Give me a hot political argument and I'll give you a Nazi analogy - that's a connection that's now all too familiar. The overuse of Nazi analogies in online chatter prompted someone called Mike Godwin to coin Godwin's Law in 1990: ''As online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches.''
Godwin's Law applies online and offline as we've all too painfully discovered in recent days. Tony Abbott's analogy employed an over-used sub-category of the law when he likened the Copenhagen talks to a latter-day environmental Munich agreement - a reference to the futile accord Britain, France and Italy signed with Hitler in 1938. The analogy is clear - the Rudd Government is selling out Australia's future in Copenhagen just as Neville Chamberlain sold out Europe to Hitler.
Closer to home, I have a cousin who moved to Queensland decades back to live under the premiership of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. My cousin calls Anna Bligh a ''Nazi''. How nutty is that? But, equally, it does not make sense to do the more usual thing and insist that Joh was a Nazi. A Nutzi perhaps, but not a Nazi. Anyone who makes that comparison is as wrong as my cousin - and clearly knows very little about Nazism.
The thing about historical analogies is they can cut both ways. The name Hitler or the label Nazi can evoke a powerful knee-jerk response, as does Munich. ''Oh God, another Munich!'' ''Selling out to the Barbarians.'' ''Nothing but years of ruin ahead of us.'' People with little knowledge of history can be easily conned. Munich has settled into the popular consciousness under the heading, Big Mistake.
Abbott's use of Munich was simply exploiting that understanding. He was trying to tell us that the entire world has succumbed - apparently he knows the Copenhagen outcome - to something akin to the most hideous and barbaric regime known to modern history. Abbott knows that politicians with no interest in history other than its political (and emotional) utility can all too easily exploit it.
A few simple questions can readily expose a silly analogy and its corollary, the abuse of history. Try these: Who, at Copenhagen, stands in for Hitler? Who are the weak nations that will cave in to this stand-in? There were four European players at Munich in 1938; there are 192 nations from all over the world at Copenhagen - could it be that Copenhagen is a little more complex? Finally, is an agreement to reduce carbon emissions - should there be one - a portent of worldwide destruction akin (in dimensions) to World War II?
There is as yet no agreement at Copenhagen, so any analogy now or yesterday is a bit hasty and the perils of Abbott's analogy were soon obvious. After Abbott confirmed that Godwin's Law is alive and well, he almost immediately backed away. On Lateline the same day, he conceded that Copenhagen is an important meeting and he called his Nazi analogy ''a throwaway line in which you would be wrong to invest too much significance''. Weaselwords. Doublespeak for ''I got it wrong but I'm not going to say so.''
As if on cue, Godwin's Law made an appearance at the Copenhagen Conference with a Sudanese delegate insinuating the ''rich nations'' are acting like Nazi appeasers. Don't even try to unravel that one.
History, if it is used with respect and care, can help us to better understand the present. It can give us alternatives or options to consider, it can help us to formulate questions we need to ask and it can warn us of what can go wrong.
Several US administrations got Vietnam very wrong in the 1960s, in part because they did not understand the complexity of South-East Asian nationalism, choosing instead to draw on their binary understanding of the Cold War world - as a battle between communists and freedom-loving peoples. The penny dropped too late. The former US Secretary of State, Robert McNamara, spent much of his life attempting to understand how the most wealthy and knowledge-rich nation in the world could so misunderstand the political and cultural dynamics of Vietnam and the region.
Years later the Bush administration misjudged the situation in Iraq and brought on a tragedy that was entirely contrary to its own utopian dream of instant liberation (''Mission Accomplished'') for the people of that country. As Margaret MacMillan writes in The Use and Abuse of History (2009), the Bush administration was inspired in part by an appealing but misguided historical analogy - by the success of the postwar occupation of Germany and Japan.
Analogies are useful, that's the message. But know your history and don't latch onto the wrong one, that's the other message. MacMillan makes the point that Bush and Co would have done better to study T.E. Lawrence, who was critical of the British presence in Iraq in the 1920s, of the British ''falling into a trap from which it will be hard to escape''. And he was right.
Politicians make use of the past to win arguments and to bolster established positions. Working in history is fundamentally at odds with the political vocation as it demands no wishful thinking and no searching for a pre-conceived answer. It assimilates unhelpful news and discards versions of the past that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic.
Godwin's Law does not judge any one Nazi analogy to be either useful or abusive - it simply notes the high probability that eventually, in any political argument, such a comparison will be deployed. The law discourages inappropriate, hyperbolic comparisons.
Thanks to the popularisation of Godwin's Law it is now considered poor form, at least in some online forums, to use Nazi analogies at any time. Some forums stipulate that the first to deploy a Nazi analogy loses the argument. One can only hope this caution eventually enters debate in mainstream politics.