Invoking Godwin’s Law Too Soon? Maybe.

Last week, on BBC This Week, Jonathan Powell ex PM Blair’s Chief of Staff did the round up of the week (intro from about 7 mins in) and was thoroughly bludgeoned for his efforts by Andrew Neil in his own inimitable and entirely effective way.

Several people re-tweeted Neil’s performance approvingly. I’m a big fan. He is by far the best political interviewer we have in the UK, always thoroughly prepared, unbiased in his targeting, and skilled at the critical questioning and the unflinching, holding-to-account style of interview.

In this particular case, I’m not sure it’s what the response to the round-up really needed. Powell’s was a warning about the potential impending rise of fascism. Sure, as Neil pointed out he didn’t have actual examples of actual fascism in actual political positions in UK politics, and certainly not in the sense of actual Nazism deeds in practice. To suggest so would be to demean the real suffering of those 20th century examples. Neil used Godwin’s Law at the outset in fact, to point out the absurdity of jumping to comparisons with Hitler, too soon, too casually.

Sadly Powell didn’t immediately defend his actual warning effectively. He clearly wasn’t prepared for being thoroughly “roughed-up”. In Brexit and Leadership, Labour and Conservative, pro and con examples, the rhetoric of individuals and party responses are starting to parallel the simplistic populism and mealy-mouthed denials of inappropriate language we’re seeing even more starkly the other side of the Atlantic. These are very relevant warnings. Especially at a time, as Neil’s introduction made clear, our democratic institutions appear to be floundering,  the warning and the need for an active response against the populist and demagogic language. Even if comparing individuals and situations to Hitler and Stalin are fatuous. Even if laying the misguided blame at our unwritten constitution. Who is the Hitler figure? We’ll only know that with hindsight.

Particularly scary given Neil’s demolition of Powell was #Choochoo’s dismissive “It’ll never happen here” commentary. As Powell said, the danger is complacency. Sure we have to be optimistic at our ability to respond, but to do that we have to face the issue.

To be fair, listening a second time, there is a good deal of intelligent dialogue after the piece, and the issues are fairly covered in the time available. Hard to shake off the impression for the Twitter sound-bite generation that Powell’s warning was demolished by Neil (?)The warning remains there to be heeded and responses agreed.


[Post Notes. First item in today’s Politics Live with Andrew Neil, Trump and the latest “send her back” #4Squad #SolidarityWoC story. Agreement that it’s base, nasty, ugly, racist politics, designed to divide approvingly and appeal only to populist core, not that far off here in the UK. To be condemned by all.]

By comparison:

[Several others posting the Colin Powell interview as another exemplar of high profile politician addressing casual racism happening on his watch.]

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And to bring it back to the current UK (Conservative Leadership) topic, Neil does a great job nailing a Boris aide over the not-UK-and-non-EU Manx fish troubled by the not-EU-but-UK trading rules, with which Boris doubly self-owned in his final hustings speech for the sake of a “kipper” gag. Shameless. (In the last few minutes of the Politics Live linked above. Brexit is based entirely on shameless lies about the EU, where Boris has taken a professional rhetorical interest for decades of media entertainment – but all shameless lies non-the-less, his stock-in trade, for laughs.

Talking of shameless lies. It’s the (lack of) shame, not the (lack of) facts that is the problem. Interesting piece also on BBC R4 this morning. Mariella Frostrup conducting a debate with experts about children’s education about (not) lying. Mariella more enlightened than most of the naive experts (bar one) in my view. Same as “truth” in more fundamental / abstract metaphysical circles, it’s ultimately about virtues (like Trustworthiness) not about factual objectivity. Even kids learn the value in factual lies with a rhetorical purpose, and a more enlightened idea than being shamed into some logical absolutism that “it’s wrong to lie”. The latter would suggest the answer to our problem is somehow controlling “fact-checking” when nothing could be further from the reality of virtue. Virtuous reality is more real and true than objective reality.]

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