You Know Who Else Used Words to Make A Point?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 4 2012 2:05 PM

You Know Who Else Used Words to Make A Point?

CHARLOTTE -- Please tell me that this isn't going to be one of the trends of the week.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Pat Lehman, the "dean of the Kansas delegation" and the president of the Kansas Democratic Labor Committee, is the latest Democrat to compare Republicans playing loose with the truth to Nazis.
In an interview with The Wichita Eagle, Lehman invoked Adolf Hitler to argue that Republicans are lying when they say voter ID efforts are designed to combat voter fraud.
“It’s like Hitler said, if you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big lie, and if you tell it often enough and say it in a loud enough voice, some people are going to believe you,” Lehman said.
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It's an inescapable fact of history: Some of the most detestable monsters had some of the best quotes. In 2009, Anita Dunn spent days explaining that she didn't literally think that Mao was one of her "favorite philosophers," which should have been obvious, because Dunn wasn't trying to force farmers to reach iron-smelting quotas by melting down their goods in backyard furnaces. She was quoting a Mao aphorism. The "big lie" is a Hitler aphorism. The scandal, this week, is that California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton also used the aphorism -- and thus, he was comparing Republicans to Hitler.

I've never understood this. When you quote somebody, are you assuming all the characteristics and contexts of the person responsible for the quote? The "big lie" comes from Mein Kampf. It was Hitler's (bogus, obviously) explanation for why people seemed to blame German military leaders for their defeat in World War I, when they should have been blaming the Jews.

It required the whole bottomless falsehood of the Jews and their Marxist fighting organization to lay the blame for the collapse on that very man who alone, with superhuman energy and will power, tried to prevent the catastrophe he foresaw and save the nation from its time of deepest humiliation and disgrace By branding [Gen.] Ludendorff as guilty for the loss of the World War they took the weapon of moral right from the one dangerous accuser who could have risen against the traitors to the fatherland. In this they proceeded on the sound principle that the magnitude of a lie always contains a certain factor of credibility, since the great masses of the people in the very bottom of their hearts tend to be corrupted rather than consciously and purposely evil, and that, therefore, in view of the primitive simplicity of their minds they more easily fall a victim to a big lie than to a little one, since they themselves lie in little things, but would be ashamed of lies that were too big. Such a falsehood will never enter their heads and they will not be able to believe in the possibility of such monstrous effrontery and infamous misrepresentation in others; yes, even when enlightened on the subject, they will long doubt and waver, and continue to accept at least one of these causes as true. Therefore, something of even the most insolent lie will always remain and stick-a fact which all the great lie-virtuosi and lying-clubs in this world know only too well and also make the most treacherous use of.

And so on. A few catch phrases aside, Hitler was a ponderous writer. My point, though -- the idea of the "big lie" is useful, and it's odd to think that its users literally think their foes are like the Nazis. Hitler wasn't even referring to the Nazis when he coined this!

Oh, well. I'm a hopeless anti-pedant on the whole issue of quoting dictators. Let the feigned outrage continue.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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