Here we go again. In an interview Saturday with Breitbart, Former Arkansas Governor and 2016 GOP Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee decided that the Holocaust was an appropriate analogy for the Iran nuclear deal that the United States and numerous other world powers have recently negotiated.
“This president’s foreign policy is the most feckless in American history. He’s so naive he would trust the Iranians and he would take the Israelis and basically march them to the door of the oven.” [emphasis added]
On the one hand, Huckabee’s use of a Holocaust analogy is nothing new. He has regularly compared abortion to the Holocaust. We have not just come to expect inflammatory rhetoric from our politicians, but Mike Huckabee isn’t exactly breaking new ground with his most recent analogy; this is an analogy of which he seems quite fond. On the other hand this analogy is sad because we’re not talking about his use of the under-used and little-appreciated word feckless. Neither are we talking about comments he made later in the interview about Guantanamo Bay detainees:
“These people don’t change . . . . They are still terrorists. They are going to be terrorists until we kill them”
Certainly such comments would provide insight into how Huckabee views the world, a useful thing to know about someone who wants to be President of one the world’s most powerful countries.
Instead, we again find ourselves reading Holocaust analogies coming from the mouth of Mike Huckabee. Lest you think this was a gaffe or that he would walk back his statement, he took to Twitter in self-defense and even created (more likely had someone on his staff create) a meme-ish, share-worthy picture of his quote.
With outrage coming from the Left and Right, why is Huckabee so fond of this analogy and why has he doubled down on it? Max Fisher offered a few explanations over at Vox. His first explanation is that it is simply a political stunt to grab some headlines from Donald Trump by saying ever more shocking things. His fourth explanation attempts (and fails miserably) to make a connection with Huckabee’s evangelicalism. This is certainly a connection that can be made but Fisher seems to have phoned in this explanation and to have settled for generalities. Fisher finally seems to settle on his fifth and final explanation — that this tells us something about Huckabee’s character.
A statement this extreme at some point reflects on the character of the person who chose to say it — even if that person is a politician whom we expect to take certain rhetorical liberties. In campaign coverage, it is generally frowned upon to look at a candidate’s statements and conclude that he or she might simply be insensitive or unintelligent. But that may indeed be what’s happening here.
Yet he is still okay implying that Huckabee is “insensitive and unintelligent.” To be fair to Max Fisher, this post seems to be more of a hot take than his normally well-researched and thoughtful explanatory pieces, and this piece touches on possible explanations that should be explored in more detail. What Fisher misses, though, and what most other pieces have missed as well, is just what we can learn from the reaction to Huckabee’s Holocaust analogy.
Huckabee’s statement was intended to be shocking. It was meant to evoke a response. It was meant to show just how seriously he is taking what he understands to be a dangerous Iran nuclear deal. Regardless of one’s opinion on Huckabee’s use of the analogy (frankly, I think it shows a serious lack of creativity and historical acumen such that he can think of no other analogy and must jump immediately to Hitler and the Holocaust), the responses have something to teach us about how language works.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee Chair, said that such rhetoric “has no place in American politics.” Jeb Bush, fellow 2016 GOP Presidential hopeful, said that “the use of that kind of language is just wrong.” President Obama said that the analogy was “part of a general pattern that we’ve seen that would be considered ridiculous if it weren’t so sad.” Hillary Clinton, leading Democratic Presidential hopeful, said that she is “disappointed,” “really offended personally,” and that such “inflammatory rhetoric [is] totally unacceptable.”
These responses are attempts to police not only Mike Huckabee’s language but that of our society as a whole. They are looking to draw boundaries around what is “acceptable” and what is “unacceptable.” By responding as they have, these politicians, Fisher, and the multitude of others who have offered commentary on his remarks hope to present Huckabee as vulgar, of questionable character, and unfit for leadership. Regardless of how many citizens might actually agree with Huckabee (for the record, I haven’t seen any data that would indicate that Huckabee’s analogy polls well with the general populace), those in authority positions must act in such a way as to delegitimate Huckabee by means of delegitimating his language.
Writing of how the “struggle for linguistic authority” works with regard to establishing an official language, grammar, and “proper” speech in Language and Symbolic Power, Pierre Bourdieu says that “all linguistic practices are measured against the legitimate practices, i.e. the practices of those who are dominant” (53). Bourdieu’s observation is relevant here too. The Holocaust is off-limits as an analogy; we know this because those in authority have told us so. Huckabee hasn’t just picked a less than apropos analogy, it was an analogy that is out of place, wrong, ridiculous, sad, offensive, inflammatory, and unacceptable. It is illegitimate.
Social actors, such as politicians, use taxonomies like this to manipulate society by the mere act of classifying society.
We can likewise view the “unacceptable” nature of Huckabee’s comments through a taxonomic lens. Language is classified as either “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” This binary, as well as the makeup of each category, is socially determined. And, beyond that, as Bruce Lincoln noted, taxonomy is “an instrument for the classification and manipulation of society” (Discourse and the Construction of Society, 137). In other words, social actors, such as politicians, use taxonomies like this to manipulate society by the mere act of classifying society. Classifying analogies as “acceptable” and “unacceptable” is an attempt to mold society, to shape it in a certain way, to lift up certain ideals and worldviews at the expense of others.
There is, of course, no objective reason why appealing to the Holocaust analogically should be unacceptable. Though presented as natural, such boundaries are socially determined and arbitrary. But now that “Holocaust analogies are unacceptable” has entered the public transcript, this boundary must be maintained. And doing so works simultaneously to delegitimate and legitimate Mike Huckabee’s use of such an analogy. Because he has used “unacceptable” language, he can be shunned, reprimanded, and punished (by not receiving the votes he covets). But at the same time, by using language that he knows has been deemed “unacceptable” and out-of-bounds, he subverts the public transcript showing just how strongly he feels about the topic du jour and offers his analogy as evidence that he will not play by others’ rules, precisely what he hopes will earn him votes in 2016.