Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has done important work in calling attention to the political and moral atrocity at the U.S. border. En masse, people are stripped of their legal right of asylum and where children are ripped from their parents and people are left to rot in detention because the American government is being run by racists. All of this while the Trump Administration continues to strip down democratic norms and institutions. But to compare these conditions to concentration camps forces attention to turn around the form of expression, not around the actual crisis at hand. The problem with loaded language is the load it carries, which is complicated by the disproportionate weight carried by some that that others don’t.
None of this is in good faith.
First, you can’t in good faith use a loaded term like “concentration camp” and then, when called on it, claim that, historically, there were other concentration camps prior to the Nazis when you have very obviously tagged the Nazis and the Holocaust with a phrase like “Never Again” or a word like “fascism.” The usage of the term was meant clearly to evoke Hitler, not the British during the Boer War in South Africa, awareness of which has been long submerged in popular memory and ordinary language in the long time since 1945.
More bad faith is the argument that the Holocaust is not the monopoly of Jewish memory, that the trauma is human or universal. This kind of argument was once made in Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War. Today it is made by the very same people who resist other forms of cultural appropriation in contexts closer to their own heart. The Holocaust and things like concentration camps, death camps, and “Never Again” are not unlike words like “slavery” and “rape” that should not be analogized. These words have come to assume particular meanings and some groups have more at stake in the language than others. For the most part, a swastika will mean something more to Jews than to gentiles, as will the Confederate flag for African Americans.
Still more bad faith. Jews across the political spectrum have been placed in a position by non-Jews where they are arguing this out amongst themselves with the force of not a little confusion and anger. At the same time, progressive and conservative, gentiles are now arguing with other gentiles about concentration camps, the Holocaust, and Jews. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Liz Cheney come immediately to mind. In this Washington Post story, Jews simply disappear as active subjects. In this media spectacle, Jews are reduced to spectral objects. On the right and the left, there is no little Christian supersessionism here at work, American as apple pie.
There is more than enough Jewish bad faith to go around. Conservative Jews who support Trump support a man who has whipped up the worst anti-Semitism in the country since I’m not old enough to remember when. Nazis and white supremacists are now a regular fixture of the American public sphere, and people are unsafe. About Jewish supporters of Trump, they are hopeless and utterly debased, unable to put two and two together, the concentration of children and babies in camps, screaming and wailing, torn apart from their parents. But what about the Jewish left? Not long ago, Jewish critical thinkers would deconstruct such slogans like “Never Again” and the abuse of Holocaust memory on the Jewish right as reified and reactionary cultural objects and ideological constructs. Now the Jewish Left in the Diaspora eats this up, uncritically.
Not in good faith is when people opposed to the analogy to concentration camps are accused of caring more about language than the actual suffering at the border. They are accused of doing so by the very people who suddenly want to introduce the contentious language in the first place. It’s like throwing a bomb and then complaining when it explodes.
[By way of postscript]: More bad faith is the people who argue that it doesn’t matter what you call these facilities and camps as long as we do something about it, and then, in this case Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and 3 others, vote against a bill to get some 4.6 billion dollars to fix these places. It would seem that the logic of the argument locks people in a position where they oppose doing something about conditions in the camps. But also, the very idea that money can go to improve conditions at a concentration camp boggles the mind. It suggests that the term carries too much analytic and affective weight to actually work in the way people who use the term want it to, namely to motivate action, in this case the bare modicum.
One last piece of bad faith relates to mixed sentiments. On the one hand, people invoke the Holocaust as sign of their profound ethical and political seriousness and commitment to human rights and social justice. On the other hand, there’s not a little Holocaust “camp” at play with the over the top expression. Exciting the moral imagination, the shudder of thrill at the very mention of such a dire thing in human history can be traced back to the “sublime” in English and German aesthetic writing of the eighteenth century. To call something sublime evokes that which the imagination cannot master in order to a stimulate the sense of one’s own capacities for moral reflection. Experts will tell you. In Holocaust Studies, this is called kitsch. We’ve known this for a long time already.