Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, June 10, 2013

Glenn Beck's Counterfactual Inanity

I know it's shooting fish in a barrel to subject the comments of Glenn Beck to critical scrutiny, but his latest remark invoking Hitler prompted me to comment due to its countefactual slant.

On his radio show the other day, Beck attacked the recent news of the Obama administration's surveillance program by arguing:

“There wouldn’t be a Jew alive on the planet today if Hitler had this technology.”

Beck's comment is misleading in several ways.  

First, it presumes that the Third Reich represents the pinnacle of the modern totalitarian surveillance state.  But as historians such as Robert Gellately pointed out some time ago, Nazi Germany did not have anything like the extensive network of Gestapo agents that was assumed at the time (or since).  For example, the Nazis employed roughly 7,000 Gestapo agents to police a population of roughly 80 million people.  By comparison, the East German Stasi employed 200,000 agents to police around 17 million people in the decades after the end of World War II.  The Nazi regime was much more brutal than the SED regime, of course, but it had less to do with modern, technologically-enabled surveillance techniques than old-fashioned repression and murder.

Second, Beck's comment suffers from his usual hyperbole, suggesting that no Jews would be "left on the planet" if Hitler somehow had access to the modern computer technology.  This comment is not only hyperbolic but analytically lazy.  As with Justin Bieber's recent invocation of Anne Frank, it is entirely ahistorical.  It represents a misuse of counterfactual reasoning, as it lacks any plausibility and remains content to employ theoretically nightmarish possibilities to buttress purely rhetorical points.  Given the nightmare's utterly unrealistic premise (how would Hitler have access to modern day technology?), it merely serves to reinforce the belief that counterfactual reasoning deserves its bad reputation.

Update (6/14): It appears that in addition to the Gestapo, the Nazi regime employed 6,000 agents in a secret "Forschungsamt (FA) des Reichsluftfahrtministeriums" to eavesdrop on German telephone calls and intercept telegrams (see the recent German language article, "The F├╝hrer is Listening").  The Nazi surveillance state was thus a formidable enterprise. But it hardly validates Beck's claim, which overlooks the fact that, in its day, the Nazis not only had cutting edge technology AND murderous intentions towards the Jews -- and yet did not succeed in killing every Jew on the planet.  To imply that cutting edge technology in the hands of a less murderous government could achieve even WORSE things than the Nazis accomplished is a gross exaggeration.

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