September 1, 2003
"The most violent element in society is ignorance."
We live in violent, fearful, mean times.
I remember another mean time, 1942, as America entered World War II. Under pressure from West Coast politicians, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 966, which removed people of Japanese descent, whether they were citizens or not, from the coastal states. First- and second-generation Japanese Americans (Issei and Nisei) were ordered to report to transit centers and were then trucked off to concentration camps by the United States Army. Ten camps with names like Manzanar, Camp Harmony and Tule Lake sprouted in remote areas of the west. (1) Strangely enough, the Issei and Nisei were not removed from the Hawaiian Islands. (2)
People called them "Jap rats," "Nips," "Yellow monkeys" and "Slants." I remember billboards along the highways in California with cartoon characters depicting the Japanese as buck-toothed monkeys. It was not uncommon to hear someone declare that "the only good Jap was a dead Jap." I heard these epithets, along with racist jokes, at school and even from some members of my own family. (3)
The Issei and Nisei lost their homes, businesses, and any personal items they could not carry with them. Most of these possessions were never returned.
Our gardener, a Nisei named Tom, was given less than a week to settle his accounts and report to the Santa Anita racetrack for "relocation." My mother said she thought he was sent to Manzanar, but that was never confirmed. Before Tom left, he came by our house and left his gardening tools with us. He never came back. He was killed in Italy, fighting against the Nazis with the famed 442nd Infantry Division. (4)
I suppose, according to the conventional wisdom of the time, his death made Tom a "good Jap."
In 1942, war fever ran high, covered with fear and basted with hate. A famous photo of the time showed an American shopkeeper (Caucasian) with a hateful leer on his face, holding a sign that said: "We don't want any Japs back here, ever!" (5)
Pure Meanness born of fear and hate of the "other." Somehow, the racist view planted in the minds of the majority population over time justified it. For the majority, the matter was simple. The enemy was bad and were are good. Period! Anything you do to bad people is OK, for they are "evil." 'Nuff said.
There were some, such as Attorney General Francis Biddle, who questioned the President on whether the Italian and German communities should likewise be interned. FDR replied:
"I don't care so much about the Italians" FDR said. "They are a lot of opera singers, but the Germans are different, they may be dangerous." (6)
In the end, however, neither the Italian nor German communities suffered relocation. There were just too many of them and they were white, like the majority population. However, suspected German sympathizers were registered and checked by police authorities on a regular basis. In rural areas, they were monitored by their neighbors. (7)
It was like that in 1942.
It is like that again.
The Attorney General, John Ashcroft, wants us to be vigilant and watch our neighbors for strange or suspicious behavior. Furthermore, the Patriot Act isn't draconian enough for him. The Attorney General is currently on a speaking tour arguing for an upgrade of the Act to Patriot Act II. (8) If Ashcroft has his way, time-honored citizen rights, such as habeas corpus, the right to an attorney and the right to a timely trial will be eliminated for any suspect designated as a "terrorist," or "terrorist related."
These new laws are being sold to an ignorant and insecure population through fear and hate of the "other." As the old Nazi Hermann Göering stated at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, "All you have to do is to tell them [the people] they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country." (9)
One might think that laws that were sufficient for prosecuting enemy spies and saboteurs during World War I, World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the War in Vietnam and sundry military adventures since would be sufficient today. Apparently not. At least not for those intent on erecting a fascist police state here, one where suspects are "disappeared" into a labyrinthine maze of prisons, holding camps and "interrogation centers" (read: torture chambers) within and without the country.
This is not the America I grew up in.
We have become a nation numbed by denial and divided by fear.
Last week, over dinner, an acquaintance opined that Arabs living in America should be rounded up, placed in concentration camps and sorted out. Those not born in the US should be kicked out of the country. "Pronto!" Those born here should be given a choice: stay in the concentration camp until the war against terror is over, or get out of the country. He felt this would be justified because "Arabs are intrinsically bad (evil), hate our way of life, and we are good."
It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.
My acquaintance painted a picture of Arabs with a wide brush, including those who weren't Arabs at all, such as Afghanis, Iranians, Pakistanis and Malaysians. When I pointed out the fact that some of the people he mentioned weren't Arabs, he blinked, paused for a moment as if to sort through this inconvenient stumbling block and then said that it didn't matter. To him, all Muslims are "A-rabs" and that was that!
