Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and The English Language

by David Ottlinger


However else we might evaluate her burgeoning career, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a great success in inspiring think-pieces. The freshman congresswoman has been a gift to all political writers in search of a subject. Whether one agrees with her and the causes she champions is a matter of complete indifference. Either way, it has become almost impossible to observe and interpret contemporary politics without having something to say about her. This alone makes her highly significant.

Of course, this is likely not the significance she herself wanted. I doubt she would view the title of “most-thought-pieced” with anything but frustration and scorn. But such praise is less left-handed than it may seem. Ocasio-Cortez came to Washington to change politics, but changing politics first means changing how we think about politics, a fact of which both Ocasio-Cortez and even those writing about her seem to be half-conscious. Her most important influence is often on the ways in which we think and is therefore subtle and sometimes goes unnoticed. During times of political reordering, basic concepts which in earlier eras had been taken for granted come up for revision, a disorienting prospect for those accustomed to the established practice. Our concepts bend according to the gravity exerted by our shifting political reality. If writers may not always be able to articulate this, they always feel it, and it moves them to write.

So, let’s return to Ocasio-Cortez’s most recent controversy, occasioned when she insisted on calling detention centers on the southern border “concentration camps,” eliciting praise from some and gasps of horror from others. This raised the question of what a concentration camp is and whether ICE’s detention centers were it. For such a semantic issue, it has had a certain staying power, with The New York Times running a piece primarily about Ocasio-Cortez’s comments over two weeks after they were made. [1] Nonetheless, there has been a failure to achieve real clarity. One senses that this controversy is emblematic of a certain kind of difficulty that is becoming more prevalent.

The question Ocasio-Cortez raised and which we must try to answer is whether or not detention centers run by ICE at the Mexican border constitute concentration camps. But before approaching the question of what the words ‘concentration camp’ mean, we have to ask what may seem a hopelessly ambitious question: What does it mean to say that words mean something?

Such a question may seem strange. Certainly journalists are not used to entertaining them. And there is good sense behind the instinct to avoid it. There are many more people who can tell the price of this or that object then are people who can provide an abstract definition of ‘currency’. In the same way, we often understand the meanings of particular words better than we understand meaning writ large. But then there are cases in which general agreement and common usage breaks down. The controversy stalking Ocasio-Cortez is clearly such a case, with people on every side sputtering about language and definitions and wondering how they ended up talking about words, when they wanted to talk about things. This kind of confusion indicates a breakdown of the more general concept which demands that we ascend to more abstract considerations. Or, to employ a metaphor, language is vast and stretches out over many contexts, like a huge lake over its lakebed. In most areas the waters are placid and it’s smooth sailing. But there are also eddy’s and shoals, and when sailing in these areas we must pay closer attention to the water. Such areas are harder to navigate and require a certain seamanship.

Getting out of this particular eddy, I have suggested, means considering what meaning, in general, is. But, fortunately, we can limit this question and confine ourselves to what it is for words like ‘concentration camp’ to mean anything. Such words are called “generals” or “general terms” by philosophers, and their distinguishing feature is that they pick out types of objects or features that many objects can have. The phrase ‘concentration camp’ does not pick out a particular object as does, say, ‘Auschwitz’. Instead, it picks out a set of objects all of which are thought to have some features in common.

On a standard conception of how this works, the general term is associated with a nexus of traits that are called “family resemblances.” [2] The objects the general term picks out are those that have a critical mass of these traits. So, the general term ‘chair’ picks out a set of objects, namely, the set of all chairs. Not every chair has four legs. Not every chair has a straight back. Not every chair has armrests. But all chairs have enough of these and other features that they can all reasonably be thought of as being the same kind of thing. There may be some cases in which there is no clear answer as to whether an object falls under a general. One can ask if a barstool is a chair, but it may be a question without an answer. Barstools are like paradigmatic chairs in some ways, and unlike them in others. That may be the end of the matter. But in general objects fairly clearly fall under specific generals or do not. A classic armchair is definitively a chair. A sofa is definitively not a chair, much less a table. In the vast majority of cases, language users will agree on what counts and what does not, and this makes the term useful and meaningful. Without all of them sharing any particular trait, chairs nonetheless broadly resemble each other by all having a number of the traits from the same list, as it were. They share enough or resemble one another enough to be thought of as a kind of family of objects. Accordingly, it is practical to designate them all as being the same general kind of thing.

One can apply this logic fairly readily to the term ‘concentration camp’. There is a set of phenomena in the world: all of the things that we call or may be inclined to call “concentration camps.” These phenomena have certain things in common. They are generally built by governments. They generally involve housing mass populations in fairly close quarters (hence “concentration”). They tend to be relatively improvised and made of impermanent structures (hence “camp”). They tend to be involved in stories of persecution, often involving a majority population working its will on some disadvantaged minority population. And so on. Perhaps not every concentration camp will have every one of these features. It is, for instance, possible to imagine something we would clearly want to call a “concentration camp,” perhaps in the dystopian future, run by a private company and hence not having the usual trait of being built by government. Many Nazi camps, paradigmatic in so many ways, were built of more permanent structures, some of which still stand. But all concentration camps have enough of the familial traits to count as belonging to the same group.

A piece published in Esquire some time before Ocasio-Cortez made her remarks approaches the question of whether the detention centers at the American border can legitimately be called “concentration camps,” in a way that makes a great deal of sense if we take a family resemblance understanding of general terms. [4] Like Ocasio-Cortez, it answers in the affirmative. It supports this conclusion by building on the work of a few historians who undertake comparative analyses of different concentration camps across time and in different countries in order to arrive at a general definition. Looking at the full range of broadly similar operations, they argue that the U.S. border camps are similar enough or share enough family resemblances to be included under the same heading. Subsequent to her controversial remarks, both the piece itself and its general argumentative strategy became popular among Ocasio-Cortez’s defenders. Chris Hayes, for instance, argued that “concentration camps are different from death camps and have a history that both predates and extends far past the Nazis.” [5] The claim that the border camps are concentration camps is then reasonable. All that is needed is a sufficiently broad historical view.

This defense is quite attractive. It renders Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks inoffensive, or at the very least much less offensive, by eliminating their most controversial content. She was not, on this account, comparing the border camps to the Nazi death camps, except perhaps in a very broad way. It also supplies a very rigorous sense of ‘concentration camp’ which makes her statement reasonable and renders her critics not so much wrong, as misguided; victims of a simple misunderstanding. If it was satisfactory, it would provide a good way for Ocasio-Cortez to clarify her remarks, in that knowing way that politicians mean ‘clarify’, while providing her critics with a way to save face. Everyone would be happy. It is unfortunate, then, that the defense falls apart under scrutiny.

One problem is that this defense tries to assert a continuity between the term ‘concentration camp’ as used in a particular historical framework and the same term as it features in ordinary discourse. In reality, no such continuity exists. When the historians interviewed by Esquire use it, it is as a technical term, defined by its context in a particular historiographical tradition. Within that tradition, it is a commodious concept that embraces many phenomena and has no particular affinity to Nazi death camps except as one instance of the general kind, and a kind of limiting case at that. But when politicians, journalists and ordinary people use the term, they clearly mean something else. In everyday speech it is assumed that if anything is a concentration camp, it is the Nazi death camps, and anything veering too far from this paradigm does not count. This conception is reflected in Merriam-Webster’s entry for the term, which provides the expected general definition but then goes on to note that the term is used “especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners.” [6] (The Oxford English Dictionary presents a very similar entry, also explicitly mentioning Nazi camps.) [7] This is hardly surprising. Most English speakers, after all, have no knowledge of Spanish concentration camps in Cuba or of German concentration camps in colonial Africa. And when evaluating a statement made by a Congresswoman to the general public, the common concept must take center stage. No doubt far more people understood what Ocasio-Cortez said in terms of the common conception of ‘concentration camps’ than in any technical sense used by historians.

