Thursday, June 20, 2019

Signs, Signifiers, and Significance

Case in Point:
This is a raging argument just know. Slate has an excellent analysis of the problem of quarreling about words rather than about substance.

But we must question whether battles over who is most affronted by references to the Holocaust come under the category of explaining, or trying to find shared meanings, or reaching for truth. Because it feels less like a rational conversation about known history and its lessons, and more like another battle over whose feelings about history count more. What it actually feels like is a distraction from confronting the actual things we are attempting to name—which are themselves a horror—and an agreement to instead bicker about language and history. It’s probably no coincidence that even who owns the words “never again”—originally intended to signal that we must look back to history to understand what is happening now—is currently being debated after it was invoked by AOC in reference to “concentration camps.” 
No doubt "concentration camps" is a hot button; but AOC knew that when she used it.  And look at what that usage has wrought:  the LA Times runs an op-ed on the "detention centers" in the U.S., discussing the use of the term "concentration camp," which frankly makes it a much more interesting op-ed.  Esquire devotes an article to the centers.  Their conditions are the subject of a hearing in the 9th Circuit, and reporting on what the Administration thinks is appropriate treatment of "detainees" is actually getting attention:

Is this all in spite of the emotions the term "concentration camp" calls up, or because of it?  In other words, is Liz Cheney winning her argument, or is she helping AOC's argument get more attention?The irony, or the problem, is that without the Twitter argument between Cheney and AOC (Crenshaw is trying desperately to tag into this fight because he needs the street cred, but nobody wants him), no one would be paying any attention to children in cages, despite all the reporting on it. Is this fight over vocabulary a distraction? Or is it the only concrete point we can grasp in a very abstract set if issues? After all, the best analysis points out Obama detained people and deported record nnumbers. Trump's actions are not radically different, but neither are they the same. When talking about children in cages becomes merely background noise, what do you do but change the conversation? Is the argument about words really a lexical one? Or is it an argument about morality, right and wrong? Does anybody really think Luz Cheney cares so much about labels? Or does she care because labels are signs, and the importance of signs is what they signify? The critics of AOC realize she's touched on something significant.  And that it is significant not just because she touched on it.

As the LA Time op-ed noted:

Photos from a Border Patrol processing center in El Paso showed people herded so tightly into cells that they had to stand on toilets to breathe. Memos surfaced by journalist Ken Klippenstein revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s failure to provide medical care was responsible for suicides and other deaths of detainees. These followed another report that showed that thousands of detainees are being brutally held in isolation cells just for being transgender or mentally ill.I do not understand how this kind of thing is in service to his district. It certainly has nothing to do with being a legislator.

Also last week, the Trump administration cut funding for classes, recreation and legal aid at detention centers holding minors — which were likened to “summer camps” by a senior ICE official last year. And there was the revelation that months after being torn from their parents’ arms, 37 children were locked in vans for up to 39 hours in the parking lot of a detention center outside Port Isabel, Texas. In the last year, at least seven migrant children have died in federal custody.

Preventing mass outrage at a system like this takes work. Certainly it helps that the news media covers these horrors intermittently rather than as snowballing proof of a racist, lawless administration. But most of all, authorities prevail when the places where people are being tortured and left to die stay hidden, misleadingly named and far from prying eyes.
That "work" is going on in briefs to the 9th Circuit, where the Administration says whatever they are doing, it's legal and humane.  It's going on in the arguments of Liz Cheney, and the intermittent coverage of this subject by the media.  True, that coverage can't be controlled, and some of the "gatekeepers" of media are as upset as Rep. Cheney:

You can call our government's detention of migrants many things, depending on how you see it," Todd told his viewers on Wednesday night. "It's a stain on our nation, maybe. A necessary evil to others. A way to deal with an untenable situation, perhaps. But do you know what you can't call it? Take a listen."

At that point, Todd tossed to a clip of a recent Instagram Live broadcast by Ocasio-Cortez, in which she said that "the United States is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are. They are concentration camps."

Todd continued, "After being criticized, Ocasio-Cortez tried to make a distinction between concentrations camps and Nazi death camps, where the industrialized mass slaughter of the Holocaust occurred. Fair enough, but congresswoman tens of thousands were also brutalized, tortured, starved and ultimately died in . . . concentration camps. Camps like Dachau."

"If you want to criticize the shameful treatment of people at our southern border, fine. You'll have plenty of company," the MSNBC anchor added. "But be careful comparing them to Nazi concentration camps, because they are not at all comparable. In the slightest."
Dachau was a "death camp."  As historians have noted, it came into existence at the end of a long chain of repression that began with concentration camps, and moved progressively to the death camps, publicized and defended by the Nazi government as "work camps."  It's not that concentration camps are the gateway to death camps, but that they exist apart from some kind of continuum.  We can talk about one, without talking about the other.

