When enjoining any argument or debate, be it in the seats of power or sat on a barstool in a local tavern, one must be on the lookout for what political philosopher Leo Strauss identified as 'Reductio ad Hitlerum'.
We’ve all encountered this form of association fallacy, where a specific viewpoint, idea or action is supposedly diminished purely on the basis that the Führer and his fanatics may have held or done similar. Some recent capital examples of Reductio ad Hitlerum are to be found here and here and the phrase was famously updated for the internet age by writer and technologist Mike Godwin, who’s 1990 “Godwin’s Law” states: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”
It is one of the most common, and perhaps the most obvious, of the ad hominem arguments. It’s a whopping own-goal and anyone caught doing it pretty much identifies themselves as bereft of an actual counter-argument.
However, author, actor, activist and British national treasure Stephen Fry nevertheless convinces with his comparison of the horrific persecution of gay, lesbian and other LGBTQ persons (that’s lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and questioning, to give the latest acronym used by much of the community) in Russia to the persecution visited upon minorities like Jews, the disabled and the Roma people under Hitler.
In an open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron and members of the British and International Olympic Committee (IOC), Fry added his voice to a swelling chorus calling for the Olympic Committee to take action against Russia’s sickening anti-gay laws ahead of February’s Winter Games in Sochi.
I will quote liberally from Fry’s post, if only because the man’s words deserve to be read as far and wide as possible:
I write in the earnest hope that all those with a love of sport and the Olympic spirit will consider the stain on the Five Rings that occurred when the 1936 Berlin Olympics proceeded under the exultant aegis of a tyrant who had passed into law, two years earlier, an act which singled out for special persecution a minority whose only crime was the accident of their birth. In his case he banned Jews from academic tenure or public office, he made sure that the police turned a blind eye to any beatings, thefts or humiliations inflicted on them, he burned and banned books written by them. He claimed they “polluted” the purity and tradition of what it was to be German, that they were a threat to the state, to the children and the future of the Reich. He blamed them simultaneously for the mutually exclusive crimes of Communism and for the controlling of international capital and banks. He blamed them for ruining the culture with their liberalism and difference. The Olympic movement at that time paid precisely no attention to this evil and proceeded with the notorious Berlin Olympiad, which provided a stage for a gleeful Führer and only increased his status at home and abroad. It gave him confidence. All historians are agreed on that. What he did with that confidence we all know.
“Putin is eerily repeating this insane crime, only this time against LGBT Russians. Beatings, murders and humiliations are ignored by the police. Any defence or sane discussion of homosexuality is against the law. Any statement, for example, that Tchaikovsky was gay and that his art and life reflects this sexuality and are an inspiration to other gay artists would be punishable by imprisonment. It is simply not enough to say that gay Olympians may or may not be safe in their village. The IOC absolutely must take a firm stance on behalf of the shared humanity it is supposed to represent against the barbaric, fascist law that Putin has pushed through the Duma. Let us not forget that Olympic events used not only to be athletic, they used to include cultural competitions. Let us realise that in fact, sport is cultural. It does not exist in a bubble outside society or politics. The idea that sport and politics don’t connect is worse than disingenuous, worse than stupid. It is wickedly, willfully wrong. Everyone knows politics interconnects with everything for “politics” is simply the Greek for “to do with the people”.
The rights and wrongs of sporting governing bodies assigning world-class events to countries with scummy human rights records like Russia’s was a conversation which correctly took place before the IOC gave Russia the 2014 Games. So now we are faced with this horror – and horror isn’t too strong a word for it – and time is of the essence, the only question worth asking is what should happen next.
Even though he knows it is in vain, Fry calls for the IOC to yank the Games, scheduled to start in February, away from Russia. So too have gay people from the entertainment world, including George “Mr Sulu from Star Trek” Takei, who sadly cannot loan the USS Enterprise’s teleportation technology (a minimum to move a Games from one side of the world to another on six months’ notice).
The President of the United States has already come out against a US boycott. Mr Obama said: “One of the things I’m really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we’re seeing there.”
Okay, moving the Olympics is a non-starter and the 1980 Games – when the US and 64 other countries boycotted the Moscow Olympics in to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – showed us boycotts only hurt the athletes… but is crossing our fingers and hoping for a Generation Y Jesse Owens really the best we can do here?
It is time for the IOC to man up and live up to their own charter (see Fry’s post for details). No doubt the Russian authorities noted just how toothless the IOC was in enforcing China’s hollow promises made about openness, tolerance and human rights before they hosted the 2008 Summer Games. As of right now, the Russian authorities have barely bothered a response to the IOC’s request for “clarification” if international athletes would be imprisoned if they fell afoul of its vaguely-worded law against gay “propaganda”.
I’ve never really been a fan of winter sports. I always thought the Winter Olympics were there to give countries from the colder parts of the planet something to look forward to and do well in. So, forgive me if this is an unworkable suggestion:
The IOC must insist that, before a single athlete travels to Russia for the Games, the putrid Putin and his thugs issue an unambiguous pledge that no athlete, trainer, official or fan will be arrested or otherwise interfered with for breaking these absurd anti-LGBTQ laws. And that any non-compliance will result in Russia losing any and all medals won at the Games.
And here’s the crux, the Russian athletes themselves would not be punished. Their accomplishments would be recognized and any medals won would be safe. Only, the IOC would award the medals under the flag of the Olympic movement and the athletes be recognized as “individual participants” with the Olympic hymn sounding out in the sporting arenas rather than the Russian national anthem.
That would send a message to Russia that the international community – which the Olympics is supposed to be a celebration of – does not condone their inhuman gay-baiting policy. This message would be sent to the law makers on the biggest international stage, and without depriving individual Russian athletes of their deserved recognition.
It would be a clear message that the IOC had learned its lesson since the infamous Nazi Games and was going to take its own charter seriously.