Two wise and eloquent articles appeared this week, interpreting the fallout from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) claim that the United States has established “concentration camps” on its southern border. The Right-wing media machine has always been ready to pounce on Ocasio-Cortez’s statements, and did so with fangs bared. For example, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) admonished Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter: “Please @AOC do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history. 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.” The supposition at work here is that one would have to be either grotesquely malicious or tremendously stupid to claim that there would be any point of comparison between the current border crisis and events that transpired in the most barbaric regime in history.
Never mind the logical gaps at play in such grandiose finger-wagging. Between any two things or events one can always find common properties, but this does not mean that the things or events in question are identical. Nazi Germany had courts of law; the United States has courts of law. This does not entail that the United States is Nazi Germany, or that their courts were equally politicized, or that courts of law are bad because, well, the Nazis had them. Cheney seems to suggest a logical identity between concentration camps and the death-camps of the Shoah. You dare not invoke the one, because it is equivalent to the other. But you do not need to take a course in propositional logic to see this line of argument is fallacious: you need to look up the dictionary definition of “concentration Camp”. Here’s what Merriam-Webster says:
“ A place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard — used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners”
Thus, given sound linguistic usage of the English language, “Concentration Camp” is the genus of which “Death Camp” is a species. The detention centers on the US-Mexican border fit the definition of concentration camps, whether they approach the Nazis or not. Full stop.
Cheney is condescending to Ocasio-Cortez in her tweet, suggesting that she is ignorant of history and too stupid to notice. But it’s pretty clear, since the start of the 115th Congress, that Ocasio-Cortez is neither ignorant nor stupid. She is both factually right in this case and uses her concepts soundly. But logic is not what counts on Twitter: it is rhetoric. And Cheney’s rhetoric conveys the notion that the real problem with Ocasio-Cortez is not intellectual but moral. As if Cheney is suggesting “The Nazis and the Soviets did concentration camps. The United States is not like them, thus we don’t do concentration camps. That is not who we are.”
Masha Gessen, writing in The New Yorker, identifies one way in which this rhetoric of national innocence goes wrong:
“[T]he argument is really about how we perceive history, ourselves, and ourselves in history. We learn to think of history as something that has already happened, to other people. Our own moment, filled as it is with minutiae destined to be forgotten, always looks smaller in comparison. As for history, the greater the event, the more mythologized it becomes. Despite our best intentions, the myth becomes a caricature of sorts. Hitler, or Stalin, comes to look like a two-dimensional villain — someone whom contemporaries could not have seen as a human being. The Holocaust, or the Gulag, are such monstrous events that the very idea of rendering them in any sort of gray scale seems monstrous, too. This has the effect of making them, essentially, unimaginable. . . If this can’t happen, then the thing that is happening is not it. What we see in real life, or at least on television, can’t possibly be the same monstrous phenomenon that we have collectively decided is unimaginable.”
History has aligned the term “Concentration Camps” with the atrocities of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. They were unimaginably horrific deeds committed by unimaginably horrific regimes. Therefore, to use “concentration camps” to refer to anything other than the Gulags or the Lagers is presumably to misuse it: therefore the arguments that the detention centers are not concentration camps, as well as Ocasio-Cortez’s claim that they are, both trade on a kind of ignorance of the way in which the term’s meaning has changed for us, us Americans:
“It is the choice between thinking that whatever is happening in reality is, by definition, acceptable, and thinking that some actual events in our current reality are fundamentally incompatible with our concept of ourselves — not just as Americans but as human beings — and therefore unimaginable.”
Perhaps, Gessen surmises, the real problem lies in our self-conception. This insight is fleshed out by Peter Beinart in his essay in The Atlantic:
“[F]or the first time in decades, the left is mounting a serious challenge to American exceptionalism. . . American exceptionalism does not merely connote cultural and political uniqueness. It connotes moral superiority. Embedded in exceptionalist discourse is the belief that, because America has a special devotion to democracy and freedom, its sins are mostly incidental. The greatest evils humankind has witnessed, in places such as the Nazi death camps, are far removed from anything Americans would ever do. America’s adversaries commit crimes; America merely stumbles on its way to doing the right thing.”
Beinart argues that Ocasio-Cortez and those in Congress who align with her are doing something that really has not been done since the Vietnam war: challenging the idea that The United States of America can do bad things, even evil things. This is who we are now: a nation that greets the appearance of detention centers, the separation of parents and children, the fanning of bigotries to cement the power of the Republican party — in short, the accoutrements of fascism if not its substance — with a shrug. It’s what we have become, and it could be something we reject in the future. It requires conversion. But if we manage this metanoia, it will not be a case of our returning to a pristine, virtuous past, where the better angels of our national nature will again seize control. It will be a wholesale change, coupled with the recognition that we are not exempt from all the evils that have visited other nation-states. We are not exceptional:
“Ocasio-Cortez’s comment about concentration camps is only the latest example of this broad challenge to American exceptionalism. She didn’t claim that Trump’s detention centers are the equivalent of Auschwitz. But she denied that America is a separate moral category, so inherently different from the world’s worst regimes that it requires a separate language. . . Ocasio-Cortez and others on the Millennial-led left are challenging that separation now. They are challenging not only the physical and legal barriers that Trump is erecting against immigrants entering the United States, but also the conceptual barriers that American exceptionalism erects against seeing the United States as a nation capable of evil. “
If other nations are, to use theological language, sinful, then we are too.
My only complaint about this rejection of exceptionalist rhetoric — and it’s a minor one — is that there is a guiding assumption that we all know who the “we” is. Are the black descendants of the USA part of this “we”? Poor people? LGBTQ people? Pacifists? Socialists? Women? The irony of American history is that while it’s taken for granted there is a kind of unum in which all the pluribus participates, any unjaundiced view of American history will put the lie to that presumption. American unity is mythological. That’s not necessarily a slam: most gatherings of humans have their founding and sustaining and unifying myths. The problem is that myths always die, and often die hard. We have, as Wittgenstein remarked in another context, been held captive by a picture, a picture that no longer discloses anything truthful about the “us”, the “we”, that is fragmented at best and chimerical at worst.