Four teenagers huddle together, striking a severe pose like a boy band. In the background, just overhead, a sign looms: “Arbeit Macht Frei.” A girl kneels down next to some austere-looking, moss-ridden stairs. Wearing a black beanie and red lipstick, she makes a duck face and an inverse peace sign as the camera snaps. Two girlfriends draped in Israeli flags stand side by side, smiling, in a snow-topped forest. The caption reads, “#Trablinka #poland #jewish.” Underneath, a single comment: “Oh my god, beauties!!!”
The Instagram era has now brought us the selfie in a concentration camp. Or, as the phenomenon was identified in the title of a new Israeli Facebook page (translated here loosely), With My Besties in Auschwitz. The page, taken down on Wednesday, culled from real-life photos—most of them also taken down recently—that had been posted on social-media sites by Israeli kids on school trips to Poland. From the self-absorbed faux seriousness of some (meditating on the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau!) to the jarring jokiness of others (hitching a ride by the train tracks!), the pictures have fed a perception of today’s youth as a bunch of technology-obsessed, self-indulgent narcissists.The very thought that teenagers and other young people would take "selfies" at Auschwitz is disgusting and contemptible. I am often not at a loss for words; this is one of those moments where I am struggling with what to say.
While out of fashion in too many circles, the politics of black respectability still have great meaning and importance for me.
My home training and upbringing have socialized me to include phrases like "you are an embarrassment to your race" or "damn, a black man is President and you need to pull up your pants and you over there need to stop having babies with all manner of street hoodlums who don't have jobs" as part of my lingua franca.
A central element of the black respectability politics oeuvre--and perhaps of self-aware and politically conscious and aware black folks more generally--is that African-Americans need to be more like our Jewish brothers and sisters. In that logic, "they"--meaning Jewish folks--know their history, do not disparage their ancestors' struggles, do not publicly disparage each other with racial slurs, value education and literacy, are entrepreneurial and economically self-sustaining, and created a State (with the largess of the American taxpayer) that will kick the literal and metaphorical butts of anyone who dares to oppose it.
If the story about young Israelis mocking and making fun of death camps as a means of getting "hits" and online attention is correct, then perhaps the Afrotopian black respectability idealization of "the Jews" needs to be reconsidered.
The millennial Facebook social media generation has been diagnosed as possessing clinical levels of narcissism. In the United States, their self-esteem has been amplified by helicopter parents who have lied to them about being the most special, capable, smart, and best people in the world.
Too many of the Facebook and Millennial generation receive trophies for simply showing up at the game.
This leaves them unprepared for the realities of a vicious world where no one really cares if mommy or daddy told you how special you are by virtue of your ability to wake up and breath air each day.
Of course, gross generalizations lead to imprecise claims that may not hold for every case. I have been lucky to know quite a few young(er) people that are part of the Millennial or Facebook generation who defy all of those descriptions--and find the behavior of their peers to be embarrassing and pathetic.
Several years ago, one of the smartest and more self-aware students which I have been fortunate enough to teach offered up the following observation during a conversation about social media, young people's political identities, and narcissism. His peers were none too pleased.
He said that the arguments about the narcissism and low self-esteem issues of his fellow undergraduates makes total sense. However, we need to be careful about context and causality. This student smartly said that "imagine you are in high school or middle school, what have you accomplished in life? nothing at all of importance, but you go online and everyone looks fabulous and great. Too many of us don't have the smarts or experience to realize that it is mostly bullshit because we want to live a lie that we are fabulous and great too when haven't done a damn thing in our lives either". I smiled. Someone was paying attention and thinking that day.
Said student's sharing was a CBGB moment. His peers looked at him, angry and aghast at his truth-telling.
As the truism suggests, maybe the selfie clique defiling Auschwitz and other death camps, is proof that youth is wasted on the young. Such an explanation seems very flat to me. How else can/should we try to understand the events detailed by The New Yorker's "Should Auschwitz be a site for Selfies?"
I have no doubt that too many black students would be guilty of doing much the same thing during a tour of a slave plantation in the United States. That history seems far away for them (decades and a century have gone by in their simplistic post racial historiography of the Transatlantic Slave Trade). However, young people in Israel are members of a political community in which "never again" and surviving The Holocaust are central tenets of their collective identity as a people.
How do we make sense of this puzzle?