Semantics and Sadism

96 Semantics and Sadism

Rule of thumb: if you’re having a national debate about whether or not your country has concentration camps, it probably does.


Last week the right wing’s new favorite bogeywoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, used that term to refer to what the United States government is doing to migrants on our southern border, especially children whom that government has stolen from their parents. In our name, I hasten to note.

She was clearly aware of how those comments would be received and the backlash they would prompt because she couched her statement in pre-emptive explanation of that exact thing, and offered her reasoning for using that incendiary phrase. Obviously, that sort of careful contextualizing should have defused any knee-jerk outrage and prompted a thoughtful, vigorous, but civil discussion with the GOP opposition.

Just kidding!

To no one’s surprise, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s due diligence didn’t prevent Fox Nation from having a collective shit fit and renewing its apoplectic howling that she is (take your pick): a) an anti-Semitic idiot, b) a scourge to all that is good and right on God’s green earth, c) coming to take away your hamburgers and SUVs, d) the second coming of Angela Davis (NB: they don’t mean it as a compliment), or e) all of the above.

In other news, water is wet. The right would freak out on AOC even if she came out in favor of puppies and rainbows.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY)—think Dick, but with a vagina—offered a typical comment, sneering that AOC needs a history lesson about the Holocaust. (Tellingly, conservatives like Cheney were much more upset about the analogy than about the actual condition of these children.) That in turn prompted MSNBC’s Chris Hayes to slap Liz down with the suggestion that she needs a lesson on the difference between a death camp and the Nazis’ other Konzentrationslager.

Then ensued a flood of commentary—some partisan, some clear-eyed—by scholars of the Shoah and experts on concentration camps in general, many of whom made the salient point that such camps aren’t unique to the Third Reich, and that just using the term—accurately—is not the same as equating a given facility to a Nazi concentration camp, or implying that it’s part of anything comparable to the Final Solution. (Though it’s damn sure not a good look on anyone.)

But such nuances, and indeed the entire semantic debate, miss the point, as the reliably intrepid Masha Gessen pointed out in the New Yorker:

(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. 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.

A logical fallacy becomes inevitable. If this can’t happen, then the thing that is happening is not it.

In other words, the angry Republican pushback against the use of the term is a failure of imagination: a refusal to accept the possibility that the United States could engage in such behavior, using a tautology to explain it away. “The US doesn’t build concentration camps, therefore the camps the US has built aren’t that.”


Gessen makes a convincing argument that we engage in a kind of dishonest deflection of responsibility with the convenient portrayal of Hitler (or Stalin, or Mao, or Pol Pot) as an “inhuman” monster whose actions are an aberration outside of history. That is a fraught escape hatch, morally speaking, and one that poses dire risks, politically.

The grim truth, not to be pedantic, is that Hitler was very much human, and his capacity —and that of his followers—for unthinkable cruelty, while extreme to say the least, is not something outside human experience but potentially within all of us. (I refer you to the Stanford prison experiment, or any gradeschool playground.) Ironically, pretending otherwise makes an encore more, not less, likely, by making us less vigilant and self-scrutinizing.

Couple that with the juvenile American belief in our “exceptionalism” and you have a toxic recipe for national blindness that creates the exact conditions in which such crimes against humanity can be committed with impunity, and even with eager public defense and endorsement. (Looking at you, Laura Ingraham.)

The very idea that Americans would ever even think of building concentration camps is enough to make many conservatives furious. The chauvinism runs so deep that it creates a feedback loop in which we excuse ourselves from even the possibility that we could behave in such a manner by definition, a kind of get-out-of-Auschwitz-free card that itself ought to expose the dangerous hubris of its adherents.

(Worth noting, while the radical right sanctimoniously insists that the American character inherently precludes the establishment of a gulag archipelago in the land of the free and the home of the brave, it is also an article of faith in those circles that the left—led by people precisely like AOC—has secret plans to put all conservatives in “re-education camps.” But whatever.)