But, of course, AOC didn't mention the word "Nazi" at all, and she never has.    But if we're going to talk about "death camps," fine, let's do it:

Not every concentration camp is a death camp—in fact, their primary purpose is rarely extermination, and never in the beginning. Often, much of the death and suffering is a result of insufficient resources, overcrowding, and deteriorating conditions. So far, 24 people have died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Trump administration, while six children have died in the care of other agencies since September. Systems like these have emerged across the world for well over 100 years, and they've been established by putative liberal democracies—as with Britain's camps in South Africa during the Boer War—as well as authoritarian states like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Camps set up with one aim can be repurposed by new regimes, often with devastating consequences.
The term has, since WWII, taken on implications.  But when FDR interred Japanese Americans, he called the locations they were removed to "concentration camps."  So what's going on right now, in this country, in our name?  Do our actions deserve the label?  Funny you should ask that; maybe we should consider the facts, rather than the emotional trigger:

But most prominently, Trump's Department of Homeland Security has used "metering" at the border, where migrants are forced to wait for days or weeks on the Mexican side—often sleeping in makeshift shelters or fully exposed to the elements—until they are allowed across border checkpoints to make their asylum claims and be processed. That processing system is overwhelmed, and the Obama administration also used metering at various points, but it remains unclear whether the wait times need to be as long as they are. (DHS did not respond to a request for comment.) There are no guarantees on how long migrants will have to wait, and so they've increasingly turned to crossing illegally between checkpoints—which constitutes "illegal entry," a misdemeanor—in order to present themselves for asylum. This criminalizes them, and the Trump administration tried to make illegal entry a disqualifier for asylum claims. The overall effort appears to be to make it as difficult as possible to get a hearing to adjudicate those claims, raising the specter that people can be detained longer or indefinitely.

All this has been achieved through two mechanisms: militarization and dehumanization. In her book, Pitzer describes camps as “a deliberate choice to inject the framework of war into society itself." These kinds of detention camps are a military endeavor: they are defensible in wartime, when enemy combatants must be detained, often for long periods without trial. They were a hallmark of World War I Europe. But inserting them into civil society, and using them to house civilians, is a materially different proposition. You are revoking the human and civil rights of non-combatants without legal justification.
Funny thing:  language is what concentration camps depend on to function, too:

"It's important here to look at the language that people are using," Hyslop says. "As soon as you get people comparing other groups to animals or insects, or using language about advancing hordes, and we're being overrun and flooded and this sort of thing, it's creating the sense of this enormous threat. And that makes it much easier to sell to people on the idea we've got to do something drastic to control this population which going to destroy us."

In a grotesque formulation of the chicken-and-the-egg conundrum, housing people in these camps furthers their dehumanization.

"There's this crystallization that happens," Pitzer says. "The longer they're there, the worse conditions get. That's just a universal of camps. They're overcrowded. We already know from reports that they don't have enough beds for the numbers that they have. As you see mental health crises and contagious diseases begin to set in, they'll work to manage the worst of it. [But] then there will be the ability to tag these people as diseased, even if we created [those conditions]. Then we, by creating the camps, try to turn that population into the false image that we [used] to put them in the camps to start with. Over time, the camps will turn those people into what Trump was already saying they are."
I suppose we shouldn't argue about that, either?  After all, to do so is to label us "Nazis," isn't it?

When the language offends you, is the problem always the language?  Or is what the language signifies, points to, that is offensive?  And when it is, what better response than to employ more language to deflect the offense, to move from the concrete to the abstract?  And who doesn't prefer to argue the abstract, the point that can't be pointed to, because unlike people crammed into pens and standing on toilets, the abstract doesn't really exist.

As a reminder, by DHS's own assertion, these detainments are civil, not criminal, and are not meant to be punitive in the way of a prison. Many of these people have not even been accused of a crime.

If we're going to bring up the Nazis, they didn't consider their death camps punitive, either.  Well, they sold them as "work camps."  The infamous motto "Arbeit Macht Frei" was meant for public consumption:  the people there were put to work so they could redeem themselves for society.  Not really, of course, but that's how they sold it.  We're not operating death camps, but we're selling these prisons as "centers" where we merely "detain immigrants" (not necessarily people) until they can have a hearing.  Except:

Single adults were held in cells designed for one-fifth as many detainees as were housed there and were wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks with limited access to showers, the report said. Pictures published with the report show women packed tightly together in a holding cell.

“We also observed detainees standing on toilets in the cells to make room and gain breathing space, thus limiting access to toilets,” the watchdog wrote.

This was at Paso del Norte, a facility near El Paso, which has a stated capacity of 125 detainees. But when DHS inspectors visited, it was holding 900. For a period, Border Patrol tried housing migrants in cage under a nearby bridge. It was ultimately scrapped amid public outcry. When migrants and asylum-seekers are transferred to ICE, things can get worse. Queer and trans migrants face exceptionally harsh treatment, with reports of high levels of physical and sexual abuse, and the use of solitary confinement—considered torture by many psychologists—is widespread.
Should we be upset about this?  Or about what AOC calls these conditions?  Or is it because AOC used inflammatory terms that we're even paying more than intermittent attention to this subject?  If we fight the nomenclature, is it because we approve of the camps?  Or because we prefer the clean abstract, to the messy concrete?  Language is sometimes a sign; it points to something else, signifies something other than the sign itself.  "Concentration camp" signifies extreme evil to some; but if it signifies an evil in our midst, if the sign points to our responsibility, perhaps those who protest too much are offended by their culpability, by their silence, even their acquiescence.  Chuck Todd, after all, is one of those who has the responsibility to report on what our government is doing; he prefers to report on the abstract issue of who's ahead, who behind, in a Presidential contest that doesn't even go to primary voters until 2020.

No comments:

Post a Comment