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Against political analogies

posted by Tim Carmody   May 18, 2018

It’s a common and (on its face) rhetorical move: take something that’s happening now and map it onto the past. Better yet, take something atrocious that’s happening now and show how it maps onto something atrocious in the past, ideally affecting the very people who are now supporting the atrocities. “See?” this trope says: “what you’re doing to other people is exactly what was done to you.”

That’s the basic structure of “resistance genealogy,” as seen in clashes over immigration. “Tomi Lahren’s great-great-grandfather forged citizenship papers; Mike Pence’s family benefited from “chain migration”; James Woods’ ancestors fled famine and moved to Britain as refugees,” etc.

Rebecca Onion argues, convincingly, that this doesn’t work:

The chasm between the life and experiences of a white American, even one who’s descended from desperate immigrants of decades past, and the life of this Honduran mother is the entire point of racist anti-immigration thought. Diminishment of the human qualities of entering immigrants (“unskilled” and “unmodern” immigrants coming from “shithole” countries) reinforces the distance between the two. People who support the Trump administration’s immigration policies want fewer Honduran mothers and their 18-month-olds to enter the country. If you start from this position, nothing you hear about illiterate Germans coming to the United States in the 19th century will change your mind.

Besides underestimating racism, it flattens out history, and assumes that if people only knew more about patterns of historical racism, they might be convinced or at least shamed into changing how they talk about it. Everything we’ve seen suggests that isn’t the case.

I’m going to take this one step further and say this is a weakness in most resorts to historical and political analogies deployed as a tool to understand or persuade people about the present.

For example, consider Donald Trump saying, regarding immigrants trying to enter the United States, “these aren’t people, these are animals.” This is a disgusting thing to say and way to think — and not just because German Nazis and Rwandan perpetrators of genocide used similar language in a different context, and regardless of whether he was using it to refer to immigrants in general or members of a specific gang. It’s bad, it’s racist, it’s shitty, and you really don’t need the added leverage of the historical analogy in order to see why. But that leverage is tempting, because it shows off how much we know, it underlines the stakes, and it converts bad into ultra-bad.

This hurts me to say, because I love history and analogies both. But there’s a limit to how much they can tell us and how well they work. And playing “gotcha!” is usually well beyond the limits of both.