But more definitively, the details of what Ocasio-Cortez said make clear that this whole style of defense is misguided. Specifically, Ocasio-Cortez not only insisted on the term ‘concentration camp’, but also deliberately included the phrase “never again,” which is closely associated with the Holocaust, and the term ‘fascism’. [8] Taken together, these form a constellation that makes her meaning quite clear. The Esquire-Hayes defense would have it that Ocasio-Cortez used the term ‘concentration camp’, in spite of its association with Nazism, rather than because of it, but the congresswoman’s own rhetoric makes it clear that the latter is the case rather than the former. One could argue that Ocasio-Cortez used the term ‘concentration-camp’ without intending to invoke Nazi atrocity, but one cannot (credibly) argue that she used ‘concentration-camp’, ‘never again’, and ‘fascism’ without intending to invoke Nazi atrocity. It was quite clear what comparison she was making. Suggestions to the contrary are disingenuous.

But it would be wrong to leave the matter there. There is a deeper issue at work, and the feeling that something has gone wrong – that we are trapped in language, like a fly in a bottle – will not be dispelled until that deeper problem is confronted. All that the public discussion following Ocasio-Cortez’s comments has accomplished is to analyze the concept ‘concentration camp’. But the real difficulty is not with this term or with any particular concept. The difficulty is with language and the way it is used in political contexts.

So confused has this debate become, that hardly anyone notices the massive disconnect between Ocasio-Cortez herself and those who argue on her behalf. The latter, as we have seen, argue as they should if the family resemblance understanding of generals is correct. They take the descriptive content of the term ‘concentration camp’ seriously and argue that this content fits the object to which it is applied. But it must be noted that Ocasio-Cortez offered her own defense for her use of the term, and the Esquire-Hayes defense is not it.

Ocasio-Cortez made her comments in full awareness of how controversial they might become. She is at pains to say that she did not “use those words [i.e. ‘concentration camp’] lightly” or “just to throw bombs,” thereby implying that she understood that using such terms would have the effect of throwing bombs. She maintains that stirring such controversy was nonetheless justified, but in defending her choice of terms, she does not, as her defenders do, dig into the meaning of ‘concentration camp’. She offers no general definitions and makes no historical comparisons. She does not consider what features a concentration camp would have to have or what would restrict proper usage of the term. Instead, she defends herself in terms of values.

“The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are.  They are concentration camps. And if that doesn’t bother you…” Here, Ocasio-Cortez breaks down in disgust. She decides she has nothing to say to such people, limiting herself, instead, to addressing “the people that are concerned enough with humanity [to believe] that ‘never again’ means something.” She hopes that those people will agree that the existence of government detention centers constitute “a crisis on [whether] America will remain America.”

Looking at such remarks it is clear how different her reasoning is from that which we have already considered. Chris Hayes and the historians interviewed in Esquire want to make distinctions between kinds of things. They consider many government operations and try to sort out which ones are concentration camps and which are not. Ocasio-Cortez is interested in making distinctions between kinds of people. There are those who are concerned enough about what goes on at detention centers to call them “concentration camps” despite the political and social risks that might entail. These people, as she sees it, are “concerned enough with humanity [to believe] that ‘never again’ means something.” The rest she is not even inclined to speak to.

This observation allows us to note another important difference between Ocasio-Cortez and her defenders. Chris Hayes and the Esquire historians approach the question of whether or not the detention centers are concentration camps as one that concerns a matter of fact and has a determinate answer. Either the detention centers are concentration camps or they are not, and that is determined by what the meaning of the term ‘concentration camp’ is and what the detention centers are like. Ocasio-Cortez approaches the question of whether or not to call detention centers “concentration camps” as a test of political daring. What is important is not so much what the camps are like as whether or not people are motivated enough to use a term that carries a useful political charge.

For people like Hayes the question of whether detention centers are concentration camps is a factual one. For Ocasio-Cortez, it is a political one. This means that for Hayes the question is not directly ideological. Hayes, of course, makes no bones about having a view of the detention centers and one which is shaped by his ideology. [9] He decries them and what goes on at them. But the question of whether they are concentration camps swings free of ideology. It is determined solely by language and its fit (or lack thereof) to the world. Not so in the case of Ocasio-Cortez, for whom the question of whether or not to call detention centers “concentration camps” is one of political calculation. It is nakedly ideological, determined directly by value judgments. It is a question of whether or not one has “concern for humanity.”

Accordingly, the conflict over Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks is about much more than the meaning of a particular word or phrase. It is, in part, a conflict over how language should be employed in the political arena. The different sides are not disagreeing over the meaning of a term, but over the meaning of all terms. In a real sense, they are speaking different languages.

What is distinctive about the way Ocasio-Cortez speaks is how she divorces the meaning of the term ‘concentration camp’ from the value judgment it implies. In philosophical terms, she separates the descriptive content from the normative content and affirms only the latter. Neither is she unique in using concepts in this way, as similar uses have been made of concepts like ‘fascist’ and ‘terrorist’.  They are not employed to make new claims about the persons to whom they are applied, nor are they really meant to describe those persons. Rather, they are used to denounce and in such a way that will raise the rhetorical stakes and in a manner that is sure to be controversial. This raising of the stakes puts pressure on those who might be ambivalent to go along with the more strident position, so as to avoid being ostracized by their political peers. Not long ago, it was embarrassing to be considered soft on terrorism, so one might characterize any ambiguous cases of political violence as “terrorism” so as to keep critics off one’s back. Today, it is embarrassing for those on the left to appear soft on Trump. Skepticism about whether detention centers should be called “concentration camps” or about whether Trump can really be characterized as a fascist can easily suggest a lack of commitment to the resistance against the President. This is especially so when influential leaders like Ocasio-Cortez demand adherence. Such contexts make the evaluative part of the concept in question paramount. Someone who identifies with opposition to Trump, and feels pressure to, say, call him a “fascist” in order to feel welcomed by her political peers, is not likely to feel too inclined to carefully explore the nuances of the concept. What matters to her is what she is signaling about her values. (These group dynamics were very well explored in a masterful study by the economist Glenn Loury.) [10]

Neither does it seem that this kind of treatment of words is new. George Orwell noted that in his own day that the term ‘fascist’ had come to mean nothing more than “something not desirable.” [11] On the opposite side, the term ‘democracy’ seemed to mean nothing or too many things, but it was always agreed that it is a term of praise. Orwell argued that this created a cloud of ambiguity that made political disputes harder to adjudicate. Because the descriptive content had been hollowed out of terms like ‘fascist’ and ‘democratic’, writers who used them without explicitly defining them were only expressing their attitudes toward something. Calling a thing “fascist”, for instance, was nothing more than declaiming. In a sentence that could have been written for Ocasio-Cortez, Orwell laments, “People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning — they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another — but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying.”

What Orwell noted was how this hampered political arguments. In examining Hayes’ and Esquire’s defense of Ocasio-Cortez, we saw how one can argue over the use of a term as long the descriptive content is included. The content of a concept like “concentration camp” gives one an objective foothold. The argument becomes one over the scope of the concept and the object to which it is applied. Was the term “concentration camp” meant to apply to something this different from the paradigmatic Nazi camps? What are the detention centers like, and do they fit with the content of the term? These are the main questions. But when “concentration camp” means no more than “outrageous facility”, what is there to argue? Naturally one can argue about whether conditions at detention centers are outrageous, but such arguments are much less practical. The dictionary is some use in establishing what is and is not a “concentration camp”. It is of no use in establishing what is or is not an “outrage”.

Orwell also noted how the separation between description and evaluation seemed to render claims impossible to argue. He observes how descriptively meaningless terms can preempt argument with an imagined example from art criticism: “When one critic writes, ‘The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality’, while another writes, ‘The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness’, the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion.” The same reader, I take it, does not treat the two critics as contradicting one another, despite the fact that one has called something “living” and the other has called the same thing “dead.” This might seem strange but is perfectly comprehensible if we take ‘living’ and ‘dead’ to have been hollowed out of their descriptive content. The terms ‘living’ and ‘dead’ are, after all, not logically contradictory, in the way it would be logically contradictory to call something “living” and yet “not living.” The sense that something cannot be both living and dead stems from the descriptive content of both terms. A coroner cannot declare a person both living and dead. But, of course, the critics are not using the terms in the way the coroner does.  When one critic calls a work “living,” she is saying little more than that she admires it. When the opposing critic calls the work “dead,” she expresses that she does not. In this way their disagreement is a difference of opinion, not a contradiction.

