Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Populism, Malkin style

Among the many egregious flaws of Michelle Malkin's In Defense of Internment, the foremost is unquestionably its overt support of a government policy that cannot be described as anything but racist -- that is, the forced incarceration of an entire bloc of the American citizenry (some 120,000 people, in fact) based solely upon its ethnicity.

But what undergirds her entire thesis is a historical approach that would be kindly described as shoddy, though more properly it would be called profoundly mendacious, the kind of outrageous lie that belies the very real suffering of thousands of Americans. She achieves this by using the methodology of other historical revisionists -- namely, by carefully omitting the mountain of evidence that contradicts the thesis. (This is also, I've detailed previously, the methodology of her liberal-bashing book Unhinged.)

In this case, Malkin argues that the race-based internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans was entirely justifiable based on a handful of diplomatic-cable intercepts whose import was vague at best, while ignoring the broad array of evidence that the entire enterprise was driven by a longstanding racial animus. As I've explained before:
One of Michelle Malkin's major themes -- her chief claim on the flyleaf -- is that racism was an insignificant factor in the decisions that led to the internment. (Her trump card is the MAGIC cables, the significance of which Robinson thoroughly debunks; but even then it seems to have eluded her that racism might have played a role in how government officials interpreted that intelligence.) And as you can see, there is an abundance -- an overabundance, really -- of evidence that racism played a decisive role in the internment drama at nearly every step of its unfolding.

How does Malkin deal with this evidence? By ignoring it, of course.

I describe this in more detail in the epilogue of my book Strawberry Days:
Peculiarly, Malkin's book dismisses racism as a proximate cause without spending even a sentence addressing it; there is no mention of the Alien Land Laws, the Asian Exclusion Act, or the "Yellow Peril" anywhere in her text, nor even a brief passage alluding to the mountain of evidence regarding the role of racism in the internment.

That sort of omission amounts to a grotesque distortion. As this book has detailed, at every step of the long unfolding drama that led to the internment, racism played a significant if not decisive role. These steps included:

-- The anti-Japanese agitation and resulting disenfranchisement of Japanese immigrants in the 1912-24 period (which included their being denied the right to citizenship), steeped in overt racial hatred and a belief that "oil and water will never mix."

-- The passage in 1924 of the Asiatic Exclusion Act, an explicitly racist law which so angered the Japanese nation that it instilled an implacable anti-Americanism and empowered the military authoritarians who eventually took the nation to war 17 years later. This may not have been, as Pearl Buck later argued, the fatal step leading inevitably to war (there is, after all, no evidence that the nascent campaign to establish democracy in Japan, snuffed out by the act, would have succeeded in any event, as Buck supposed). But there is little doubt it played a fateful role.

-- The decision to intern the Japanese, predicated in large part on the predispositions of the key players in the policy, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Lt. Gen. John DeWitt to Col. Karl Bendetsen, to believe prewar "Yellow Peril" stereotypes regarding the loyalty of Japanese Americans, and the unmistakable influence those biases played in their policymaking.

-- The public agitation for evacuation and incarceration of Japanese Americans, featuring an explicit racial animus, much of which was clearly predicated on prewar anti-Japanese agitation, as well as explicit white-supremacist ideology. (This public racism was most concretely manifested in the refusal by Western governors to admit Japanese evacuees within their borders unless they were placed under armed guard in concentration camps, a demand that brought a screeching halt to the plans for a "voluntary evacuation," and forced the decision to incarcerate the evacuees.)

-- The anti-Japanese agitation that greeted the returning Japanese at the war's end, much of it explicitly commingling racial bigotry with economic interests. This agitation played a major role in the permanent decline of the Japanese in Pacific Coast agriculture, since most Nikkei farmers gave up any hope of returning to their former lands, as was the case in Bellevue.

The fourth of these -- the wartime hysteria directed at people of Japanese descent -- is especially germane these days in light of Malkin's promotion of a populist "John Doe" movement that promotes a kind of paranoid campaign to "keep an eye" on the terrorist Muslims supposedly operating in our midst (even, apparently, indoctrinating children in our schools).

Probably the definitive commentary on Malkin's "movement" comes from Chris Kelly at HuffingtonPost, who observed:
All you have to do to join is report everyone you see who seems to be a foreigner. Or who seems to tolerate foreigners. Or who may be thinking foreigner-tolerating thoughts.

It's like the Junior Spies in 1984, only totally fun.

It's called The John Doe Movement and it's got an oath and everything. And if you join not only will you fight Islamofascism, but you can also come to Michelle's house after school, have a healthy snack, and play with her Breyer Horses. Well, not play with them. But, you know, look at them.

The ethos of fear-driven "watchfulness" that Malkin's movement would, if successful, engender is also a familiar one: it is remarkably similar in nature to the extraordinarily bigoted popular sentiments that drove the internment episode. As I explain in Chapter 3 of Strawberry Days:
For a war-happy press anxious for a local angle on the conflict, the prospect of a West Coast invasion made great-selling copy. The Los Angeles Times ran headlines like "Jap Boat Flashes Message Ashore" and "Caps on Japanese Tomato Plants Point to Air Base". Pretty soon, everyone was getting into the act. Reports of "signals" being sent to unknown, mysterious Japanese boats offshore began flowing in. One report, widely believed at the time, came from someone who heard a dog barking somewhere along the shore of Oahu, and believed that it was barking in Morse code to an offshore spy ship.

