By Jeffrey Goldberg
New York: So, everyone is upset with Tom Perkins, the superannuated co-founder of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for comparing, in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, the hatred directed at Germany’s pre-war “one percent” —Jewish people — with today’s American “one percent” — rich people.
“This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking,” Perkins wrote. “Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?”
A browbeaten Perkins has subsequently apologized for his remark. It is, of course, bizarre to compare the events of Kristallnacht (and especially what followed Kristallnacht), to “the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word” of the San Francisco Chronicle, despite the obvious parallels.
In Germany, the pogrom that came to be known as the “Night of Broken Glass” resulted in the killing of more than 90 Jews; the arrest, and removal to concentration camps, of 30,000 others; and the burning of more than 1,000 synagogues.
In San Francisco, the Chronicle recently published an Associated Press article about the growing income gap between rich and poor which included this assertion: “Most economists say some inequality is needed to reward hard work, talent and innovation. But a wealth gap that’s too wide is usually unhealthy.”
Who wrote this? Joseph Goebbels? If this statement is not an incitement to murder, I don’t know what is.
But I digress. I realized in watching this sad episode that I could not muster the same anger others felt toward Perkins. The Bloomberg View editorial board, for instance, wrote: “Comparing your problem to the Holocaust is always a bad idea. There was only one, and nothing happening in the U.S. today is comparable to it.”
I generally find the grievances of clueless plutocrats absurd, but I also find myself encouraged by this latest misappropriation of Holocaust imagery. This is in part because I’ve decided to no longer be offended by violations of Godwin’s Law, which holds that any online debate will eventually feature inapt comparisons to Hitler or the Nazis. (Godwin’s Law is applied offline as well these days.)
In the usual understanding of Godwin’s Law, the first person who invokes Hitler or Auschwitz or the Final Solution in a debate that has nothing to do with World War II, or genocide, automatically loses the argument. This is because there was only one Hitler and one Auschwitz and one Final Solution. But this is exactly why I’ve grown to appreciate these analogies: Each time a yutz like Perkins invokes the Holocaust to make a point about income inequality or Obamacare or the policies of the Federal Reserve, the aforementioned yutz is reaffirming the exceptional horror of the Holocaust.
At a moment in history when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying of old age (in another five or 10 years, we will no longer be blessed by the presence of living eyewitnesses), and at a time when the perverse religion of Holocaust denial has been exhibiting its staying power, I appreciate the fact that so many people compare the things they find most horrible in their own lives to the Holocaust.
Each time this happens (and it seems to happen in public life at least once or twice a month), a new educational opportunity presents itself. How many people, just in the past few days, have looked up Kristallnacht and were appropriately appalled both by what happened in Germany and Austria in 1938 and by Perkins’s narcissistic myopia?
In other words, what at first blush seems like an attempt to trivialize the Holocaust could be understood instead as an acknowledgement of the Holocaust’s singular horror. So thank you, Mr. Perkins, for being such a useful idiot.
Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffreyGoldberg.He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.