So per Gessen, while some might say that AOC has distracted from the urgent issue of the atrocities going on at the border, I’m on the side of those who say quite the opposite: that she has done a public service by highlighting it in the most dramatic possible way. The debate over verbiage is only a problem if we fixate on it—which the right is eager to do—instead of addressing the underlying reality that it indicts.


So why are we having this linguistic debate in the first place? Well, it’s because AOC’s remarks came in conjunction with new revelations of the horrors at the border, exposed by credible, non-partisan humanitarian organizations whose members—many of them human rights lawyers—have physically inspected the facilities and the affected children. Among their revelations:

That the innocuously-titled “family separation policy” has not really ended. That the federal government has no real plan for reuniting thousands of children forcibly taken from their parents, and not much interest in it either. That we as a people now have a network of ad hoc tent cities and other warehouse-like facilities in which migrant children are being held, some in shocking, unsanitary conditions that you would not tolerate for a dog, where they are deprived of basic necessities and lack adequate adult supervision by qualified personnel. The Washington Post’s Meagan Flynn described it about as well as anyone:

The image kept replaying in attorney W. Warren Binford’s mind after she left a migrant detention facility last week in Clint, Tex., where hundreds of children were held: The 15-year-old mother, her baby covered in mucus. It seemed no matter how many times she washed the sick baby’s clothes in the sink she couldn’t get them clean. There was no soap. And when she tried to find baby food, there was none of that, either. All they had was instant oatmeal for breakfast, instant soup for lunch and a frozen burrito for dinner, “every single day,” Binford said.

Child care was not the forte of US Customs and Border Protection, Binford could see. Here, in a warehouse filled with filthy kids who had not bathed in days, some with lice and influenza, it was kids taking care of kids. “We were just horrified,” Binford, director of the clinical law program at Willamette University, told The Washington Post…

In The Atlantic, Adam Serwer writes:

Antar Davidson, a former youth-care worker at an Arizona shelter, described to the Los Angeles Times children “huddled together, tears streaming down their faces,” because they believed that their parents were dead. Natalia Cornelio, an attorney with the Texas Human Rights Project, told CNN about a Honduran mother whose child had been ripped away from her while she was breastfeeding. “Inside an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of children wait in a series of cages created by metal fencing,” the Associated Press reported. “One cage had 20 children inside.”

In short, we are being awakened to the fact that the border crisis of a year ago precipitated by the Trump administration’s deliberately sadistic policies is anything but resolved, and indeed is getting worse.

Fueling the fire, of course, is Trump’s own angry, Orwellian insistence that he is the one who reunited the families, not the one who separated them, which might be the most brazenly ass-backwards, vile, and vomit-inducing of the many many lies he has told in his public life, which is saying something.

Along similar lines, Mike Pence naturally defended the administration, telling NBC’s Chuck Todd, “We’re doing a fantastic job under the circumstances.” He even had the, er, chutzpah to blame Democrats for the conditions in the detention centers (can I call them camps?), arguing that the administration can’t provide basic standards of humanitarian care while in the middle of blackmail to get funding for its idiotic “border wall.”

What would Jesus do indeed.

But the most spectacular and attention-grabbing of the recent stories that returned this crisis to the forefront of the national conversation was the image of a US Justice Department attorney named Sarah Fabian arguing in federal court that these children do not require such basic necessities as soap or toothbrushes, and can be made to sleep on cold concrete floors in low temperatures under bright lights, while still meeting the standard for being held in “safe and sanitary” conditions.

Feel free to read that again, in case the cognitive dissonance was too great on the first pass.

In a welcome burst of common human decency, the three judges on that federal court (all Bill Clinton appointees, it must be noted), reacted in shock and disgust:

“You’re really going to stand up and tell us that being able to sleep isn’t a question of safe and sanitary conditions?” US Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon asked Fabian. “Are you arguing seriously that you do not read the agreement as requiring you to do anything other than what I just described: cold all night long, lights on all night long, sleeping on concrete and you’ve got an aluminum foil blanket?” US Circuit Judge William Fletcher asked Fabian. “I find that inconceivable that the government would say that that is safe and sanitary.”

