Friday, June 17, 2005

The End of Civilized Discourse

Here's a letter to the editor that was published recently. The topic under "debate" is Wal-Mart's bid to open a new store in the area. We have removed the name of the writer and of the person she was responding to. The original is otherwise unaltered.
"Perhaps [name removed]'s nine years at Wal-Mart (letter, June 7) have clouded her judgment. She justifies underhanded trade and labor policies by saying 'Coffee comes from places where poverty and suffering are a fact of life. Wrong, yes. But Wal-Mart didn't create that.' How compassionate!

No, Wal-Mart didn't create poverty and suffering, but it does propagate it. Sweatshops abroad destroy communities and lives. Wal-Mart looks the other way and claims to have washed its hands of Third World blood.

Sorry, but even if you didn't create poverty and suffering, you're still guilty if you take advantage of it. Just ask the good folks behind Iran-Contra and Nazi Germany, among other atrocities."
We happen to have a passing acquaintance with the author of this letter. She's a recent high school graduate with an excellent academic record. She's headed to a good college. Evidently, from her last paragraph, she has no sense of proportion.

While one might have an intelligent debate about some aspects of Wal-Mart's business practices, comparing Wal-Mart officials to Nazis is grotesque. It's grotesque, yet surprisingly common, as the worst aspects of the internet continue to spill over into the offline world.

Mike Godwin formulated Godwin's Law taking note of this in 1990:
"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

There is a tradition in many Usenet newsgroups that once such a comparison is made, the thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress. In addition, it is considered poor form to invoke the law explicitly. Godwin's law thus practically guarantees the existence of an upper bound on thread length in those groups. "
Our own observations suggest that the average time/number of posts to reach Godwin's endpoint has declined dramatically since 1990. What used to take weeks or months now often occurs in hours.

This sort of comparison is a trivialization of Hitler's crimes. Do the murders of six million innocents mean so little? Is Hitler just like any CEO?

So, "poor form" be damned, we officially invoke the Usenet rule and declare that Ms. X, by bringing the Nazis into the discussion, has lost her debate with Ms. Y.

Of course, the Iran-Contra reference was also totally gratuitous. We would have been suitably outraged by this foolishness, had it not been immediately topped by the Nazi reference. Our own view of the Iran-Contra affair is that it was an attempt by the Democrats to criminalize a political dispute. Certainly, Ronald Reagan's view of the Sandinista regime was justified at the time and completely vindicated by history. As soon as the people of Nicaragua got a chance to vote in free and fair elections, the Sandinistas were out on their ears.

As for the original argument, consider two cases: 1) the status quo, with Wal-Mart or its contractors producing goods under "harsh" working conditions in poor country A; and 2) Those production activities taking place somewhere else. Which of these harms the workers in Country A? Which helps? Do the workers in those "sweatshops" in Country A want the jobs? If not, why are they working there? If Ms. X gets her wish and Wal-Mart goes out of business, how will these workers feed their families?

Fidel Castro routinely blames the US for Cuba's dismal economic performance, because the US does not permit trade with Cuba. How can the US be damaging Cuba by not trading with it and at the same time damaging other countries by trading with them? If we want to alleviate poverty in poor countries, should we trade with them or embargo them?

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