Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Lies, Lies and Damned Lies

I have been slowly immersing myself in the news now that the election is past. I am driven to stay informed, but can only digest the news in small doses.

For over a year it has been a constant litany of lies that incite bigotry against Mexicans and Muslims.  Now we are post-election and it continues. The CIA reported its findings of the Russians trying to sway the election to Trump. Our President-elect retorted that he didn't believe them and his opponents just didn’t want to acknowledge one of the biggest Electoral College wins in history, in reality one of the slimmest. Any hope of lying ending with the election is indeed futile. We've just given him a bigger megaphone and a veneer of credibility. The continual piling of lies on top of lies, stirs a deep unease within me. 

Photo by Dorothea Lange
Now lying has history in the United States.  Lies don't just exist in isolation as a distasteful act, they are a means to an end. They till the soil in preparation for more disturbing actions.

This weekend I went to a talk on the Japanese-American internment during WWII and it reminded me of the damage lies wrought in our country at that time. Sally Sudo spoke of her relocation and imprisonment and that of her family during WWII. Sudo was born in Seattle and spent 3 1/2 years from first grade to third behind barbed wire and under armed guards in watchtowers. What were you doing between age six and nine? I doubt barbed wire and armed guards occupy your memories. Sudo’s first-hand story was a fascinating one and I found myself considering what meaning it carries in today’s world.

Lately there seems to be a convergence of information. When that happens I am inclined to pay attention. Earlier in the week I received an article that presented the photos Dorothea Lange took of the camps, photos that were purposely buried in the National Archives for many years because of the concern that they might present the camps a bit too honestly. Lange had been steered to desired images which she of course ignored, conscious that one can lie in images as well as words.

How did the camps come into being? It is an important question, particularly in light of the discussion of both Mexican immigrants and  the potential threat posed by Muslims that dominated our election.  Could something like that happen again and how exactly did it happen in the first place? I soon learned that there were several themes then, that also seem to be lurking in our current political environment; control by the military under the guise of security concerns and lying about the danger of the “other”.

When Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 it put the military in control of the internment. The man in charge was General DeWitt who is best known for saying, “A Jap’s a Jap, whether he’s an American citizen or not.”  He then went on to tar the Japanese-Americans with sabotage by the fact that there hadn’t been any sabotage. Yes, that’s right.  He claimed that the absence of any provable sabotage just meant they were waiting for the right moment.  

In justifying the detention, DeWitt later claimed that there was offshore signaling to Japanese submarines by Japanese Americans. The FBI and FCC reported this to be false and it was believed that DeWitt was well aware of this as he was advised of such by the FCC. In 1944 government attorneys became aware of this falsehood when defending a court case challenging detention. After some debate, it was ultimately not divulged lest it hurt their case. These “purported facts” were part of the fact base on which the Supreme Court supported the military necessity of the camps.  Their support only gave further credence to this action, feeding into racial bias in the broader population.

When I think of today’s environment, I can’t help but consider the heavy reliance on generals for advisers.  It gives me pause when coupled with the proclivity for lying. What exactly is his end? Or that of his cohorts?

So let's look back in our history to General DeWitt’s lies and where they led.   But first let’s take a look at the climate in which they occurred. In the US, Asian immigration began in the 1850s with Chinese immigrants, 10,000 of whom built the railroad. They were considered cheap labor and by 1870 represented 10% of California's population. They were soon viewed as economic competitors to white laborers (sound familiar?) and in 1882 further immigration was shut down by law. As my fellow genealogists know, immigration laws have always been a reflection of our prejudices as a nation.

Japanese immigration began in 1885, first to Hawaii and then to the mainland where they also worked on railroads and frequently as agricultural laborers.  The resistance of labor to Chinese immigrants was quickly transferred to Japanese immigrants. While Japanese immigration was halted in 1908, family members were still permitted and many secured wives as “picture brides”.  In 1924 all further Japanese immigration was forbidden by law.  Asian immigrants could not become naturalized citizens, although their children born in the US were citizens. This meant that when the 110,000 Japanese-Americans who lived on the West Coast were sent to the camps, two-thirds of them were American citizens, the balance largely would have been prohibited from citizenship by law.  The law did not allow them to become naturalized citizens until 1952.

The fact that one was a citizen didn’t exempt them from the camps. Today we have an issue with families potentially being torn apart where a child is a citizen, but the parent may not be, thus citizens are again likely to be affected by any action taken.

