Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Telling Other Stories

I'll admit this CNN article on Katrina's victims leaves me troubled. The piece is about the testimony of Katrina victims in front of congress, where they explicitly placed racism amongst the factors causing the slow federal response.

On the one hand, I think that there is something to the claim. Most importantly, I think that victims should have a presumption of expertise when talking about their own experiences. So when a bunch of congressional Republicans responded to their story by basically saying "no, it couldn't have happened," my immediate response is "how the hell would they know?"

On the other hand, I am very distressed by the victim's analogy to the Holocaust and concentration camps. I think that Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) was absolutely right to tag that comparison as "inappropriate."
Black survivors of Hurricane Katrina said Tuesday that racism contributed to the slow disaster response, at times likening themselves in emotional congressional testimony to victims of genocide and the Holocaust.

The comparison is inappropriate, according to Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida.

"Not a single person was marched into a gas chamber and killed," Miller told the survivors.

"They died from abject neglect," retorted community activist Leah Hodges. "We left body bags behind."
The five white and two black lawmakers who attended the hearing mostly sat quietly during two and a half hours of testimony. But tempers flared when evacuees were asked by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, to not compare shelter conditions to a concentration camp.

"I'm going to call it what it is," said Hodges. "That is the only thing I could compare what we went through to."

Concentration camps weren't places of "abject neglect." They were places where human beings were congregated in brutal conditions with the express purpose of extermination. Far from neglect, concentration camps were purposeful in the most terrible of ways. I really don't think one recognizes just how brutal the conditions were in the camps, even with the type of Holocaust memorial literature most students study nowadays. Read Terrence Des Pres, "Excremental Assault" or watch "The Grey Zone"--and even those, I imagine, can only showcase a sliver of the reality.

I think there are problems when one group appropriates another's story for their own ends. I don't know what grounds Ms. Hodges has to say with such certainty that the refugee camps were like concentration camps. I'll defer to her in describing her own tale--if she tells me that conditions were awful and degrading, then I'll assume absent compelling evidence that they were. But the comparison strikes me as treading on dangerous territory. I don't think it was justified here, and I don't think that, in general, Katrina victims (or any other group not directly impacted by the Holocaust) has the requisite standing to provide modern day analogues to the horrors of the Holocaust. Let the deeds (or misdeeds) stand on their own.

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