On March 8 2016, Michael Pezzullo, Secretary of the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection, was moved to issue a press release. He felt compelled to defend the actions of his department against criticisms of what he called a ‘contentious area of public policy and administration’, the mandatory and indefinite detention of asylum seeker children. Critics on social media rushed to point out that the most telling part of Pezzullo’s statement was his comment that,
Recent comparisons of immigration detention centres to ‘gulags’; suggestions that detention involves a ‘public numbing and indifference’ similar to that allegedly experienced in Nazi Germany; and persistent suggestions that detention facilities are places of ‘torture’ are highly offensive, unwarranted and plainly wrong – and yet they continue to be made in some quarters
It was the use of the word ‘allegedly’ that raised the most ire; the statement had made it sound like the DIBP was denying the magnitude of the Holocaust. Pezzullo followed up with another release:
Any insinuation the Department denies the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany are both ridiculous and baseless… The term ‘allegedly’ was used to counter claims of ‘public numbing and indifference’ towards state abuses in Nazi Germany and the link to immigration detention in Australia. We reject the comparison to immigration detention as offensive and question this being made as a blanket statement – an allegation hence ‘allegedly’ – to describe the attitude of the German population at large during that terrible time.
And just to cement it all, a postscript was then added to the the original press release.
This much has been reported by New Matilda.
It is by now no longer an original point to make that denial and distancing from racism has, in ‘postracial’ times, come to stand in for antiracism. But it seems to me to add another layer to this to state that it would be offensive to compare immigration detention in Australia to the Nazi genocidal regime. Particularly so because the reason that this is offensive, according to Pezzullo, is that the Nazis openly ‘sought to vilify and persecute Jews and others’ (thanks for remembering the ‘others’, Mike) and, the implication is, the Australian state does not. Indifference, therefore, in this bizarre reading cannot be created if there is an overt policy of ideological racism that underpins a programme of mass genocidal extermination. Pezzullo says this is ‘bad history” but even a cursory understanding of how racism works demonstrates that it precisely promotes ‘indifference to abuse’ because, by dehumanising those in its sights, it legitimates their exploitation, discrimination, incarceration, and ultimately their being put to death. Pezzullo has clearly not read Fanon.
Frozen racism, as I have argued, is when racism is set or ‘frozen’ in relation to past events that have been sanctioned for identification as racist, most notably the Holocaust, Apartheid and Jim Crow segregation. It is telling that, due to the continuing systematic racism against Aboriginal people in Australia that invasion, genocide and the consequent dispossession of Aboriginal land and culture is not generally seen as emblematic of racism past by most white Australians, even here.
The freezing of racism, its setting in the aspic of time past, leads to the failure to see racism as continuous with the historical contexts in which race thinking and racial regimes emerged. The Nazi Holocaust is but one moment in that history and one, because of its European legacy, whose primacy negates the Holocausts which preceded it and which gruesomely paved the way for it, (for example the genocides of the Herero and Namaqua in German controlled Namibia at the turn of the 20th century).
The Holocaust, perversely, is used, not only by the Zionist regime to justify the colonisation of Palestine, but also by those such as Pezzullo whose Department, whether he likes it or not, runs what can only be called concentration camps in which innocent people are incarcerated indefinitely, where women, children and men are abused physically and sexually, and people such as Reza Berati are murdered and others, such as Hamid Kehazaei die of curable medical conditions. Many others commit suicide or at risk of doing so.
The Holocaust is, essentially, no longer owned by its victims. We pay lip service to Holocaust survivors whose testimony is manipulated into ‘never agains’* loaded with caveats (*terms and conditions apply). We are schooled on what racism is and is not by the very architects of mandatory detention who thunder about ‘repugnance’ and ‘offence’ when we dare to use the words concentration camps to describe the places to which asylum seekers have been indefinitely sent. Places whose Oxford English Dictionary definition is,
A place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities.
I can only speak for myself. What I find ‘offensive’ and ‘repugnant’ is when architects and organisers of state racism at the highest level, such as Michael Pezzullo, abuse the memory of the Holocaust that my family fled to tell refugees, migrants, Aboriginal people and racialised people in general that there is no evidence of our history in their present.