This week, the Christian lobbyist and hellfire connoisseur Lyle Shelton warned of national takeover by a homosexualist Reich. In short, he believes that campaigns for lawful same-sex marriage and the maintenance of the Safe Schools program will cause “unthinkable things to happen, just as unthinkable things happened in Germany in the 1930s”.

Yes. An adult human can, apparently, see parallels between the paramilitary doctrine of the Hitlerjugend and a few colour pamphlets currently circulated in some schools and Unitarian churches.

Shelton’s claims of persecuted heterosexual innocence are, of course, stinking rot. If you need to yell at the guy, I guess that’s OK. In any case, many well-meaning outlets will do so in a good effort to support those potentially hurt by his peculiar claims. These intentions are benign. But such protest seems to me to give its object credence. Bothering to say that Shelton is wrong about the Goebbels Gays is a bit like doing the same for David Icke. If you say out loud that the lizard people don’t really exist, you necessarily buoy the possibility that they might.

(Hey. This isn’t just me being impatient with the kindness of moderates, here. Dr Martin Luther King Jr, a Christian far truer than Shelton, wrote from Birmingham Jail that the Ku Klux Klan were far less of a threat to black liberty than those centrists who opposed such extremism. If you are genuinely keen on advancing the rights of a particular social class, then the way to go about that is not having a hissy fit at their most vocal opponents. It might be fun for you; it doesn’t work.)

As much as I would relish the silence of Shelton and, actually, the silence of his critics whose arguments in themselves suggest that such fundie tripe is either worth the bother or in any way remediable, I know we cannot legislate against such things. I mean, we all know that outlawing certain kinds of speech leads to “unthinkable things”, right?

Oh, my goodness. I just Godwin-ed, just like Lyle did. Just like everyone is doing so often that, surely, there ought to be a law. Even if we are agreed that free speech is something that must not be imperilled, perhaps we might agree to some guidelines on publicly invoking Nazism.

It was back in 1990 that then student Mike Godwin posted his Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies on the internet. In a valiant, but clearly hopeless, attempt to cool the unreason of hasty hot debate, he wrote, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

Now, it’s not just in the semi-private space of the bulletin board that we see Adolf appear. It’s in much more storied places. Comparisons between Nazism and just about anything have become very common. Of ASIC, former Commonwealth Bank chief David Murray said in April, “Adolf Hitler comes to mind”.

In the infamous Summer of Hate, images of Barack Obama were often Fuehrer-ised and it was last year that Mike Huckabee charged the US President with “marching Israelis to the door of the oven”.

It was also in 2015 that a Welsh politician likened a UK nuclear defence program to Auschwitz, which is a bit ahistorical if you think about what finally ended the war, and in that same year, Tony Abbott, who was never shy about using the term “holocaust”, did the only thing he was ever any good at and took his habit of clumsy allusion one step too far. Abbott meta-Godwin-ed when he said that Nazism compared favourably to Islamic State: “The Nazis did terrible evil but they had a sufficient sense of shame to try to hide it.”

Let’s leave aside that the terrible, efficient evil of Nazism inhered partly in its very “shame”, which wasn’t shame but systematic obfuscation. Let’s leave aside the unfortunate memory of Tony Abbott, and let’s, please, pretend that Shelton, who is about as typical of Australian Christians as Sheikh Hilali is of Australian Muslims, just doesn’t exist.

Let’s look instead to the possibility that saying “you’re a Nazi” to anyone who is less than a Nazi diminishes our memory of Nazism. (N.B. I concede that many are agreed that we can make an exception for Seinfeld.) And that if we fail to remember how extreme nativist responses to economic recession ends in the modern era, we not only dishonour the dead and the damaged, we risk producing their historical descendants.

There are instances when analytical comparisons to Nazism may be useful. Of course, out of basic good manners, as well as a commitment to logic, we must be very cautious about when and where they are applied.

While it was not professionally prudent for Moshe Ya’alon, newly former Israel Defense Force chief, to compare extreme orders currently given to the IDF to Nazi state policy, it was, in my view, a considered statement. It is at least, and regardless of your own views of Israel’s “foreign” policy, one that will retain its resonance. While it is possible and regrettable that many Holocaust survivors will feel the pain of this statement very deeply, it is true that invoking what remains almost taboo in Israel powerfully reveals the shame that many progressive Israelis no longer wish to hide.

In Germany, as in Israel, analogies to Nazism remain almost forbidden. It took an intellectually cautious but professionally imprudent man to make them. It was in Berlin that Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek minister for finance, drew comparisons between the Europe of the present and that of the past. Since dropping his clanger in 2015, Varoufakis has elaborated on a continent that is turning to nationalism and racism instead of economic solutions many times. He has out-and-out said that Muslims function in the racist imagination as Jews once did and so, in my view, is the entitlement of a man who has fought for the right of his nation not to be pulverised by the troika.

It is the entitlement, too, of Australian Aboriginal historians. That it is no longer shocking for theorists and other public people to call genocide and systematised loathing by what was once its most evocative name in the West is truly shameful.

Comparisons to Nazism should be shocking. That they are so frequently made in Australia, the nation in which the world’s largest Holocaust survivor population per capita found a home, is abhorrent. Shelton should not dare to make them, and nor should anyone dare make them about him, no matter how well he fits the colourful description made by one of Hitler’s most scholarly critics as “a composite of King Kong and a suburban hairdresser”.

With his clumsy analogy, Shelton turns tragedy to farce. And, as tempting as it is to recognise the Nazism in recasting a powerless enemy — in Shelton’s case, queer teenagers — as powerful and as unnatural, we must be cautious. We can, and we must, retain free speech. But we can also take a little instruction from Godwin.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey