Historical analogy – does it help or harm?

Michaela Bax-Leaney

As Peter Gordon and Samuel Moyn converse with one another about the efficacy of historical analogy and comparison – particularly in the context of fascism and the current political climate – there appears to be a misunderstanding between the two authors which de Grazia addresses very early on in her article. It seems that Gordon and Moyn are basing their articles on two different meanings of fascism – Moyn engages with fascism as a historical phenomenon, while Gordon’s definition extends more broadly to the political label. De Grazia strikes an important balance in her piece. There is the essential task of knowing and remembering fascism as an historical event – it led to some of the worst suffering humanity has borne witness to. However, there is a very real risk of oversimplifying that event and applying it to modern goings on. That is not to say that fascism is not a real and present threat in the 21st century, but rather, an effort must be made to understand it for what it is, rather than as a shadow or imitation of something else.

There also appears to be a disconnect in the language employed by Gordon and Moyn in the use of analogy vs comparison. Gordon very intentionally prefers analogy, and makes a point of it, writing that “there’s an important difference between analogy and comparison but I’ll ignore that difference here.” Moyn, on the other hand, titles his piece “The Trouble with Comparison.” This may simply be a matter of semantics, but one wonders if the difference speaks to a broader misunderstanding between the two. After all, they both seem to be working towards a similar overall point – that there is a very critical need to address and seek to understand fascism in the modern context, and historical sensibility is very necessary in achieving that understanding. While their disagreements on how exactly to undertake the historical sensibility do differ, and I do not believe those differences can be boiled down to word choice and a slightly different working definition of the word fascism, they both recognize the benefits and pitfalls of analogy/comparison, and caution against similar things; namely, that historical comparison, if it is to be done, be done very cautiously, intentionally, and in recognition of De Grazia’s point that modern fascism ultimately does need to be recognized as its own phenomenon. In coming away from their articles, I am left wondering how best to go about that, in an actionable and practical sense, rather than just the theoretical.

Works Cited

Victoria de Grazia, “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism” Zocalo Public Square

https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/08/13/understand-fascism-american-historymussolini- hitler-20th-century/ideas/essay/

Peter E. Gordon, “Why Historical Analogy Matters,” NYR Daily (7 January 2020),

https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/

Samuel Moyn, “The Trouble with Comparisons,” NYR Daily (19 May 2020)

https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/

3 Replies to “Historical analogy – does it help or harm?”

  1. Michaela,

    I too focused my post on the dynamic between Gordon’s and Moyn’s articles, and I greatly appreciate getting to hear of your interpretation of the them. I mainly concentrated on the idea that the two articles, despite their differing sentiments and approaches, still had a fair amount of opinions and beliefs in common, something you also pointed out in your second paragraph.

    I think the strongest point you made, though, was your realization that there may be a “disconnect” between the two articles thanks to both the differing language used (analogy vs. comparison) and the author’s interpretation of fascism. I agree with your idea that the overall differences in these articles can’t be “boiled down to word choice and a slightly different working definition of the word fascism,” but the seeming disconnect between the focuses of the articles certainly does not help, even if both articles end up agreeing on certain points.

    -Willem Nesbitt

  2. Hi Michaela,

    Your reflection on De Grazia, and more specifically Moyn and Gordon, I found excellently written. I, too, followed a similar mindset as you did highlighting that the 21st century conception of fascism must be seen as its own phenomenon, and you demonstrated perfectly where the disconnect between Moyn and Gordon lays as expressed through De Grazia. I am quite curious, based off your last sentence, some of your thoughts behind coming to use the term “fascism” in a 21st century light. You allude often that De Grazia highlights a difference between fascism as a historical phenomenon and fascism as a political label and indeed Moyn and Gordon show both the benefits and consequences to the use of comparison. While all this is excellently reflected, my curiosity leads me to asking if one must always wonder or if there can be a way to a solution when it comes to defining the terms.

    – Bryce

  3. Hi Michaela,

    I really liked your analysis between the readings of Moyn, Gordon and De Grazia. You focus on the differences between them and I found it interesting that there was a difference in language between Moyn and Gordon. But what I really liked about De Grazia is how she explained the importance of understanding the historical phenomena of fascism in order to use fascism in the modern day. I do think that it is necessary to make analogies to the past, not to make past events less impactful but to emphasize the importance of the current event.

    I feel that the comparisons made about fascism during WWII, such as the comparison to the detention centers for migrants on the US south border. It should not be made to say that it isn’t has bad as the death camps, but to emphasize that people are still suffering even if it isn’t on such a grand scale as it was in Nazi Germany.

    – Sara Dix

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