That Trump is a fascist or that detention centers are concentration camps are, like the assessments of the critics in Orwell’s example, statements of opinion. Ocasio-Cortez’s own recent statement that America is “headed to fascism” also seems to be of this character. [12] Those who make such statements do not really argue for them. They do not really expect to convince others who are not already inclined to agree, as we see very clearly with Ocasio-Cortez, who explicitly addresses herself only to those who largely agree with her. The speakers do not really specify what they mean. They don’t have to because the only part which they really wish to assert is the part which is obvious: the vivid emotional charge that terms like ‘fascist’ and ‘concentration camp’ still carry.

As a rhetorical gambit, this strategy may work for Ocasio-Cortez and her ilk. But the influence it will have on the language will be regrettable. Political language is more effective, when the evaluative content of terms remains closely anchored to the descriptive content. When a term of dispraise is used in the rich sense that includes the descriptive content, it not only dispraises the object but gives some justification for why the speaker dispraises it. This is why I believe Trump’s abuses of power are better termed “authoritarian” or “illiberal” than “fascist.” ‘Fascist’, as I have argued, implies little more than that Trump’s actions are highly objectionable. Terms like ‘illiberal’ are, by contrast, semantically connected to notions of liberal democracy and individual liberty, which most Americans agree are worth defending. The beginnings of an argument are contained in the terms themselves.  A term like ‘illiberal’ gives the Trump supporter (or a voter ambivalent about Trump) something to reckon with. Do they not value individual liberties? Ocasio-Cortez’s chosen words do what Ocasio-Cortez herself does and refuse to speak to such members of our community. Terms like ‘illiberal’ are different. They speak to everyone who at least professes to love liberty.

But one must not only reckon with Ocasio-Cortez and her language. One must also reckon with the spirit behind it. I agree with Ocasio-Cortez as to the high moral stakes of our current political moment. I almost completely disagree with her about what the reaction to such a challenge should be. She and her brain trust have consistently argued that showing anything less than the utmost stridency and zeal is a failure to appreciate the urgency of our situation. My hope is that opponents of the President will be so impassioned as to be cautious, so enraged as to be thoughtful, and so committed as to be strategic. One part of this zealous caution should be expressed in a careful and considered use of language. It is a weapon to be wielded less like a cutlass and more like a scalpel. Such an approach may not be as immediately satisfying as indulging the raillery that Ocasio-Cortez offers us. But the greater satisfaction awaits us on the day when our political enemies have been defeated.















66 responses to “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and The English Language”

  1. The comparison was odious, and everyone knew exactly what the point was supposed to be. The defense of it has been one of the more disingenuous, cynical public conversations I’ve seen over the last few years, and there have been many.

  2. I agree.
    I live in Europe and since WW II “concentration camp” means Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Vernichtungslager.
    One of the very painful ironies of history is that everybody knows Auschwitz.
    Because there were survivors.
    In Treblinka or Sobibor, not so much. At least 170 000 Jews, Roma and non-Jewish Poles were deported to Sobibor. Few, very few, survived.
    Ocasio-Cortez is playing a dangerous game with language.

  3. An excellent post, and may I even suggest that you expertly argued semantics without turning it into a mere semantic argument. But here’s my concern: what you suggest should be absolutely understood (and employed) by anyone who might read your words, but the trouble is, it won’t be. When all one hears from all corners is hyperbole, people begin to ignore measured words that sound like anything short of naked tribalism. So unfortunately, I fear that the level-headed, wise wielder of language that you envision would be a candidate that wouldn’t stand a chance, on either side of the political spectrum and that, truly, is sad.

  4. This analysis reminds me of the controversy regarding AOCs reported “yelling in a threatening manner” towards detention officers. There seems to have been a bit of ambiguity and misguided reasoning regarding the word “threatening”. There are some definitions that describe threatening as hostile or intending to frighten,while others define the word as intending to cause harm to another person. Supporters of AOC have scoffed at the claim that she acted in a threatening manner due to the fact that she is merely a small lady who yelled at armed officers. This defense invokes the idea that if AOC didn’t threaten anyone because it was evident that she was unable to succsufully physically harm the officers while she was allegedly yelling at them. The problem with this defense is the fact that one could harm someone in a non physical manner. She could have arguably harmed the officers by causing them great annoyance and discomfort while they are trying to do their job. Given this plausibility, one could argue that her actions fit one of the definitions of the word threatening. To be clear, her actions may be exaggerated by both the left and the right. The poor reasoning regarding language in these political contexts is my main annoyance.

  5. I disagree, not only as to particulars, but as to certain theoretical implications.

    As to the question whether Trump is at least some identifiable form of fascist: I ground my teeth over the misuse and overuse of the term “fascist” in the 1960s and beyond, because it was clearly draining the term of its power and stripping it of its historical context. So obviously, I agree to some extent with your caution concerning misuse of terms and shady rhetoric. On the other hand, I think Trump represents a step toward fascism of an American variety (fascistic governments are nationally/culturally variant phenomena). I searched around for some historic speeches by fascists for comparison, but in the process found this overview of how American newspaper editorialists responded to the rise to power of Mussolini in 1922: – I strongly urge reading it as most edifying and resonant with our current situation. Interestingly, several of the editorials read Fascism as reminiscent of the America First nationalism that had been at play in the election of 1920.

    My real sorrow here is that the overuse of the term ‘fascism,’ having drained it of its power, leaves those of us who recognize the rise of fascistic leaders and populist demagogues world wide in the curious position of having to explain what, had we hewed to historical education and the references it would lead us to, would be perfectly obvious to all.

    On the other hand, the term “concentration camp” has wider, and longer, historical references, as admitted here. I just think that Jack Holmes (the Esquire article) understands these references, and understands the nuances and implications of them, better than credited, The question raised is whether by linking the term with other terms that reverberate as recalling the Holocaust is going too far. I’m not sure that it is; but first I will admit that it may do some damage to the proper use of the term “concentration camp” in the current context. Without any reference or referral to Nazi Germany, it is clear that the otherwise named “detention centers,” are certainly on their way to becoming concentration camps, just as did the “internment camps” in which were dumped Japanese Americans during World War II. I mention that because of a suspicion that a motive for such cautionary essays as the OP is something of what might be called a ‘virtuous nation’ nostalgia – a hope bordering on faith that whatever the worst that could befall a nation “It Can’t Happen Here.”

    Well, it can. Because it already has. A fundamental impulse of ‘virtuous nation’ nostalgia is a faith in social progress. Somewhat paradoxically, that’s what makes it a nostalgia. It assumes that because those who worked for social, cultural, political improvements achieved some success in the past, that, progress ultimately guaranteed, The virtuous nation may stumble, but never fall, backwards. But that’s simply not true. Improvements are merely that, improvements, and not necessarily any progress; and they are fragile, their survival never guaranteed.

    (David, I am only some 30 or forty years older than you; but I can’t begin to explain how much good I have seen lost, how erratic the steps forward, and how much backstepping I have witnessed even before you were born. But while it has made me a pessimist, I don’t often complain of it – it is what it is.)

    So, yes, I agree with Holmes, the detention centers are, or are on their way to becoming, concentration camps. So now the question is, does Octavio-Cortez shading that fact with rhetoric evoking the Holocaust go ‘too far?’ As suggested earlier, it does if it occludes a possible discussion of what shape such camps take, what uses they ought to be put (if at all), or whether we want such centers or camps – call them what you will – as part of our national identity.

