Thursday, June 23, 2011

Social Theory and Semantics

The first thing that struck me about “A New Approach to the Holocaust,” Timothy Snyder’s latest piece for The New York Review, was his attention to a subtlety of the German language.  He observed that the noun Politik (incorporated in the compound Judenpolitik) means both “politics” and “policy.”  This reflects an etymology that can also be found in English usage.  Both words can be traced back to πόλις, the Ancient Greek word that gets translated as “city” or “state.”

What strikes me is that both “politics” and “policy” are basically concerned with the affairs of a centralized social body of governance captured by words like “city” or “state.”  However, in the terminology of Anthony Giddens, the former refers to manners of domination, particularly through the control of resources, while the latter has to do with the legitimation of normative behavior.  While Giddens saw these as independent dimensions of interaction, our own history has at least one example of their confluence for less than salient means, that being the ways in which slave-based plantation life amounted to the legitimation of a particular structure of domination (by slaveholders).  In many ways the rise of the Nazis involved a similar legitimation of domination, but the target of that domination shifted from the black slaves of the South to the Jews of Europe.  This confluence makes for a disquieting point of view for approaching both the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement.

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