and other academic fora). Should the comparison be disallowed because the Jewish holocaust is a sacred case? Are we going to make a list of sacred cases disallowed in historical comparison? Who will make this list—this “Index of Prohibited Historical Comparisons”?

Doesn’t making exceptions run contrary to the goal of objectivity in science? The Catholic Church allowed Galileo to discuss many of the things he was discovering about our solar system. But when it came to the question of geocentrism, which the Catholic Church felt delegitimated its dogma, the Church drew the line. We all recognize now that was inappropriate. We should all understand the motive of the Church. We cannot similarly make an exception for arguments comparing the tactics of the Israeli regime against the Palestinians to the German Nazi tactics against the Jews.

The dangers of artificially constraining comparisons should be obvious. The Nazis were not the only regime in history to have perpetrated genocide. The Jews were not the only victims of genocide. Yes, the Nazi case is unique. But all genocides are unique cases taken in terms of their own particulars. Taking cases in themselves doesn’t help us fully explain them and, crucially, prevent them from happening again. Many observers, including many of Jews, have suggested something like the Jewish holocaust could happen again.

The point of comparison is to identify similarities and dissimilarities and generalize patterns to theorize common causes and dynamics. There can be no science without comparison, and science is inappropriately limited when certain cases are for non-scientific purposes excluded from analysis. Here’s the article to which I commented: Panel Defends Robinson.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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