Thursday, August 05, 2004

Discourse or That Course

Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin's new book takes a revisionist look at the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Needless to say, the book is highly contrversial, both for its attempt to shake an anti-American shibboleth, and because -- Malkin being a political writer -- it is as much concerned with modern-day issues such as immigration restriction and racial profiling of Arabs.

I haven't read the book; I plan to soon. (First I have to finish "Hamilton," which is a great read but is beginning to irritate me because of little historical fact-slips that I keep encountering: for instance Chernow seems to think the British 1777 campaign against Philadelphia disembarked in the Delaware Bay, not the Chesapeake.)

On the one hand, I roll my eyes when I see history taken up as a weapon in a current events debate. It's like watching a Jackie Chan streetfight in an archaeology museum. Circumstances always are too different to allow realistic comparison, and it's usually the history that ends up twisted and bruised, while no one's mind gets changed about the current events.

But on the other hand, I'm glad to see this one brought around for a fresh look -- even though, as with Ann Coulter's bid to re-animate the reputation of Senator McCarthy, I wish it had been done first in a pure historical context rather than as polemics.

So until I can read the book, I'm following a fascinating debate on its historical merits on some of the "conservative" Web sites I favor. UNC law professor Eric Muller has a series of critical posts about Malkin's book here. Malkin, though tending a sick child, has begun to write in response. It's aggressive, fact-filled, dignified stuff. In case you think someone just said, "round up all the Japs and throw away the key," there's a rich story here of Roosevelt's dilemmas, cloak-and-dagger spying, Japanese imperial culture, and state's rights vs. federalism.

One of the reasons I feel more comfortable now in the company of thinking-people who are considered "right wing" is that they are, in my experience, more capable of examining an argument structurally, logically, and also willing and able to plunge into the stacks and go do some real historical research to see if it stands up, even if it is an argument from someone they essentially agree with.

I'd compare that favorably to the left's embrace of the Michael Moore carny show: "warts and all, he's one of us, and that's what matters most."

I'd compare it as well to the typical thinking-person liberal reaction to Malkin's book.

Michelle has written a new book which explains why interning the Japanese was such a great idea (I'm guessing it also advocates internment camps in present-day America for Arabs, foreigners, and people of color). Thanks to Jim for alerting us to Michelle's book. We'll review it in a day or two. You know, after we think of enough snarky things to say about the publisher's description and the cover.

And that was on the thoughtful side of the spectrum. On the less-thoughtful side are reactions like this:
This woman's parents are immigrants from the Philippines and she does nothing but badmouth immigrants and liberals alike.

I really think the bitch looks in the mirror and imagines that she is a blonde WASP. ... If it was up to these neo-cons that she loves so much, she would be working in a massage parlor, a sneaker factory or a whorehouse someplace ("Five dollar, me make you holler; ten dollar, me love you long time!").

She is an Asian Condi Rice, only not as intelligent. Like Ann Coulter, she is SO full of herself, it's pathetic. I feel sorry for her children.

Yikes. And that kind of stuff goes on a good deal on leftist sites. If you want to watch someone called a "race traitor" or some outspoken woman put down as a "whore," go find a message board full of self-proclaimed "liberals." If you want to understand why I still consider myself true to my liberal upbringing, yet now find myself aligned against such people, take a look at which side is dealing with the argument and the book, and which side just gets off on ridiculing a young Asian-American woman.

When I was fighting most of my fights on the left side, I argued -- pleaded -- with my liberal friends to study history. I was reading lies and distortions from the "Christian America" cult, about what the Founders said and intended, and they all went unanswered because, it seemed, liberal and secular people had no interest in claiming the past. They had conceded it to the enemy.

Robert Byrd is a rare example of a liberal/Democrat leader who can talk and write authoritatively about history across a broad band. Of course, his background is rather atypical for his party. To many people on his side of the aisle, history is an embarrassment, the dark night that a progressive mind seeks to lead the world out of. American history in particular, to a modern politically liberal mind, can look like a sewer of racism, Indian-slaughtering, commie-hating, anti-foreigner bigotry, naked greed, sexism, slash-and-burn eco-cide, homophobia and all things il-liberal.

[Paradoxically, academic historians these days tend to be strongly left-leaning; but that's another post.]

The great voices of religious freedom and secular authority -- Jefferson, Madison -- are tainted in modern eyes by being slaveowners. One of the most liberal books ever written, "Huck Finn," gets banned by liberals because of the N-word.

I don't think I'm exaggerating the right-left divergence here. People who think strength of will and debating to win are honorable skills do not also tend to be pacifists and consensus-seekers. People who don't make a habit of intellectual combat training don't know how to react to something forcefully argued, but which they sense to be wrong. In that case, an ad hominem attack is the easy route to venting your frustration with what you can't force to be silent.

* * *

As for the internments, when I was in high school in the 1970s, studying 20th century history, some of my peers used the example of the Japanese-American internments to make the point that the U.S. was "no better than Nazi Germany." They weren't right-wingers or neo-Nazis (most of my classmates were Jewish, in fact), but that was the reflexive sort of anti-Americanism you got if you were around young people in the immediate post-Vietnam War era. At least it was so where I grew up, in the wealthy suburbs.

But even then, when I was a Reagan-hating wanna-be hippie, I had sense enough to know that this was nonsense. People came out of the U.S. internment camps alive, reasonably well-fed, and often with children they didn't have when they went in. People came out of Buchenwald piled like garbage on flatbeds.

I've heard it argued that the Japanese-American internment was obviously a mistake because no Japanese ever helped Tojo invade America, and many were eager to fight for their adopted homeland. Many were eager to fight, that is true. But it's also true that we never got a chance to find out how many others would have reacted to a Japanese invasion of the West Coast, because none ever took place. (Except in the Philip K. Dick parallel universe, of course.).

That doesn't mean the internment camps were a good idea or that I wish to defend their use in World War II America. But when you think about decision-making in history, the first thing you have to do is step back and forget that you know how it's all going to turn out. Then you can judge Roosevelt, or any man or woman from the past. Lincoln doesn't know it's going to turn into an epic fight to end slavery and free the blacks when he maneuvers the North and South into a shooting war. Roosevelt doesn't know that the Japanese are never going to mount an invasion of California.