    I will say frankly (and have said elsewhere) that Octavio-Cortez is a junior member of congress, and she ought to spend her first term learning from her elders how to win a second term. Do I cringe when she makes remarks like this? A little. Actually, I think it would be better for her to support older congress critters, get off the twitter, and speak in guarded generalities in public. But in the instance, I’m willing to cut her more slack than you are, for this reason: The Trump phenomenon is truly new to the history of American politics. The stew from which its stench arises has of course been simmering for a very long time, its base discoverable in certain flaws in the original constitution, and their unraveling over history. Nonetheless, it has been part of the political process since the Civil War to dance around these flaws (while trying to correct them), and to restrain the excesses of their unraveling – until Trump. Trump makes use of some of these flaws, and celebrates others, delighting in dragging their unraveling beyond restraint. He has created a rhetorical environment that we have never experienced before. The rhetoric of the die-hard segregationists was ugly and brutal – but it wasn’t ‘playful’ the way Trump’s is – that is, it wasn’t filled with his schadenfreude (and that of his followers). The old segregationists were dangerous men, and certainly condoned abuses like lynching if not actually participating in them. Trump strikes me as one who would enjoy watching a ‘good lynching’ on TV, as long as he believed the lynch mob were his followers – I’m sure we would hear from him about the ‘decent people’ in that mob.

    In such a rhetorical environment, boundaries are going to get transgressed all over the place, from every side. It is mildly surprising that the rhetoric from the left hasn’t been fiercer than it might be. Frankly, I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to the point where ‘reasonable disagreement,’ hashed out in argument founded on shared values, is even possible.

    “A term like ‘illiberal’ gives the Trump supporter (or a voter ambivalent about Trump) something to reckon with. Do they not value individual liberties? ” – The liberties Trump core supporters value include: Liberty of the State government to outlaw abortion; liberty of mobs to bash gay men; liberty to enforce religious beliefs in public schools; liberty to use the word “nigger” as meaningful pejorative for people of color; liberty to arm themselves to the teeth, declare themselves “sovereign citizens” and act accordingly ( Many of what you consider liberties they see as restraints – exactly the restraints motivating their ressentiment as noted by Patrick Hassan in a previous article. Eg., if “freedom of religion” means freedom from religion – as it most certainly does – they don’t want it. “Illiberal?” Haven’t you heard – according to them, the proper spelling is “illibrul” – and that’s what they want to be.

    We no longer have the kind of language you’re arguing for, except among intellectuals, political pundits, readers of thoughtful websites such as this one.

    I will conclude this already overlong response (your articles always provoke these from me, David) by taking a risk here that may result in verbal bricks tossed at me by Dan and others – a reminder of the source of another ressentiment, one largely to the left, which is also not resolvable anytime soon, and which we still don’t know how to discuss properly.

    African Americans also experienced a suffering equivalent to the Holocaust – Slavery. It went on for several hundred years during which millions were tortured, starved to death, beaten to death, raped, worked to death, survivors stripped of their original culture, religion, social connections, their very humanity literally denied. In its aftermath, they didn’t get an Israel; they got segregation, impoverishment, ghettos, lynching, and constant distrust and denial of basic human consideration and respect, let alone rights. Most of us from European ancestry still find it difficult to understand how having this experience as part of the history of one’s ethnicity, one’s own biography, might shape every view, tinge every opinion. So I might not like what Octavio-Cortez had to say (and it may have been politically tactless). But let us try to understand why some African Americans, or other persons of color from Central or South America or the Caribbean, might hear her say this and respond “Amen, sister!”

  6. davidlduffy

    Thomas Keneally, the author of Schindler’s Ark has frequently described the Australian immigration detention regime as gulags and concentration camps over the last 18 years. Here’s one example from 2003:

    As Keneally points outs “it’s very easy to write about injustice in the past because you suffer no social stigma, no mockery. You don’t get attacked by [newpaper] columnists…It’s just disgustingly easy not to recognise concentration camps when they’re in your own cities”…Keneally qualifies the term “concentration camp” – as in the “Kitchener sense” from the Boer War in South Africa. “No one can compare them to Nazi camps, to do so would be laughed out of court by pro-[John] Howard columnists,” he says. “But it has to be said we have made just a few stops on the initial journey to concentration camps. A country doesn’t easily recover from that and we have chosen that method not for political dissidents – otherwise I’d be in there – but for anyone who dares have the hubris to seek asylum.”

    And such a laugh out of court from 2017:

    More generally, we are talking about Godwin’s law. No-one’s going to stop. We can’t argue that US neo-Nazi’s aren’t real Nazis because they haven’t killed as many people, so that using the name Nazi is diluting the language.

  7. I liked your comment, even if it was long. It’s true that the word fascism has become overused, unfortunately that’s what happens to almost all politically and morally charged vocabulary. I agree with David Ottlinger that perhaps the word ‘authoritarian’ might be more appropriate to describe the current political situation in the US. However, ‘authoritarian’ doesn’t pack the same emotional punch, and many of Trump’s supporters don’t mind authoritarianism. To them, it carries no negative valence, and thus can be of no moral use. Mind you, the same could be said for ‘fascism’ in 1930s Italy where the literal image of the fasces (stick bundle) was adopted by Mussolini’s political party as a symbol of Italian unity and nationalism. It did not then carry any negative connotations. In fact, just the opposite.

    Just like describing Trump as “illiberal’, while perhaps technically correct, is actually conceived of positively by Trump supporters, since they hate ‘liberals’.

    There is no way that the Orwellian named ‘detention centers’ are “on the way to becoming” concentration camps. They already are, since they meet the criteria. Moreover, several people (mostly children) have died. What more needs to happen to reach the threshold worthy of concentration camp?

    Your point about slavery is an excellent one.

  8. Joe Smith

    I liked your comment, even if it was long. It’s true that the word fascism has become overused, unfortunately that’s what happens to almost all politically and morally charged vocabulary. I agree with David Ottlinger that perhaps the word ‘authoritarian’ might be more appropriate to describe the current political situation in the US. However, ‘authoritarian’ doesn’t pack the same emotional punch, and many of Trump’s supporters don’t mind authoritarianism. To them, it carries no negative valence, and thus can be of no moral use. Mind you, the same could be said for ‘fascism’ in 1930s Italy where the literal image of the fasces (stick bundle) was adopted by Mussolini’s political party as a symbol of Italian unity and nationalism. It did not then carry any negative connotations. In fact, just the opposite.

    Just like describing Trump as “illiberal’, while perhaps technically correct, is actually conceived of positively by Trump supporters, since they hate ‘liberals’.

    There is no way that the Orwellian named ‘detention centers’ are “on the way to becoming” concentration camps. They already are, since they meet the criteria. Moreover, several people (mostly children) have died. What more needs to happen to reach the threshold worthy of concentration camp?

    Your point about slavery is an excellent one.

  9. Joe Smith

    Please don’t attempt to speak for “everyone”. The detention centers are concentration camps, by definition. Sorry if that’s politically incorrect, but it remains a fact. If we take AOC to meaning Nazi death camps, it’s only because those kind of concentration camps have become the prototypical ones, seared into our culture over the past 70 years. But they are not the only ones.

    What’s truly cynical is automatically assuming people are saying things they don’t actually say, leap from the text, and infer ulterior motives from words like ‘fascism’ and ‘never again’ as if this cluster of concepts could only ever apply to one unique historical event. Even after AOC clarified that she did not mean specifically Nazi concentration camps, cynics continued to sneer.

  10. Peter DO Smith

    Invoking comparisons with the Holocaust is the most utterly odious, cynical and despicable strategy imaginable. It is shameful beyond belief. There is nothing in the history of mankind that compares with it. Read some of the many accounts and one will understand. Visit the Holocaust camps and stand there, overcome with horror, weeping with sorrow and weighed down with shame. Every person, once in their life, should undertake a pilgrimage through the former Holocaust camps. It is our duty to do this and understand the enormity of what we have done. It is our duty to do this and truly understand the meaning of the phrase and resolve “never again“.

  11. Nonsense. The phrase “Never Again” made it obvious — nay, demonstrable — what comparison she was trying to make, and it *is* odious. My mother was in Bergen Belsen. Bergen Belsen was a concentration camp. No, they were not extermination camps, but people were nonetheless worked to death, allowed to die of malnutrition and starvation, to the order of hundreds and hundreds of thousands. 50,000 died in Bergen Belsen alone.

    So, no, the detention centers are nothing like the concentration camps AOC was deliberately invoking. And they don’t have to be, in order to be horrible in their own right. Her invocation of the Holocaust was either cynical and manipulative or reflects a breathtaking stupidity and ignorance.

