Wednesday, 17 November 2004

Useful comparisons

I don't know what I think about the forthcoming ban on smoking in public places - I know the arguments on both sides, I find many of them convincing, and this is one of those places where I'm not sure how to weigh "liberty" against "protection". But here's an article which is making it easier for me to make up my mind: Michael Fitzpatrick's We have ways of making you stop smoking, in Spiked. It claims to set out "the parallels - and differences - between Nazi Germany's 'war on cancer' and New Labour's crusade against the evil weed".

It's good to see, right from the start, that he's keen to look at the differences as well as the parallels. After all, "New Labour are Nazis" would be a little one-sided and unfair, as of course would be "New Labour aren't Nazis". And he's big on the differences:

There are of course also striking differences between the Nazi and New Labour anti-smoking campaigns. The anti-Semitic and eugenic themes of the 1930s are absent today; many of Germany's leading anti-tobacco activists were also war criminals. Another difference is in the consequences of an authoritarian public health policy for science. Whereas in Nazi Germany pioneering scientific research took place into the health effects of tobacco, we find today in Britain that epidemiology has been degraded in the service of political expediency.

There you go. Points in the minus column for both sides. The Nazi anti-smokers were antisemitic, eugenicist war criminals, and the New Labour anti-smokers aren't doing enough research. One-all, as all right-thinking people would agree. Given this, the "marked reluctance among British medical authorities to acknowledge German achievements in research into the health effects of smoking" seems profoundly unjust - what could possibly have tainted their work in the eyes of later scientists? There's more along the same lines:

There are also differences in the anti-smoking campaigns. The Nazi emphasis on smoking as a threat to racial purity and national efficiency is absent in modern Britain.

You'd hope that Dr Fitzpatrick would spot that the disagreement on the importance of racial purity is more significant than the (correct, for goodness' sake) agreement that smoking is bad for you - but apparently not. Throughout the article, the differences are an afterthought to the central theme, which is "Look! The Nazis tried to discourage smoking! Your government does too! Whatever can this mean?" The correct answer, which is "not a great deal", doesn't come up. In fact, on some issues New Labour is even worse than Nazi Germany:

There is some evidence that among young people, these measures [the intensive anti-smoking policies of the early 1990s] may have been counterproductive - a danger recognised by the Nazi public health authorities who recognised that 'forbidden fruit is tempting'. However, the ineffectiveness of more coercive measures in Britain has not led to any questioning of the policy, but simply to calls for more of the same.
It's a pity that the Nazis didn't apply the "forbidden fruit is tempting" logic to other areas, and chosen not to criticise, say, Jews, communists, homosexuals, disabled people, Gypsies, Slavs and various other members of an extremely long list of people they very explicitly didn't like at all. But strangely, and somewhat inconveniently for Dr Fitzpatrick's thesis, it appears that the Nazis' attitude to smokers was considerably less draconian than their attitude to a lot of other people New Labour seems to be perfectly happy to live with.

Dr Fitzpatrick's conclusion is:

By curtailing the autonomy of the self-determining individual, authoritarian public health policies infantilise society, weaken democracy and diminish humanity.

This may very well be a fair point, in general. But in this context, it's just not. It's perfectly true - indeed, it's an understatement - that Nazi Germany possessed an infantilised society, a weak democracy and diminished humanity. But we don't draw that conclusion from its public health policies. There's not much going on here beyond a really rather crass attempt to taint the government by association.

Comparisons of Labour policies with those of Nazi Germany do come up from time to time in other areas - Hitler banned hunting, and the private ownership of guns, apparently (I say "apparently" because they never seem to feature high up the charge-sheet when I read about him), and you can sometimes see Countryside Alliance types carrying placards showing Tony Blair - or Alun Michael - as Nazis. But "Hitler did it so it must be bad" is a pretty terrible argument for anything. You sometimes see it from anti-vegetarians, but you'd never, ever see it from, say, Jews. The best argument against exterminating Jews is not "a nasty man once did it so it must be wrong". You simply don't need it (anyone who needs an argument against exterminating Jews is in any case highly unlikely to think that Hitler was a nasty man). As a general rule, if people think that the Hitler comparison makes their side stronger, their side is likely to be extremely weak - or at the very least, their argumentative strategy is awful.

I'm perfectly willing to accept, on this as on any other issue, that "We should do this because the people arguing against it use terrible arguments" (which is, after all, a variant on "Hitler did it so it must be bad") is a bad reason to make a decision on anything. But they make it hard to stand with them, they really do.

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