You will by now have seen one report or another contrasting the responses of Presidents Obama (who visited as a senator and presidential candidate) and Trump to Yad Vashem, the Israeli national museum and memorial dedicated to the victims of the Nazi Genocide, the survivors of that crime, and the so-called “righteous of the nations” who contributed in some larger or smaller way to the resistance to the Nazi cause. While there are variances in the responses, they share the same basic premise. Something like: Look at how thoughtful and sincere Obama was, in contrast to the current holder of that office. I dissent from this seeming-consensus. Rather, the contrast as others present it brings to mind considerations of a different comparison upon which I have already commented on Public Seminar: The one between Obama and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. In March, there was a brief scandal regarding how similar or different their statements were in describing slaves as immigrants. (For the record, Carson spoke of slaves as “involuntary immigrants”; Obama as “immigrants… in their way.”) Here, as in my earlier response, I want to suggest that there may be more linking Obama’s response to Trump’s response than many would wish to acknowledge.
The link between the earlier pair of Obama’s and Carson’s comments on slaves as immigrants and this new pair of Obama’s and Trump’s responses to Yad Vashem emerges at once if we look at the text Obama wrote in the guestbook at Yad Vashem in July 2008. In part, it reads:
And may we remember those who perished, not only as victims, but also as individuals who hoped and loved and dreamed like us, and who have become symbols of the human spirit.
Notice how closely this tracks what Obama said in an event for newly naturalized American citizens in December 2015:
It wasn’t always easy for new immigrants. Certainly it wasn’t easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily, and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves. There was discrimination and hardship and poverty. But, like you, they no doubt found inspiration in all those who had come before them. And they were able to muster faith that, here in America, they might build a better life and give their children something more.
In both cases, Obama, reaching for those “better angels of the human spirit” as his rhetoric so often does, figures the misrecognized person of the past — the victim of the Nazi genocide, or the African sold into chattel slavery — as “someone like us,” someone with hopes and dreams, someone who “somehow” could “muster faith.” But, as I argued in a follow-up piece on the failure of misrepresentation today to somehow make right misrecognition in the past, what at first appears as a laudable motivation to restore the personhood of those whose person was confiscated at the time — an African sold into a chattel slavery, a victim of the Nazi Genocide — actually, however intended, has pernicious results. Whatever the intent of the speaker/respondent who calls our attention to the victims of past atrocities in this way, one actual effect of this speech act is to obscure (if not to whitewash) the actual nature of the past dehumanization we are putatively memorializing and attempting to do justice to.
In this respect, I am sorry to say, I cannot agree that Obama’s guestbook entry is somehow “worlds apart” from that of his successor. Yes, it much more eloquent, and (even merely quantitatively) much more substantial. Yes, it shows a great deal more care and thought than Trump’s. But, at its core, it actually has the same message: We come here, and we sign the book in order to join in the chorus that shouts “never again,” without ever truly coming to terms with what exactly it is that occurred.
Let me, on the contrary, be clear about what I see as the “lesson” of the Nazi Genocide, which has nothing to do with the hopes and dreams of the victims and how much they were or were not like us. The primary lesson we need to come to terms with in the face of the Nazi Genocide is the lesson with which we need to come to terms in the face of the transatlantic slave trade and the practice of chattel slavery in late colonial and antebellum America. Namely, it was possible and actual that the juridical and administrative power of the state could and did effect the complete dehumanization of persons, using of the body of the no-longer-a-person for the needs or purposes of its owner and/or its destruction by bullets, gas, starvation or disease once it was useless. That one project of dehumanization privileged the use-value of the racialized body (now dispossessed of personhood) while the other privileged the ideological repugnance of that racialized body does not undermine the deeper core the two crimes share and that we need to confront.
It is the imperative to confront those crimes in their enormity, and with the greatest degree of historical accuracy possible, that motivates my refusal to accept the “politics of hope” I see behind President Obama’s statements on the victims of the Nazi Genocide as “people like us” and on the status of slaves as immigrants. Yes, we can recognize that there is in fact a significant difference between the way in which he articulated his vision of underlying humanity in both cases, when compared to the comments of President Trump in the one case and of Secretary Carson in the other. But we must also acknowledge that in one crucial respect and in both cases, President Obama — surely with the best of intentions — has failed both the victims of those historical crimes and us. His failure is in minimizing the chasm that separates us, however partially or fully our humanity is recognized, from historical personages whose humanity was essentially denied, and whose personhood was successfully confiscated. We must indeed never forget that these travesties were enacted, but we also must be careful that as we remember, we do not fail to confront the full truth in all its ugliness. And that means without the saving grace of hope, of which none is to be found in the experience of either genocide or chattel slavery.