Recent controversy generated by a description of Trump Administration migrant facilities as “concentration camps” has impeded resistance coalition building. Ironically and tragically, characterizing these imprisonment sites as “concentration camps” provided the Trump Administration with political cover, an opportunity to further deny culpability in violating human rights and international law. The phrase, “concentration camps”, however general in application in a theoretical sense, remains indelibly linked to the systematic mass murders of the Holocaust, the extermination camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz. Consequently, progressive American Jews, in addition to placing our particular horrific experience within a wider, more universal framework, should also insist that political reality be described in ways that decisively and constructively engage the wider Jewish community while empowering other potential allies.
In her 7/1/19 New York Times column, “Clint, Tex., Vichy, France”, the acclaimed writer Julie Orringer proposes a different, more apt comparison, based upon the conditions as experienced by detainees: The internment camps operated by the Vichy government during World War II. Ms. Orringer also notes that Americans of Japanese heritage rounded up and placed in American internment camps, have been actively protesting against Trump immigration, refugee, and asylum policies. Indeed, Americans who have been victims of authoritarian governance and for whom genocide remains a key facet of personal identity, continue to step forward and oppose this administration. But we must deploy words precisely and strategically to strengthen the moral power of our arguments and actively advance efforts to defeat neo-fascism.
American legal and feminist scholars may recall an article from the early 1980s, entitled “The Emergence and Transformation of Disputes: Naming, Blaming, and Claiming” (Law & Society Review, William W.L. Felsteiner, Richard L. Abel, and Austin Sarat). It postulates a process by which experiences once understood as inevitable suffering, emerge as injustices to be directly confronted. By deliberately “naming” and characterizing political phenomena, we pinpoint with clarity the full nature of the challenges to be addressed. When legal claims are made, we insist upon substantive changes in the world. When those in power are held accountable, such “blaming” can generate innovative policies to create and grant remedy. The societal impact can be transforming. This is not semantics: The precision of political demands enables wider, deeper, and more artful dissent to be pursued within and outside of electoral politics.
It matters what these distinct encampments are called because there is a diverse American and international resistance coalition to be built, unified, and sustained. It matters because there is a specific moral indictment to be brought against the current presidential administration which dehumanizes and criminalizes impoverished, defenseless families. Perhaps a compelling phrase will emerge, organically, from the tragic struggle that’s unfolding? We understand what a “gulag” is, know what one finds in a “killing field”, or an “internment camp.” But it can be difficult to understand our own distinctively American horror story, to properly name what is happening before our eyes and assign blame. Governmental indifference to suffering during the Depression of the 1930’s led to encampments of poor people being referred to as “Hoovervilles.” This internal history and logic might be acknowledged and applied. Could “Las Jaulas de Naranja” (“The Cages of Orange”) help serve popular resistance efforts?
In conclusion: Even if these miserable structures of family separation do not ascend to the heights of glitzy skyscrapers, they are Trump’s true towers, embodiments of Sauron’s Mordor. We need to leave our burrows and drive this administration from power before Election Day 2020.