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elizabeth renzetti

When pop singer Morrissey compared the Canadian seal hunt to the building of the Auschwitz death camp, it was shocking, but hardly his first day at the crazy rodeo. In the past, he has said that eating baby sheep is equivalent to eating baby humans, and that consuming animal flesh is akin to genocide. "If you believe in the abattoir, then you would support Auschwitz. There's no difference," he wrote on his website earlier this year.

Now, in a further comparison that is likely to enrage anyone who lost family in the Holocaust, or indeed nearly anyone who has drawn breath in the past 80 years, Morrissey has again pulled out his favourite rusty bludgeon. After he criticized the seal hunt, a spokesperson for Fisheries Minister Gail Shea called those remarks "ignorant and inflammatory" and detrimental to the livelihoods of those who work in the industry. Morrissey responded that "building and maintaining the concentration camps of Auschwitz also provided livelihoods, but this hardly made the camps warranted."

The camps were actually built using forced labour and prisoners, but let's leave that aside for a moment and concentrate on Morrissey's argument, which is colloquially known as reductio ad Hitlerum: If you can't think of anything nasty enough to say, bring up the Third Reich. It is completely ineffectual as a debating technique, yet surprisingly popular.

The useful thing about hearing a Hitler comparison is that it clearly indicates the lack of effort expended on the argument. It's like watching someone wear sweatpants on a first date: Why even bother?

Sometimes the Nazi comparisons come at the end of debate, when your opponent has run out of steam and starts screaming, "That's exactly what Hitler would do!" This process is often called Godwin's Law and occurs in social media or at house parties well after midnight. (I would add to this Renzetti's Law: If you're standing in someone's kitchen at 4 a.m. holding a purple drink and referring to anything as "fascist," it's time to go home.)

These arguments may derive from the Hogan's Heroes school of history, but that actually helps explain their popularity. Containing a few pungent words that resonate through history, the Nazi analogy becomes a handy emoticon for communicating evil – a little yellow face with a furrowed brow and a toothbrush mustache, useful for bumper stickers and text messages.

For example, when billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Perkins compared Americans' discontent with the uber-rich to Kristallnacht, he knew that even if it was nonsensical, it would still evoke the idea of persecution: Who is being persecuted, and for what reason, ceases to have any meaning. Jews? Seals? Billionaires? Don't bother me with the details.

Mr. Perkins later apologized for his remarks, as did Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot, after he went a step further and compared the U.S. Democrats' populist politicking to Nazi ideology: "If you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don't survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy."

Arizona's Brenda Barton, a Republican state representative, didn't apologize after referring to President Barack Obama as "De Fuhrer" (sic, and also sick). Governor Paul LePage of Maine condemned Mr. Obama's Affordable Care Act by saying, "You must buy health care or pay the new Gestapo, the IRS." Unless the IRS has been stocking up on pliers recently, this suggests that the winds of history have only lightly touched Mr. LePage's cheek. There are entire websites devoted to comparing the U.S. President to Hitler, although I don't recommend visiting them unless you have a nice bleach bubble bath ready nearby.

The appeal of Nazi-casting must surely lie in its inclusiveness. It's a wide tent, encompassing vegetarian pop stars and right-wing politicians and people who fell asleep in history class, grades 5 through 12. Anybody, really, can be the target of the insult, so long as their views threaten yours – feminists, meat-eaters, politicians you didn't vote for, politicians you did vote for but who later disappointed you.

Even then, it's the sheer lack of imagination that galls. Couldn't they spread their lexical net a little wider? There are perfectly useful, evil, living dictators on whom to tether rage. Try calling somebody "such a Mugabe" next time you get in a dinner-party fight. Or, "This might as well be Syria in 2011, and you're sounding more than a little al-Assad." That way you get to throw your rocks and remind your opponent of today's tyranny, too.

Israel is considering outlawing the word "Nazi" as a slur, a subject of heated debate in the country. I'm not sure I'd agree with such a drastic step, but it's not my decision to make. It's up to the people of a country where such words aren't just idle and lazy insults, but painful reminders of a not-at-all-distant past.