Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Bad people are... Nazis

January 26, 2014General

Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938

So venture capitalist Tom Perkins frets that the very rich might suffer the same fate as Jews in Germany in the 1930s.

This is nothing new. A few years ago, Steve Schwartzman, head of the Blackstone private equity firm, equated President Obama’s proposed tax hikes with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. And lots of people find ways to compare Obamacare to Nazi policies. One North Carolina politician, perhaps just to be evenhanded, said it was worse than Hitler, Stalin and terrorism combined.

There are probably books to write about a common sense of victimhood we have in this country, one that no level of wealth or privilege can assuage. And of course, they’re scandalously insensitive to those who suffered terrible crimes at the hands of butchers. But what strikes me is how primitive the thinking is. I would expect people who can feed themselves, perform basic hygiene and organize nouns and verbs into sentences to come up with better metaphors.

Tom Perkins, after all, is capable of nuanced thinking. All kinds of startups knocked on his door through the decades, and he was able to think through business plans, technology trends, the patterns of social and economic behavior, and put his firm’s money on Amazon, Google and Genentech. Yet when it comes to historical analogies, he sounds like a kindergartener.

The problem, I think, is that many people, rich and poor alike, don’t spend too much time thinking about history. As a result, we have an impoverished historical vocabulary. There are only a handful of things we all know, and one of them is that Hitler was a monster. So he becomes the common receptacle for everything that’s bad. His policies created victims, and those feeling victimized, like Perkins, find common ground with people facing a holocaust. And Hitler deceived well-meaning negotiators, so every diplomatic deal with an adversary is compared to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement at Munich.

This kind of thinking is tantalizing. After all, we barely need to know how to talk. Thumbs up and down will suffice. Now that I think about it, didn’t the Roman leaders make use of that gesture to signal life or death for the gladiators? Maybe we could widen our historical references to include that colorful detail. Nah. Probably better just to equip Hitler with thumbs. Easier.


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