Sudo talked about the use of language, another way to lie by euphemism.They were not “evacuated” or “relocated” as if from a natural disaster, they were forcibly removed with no choice in the matter.  Interestingly the actual evacuation order spoke of “all Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien” for it no doubt felt sensitive to state “both citizen and non-citizen”. 

Pay attention to language. Let's not accommodate lying by euphemism.

I realized that I knew much more about the Holocaust than I did the Japanese-American Internment. While these are two distinct events with very different intents, I was struck by how many of the actions in the early stages were similar.  

Before Pearl Harbor we had a registry.  It wasn't focused upon Japanese-Americans specifically.The Alien Registration Act in 1940 resulted in the registration of anyone who was not a naturalized citizen.  This included any first generation Japanese-American who was not allowed to be naturalized by law. 

After Pearl Harbor, the homes of those of Japanese birth were raided. Then their assets were frozen.  They were taken to camps and held without trial. These were often the community leaders so it served the purpose of beginning to break down the community.  The Nazis also focused on community leaders initially with this aim.

With any edict you need to determine who is included.  Who is Japanese-American? Anyone who was 1/16th Japanese fell within this category.  Jews had the Nuremberg laws which had multiple tests to determine what constituted Jewish blood.

Contraband was confiscated and might include cameras, binoculars or family heirlooms such as ceremonial swords.  Dynamite used in farming was considered contraband and resulted in Sudo's uncle being taken in. Her mother under this decree gave away dolls that represented the Imperial court and were used to celebrate Girls’ Day. I found myself thinking of Jews on the other side of the ocean at that time being forced to give up electrical or optical equipment, bicycles, typewriters, records and ultimately radios.  

Japanese-Americans were forced on short notice to abandon homes and businesses, With no more than two weeks notice, and often less, they could bring one suitcase for each person.  Property was often stored for that unknown future. Eighty percent (80%) of stored belongings were “rifled, stolen or sold” in their absence.  Japanese-Americans played an important role in agriculture and 200,000 acres were confiscated or sold under duress to the FSA.  Many of those who sought the removal of Japanese Americans had an underlying objective of economic gain.  Bargain sales presented opportunities for purchasers. (for more info) In the camps the detainees earned $12 to $19 a month, an insufficient amount to pay property taxes on property they had hoped to retain.  I found myself thinking of the forced sales that Jews experienced in the early days of Nazi control, when escape was still an option if one was willing to leave everything behind.

Once in the camps, Japanese-Americans experienced many elements of dehumanization. They were initially housed in former stables. The camps were in barren parts of the country often suffering from extremes in temperature. Crowding was prevalent. Sudo’s family with ten children was allotted two rooms and there was no refrigeration or running water. Communal living resulted in much of their time spent waiting in lines for food. Laundry was done by hand so Sudo’s mother did the laundry for her family of ten children in this manner. Latrines were in the center so they walked to them through rain or snow. And latrines and showers were also communal with no walls dividing them for privacy, similar to what I recalled from my visit to concentration camps in Poland.  

Dehumanization is often a gradual process.  A friend of mine who is a Holocaust survivor, often speaks of how they gradually got used to each progressive step, like a frog in warm water that is slowly brought to a boil. 

There is a common progression that was reflected in both Japanese internment and the treatment of Jews by the Nazis, perhaps common to any effort to isolate a section of the population regardless of the ultimate aim. It is important for us to be attentive to any actions today that reflect any elements of this progression.

-Denigrating a group based on religion or nationality
-Defining the category to be isolated
-Identification via registration
-Removal of community leaders
-Confiscation of “contraband”, particularly that used for communication
-Forced sale or confiscation of property
-Concentration and dehumanization

Ultimately the families were released with a bus ticket and $25 each.  It was not until 1988 that Japanese-Americans received $20,000 and an apology, small compensation for the disruption of lives and the accompanying dehumanization.

We owe a deeper obligation than money and an apology.  We need to take the lessons from that disturbing chapter and apply them to today to assure that we never use bigotry and lies to diminish who we are as a nation.  Now would be a good time to start.

Sally Sudo’s talk was given at Or Emet. Below are some additional sources I found helpful as I considered this topic.

Final Report, Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942  - documents underlying the evacuation 

Good Overview Sources

Densho: A grassroots organization dedicated to preserving, educating, and sharing the story of World War II-era incarceration of Japanese Americans in order to deepen understandings of American history and inspire action for equity

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this, Susan. Quite enlightening (and sobering).