  12. Chris Kimsey

    Nailed it ejwinner!

  13. I largely agree but I think it’s somewhat less odious when one realizes that she doesn’t really mean it. That is to say, she doesn’t mean it in the literal descriptive way. But I obviously have no brief for AOC.

  14. Did I attempt to speak for “everyone”? I don’t think so. I did argue, however, that common usage closely associates the term “concentration camp” with the Holocaust and I cited the two most authoritative lexicons of English to do it. This goes double with phrases like “never again” and terms like “fascism”. I think my reading of her intentions is quite fair.

  15. Semantics are important! (also thank you for the kind words.)

    I think a politician using words would have to be strategic but that precision should be part of that strategy. Obviously a politician can’t speak like an intellectual ( at least all the time). But I’m more concerned with the way we use language in the intellectual sphere. There is no excuse not to be precise there.

  16. Once you look for these problems you realize they’re everywhere…

  17. Joe Smith

    “The phrase “Never Again” made it obvious”

    Only to cynics with an axe to grind. Even if AOC was invoking the holocaust, not “everyone” shares your odious reaction to it: And if she is truly as ignorant as you suggest, she wouldn’t even be aware of the connection between the phrase and the holocaust. Like it or not, ‘Never Again’ has entered the lexicon as a general refrain for all kinds of atrocities. The Parkland students are using it in their campaign to advocate for gun control: Surely this invocation must be just as odious?

    If you are upset at the comparison, maybe you need to ask yourself why. It sounds personal to you, rather than a dispassionate philosophical disagreement over semantics.

  18. Joe Smith

    I wasn’t responding to you but to Dan. But if you have a guilty conscience, I can oblige. The common usage of the term ‘bird’ is closely associated with species like robins. It does not follow from this that anyone using the term ‘bird’ would mean robin, even within the context of red breasted birds nesting in trees in North America . The death camps in Nazi Germany were a species of concentration camp. Most of these facilities were actually built in 1933 when they were mass prisons, and weren’t turned into death camps until mid-war. Concentration camps in general date back to the 19th century and were called by that name even then. Likewise ‘fascism’ is a species of authoritarian government and not unique to Nazi Germany. These are paradigmatic examples, or prototypes, and are common cognitive associations where some members of a category are more central than others. Thus, robins are prototypical of birds, Nazi death camps are prototypical of concentration camps, and National Socialism is prototypical of fascism.

    Your article assumes popular prototypical concepts can be safely conflated with an individual’s intended meaning, even when that individual denies such meaning. Not every use of a loaded term is a dog-whistle. So no, I don’t think that is quite fair.

  19. “Guilty conscience.” Lol.

  20. Peter DO Smith

    Julius Caesar, in Commetarii de Bello Gallico, opens with the story of how the Helvetii left their own country and endeavoured to occupy Gaul.

    After his[Olgetorix’s] death, the Helvetii nevertheless attempt to do that which they had resolved on, namely, to go forth from their territories. When they thought that they were at length prepared for this undertaking, they set fire to all their towns, in number about twelve–to their villages about four hundred–and to the private dwellings that remained; they burn up all the corn, except what they intend to carry with them; that after destroying the hope of a return home, they might be the more ready for undergoing all dangers. They order every one to carry forth from home for himself provisions for three months, ready ground. They persuade the Rauraci, and the Tulingi, and the Latobrigi, their neighbours, to adopt the same plan, and after burning down their towns and villages, to set out with them: and they admit to their party and unite to themselves as confederates the Boii, who had dwelt on the other side of the Rhine, and had crossed over into the Norican territory, and assaulted Noreia.

    These were desperate measures, no doubt inspired by desperate times, despite Julius Caesar’s attempt to assign blame on Olgetorix’s lust for sovereignty. And then we see Julius Caesar’s response, as he buys time to amass his troops:

    Meanwhile, with the legion which he had with him and the soldiers who had assembled from the Province, he carries along for nineteen miles a wall, to the height of sixteen feet, and a trench, from the lake of Geneva, which flows into the river Rhone, to Mount Jura, which separates the territories of the Sequani from those of the Helvetii. When that work was finished, he distributes garrisons, and closely fortifies redoubts, in order that he may the more easily intercept them, if they should attempt to cross over against his will.

    Does this sound familiar? Is there anything new under the sun? How should we react?

    60,000 years ago we left East Africa, enveloping the world in turmoil and conflict as we struggled for domains. Human history is the story of repeated migrations and the conflicts they inspire. Indigenous populations are replaced by invading populations, always at great cost. As invaders we celebrate and rewrite history while the voice of the conquered is silenced when their throat is cut and their women impregnated by the invaders.

    So then, how should we react?

    1) Allow unrestricted migration that will swamp us and deprive us of all we hold dear?
    2) Allow limited migration that is restricted to our capacity to absorb newcomers?
    3) Stop all migration.

    These are the stark choices we face. (3) is impossible while (1) is untenable. And so we are left with limited migration and all that remains is the discussion of the best means to limit that migration, together with how limited that migration should be. Limiting migration always requires strong measures. Desperate migrants will not turn back in response to polite pleas, just as the Helvetii, having burnt down their homes, could not turn back..

    We need to balance self interest(prudential reasoning) with compassion(moral reasoning), mediated by wisdom. What I see is the singular absence of wisdom as both parties seek to maximise their political advantages. It is a shameful spectacle, and especially so for Democrats, as they claim to be the wiser and more compassionate. They betray their own ideals, but Republicans are not far behind in this race to the bottom.

  21. s. wallerstein

    I can understand that you, Dan K. as the child of two Holocaust survivors, are especially sensitive about the subject of the Holocaust and about anything which appears to relativize the horror of it. I’ve had a long relationship with the daughter of a man disappeared by the Pinochet dictatorship and I’ve learned that the horrors of fascist dictatorships affect the children of victims and survivors.

    However, as Joe Smith points out, the phrase “never again” is used everywhere. It’s used in Latin America (in Spanish) when speaking of the horrible dictatorships of the 1970’s and 1980’s, Pinochet, the Argentinian junta, etc.
    I don’t know where AOC picked it up, but it may well have been in the latino community she grew up in, not in the literature about the Holocaust.

    It’s true that she might learn to be more sensitive to what Holocaust survivors and their children feel and I hope that she will be so in the future.

    Otherwise, I wonder why out of all the demagogic politicians in the world, AOC is singled out. I rather like her and I hope that she is re-elected. By the way, I imagine that she gears her political rhetoric towards voters in her Bronx district, not towards you and David Ottlinger. She was elected in 2016 and she probably knows what kind of discourse appeals to her voters, many of them latinos who probably feel very strongly about immigration issues and about Trump’s demagogic appeals to xenophobia towards illegal immigrants.

    Finally, her first name is Alexandria, not Alexandra as is written in the title of this post.

  22. I focus on her — and Omar and Tlaib — because they represent a form of left wing politics that I not only deeply dislike, but because I think it is a political loser. We have allowed Trump to manipulate us into identifying the party with them, and I believe it will cost us the election. Everytime she or Omar opens her mouth, we lose another Rust belt state that we need to win the election.

    So I hope she loses and badly.

  23. s. wallerstein

    They represent a wing of the Democratic party. AOC is the congresswoman from the Bronx and we’ll see if the voters there re-elect her. She’s not running for president.

  24. She and the Squad have become the faces of the Party and it will have a significant effect on the election.

  25. s. wallerstein

    The most probable Democratic candidate is Biden who has nothing to do with the squad. I think that a party which goes from Biden (and the Clintons) to Sanders and AOC may be all the stronger for that. Otherwise, by the way, the U.S. will have to give up the two-party system and adopt one of multiple mini-parties.

  26. TheDudeDiogenes

    This post seems to me to make a pretty indisputable case that AOC meant to invoke the Holocaust with her remarks. That she made such a comparison, however, shouldn’t stop the rest of us from using the phrase “concentration camp(s)” when appropriate.

