Historical Comparisons

Historical Comparisons

In a recent interview, basketball megastar LeBron James compared NFL owners to plantation slave owners.  He was not the first to do so.  In fact, it has become a common way to describe NFL owners.  In some ways, I understand the reasons to make historical comparisons.  This entire column is dedicated to doing just that.  Yet there are some comparisons that are, one, unfair and, two, dangerous.  The danger comes from making outrageous comparisons that strip away any common ground and have the potential to normalize past behavior. 

The comparisons I find most troubling lately are the NFL owners to plantation owners and political leaders we disagree with to Hitler and the Holocaust.  At first glance, the NFL comparison is easy–powerful rich white men with almost absolute authority over their predominantly black work force.  It is true that NFL owners hold a great deal of power over their players; owners can players them or trade them for any cause, but does that equate them to slave owners?

Slavery is one of this nation’s darkest experience.  Hundreds of thousands of Africans were forcefully taken from their homes and families to be shipped across an ocean and sold into bondage.  Once in America, slave owners used pure torture, both physical and psychological, to make those slaves and their descendants do their bidding.  Slaves had absolutely no control over any aspect of their lives, and most lived that way from the cradle to the grave.

Compare that to the NFL.  There may be issues between labor and management, but I find it difficult to see a strong comparison between an NFL player making millions of dollars to the life of a slave.  For one, slaves had absolutely no choice, whereas most NFL players have dreamed of playing in the league since their childhood.  Slavery was back-breaking labor, whereas football is a game.  Slavery was a life condition for the slave and their children, while professional football is a short time, and if money is managed properly, players can retire under forty.  Thousands of men across the nation are willing to sacrifice much for the chance to play in the NFL, even with the labor differences.  That is a far cry from slavery.  Yes, a player can be cut from the team, but there are few careers where an employed is not let go for lack of performance or for bad behavior.  Employees complaining about their boss is as old as America.  Why is the NFL seen differently? 

The other comparison I think we need to be careful of is constantly making comparisons to Hitler.  His is an easy name to throw around whenever we disagree with a political leader.  The most recent Hitler and Holocaust comparisons were with President Trump’s policy of separating children of illegal aliens on the border.  I am not going to argue this policy here.  It is safe to assume most disagree with it.  It is true that when illegal migrants were captured crossing the border they were separated by age and sex and put into holding facilities.  It is understandable that this may invoke comparisons of Jews being separated by sex when they reached concentration camps.  Yet that is where the comparisons end.  Immigrants were sent to camps where they were housed, fed, and given medical attention.

I am not saying separating a child from their parent is not a horrific situation, but during the Holocaust six million Jews were forcefully taken from their homes, distributed to different work or death camps, then tortured, starved, experimented on, and worked to death.  Those who did not die from the conditions were stripped naked, gassed in large chambers, then either mass buried or burned in Nazi ovens.  Hitler was a monster who tried to eradicate an entire race.  You may really hate President Trump, and he has done plenty to criticize, but he is no Hitler. 

There are plenty of good historical comparisons to make about our leaders.  I have done it several times in my stories, but if we continue to compare everyone to Hitler, the more we normalize what he did.  If Trump, Obama, and Bush are all like Hitler, and those comparisons have been made by their opposite side, then Hitler becomes just one in a list of unpopular leaders instead of what he truly was, evil. 

Also if Trump is Hitler, how do we ever work to find a middle ground?  If someone is as bad as Hitler, we are past compromise, for how can we find common ground with such a man.  I am not saying comparisons can never be made when looking at specific examples.  I remember comparisons being made with the Nazi practice of having papers to the Arizona law requiring the carrying of IDs.  Those practices are on par.  Comparing the separation of illegal immigrants to detention camps for the Japanese during WWII would make for a great future column.  I just find it difficult to compare what has happened on the border to what happened in the Holocaust.

History is an incredibly powerful weapon.  Churchill once said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”  While this is true, it may also be true that normalizing history can have the same effect.  Are NFL owners as bad as slave owners?  No.  Is Trump as bad as Hitler?  Also no.  We need to keep looking to the past to find comparisons and ultimately answers.  I know I will.  But comparisons need to fair and not normalize past bad behavior. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium.   Follow Historically Speaking at http://www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

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