These recent examples of similes gone awry raise two questions: What is the impulse that drives our need to make such comparisons? And why do we react so viscerally when we do?
The impulse is usually to elucidate, i.e., this is as bad as that. But it is also partly lazy. Do we really have so little imagination that all we can do is summon Katrina every time an administration fails to meet our expectations? Or Hitler to denote our impression of bad?
From a purely political perspective, the impulse may be driven by the desire to remind people of the past transgressions of political foes. Thus, when commentators say Obamacare is like Katrina, the mind flits from Barack Obama to George W. Bush and only the differences, rather than the single similarity of administrative incompetence, register: People died in Katrina and President Obama only wants to help people.
Conversely, as Salon political writer Brian Beutler suggested during a recent conversation, even Republicans may see benefits to this comparison in that it neutralizes the ongoing, negative liability of Katrina for the GOP. But then the cycle continues into absurdity. If Obamacare collapses and Republicans present Americans with Ryancare, we likely can expect Democrats to characterize every glitch as the GOP's Katrina II.
To the most important point, comparing a horrific tragedy or atrocity to anything else trivializes and diminishes it. By trying to capture, quantify and categorize others' suffering, we trespass on the sacred.
Some things are like nothing else — and should be left to rest in peace.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. She can be reached at email@example.com.