    I am no doubt idiosyncratic, but to me, the phrase “concentration camp” will always conjure images I have in my head from the stories I heard growing up, from my ethnically German Yugoslavian Grandmother, about her time being held by the Russians in a concentration camp (even after the war had ended). [Thanks to a compassionate guard who looked away, my great-grandmother and grandmother were able to escape the camp for Austria, and from there emigrate to the US.]

  27. By the end of then primaries, if it is Biden, he will be so damaged and bloodied by the candidates to the left of him that Trump will make quick work of him.

    The primaries are a circular firing squad, and our party is too stupid to realize it.

  28. Peter DO Smith

    That she made such a comparison, however, shouldn’t stop the rest of us from using the phrase “concentration camp(s)” when appropriate.

    Yes, indeed. A mere kilometre from where I live is a monument to a British concentration camp where Boer civilians were interned during the Boer war. I often stop by during my daily doggie walk to wonder what happened here. Today the site is is a popular sports ground.

    Concentration camps were operated by the British in South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War from 1900–1902. The term “concentration camp” grew in prominence during that period. The camps had originally been set up by the British Army as “refugee camps” to provide refuge for civilian families who had been forced to abandon their homes for whatever reason related to the war. However, when the Earl Kitchener took over in late 1900, he introduced new tactics in an attempt to break the guerrilla campaign and the influx of civilians grew dramatically as a result. Disease and starvation killed thousands.[1][2] According to the historian and Labour Peer, Thomas Pakenham, Kitchener initiated plans to flush out guerrillas in a series of systematic drives, organised like a sporting shoot, with success defined in a weekly ‘bag’ of killed, captured and wounded, and to sweep the country bare of everything that could give sustenance to the guerrillas, including women and children … It was the clearance of civilians—uprooting a whole nation—that would come to dominate the last phase of the war.[3]

    As Boer farms were destroyed by the British under their “Scorched Earth” policy—including the systematic destruction of crops and the slaughtering or removal of livestock, the burning down of homesteads and farms—to prevent the Boers from resupplying from a home base many tens of thousands of men, women and children were forcibly moved into the concentration camps.[4][5] This was not the first appearance of internment camps, as the Spanish had used internment in Cuba in the Ten Years’ War, but the Boer War concentration camp system was the first time that a whole nation had been systematically targeted, and the first in which some whole regions had been depopulated.

    It was a brutal, cynical and highly effective measure that ended Boer resistance.

  29. s. wallerstein

    I can see that you dislike the left of the Democratic Party and you also, incredibly for a classical liberal, seem to be uncomfortable with political debate, that is, the political debate within the Democratic Party between its left and right wings, since you call it a “circular firing squad”.

    Yes, debate can destroy a political party but it also force the candidate who emerges from the primaries to take into account all the currents of opinion within the party, making him or her a stronger candidate. I hope it’s the latter case.
    We’ll see.

  30. s. wallerstein

    You, Dan k., dared people to bet on the outcomes of the 2020 presidential election a while ago. You insisted that Trump would win. I didn’t see any takers. I’ll take your bet.

    I say that Trump will lose. A hundred dollars?

  31. How about $25? 🙂

  32. s. wallerstein

    25 dollars is too little. The sum has to be enough that it hurts to pay. How about 50 dollars?

  33. s. wallerstein


  34. If I were in AOC’s district, I would vote for her. I’m not sure whether I would vote for her as president, but she’s not running so that question does not arise.

    I see her as breaking from the conventionality that we have had for too long. She is raising interesting ideas and is thereby stimulating discussion. Yes, some of her ideas are impractical, but by introducing them she does broaden the discussion.

  35. Bunsen Burner

    I found the article quite disappointing. You rightly criticize the pedantry of those defending the technical definition of concentration camp, but then seem to lapse into another form of pedantry saying that the concept can only be used synonymously with death camp. As others have already noted, it is now used as a general term to denote people kept under humiliating and degrading conditions. Everyone I know understands this. I am sure you do too but for some reason refuse to accept this. This, unfortunately, makes your argument sound shallow and lazy. In fact, all of us use terms to denote things that are often different pedantically from the original historical context. I would argue that this repurposing is an important element of how concepts evolve. What is to be done? Make every idea ahistorical and neutral? I would argue that rather than an insult, we are showing great respect to the victims of the past by incorporating the objects of their suffering into our lexicon. It can be abused of course. I cringe at the abuse of ‘fascist’ and ‘nazi’ being used as insults for every minor disagreement. On the other hand ‘detention centre’ is far too neutral a term considering that they are a deliberate policy instrument designed to humiliate and degrade people. You never did state what your favoured term for them would be.

  36. As others have already noted, it is now used as a general term to denote people kept under humiliating and degrading conditions. Everyone I know understands this.
    This has not been my experience. Indeed, I am quite certain that you could ask the entire 20,000+ population of my university what a concentration camp is, and the only examples you would get are Nazi ones.

    Not only do I think David is right, then, I actually think hr was too easy on AOC. My initial judgment on hearing it was much harsher.

  37. Zac

    Agreed, EJ.

    You and Joe have framed it well. This piece feels at once over-egged and under-thought. No, Ocasio-Cortez isn’t doing historical analysis, but the essay misses the mark suggesting that efforts in the Esquire piece to fill out her statements with a deeper discussion of history and actual condition of the detention centers are tangential to her project. Otto seems to think that emphasizing the moral question, as AOC does, means totally divorcing fact from value judgment and hitching the meaning to the latter. Yes, this is political language, in that it’s exhortatory and seeking to effect political change, but isn’t so divorced from fact or common, conventional usage of the terms that she’s of a piece with me in high school calling anything “fascist” that I didn’t like. (I’d add that I can pick out more troubling cases of political rhetoric divorced from fact on a daily basis from my head of state, the much more toxic and discourse-disintegrating figure.) The Esquire article does a good job at laying out the case, highlighting common usage, detailing a more specialized understanding of the term, and then drawing credible connections between them. The common and specialized usage may be distinct, but they’re on a continuum and they should be sensitive and responsive to each other in a case like this. Likewise, facts and values here are necessarily intertangled, since the most pressing questions are: what’s happing in these facilities and how should we feel about it? Creating a historical continuity between this debate and past practices of mass detention is appropriate. If “Never again” is only about stopping something that’s reached the threshold of genocide, then even the early days of Nazi concentration camps weren’t “Never again” material. They were still too far. This is still too far.

  38. Zac

    Peter DO Smith

    “Invoking comparisons with the Holocaust is the most utterly odious, cynical and despicable strategy imaginable. It is shameful beyond belief.”

    I can imagine more odious, cynical, despicable, and shameful strategies. For example, a head of state treating people of color like noxious invaders (even born-and-bred citizens), associating them with vermin-infested shitholes, and following up on this rhetoric by forcing a vulnerable subset of them into a manifestation of this evil fever dream — sick, hungry people standing sometimes hours on end for lack of space, babies caked in lice and shit, suffering extremes of hot and cold. While you’re up in arms over the threshold for Holocaust-relevance, this is happening, and behind the walls of words, these people are suffering. Even if there was a serious prospect of you “winning” this argument, it will be a hopeless victory.

  39. Peter DO Smith

    your rhetoric is a vivid example of the false equivalence that has bedevilled the debate. You have nicely illustrated the problem.

    Your description is interesting because it bears an uncanny resemblance to the place where I live. I am on speaking terms with the things you describe. Now here’s the thing. I am a devout Catholic and I am completely with Pope Francis when he calls on us to do all that we can for the suffering migrants. So when you say

    Even if there was a serious prospect of you “winning” this argument, it will be a hopeless victory.“,

    we don’t deal in winning arguments. That is because every day we have small victories when we help the homeless, the suffering, the sick and the poor. When confronted by the scale of the suffering these victories do indeed feel hopeless. But I know inside myself that every little thing that is a tangible expression of compassion is a real victory.

  40. Peter DO Smith

    “The phrase “Never Again” made it obvious”

    Only to cynics with an axe to grind.

    That is such an unfair remark.

  41. Peter DO Smith

    Not every use of a loaded term is a dog-whistle

    Every loaded term is evocative and so should be used with care. Politicians are craftsmen with words and carefully(with the possible exception of Trump) choose their words. Their intent is always readily apparent and no amount of ducking, dodging and diving after the event can change that. And by the way, a good example of this is the loaded term ‘dog-whistle’, so beloved of the hard left.