Incredibly, the DOJ thought it was a winning strategy to make that argument even knowing that the third judge on that court, Judge A. Wallace Tashima, was as a child himself held in an internment camp along with other Japanese-Americans during World War II. You can’t make this shit up.

You can watch the entire proceeding here, and see the actual face of Sarah Fabian, who has Sarah Huckabee Sanders resting easy in the knowledge that, for the moment, she is no longer the front-runner in the World’s Worst Sarah contest.


It goes without saying that what the federal government is doing in our name ought to make every American hang their head in shame, especially while we repeatedly, laughably, flatter ourselves to believe we are better than every other nation.

But it has often been noted that when it comes to the xenophobia that drives Trump’s policy on immigration (the Muslim ban, the “family separation policy”, restriction of visas, etc), the cruelty is the very point.

Now, it may be that Trump and his advisors like the human colostomy bag that is Stephen Miller genuinely believe that these policies will achieve the intended effect of keeping brown people out of America, and keeping those who are already here beaten down. Such barbaric magical thinking has always been characteristic of nativism. (Wow, could there be a less apt term for a movement full of people who stole their land from its actual native inhabitants?) Likewise, they surely understand very very well that there is a political benefit to them in thrilling their red-hatted white nationalist base.

But to the previous point, those goals do feel very much like a side effect. Regardless of any practical result, it seems very clear that the administration quite simply disdains (if not openly loathes) non-whites, and therefore at every available opportunity intends to treat them as badly as possible purely because it can. Even if there is no “practical” payoff, the White House isn’t really bothered in the slightest. So the cruelty is indeed very much an end in itself.

Team Trump also knows that these actions will prompt furor from the left, which is another thing that to them is a feature and not a bug. For many in MAGA Nation, infuriating centrists and progressives (and even moderate Republicans)—“owning the libs,” in their own self-flattering terminology—is their greatest pleasure, even more than achieving any concrete policy goal, which also speaks to the adolescent hatefulness at the core of their movement. Identity politics is integral to Trump’s followers, even as they hypocritically decry it in others. But as we have seen with all things from Trump’s golfing to engagement with North Korea to the use of unclassified electronics, hypocrisy is the poisonous mother’s milk of Trumpism.

What they really mean is, only they are allowed to traffic in the politics of self-pity and resentment.

Might I also add how absolutely head-spinning it is that we as Americans have arranged it so that a wantonly unfit, proudly ignorant, D-list celebrity game show host is the man with the authority to inflict this sort of sadistic treatment on hundreds and possibly thousands of children? I guess elections do have consequences.

Serwer’s epic, aforementioned piece in the Atlantic goes on to contextualize the separation policy and show how it is inextricably tied to the hateful white nationalism that is the core of Trumpism:

Americans should have fathomed the depth of the crisis Trump would cause in 2016, but many chose denial, ridiculing those who spoke the plain meaning of Trumpism as oversensitive…. The separation of children from their families at the border in order to punish children for their parents’ decision to seek a better life in America, as the forebears of millions of Americans once did, has now clarified for many what should have been obvious before.

Also note, please, that this story is breaking even as Trump is flirting with war with Iran—more red meat for the base, and with its own racist overtones, in three-part harmony with the main motif of jingoism. (Don’t be misled by his typically Trumpian boast that he is the one who stopped the outbreak of war. Dude: you’re the commander-in-chief. If planes were in the air, or even being readied, it’s only because you gave the order. The idea that at the last minute he heroically stepped in to prevent bloodshed and the beginning of a giant, horrific Middle Eastern shitstorm is like a kidnapper asking to be praised for freeing your child.)

But that too is a classic Trump tactic: create a crisis, then claim to be a hero for addressing it (sort of). It is exactly like him taking credit for re-opening the government after he shut it down, or more on point, stopping the family separation policy that he instituted. Except he didn’t even really stop it.

