About Comparing Things to the Holocaust

You probably haven’t heard of State Sen. Stacey Campfield unless you live in Tennessee, which is just as well because Campfield is, umm, not exactly a strong contributor to healthy political discourse. (Campfield is so far out there that in this case anything other than understatement runs the risk of coming across as insulting.) A little while ago, for example, Campfield said:

Democrats bragging about the number of mandatory sign ups for Obamacare is like Germans bragging about the number of manditory (sic) sign ups for ‘train rides’ for Jews in the 40s.

So you can see what I mean.

Campfield was roundly condemned by political leaders in Tennessee, because no matter how much you hate the Affordable Care Act it’s still considered a little bit crazy to compare it to a genocide.

All of which is unsurprising. I could be wrong, but I’m not aware of any case in which a public figure was met with approval after invoking the Holocaust to describe a happening other than the Holocaust.

Reason being that the Holocaust is typically taken to be a collective act so horrific that to bring it into a comparison with something else—even if in your mind that something else seems to be equally horrific—is to diminish the widespread and unspeakable suffering given to so many millions by the Nazi government. So in most corners of polite American political discourse the Holocaust is off limits as an item of comparison. It’s horror stands alone and requires no comparison, exaggeration, or analogy. And to use the Holocaust as a point of comparison, illustration, analogy, or rhetorical weight in order to describe something else is to speak carelessly and callously.

When victims of the Holocaust recount their experiences, then, they usually don’t feel the need to say “it was sort of like this” or “imagine that…” in order to get across the truth and weightiness of their experience. For example, In Elie Wiesel’s famous narrative Night the reader finds very little in the way of metaphor, analogy, or rhetorical flourish. Wiesel recounts his story with plain language, with a matter of factness that is terrifying because the plain truth of his story, as it is and without embellishment, is terrifying.

Wiesel presents the reader with only one or two passages that step outside of his normal frame of reference—passages that might be counted as “comparisons” as they briefly take the reader somewhere else as if to say that Wiesel’s survival of the Holocaust is best understood with reference to something other than the Holocaust itself.

Allied forces were closing in on the concentration camp that imprisoned Wiesel and his father, and so their Nazi imprisoners forced them onto a train and transported them to Buchenwald. The traincar was crowded such that no one could sit down, and Wiesel and his fellow prisoners were given no food.

Wiesel writes:

One day when we had stopped, a workman took a piece of bread out of his bag and threw it into a wagon. There was a stampede. Dozens of starving men fought each other to the death for a few crumbs. The German workmen took a lively interest in this spectacle.

And he continues, now moving the reader elsewhere:

Some years later, I watched the same kind of scene at Aden. The passengers on our boat were amusing themselves by throwing coins to the “natives,” who were diving in to get them. An attractive, aristocratic Parisienne was deriving special pleasure from the game. I suddenly noticed that two children were engaged in a death struggle, trying to strangle each other. I turned to the lady.

“Please,” I begged, “don’t throw any more money in!”

“Why not?” she said. “I like to give charity…”

This is one of Wiesel’s very few Holocaust comparisons. There is something more similar than dissimilar in the Nazi who throws scraps of bread and the Parisienne who throws coins. They represent “the same kind of scene.”

Anyhow, I wanted to put these two very different Holocaust comparisons in the same space—one by a bumbling and clueless TN State Senator and another by a widely respected writer. Both are striking although obviously for very different reasons.

Wiesel’s inverted Holocaust comparison raises our standards as it exposes the cruelty involved with a supposedly charitable act. Whatever shock the reader feels upon reading Wiesel’s narrative is directed, however briefly, towards everyday happenings, with the result being that his narrative functions not as a sealed-off, unspeakable happening that is unrelated to more mundane matters but rather as a challenge to confront humanity’s universal capacity for cruelty. If Wiesel’s comparison is offputting it is not out of any disrespect or diminishment of Holocaust victims. No, Wiesel speaks the urgent truth of a victim’s suffering and then raises other happenings to that same level of urgency.

Campfield begins with a current happening and then tries to play off of the moral outrage and urgency he expects to be associated with a Holocaust comparison. But he is reaching, of course, for a moral urgency he has absolutely failed to understand, and in service of equally misguided concerns about the present. Campfield is the boy who cried wolf but in reverse. The threat and urgency that he hopes to invoke have already passed, and everyone knows he’s lying from the get go.

And so any outrage he hoped to harness is directed only at himself.







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