  42. There is a need for the Political climate in Washington DC to make changes. Where we have been going for the last 50 years is to “I feel” concept, with “I want it my way”, which does not reflect what was the original vision of Governing Freedom and Prosperity. We have forgotten the Failure of the system that failed the first year of Colonial existence. As with all things that swing, the weight of the problem to be solved diminishes the momentum and forces that which is RIGHT to pull back towards the middle. With the conservative population swinging further to the right is in check by the conservative groups that never let stupidity control. As for AOC and her Squad. There is a short life for those who have no clue. As all Gastro maladies, this gas will pass, but not without a stink. I still you have broached the issue with intellect.

  43. Zac

    Peter DO Smith

    “your rhetoric is a vivid example of the false equivalence that has bedevilled the debate. You have nicely illustrated the problem.”

    Hi, Peter. Not sure what I’m falsely equating with what or how that segues into the rest of your comment. I believe you when you say you’re a sincere, practicing Catholic who believes in compassion for migrants. But a person can believe all that while letting their high dudgeon rhetoric lose sight of that in favor of phantom controversies. While you find AOC calling these horrible places concentration camps the most “odious, cynical and despicable strategy imaginable”, I can easily call up far more odious rhetoric, and not simply rhetoric putting us in problematic conceptual territory, but rhetoric that’s immediately connected to policies with appalling consequences for real people as we sit here typing away. You want to break through the rhetoric? Very well. I have, let me emphasize, paraphrased Trump’s rhetoric. Was anything I said inaccurate? I have, again, highlighted reported conditions in these facilities. Was any of that inaccurate?

    We can take AOC on a Christmas-Carol-type trip back to Bergen-Belsen guided by the ghost of Anne Frank, but I don’t think that would end as you think it would. I imagine it would strengthen her convictions. She thinks that’s the extreme end of the continuum here, our camps being an already-too-far step on the spectrum. What’s more, if you, her, and Anne astral projected to the Crimes of the Historical Present, experienced the conditions of these detention centers first-hand, and you said, “Aren’t I right, Anne? Haven’t we shown her? It’s different! It’s shameful not to focus on this difference!” are you utterly convinced her response wouldn’t be, “What are you saying? This is awful. I’d rather someone use my name to stop this and use my name to distract from this”? And God damn us, everyone.

  44. Great whataboutism, but it doesn’t change the odious nature of AOC’s rhetoric.

    We are all capable of identifying Trump’s detention centers as the horrible moral disaster that they are without making false equivalencies and engaging in manipulative rhetoric.

    The “squad” and their ilk in the Democratic Party are doing a great job playing circular firing squad. By the time they are done, everyone will be so bloodied and “hinterland” folk will be so repulsed, Trump will have an easy time with us. I’ve been taking bets with whomever is willing that Trump will win the election, regardless of who the Democratic nominee is. Alas, the likelihood of that gets greater every day.

  45. Zac


    “Great whataboutism, but it doesn’t change the odious nature of AOC’s rhetoric.

    We are all capable of identifying Trump’s detention centers as the horrible moral disaster that they are without making false equivalencies and engaging in manipulative rhetoric.”

    “Capability” is great and all, but isn’t particularly impressive when it’s poorly exercised. If someone says the worst rhetoric imaginable in this circumstance is people calling these concentration camps, and not, to repeat, “a head of state treating people of color like noxious invaders (even born-and-bred citizens), associating them with vermin-infested shitholes, and following up on this rhetoric by forcing a vulnerable subset of them into a manifestation of this evil fever dream — sick, hungry people standing sometimes hours on end for lack of space, babies caked in lice and shit, suffering extremes of hot and cold” then I think their priorities are fundamentally askew here. For this to be whataboutism, there would have to be a rhetorical equivalency, and there simply isn’t. There is a reasonable case for calling these concentration camps. There is no reasonable case for the vile rhetoric Trump has been spewing to justify these facilities and to attack his critics. What’s more, Trump’s rhetoric is directly connected with real-world impacts on these refugees. Sorry if you feel “manipulated” by this rhetoric, but your so-far incapability of addressing its content on its merits leaves me unmoved. And also sorry, “There are no merits!” won’t suffice. Enjoy your evening!

  46. Nah there is no reasonable case, regardless of how many word-walls you produce.

    You enjoy your evening too!

  47. s. wallerstein

    I agree with Zac.

    Now I know that any decent person is horrified by Trump’s rhetoric and we hardly need to point out how vulgar and unfeeling Trump is. Any bright high school kid or even junior high school kid can see through Trump’s bigoted discourse and we’re on the graduate school level here, not to mention a few tenured professors. We’re not only way beyond Trump, we’re almost way beyond criticizing him.

    Still, in the concrete political situation, in the context of an election contest in which no matter who the Democratic nominee will be, he or she will be far superior to Trump, in which no doubt AOC makes a lot of mistakes and shows great insensitivity to the feelings of Holocaust survivors, their families and Jews in general, the basic question “which side are you on? arises.

    I know that we are all anti-Trump. I’ve never seen a good thing said about him in this blog by anyone, yet, as Zac points out, from time to time we need to remind ourselves and above all remind readers of this blog that AOC is not the major political problem these days.

  48. AOC and her ilk are the reason why we will lose to Trump again. Indeed, he is consistently playing us, using the idiot woke wing of the party as a plot device. Our only chance of winning was to triangulate, but that is now impossible, now that Trump has manipulated the party to rally behind “the squad.”

  49. s. wallerstein

    As I said yesterday, I don’t agree with your political analysis.

    We already bet 50 dollars. If you’re so sure the Democrats will blow the election, why not bet a hundred dollars?

    I’ll send my personal data to your email by the way so that you can be reasonably sure that I’ll pay if I lose.

  50. I know you’re good for it.

    Also, it’s hardly just my analysis. You can disagree of course, but it’s not just something I dreamt up. I also called the last election for Trump way back when everyone else was saying Hillary couldn’t lose. Won quite a lot of money on that one.

  51. s. wallerstein

    Yes, I know. You won some money from my old friend David H.

    We’ll see if it was beginner’s luck or a gift for political analysis.

  52. You’re friends with David? I didn’t know that. He’s a great guy! How do you know him?

  53. s. wallerstein

    I met him in Berkeley, California in the early 70’s. We’ve kept in touch since.

  54. Russell’s Pedant

    In all this argument about what AOC really meant, may I suggest that everyone make themselves conscious of the difference between denotation and connotation. Semantic quibbling about what the denotation of “Concentration Camp” is is beside the point when parsing political speech which is almost always all about the connotations.

  55. “For those who are offended by comparisons to what’s happening now and what happened to Germany in the early 1930s, change your channel, go watch Sponge Bob Squarepants, because if the analogy fits, if the historical analogy fits, wear it.” Joe Scarborough (former Republican congressman from Florida and avowed “movement conservative”), Morning Joe, 8/5/19

    I quote this here, not because I agree, although I do have some concerns of where Trump is marching us to (I refuse to normalize him as ‘just another politician’), but to emphasize my earlier point that Trump has radically changed the rhetorical/ public-discursive environment in ways that need closer analysis, and some detachment from the (possibly archaic?) presumption of the rational self-interested individual that the theory of the liberal state was founded upon, and which structured discussion and debate in earlier eras when we were for the most part guided by the “better angels of our nature.”

    At any rate, apparently after El Paso – 20 people killed by a shooter borrowing phraseology from Trump, in a state where Trump laughingly remarked that one could “get away with” talk of shooting immigrants -, the ‘Nazi-cat’ is now out of the rhetorical bag, and no longer needs subtle distinctions as those made in this article. Such distinctions, despite their evident good will and careful reasoning, may belong to the America of another era.

    This is already the ugliest election I’ve ever witnessed, and the ugliest, darkest period in American politics since the Civil War – which echoes through it in undertones easily heard if listened for.

  56. The Dayton shooting was by an Elizabeth Warren voter. Apparently, he wrote “kill all fascists,” ‘fascist’ of course, being the all-purpose term used now to describe anyone who is not lockstep with progressive ideology, including people who are demonstrably liberal. Are we going to saddle her with that?