I only mention Iran to call attention to the outrage fatigue, and our limited capacity to comprehend and react to multiple domestic and international goatscrews simultaneously. Needless to say, it serves Trump’s ends to have us distracted with the possibility of yet another Persian Gulf war instead of protesting in the streets over American concentration camps on our own land, or pressing him on Russiagate.

The administration uses the sheer relentlessness of its steady parade of self-created emergencies and stomach-churning behavior to wear down resistance and foment exhaustion. That, too, is page one of the fascist handbook. The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg writes:

I understand why, bombarded with stories about the Trump administration’s sadism, people can just shut down. One some level, I think Trump understands this as well. “I do think there’s some emotional burnout,” (ACLU lawyer Lee) Gelernt said. ‘People just don’t want to hear anymore about another baby who’s sitting in a shelter all by himself without his parents, crying: ‘Where’s my mommy? Where’s my daddy?’ But we need the kind of public outcry that we had last summer. Otherwise we could be looking at thousands more children separated.’

The question is whether, over the course of this numbing year, we’ve learned to tolerate what just last June seemed intolerable.


Ironically, last week’s essay, The End of Outrage, bemoaned the fact that we have become so inured to atrocity and scandal—and a segment of our countrymen so in denial about it, and some of them actually in favor of it—that even the most appalling acts and events fail to have an appreciable effect on the national conversation.

That remains so.

I am not prepared to say that the renewed attention to what is going on at the border will reverse that trend. But if damn sure oughta, wouldn’t you say?

If we as a people are not stirred to action by the image of an attorney for the Department of Justice standing in front of federal judges and arguing that migrant children ripped from their parents by US border police can be justifiably housed—indefinitely, and with no plan for reuniting them—in makeshift camps behind razor wire, in conditions that would violate the Geneva Convention, then the American soul is truly dead.

Maybe we’re not quite there yet, but someone needs to check for a pulse.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, when future historians and political scientists look back and posterity renders its verdict, this latest horror will prove to be an important tipping point. After all, there was the rise of sufficient public outcry a year ago, when the family separation policy first came to light, that forced Trump to reverse himself, or at least pretend to. (His usual MO, as Max Boot noted at the time.)

Or maybe not. Either way, there is every reason to believe that we will look back on this moment as one of the darkest hours in modern American history, akin to the Japanese internment camps in which Judge Tashima was held, the sort of thing that until very recently we tut-tutted about self-righteously, implicitly condemning our forefathers for tolerating such blatantly immoral and—ahem—un-American behavior. The critical issue is how we will now respond to it.

For I say again, at the risk of re-stating the obvious: all this being done in our in our name. For the moment we still flatter ourselves to believe that we live in a representative democracy where our alleged leaders can’t just trample the rule of law and commit unspeakable atrocities without the assent of the majority.

So are we assenting or not?

If we turn our backs to what Trump is doing at the border, if we cover our ears and eyes, if we refuse to stand up and say, “Hell no—this is not what we are about and we will not tolerate it,” we have no grounds on which to claim that we are a “civilized” people, a nation of laws, or even a community of decent human beings, let alone continue to make this absurd assertion of some sort of ridiculous “exceptionalism.”

We are smack dab in the middle of a Niemöllerian first-they-came-for-the-socialists situation. Exactly a year ago, in an essay called Dear Huddled Masses: Go Fuck Yourselves (June 21, 2018), I wrote:

There is a meme on the Internet that asks about those countries throughout history that wantonly arrested and imprisoned large numbers of their residents without any kind of due process and sent them to prisons and concentration camps, sometimes indefinitely. The meme asks: “Did you ever wonder what the hell the other people in that country were doing while that was happening?

The answer is: “Whatever you’re doing right now.”


Related posts:

In Case of Non-Emergency, Break Glass….or What If They Burned Down the Reichstag and Nobody Cared? – February 17, 2019

The Enduring Appeal of Walls (for Troglodytes) – December 28, 2018

Requiem: Is This America? – December 21, 2018

Dear Huddled Masses: Go Fuck Yourselves – June 21, 2018

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