In the Seattle area, the stories were almost as ridiculous. "Arrows of Fire Aim at Seattle" shouted the Seattle Times' front-page headline of December 10. It told of fields in the Port Angeles area, between Seattle and the Pacific Ocean on the Olympic Peninsula, that had been set afire by Japanese farmers in a shape resembling an arrow when viewed from the air; ostensibly, the arrow pointed to the Seattle shipyards and airplane-manufacturing plants, a likely target for incoming bombers. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer blared a similar front-page story the next morning. Neither paper carried any subsequent stories about the fires -- which investigators soon determined had been set by white men who were clearing land.

[A Seattle Post-Intelligencer cartoon from February 1942.]

... By late February the removal of all Japanese from the West Coast had become a favorite topic from Los Angeles to Seattle, led particularly by politicians. One of these was Rep. Andrew Jackson Hinshaw, an Orange County Republican, who demanded in early March that the Roosevelt administration “stop fiddling around” and begin removing all Japanese from the coast. According to the Associated Press, Hinshaw “said he had word that Japanese plans call for a major attack on Hawaii and West Coast sabotage next month. His information, he added, came 'from a source which has been heretofore reliable, though unheeded by our government.' "

... The press became the chief cheerleaders for removing the Japanese. The Seattle Times ran a news story alerting its readers: "Hundreds of alien and American-born Japanese are living near strategic defense units, a police survey showed today. ... There are Japanese in the neighborhood of every reservoir, bridge and defense project."

The Times also ran columns by noted conservative Henry McLemore, who frequently attacked the presence of Japanese descendants on the West Coast. In one column, headlined, "This Is War! Stop Worrying About Hurting Jap Feelings," McLemore fulminated: "I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. I don't mean a nice part of the interior, either. Herd 'em up, pack 'em off and give 'em the inside room of the badlands. Let ‘em be pinched, hurt, hungry and dead up against it. . . . Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them."

His sentiments were shared by many of the locals. Wrote W.M. Mason of Seattle, in a letter to the editor of the Post-Intelligencer: "If there be those who would say we can't do this to citizens, let them remember that we took this country from the Indians, killed thousands of them, arbitrarily moved other thousands from their homes to far distant lands, and to this day have denied them the rights, duties and privileges of citizenship.

"If we could do that to the Indians, we can do something about the Japs.

"Let's do it now!"

You can hear the echoes of this hysteria ringing throughout Malkin's "John Doe" manifesto, which is replete with McLemore-like exhortations to ignore issues of "sensitivity" and other mushy nonsense, as well as the insistence that such issues as people's rights are inconsequential before the "national security" banner they erect on their bulldozer.

Even more telling, perhaps, is the echo that Kelly observes, namely, the almost bizarre choice of "John Doe" for the name of Malkin's movement, given the iconic position of Frank Capra's great film, Meet John Doe, and the cultural significance of its message:
Frank Capra's Meet John Doe is a minor but muddled classic of '40s cinema. It concerns a journalist who creates a populist movement, only to discover that she, and her creation, are being manipulated by a right wing media empire.

... Capra said Meet John Doe was about, "contemporary realities: the ugly face of hate; the power of uniformed bigots in red, white, and blue shirts; the agony of disillusionment, and the wild dark passions of mobs."

I like Meet John Doe better than Kelly does; it's beautifully shot and has, like most Capra films, sparkling dialogue. The film features great performances by Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, though I loved Walter Brennan in it too. It turns preachy at times, but in the end its raw emotional power rings true.

So you have to ask yourself: Before naming this movement after "John Doe," couldn't Malkin or her husband have availed themselves of a copy of the film, just so they would know exactly what kind of populism under that name they were proposing to embark upon? Don't they care, really, that Capra's film was a warning against home-grown fascism, very much in the spirit of Sinclai Lewis' It Can't Happen Here? Don't they care that they are adopting in name a movement that, in our culture anyway, is synonymous with pseudo-populist fascism, manipulation of the masses by a mendacious right-wing cadre?

In examining Malkin's proposed populist movement, I'm also reminded of the definition of fascism proposed by Oxford Brookes scholar Roger Griffin in his definitive text The Nature of Fascism:
Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism.

(For an understanding of palingenesis, see more here and here.)

So far, the "John Doe" movement is clearly both populist (practicing, as in all fascist entities, a highly selective brand of populism) and ultranationalist. It is not, as yet, particularly "palingenetic" -- that is, it isn't driven by a myth of a national rebirth fueled by a purifying elimination of corrupting elements.

But it's only a step away. When we hear Malkin's "John Does" talking more about "taking the country back from the multiculturalists who are endangering our lives" and demanding that Muslims be rounded up, they'll have metastasized into full-fledged little brownshirts. Just like the people who wanted to round up the Japanese Americans sixty-five years ago.

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