    This discourse reminds of the ’80s when people were blaming Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest for suicides. It was deeply cynical and manipulative then, as it is now.

  57. If Warren had spent 4 years deploying the rhetoric of hate and violence, if she suggested that she would be pleased if ‘fascists’ were to be killed, and if the Dayton shooter had published a manifesto using key words from speeches by Warren, (and if he hadn’t been apparently lashing out at people due to experiences at school and at home) – then, yes, it would be right to call her deployment of such rhetoric to account.

    Right now, the evidence in El Paso strongly suggests that the shooting was racially and politically (in extremist terms) motivated.

    Before the Death Camps, there were the Concentration Camps; Before the Concentration Camps there were the race laws stripping Jews of their citizenship; before that was the burning of the Reichstag and the suspension of civil liberties, followed by the Enabling Act, the declaration of dictatorship; before that there was a vote in the Reichstag naming Hitler Chancellor. Before that he was legitimately elected as a representative to the Reichstag.

    Before that were decades of anti-Semitic rant and enculturation, some of it quite crude, some of it articulated as “scientific,” preparing the way for Adolf Hitler. In 1925 Hitler wrote Mein Kampf. Some who read it didn’t believe it – to them, it was “just rhetoric.” Some recognized the danger but thought the Germans could reason their way out of it.

    Joe Scarborough isn’t engaging in scare tactics (although I agree that some are.). I think he is truly worried that, in order to avoid a logical slippery slope, we’re possibly sliding down a historical slippery slope.

    The fact is that Trump is a wild card, and he concerns many as to his intentions for the future. Will he even leave the White House if he loses the election (he has a couple times suggested, somewhat whimsically, that he might not.) He has also suggested that there would be violence if he lost the election He has also suggested that he would like to stay in the White House for another two or three terms. Is he pulling our legs? Is he just crying “Boo!” at his liberal opponents? The problem is that we can’t be certain. He tells four women of color that they should “go back to where they came from,” which is likely intended simply to be incendiary, but off the cuff, completely seriously, he remarks his distaste for immigrants from the “shithole countries” of Africa.

    Is the Nazi-evocation rhetoric manipulative? Yes. But is it cynical? I’m not so sure.

    Frank Zappa sang, in 1967, “there’s no way to delay/ that trouble comin’ every day.” well, miraculously, we did delay it. The 1960s were a political nightmare, on all sides; but America came out of it, admittedly scarred – so seriously that much of what we are discussing here can be traced partly back to that era – but that “trouble,” the possible negative consequences of deep fissures in the political, social, cultural, and economic ground of this nation, many reaching back decades, even centuries – may still be on its way.

    Name calling is a waste of time, and its ability to win votes is highly questionable. But we haven’t had serious discussion on these issues since the 1970s, and that was a brief re-capture after we had survived the 1960s, and before that, a brief recapture after the McCarthy era. In fact this country has been developing two histories since World War Two – one with which we are all familiar, and another that only shows up in song, personal narrative, films and works of fiction, and which we catch in the corner of our eye when we drive down the streets of various cities and small towns.

  58. It just seems to me like we’re all engaged in elaborate performative exercises, the purpose of which is to show exactly how terrible we think Trump is, rather than actually figuring out how to win the election and get him out.

  59. There’s truth in that – and I wanted to say one last thing on Octavio-Cortez (I refuse the celebrity honorific “AOC”) that I don’t think she, nor many of the younger Democrats right now know how to address a national audience, and that’s one of the base problems here.

    I think that to avoid the worst of what David and you complain, we should all abandon social media, which misleads us that there is a conversation that isn’t actually happening, while distracting us from the conversations we should have.

    However, metaphors admitted, I think many of my worries concerning the present moment (i.e. Trump) are grounded in fact. with traceable historical lineage – itself requiring greater discussion and analysis than we usually give it.

    At any rate, I don’t refer to O’Rourke, who does seem to be motivated by an election cycle opportunism, but rather quote Scarborough, because his interest in defeating Trump – which appears real – is not grounded in liberalism, but in his hope of resurrecting movement conservatism after Trump is gone. He really has more at stake here than someone like O’Rourke or Octavio-Cortez, his whole sense of history, of the narrative to which he’s committed, is at risk here. And I think it noteworthy that the quote of his I posted is the beginning of a brief discussion with biographer/ historian Jon Meacham, certainly also no wild-eyed leftist positioning himself for an election.

    But my point really is, that in the Trump era, rhetorical and discursive norms are out of whack; and that at any rate the Nazi-evocation rhetoric that David may rightfully complain about, which until El Paso only simmered at the margins, has now, for better or worse, entered the mainstream. It may even work to Trump’s benefit, he relishes being at the center of attention – any attention.

    I do think we need strategies for dealing with this, and stronger analysis of the environment that makes it possible.

    Reviewing the material available on Betts, I see that we do have very difficult issues at work in both shootings; although they are not equitable, I think we can agree that somethings have gone seriously wrong in the American psyche. And the politics of the moment do not allow much reasonable, level-headed discussion concerning these.

  60. “Invoking comparisons with the Holocaust is the most utterly odious, cynical and despicable strategy imaginable.”

    Good thing nobody is doing that.

  61. Joe Smith

    The way you get Trump out of office is by beating him on policy. Progressive polices are actually the most popular among voters (i.e. medicare for all, free college, getting money out of politics, sensible gun laws, and ending the wars, etc…all polling at over 70%). These are popular even among Trump voters. These are winnable policies. The GOP has no answer for these.

    To say that “AOC and her ilk are the reason Trump will win again” is just completely absurd. AOC, the squad, and Bernie Sanders are the most popular politicians in the country. AOC alone has almost single-handedly re-invigorated politics among young people. She’s a political rock star. The only way Trump will win again is if the Democrats elect another milquetoast centrist Republican-light corporate establishment candidate That’s what happened in 2016, and we all saw what happened. If Biden wins the Primary, then yes, Trump will get a second term — guaranteed.

    It is Pelosi, Schumer, and their ilk, who are getting in the way of ousting Trump. People are completely fed up with the old guard, and are desperate for bold polices.

    I’m astonished you can’t see this.

  62. …”‘fascist’ of course, being the all-purpose term used now to describe anyone who is not lockstep with progressive ideology”

    While certainly overused, it is nothing new. I remember people on the left calling everyone else ‘fascists’ in the 1960s. It’s also now overused by the far right, who call anyone on the left, especially antifa, “the real fascists”. Just like they use ‘SJW’ or ‘woke’ as catch-all slurs now.

  63. Of course they are. AOC did it, which is what the whole freaking conversation is about.

  64. a foreigner

    If you want Trump out of office propose a candidate who can credibly claim that they will do what Trump said he would do – drain the swamp. Actually enforce the rule of law equally, not “equitably”, on everyone. Stop pandering to special interests. Stop dissecting the polity with an intersectional scalpel. Stop promoting sexism, racism and communism (note the small ‘c’) as criteria for preference in an oppression olympics. Socialism has been a wholesale failure in every community larger than about 150 throughout history, since even before the word Socialism was coined to denote it, because it doesn’t work in the large scale. Admit it and move on. Capitalism, even dysfunctional, badly or un- regulated or even predatory Capitalism has been successful throughout history, since even before the word Capitalism was coined to denote it, because it works. Admit it. Make it well-regulated, non-predatory and functional. Get rid of corporate welfare. Stop the Cronys from engaging in Crony-Capitalism. Fully accept the fact that yours is a Capitalist economy which runs on private enterprise and fit your children to succeed in it. Teach people from childhood on how to appraise the value of their own work and how to negotiate full payment for it. You have an economy which runs on private enterprise and a school system which teaches socialist idealism. You have an economy which trades by the numbers in private property and a school system which turns out millions of functionally innumerate students who have never learned how to barter. Its no wonder millions of young adults end up over-worked, under-paid and marooned in economic stagnation when they have to negotiate conditions of employment while not knowing what their work is worth with people who have been in business as entrepreneurs for decades and have learned every bargaining trick in the book.