October 13, 2019

The Real Meaning of the "Concentration Camp" Debate

“Like many arguments, the fight over the term “concentration camp” is mostly an argument about something entirely different. It is not about terminology. Almost refreshingly, it is not an argument about facts. This argument is about imagination, and it may be a deeper, more important conversation than it seems.

In a Monday-evening live stream, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, called the U.S.’s detention facilities for migrants “concentration camps.” On Tuesday, she tweeted a link to an article in Esquire in which Andrea Pitzer, a historian of concentration camps, was quoted making the same assertion: that the United States has created a “concentration camp system.” Pitzer argued that “mass detention of civilians without a trial” was what made the camps concentration camps. The full text of Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet was “This administration has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying. This is not hyperbole. It is the conclusion of expert analysis.” Hackles were immediately raised, tweets fired, and, less than an hour and a half later, Representative Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, tweeted, “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.” A high-pitched battle of tweets and op-eds took off down the much travelled dead-end road of arguments about historical analogies. These almost never go well, and they always devolve into a virtual shouting match if the Holocaust, the Nazis, or Adolf Hitler is invoked. One side always argues that nothing can be as bad as the Holocaust, therefore nothing can be compared to it; the other argues that the cautionary lesson of history can be learned only by acknowledging the similarities between now and then.

But the 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. In crafting the story of something that should never have been allowed to happen, we forge the story of something that couldn’t possibly have happened. Or, to use a phrase only slightly out of context, something that can’t happen here.”

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