Is “this” a concentration camp? Are “they” Nazis? Do they compare? How can one compare? Setting aside intentional arguments about history allows us to see that the why, when, and how of the Holocaust (in the form of Holocaust memory, Holocaust objects, Holocaust analogies) heating up and scrambling our own contemporary public discourse belong to the sociology of knowledge. I am thinking through the recent resurfacing of the Holocaust in our current political climate under a racist president and surges of racism and anti-Semitism. How does this climate mediate the Holocaust and things related Holocaust memory, things like photographs of Ann Frank and of Auschwitz, the political-use function of terms like “concentration camp” and slogans like “Never Again,” and all the moral lessons that we are supposed to draw from its study, being examples of what sociologist Robert Wuthnow, called “moral objects”?
Moral objects do not refer directly to the thing they are supposed to represent, to the thing itself. What matters is not the historical object or object of belief, but their place in the larger social system where these symbols are operative. As characterized by Wuthnow in Meaning and Moral Order (1987), “moral objects” are symbols that “refer to an object of commitment.” Examples that he includes are things like “God,” “obeying God,” “sin,” “the devil,” “Jesus” (pp.70, 71). Motivating special action, moral objects are constituent parts of “moral order.” By moral order, Wuthnow means “definitions of the manner in which social relations should be constructed,” including “signals” that verify that “social relations are indeed patterned in the desired manner and that actors can be counted on to behave in expected ways” (p.145).
For its part, a “crisis in moral order” would involve transitional moments when social relations (i.e. actual social practice) are being re-patterned in such a way so as to subvert what one would have liked to think were fought for and agreed upon norms concerning human dignity and political citizenship, when social actors cannot be counted on to behave in what were once expected ways. Wuthnow’s analysis in the 1980s reflects back upon the 1970s and the sense of profound moral crisis in American society in the wake of the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and Watergate. It has a significant echo today with what seemed like the sudden emergence of Trump and Trumpism whose open racism represents a shock to the system of formal public and political norms, laying bare a half a century of fragile liberal pieties and platitudes about multi-culturalism, and undermining confidence regarding the state of American democracy. Even his supporters seem to believe and do so with pride that Trump and Trumpism are the de-construction of social relations by social actors who, in highest office, no longer can be counted upon to behave in expected ways.
The Holocaust as we are seeing it now taking multiple shapes in this public sphere deconstructed by Trump is its own moral object, a primary example of what Wuthnow calls a “dramaturgic” approach to the understanding of culture in relation to society. As a form of civic ritual, dramaturgy communicates messages about moral and social order. Wuthnow’s attention to the dramaturgic aspect of culture “tends to focus less on information that is simply straightforwardly transmitted than on messages that may be implicit in the ways in which social life is arranged, in rituals, and in the choice of words in discourse.” Especially but not exclusively in ritual, a dramaturgic cultural form is “symbolic-expressive” (p.14). The key point is that culture “dramatizes” something about moral order in society (p.343).
Particularly resonant today is Wuthnow’s analysis of the 1978 NBC mini-series “The Holocaust,” which occupies the long last half of the chapter on “Ritual and Moral Order” in Meaning and Moral Order. Over four days, watched by some 120 million Americans, “The Holocaust” was a “televised moral event” that made a deep emotional impact on the viewing public. Dramatized by the televised mini-series was not the Holocaust itself so much as the period of the 1970s, a period marked, like today, profoundly pessimistic moods about “the quality of American values and the strength of America’s institutions.” Reading sociological surveys of respondents, including teachers and clergy, Wuthnow discerned deep concerns in society about racial inequality and prejudice. There was also the fear that “something like the Holocaust could happen again.” Then like today, the Holocaust was and remains a “symbol of contemporary chaos.” Reading the surveys, Wuthnow observed that interest in the mini-series was higher among those who perceived and were troubled by social and moral problems in American society than those who did not. Wuthnow identifies the the 1970s as that moment when the Holocaust first became a symbol of “everpresent evil” (pp.128-30).
“Never Again” is always Now. Not unlike the use of Holocaust analogies and other Holocaust objects, “The Holocaust” mini-series was a televised moral event that was meant to mobilize action. Its ritual form invoked a felt sense of vulnerability in the face of evil. It invited vicarious participation. It served as a mandate for moral and political obligations. And just like today, “The Holocaust” mini-series largely expressive drama, expressing uncertainty about moral standards and actual practice in “business, government, race relations and so forth.” In short, “The Holocaust” was a televised event that “dramatized the moral order; it conveyed symbolic message that dramatized social disorder and reaffirmed collective values.” With little to do with “the real” meaning of the Holocaust or its meaning to particular people, what “The Holocaust” meant was in relation to American society, signaling messages about religion, social justice, and democracy (pp.138-43).
To be sure, the differences between the 1970s and today are both several and significant.
On the one hand, the upheaval in American society reflected in “The Holocaust” was much closer in time to war then we are today. At the same time, it is also the case that the Holocaust was not as recognizable as it is today, it having acquired by now a certain familiar aesthetic “look,” thanks in part to things like the NBC dramatic mini-series. One can assume that the shock that a moral object like “The Holocaust” registered back in the 1970s was more raw back then than it is today. At this historical moment of first emergence into the broad cultural and social mainstream as a symbol, people who watched “The Holocaust” saw the Holocaust represented in a dramatic idiom for the first time.
On the other hand, our own times have their own rawness, with white supremacists and neo-Nazis newly re-emergent and on the loose in the public sphere, spurred on by a president who from the White House espouses fascist and militaristic tendencies while undermining rule of law and fundamentals of constitutional order. Kids in camps. That is why we are hearing the claims made with great heat that, yes, the border camps are concentration camps, Trump is a Nazi, and Never Again is Now. The crisis in our own moral and political order is what explains the choice of words and slogans, the direct analogizing drawn between today and the 1930s, and the angry and panicked moral and political certainties expressed by many liberals and leftists in the face of political uncertainty as to the character and fate of our democracy today.
All of this is dramatic. The Holocaust Today does not reflect serious historical reflection about the Holocaust in Europe, or even clear political judgment. The hotness with which it resurfaces now reflects deep uncertainty that operates at multiple levels (affective and cognitive), uncertainty and fear and the desperate attempt to mobilize in the face of forces of social disruption and rot at a time of real danger. The Holocaust Today is not a content so much as a social form whose function is symbolic and expressive. Now embedded into the culture, it’s operation is automatic. In the face of the urgency of our own current moment, the Holocaust dramatizes crisis in the public sphere with very little prior reflection on the part of political and social actors (politicians, museum directors, scholars, journalists, activists, internet trolls) and across the social media platforms where these tropes are pushed out into play and magnified.