Words matter, concepts matter. Without a shared understanding of language we’d live in a world of chaos. Truth, in other words, matters. If a word means different things to different people, then the word is useless as a means of communication. It’s the Humpty Dumpty approach to language: ‘when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’. It’s also how people tell lies with a straight face.
Recently my Facebook page was filled with the dreadful news that Donald Trump had opened concentration camps on the American border with Mexico. This is terrible news for another reason. Over 100,000 American soldiers died freeing Europe from Nazi oppression. Allied troops liberated the concentration camps of Western Europe. And American soldiers would turn in their graves if they knew they had liberated Europe from Nazi barbarism only to see it become a political reality in America.
It’s not true, of course, that America has established concentration camps near the Mexican border. It’s not even remotely true. It’s not even political hyperbole. It’s a flat-out lie. A lie that could only be told by people with no sense of decency. Or by people who are so stupid that they make Homer Simpson look like Albert Einstein. This, though, is the world in which we live. It’s a world where the meaning of established words and concepts has been turned into the opposite of what people commonly understand. It is – to use an often abused term – Orwellian in its implications. It’s how Nazism, and its close relative, communism, caused such destruction in Europe in the twentieth century. And it’s how contemporary extremists want to fool us with their lies.
The concept of distorting the meaning of words is not new. At the height of the Irish Republican Army’s terrorist campaign during the Troubles, it was common practice for An Phoblacht, the IRA/Sinn Féin newspaper, to describe the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland as a concentration camp. I often found myself explaining to historically illiterate Irish Republicans that if the Nazis had ruled Northern Ireland, the IRA would have been wiped out in weeks. No ballads would celebrate the heroic deeds of those who died for Ireland, because there would be nobody left alive to either sing or listen to the songs. Or, as Stalin, another mass murderer, is supposed to have said: ‘death is the solution to all problems – no man, no problem’.
The Nazis, in this fictional, counter-factual universe, would have shot anyone they thought was a member of the IRA. They would have transported the families of IRA members to real concentration camps, where they would be tortured, starved and worked to death (those who couldn’t work would be gassed). In 1943, an SS-commissioned report estimated that inmates within the concentration camp system would survive three months. These statistics did not include those who were murdered on arrival at the camps. The Nazis would destroy entire suburbs or towns with a Catholic or Nationalist population. And while these measures were being enforced, they would randomly pick ten out of every hundred Catholic men, and – irrespective of their politics – execute them. They would repeat these repressive acts until all resistance to the regime ceased.
The British fought the IRA within the constraints imposed by a liberal democracy. The Nazis had no such scruples. The irony here, of course, and this is not fiction, is that the IRA supported the Nazis in the second world war. And just in case anyone has the idea that the noble, downtrodden Irish would rise up against their Nazi oppressors, the only times when resistance movements in Europe were not completely defeated by the Nazis was when the Allies had troops on the ground and direct aid was provided to the resistance. When the Polish Home Army staged a long-awaited revolt against Nazi rule, they fought alone and were destroyed by the Nazis.
In the past it was a sign of intellectual and moral turpitude to claim that anything democratic governments did was remotely similar to the policies of the Third Reich. Extremists, though, have always made this claim. In other words, concept creep in relation to Nazis or concentration camps is not new. What’s different this time, though, is that it is not terrorist organisations or criminal regimes that claim democratic states’ response to border security, terrorism or criminality is analogous to Nazi concentration camps. It’s supposedly clear-thinking politicians and intellectuals in Western liberal democracies.
Conflating border security with concentration camps is a perfect example of why Western political culture is in crisis. If we can’t draw distinctions between political decisions with which we disagree and the most organised, ruthless and cruel genocide in history, then we cannot draw distinctions between any action by a legitimate democratic government and the actions of brutal repressive regimes. The decision to murder the Jews of Europe is no different, on this view, from any attempt by democratic countries to deal with the problems of the mass movement of people in a globalised world. Following the logic of those who believe that Trump has created concentration camps on the southern border of America, any action that impedes the movement of people across national borders is not only illegitimate but is akin to the worst behaviour of the worst people of the twentieth century. This is frightening in its implications. No government or institution could survive such an attitude, because no government could take any action that wouldn’t be described as fascist.
Being honest about an issue means that you use verifiably credible sources or logically consistent arguments. It means that you attack the best arguments of those you criticise. If you can’t poke valid holes in an opponent’s position it means you’re probably wrong. The concentration camp analogy is a perfect example of deceitful rhetoric. It’s how false victimhood is used to weaponise a political agenda. And it is something that all democrats should watch for in anyone, especially self-described activists, who claim to be speaking for the downtrodden, marginalised or oppressed. If border security is similar to concentration camps, protecting the innocent against terrorists is the policy of Nazis, or Gaza is the Warsaw Ghetto, then the notion of truth in the West has died.
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