For him, it all went back to the crusades and the bad old days that followed the armies of Suleyman the Magnificent (A.D. 1520-1566) were stopped at the gates of Vienna. The war of civilizations has gone on for over four hundred years, sometimes hot, sometimes cold, but a "war of civilizations," nonetheless. In his opinion, this was the time to end it. "Bush can prove once and for all that Western Civilization is superior" he said. "This is the American moment! If we don't seize it, the Muslims will eventually destroy us."
Simple as that! No gray areas. No maybes. Black and white.
"Them or us!" Right out of the Dubya playbook.
Now, it might be possible to excuse such thoughtlessness in an uneducated person, or a mindless political party hack, but this man attended a prestigious public university and went on from there to graduate school. The guy is a "professional" and ought to know better, yet, he didn't seem to.
As for Muslim culture, he thought it should be expunged from the world by the force of arms. He cited two reasons that this is necessary: first, because Muslim culture is "inferior." Second, because "they hate us for our way of life and our democracy." Then, he repeated his main point: "It's either them, or us! When we find an Arab with a weapon, we should kill him on the spot."
Just for the Hell of it, I thought I'd divert him. "What about North Korea?"
"All we need to do is send in a few Tomahawk missiles armed with nukes and knock 'em out."
"What about their nukes?"
"No problem. Nuke 'em first, before they can nuke us." He made a sweeping overhead movement with his right arm, pointing his finger as if it were a missile and made a whistling sound to accompany it. He uttered a "boom" when the finger hit the table. He smiled at me, satisfied with his demonstration.
"Obviously you don't favor nuclear disarmament," I said. The sarcasm went right over his head.
"No way, no how," he said. "Best thing Bush ever did was get us out of those worthless non-proliferation treaties. We otta make more and better nukes and use 'em whenever we need to."
"But what if this causes others to make nukes?"
"Hit 'em first and hit 'em hard."
In the back of my mind I half expected his right arm to fly upward in a Strangelovian salute. While mulling over Kubrick's classic film, "Dr. Strangelove," I opined that we might be killing a lot of innocent people with that approach, such as kids, moms and families.
"No," he went on rolling his eyes and patting the table as if confronted by an idiot. "All that talk about our bombs killing innocent civilians is anti-American propaganda put forth by the 'Leftist D's,' and Arab news outlets. Our high-tech weapons are on target almost all the time," he said, flatly. "There has been a little collateral damage, here and there, but what there is, is manageable."
"You mean collateral damage is OK?"
"Sure. I already said so. Collateral damage happens. Anyway, the more Arabs we kill, the less will be around to reproduce more terrorists."
Obviously, in his mind, I didn't get it. Then, after an awkward pause, he stared at me and leered.
It was my turn to blink. Suddenly, I DID get it, but not as he would have supposed.
I looked into his leering face and I saw the same expression that the shopkeeper had, the one holding up the sign proscribing "Japs."
I had been there before. My hands began to sweat.
I realized that reasonable talk -- discussion if you will -- was futile. Reason was out the door. The man had the mindset of a Savonarola when confronted by a heretic (or a Muslim, as the case may be). In short, he was not only mean, he was mad.
Oh, not clinically mad -- surely not -- or am I wrong about that? Was this merely the blustering of a bully? Is the man a poltroon, or was his comment the pointed remark of a killer? Perhaps it was merely evidence of the banality of evil. Hannah Arendt wrote about that when she covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. I resolved to look it up and read it again. Here is an excerpt:
"He [Eichmann] was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness -- something by no means identical with stupidity -- that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is 'banal' and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace. That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man -- that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem. But it was a lesson, neither an explanation of the phenomenon nor a theory about it." (10)
But, back to the dinner party. In the interest of civility, and faced with monumental ignorance and thoughtlessness, I realized that further discussion with this guy was a waste of time. I decided that in this case Arendt's thesis was the correct one, but I had been put on guard. I thought about Sergeant Gettys, my DI at Quantico, and what he had beaten into us. "Dumb is bad!" (11)
After our dinner guests left, I was dejected. I felt awful about the encounter as it seemed so unnecessary and so stupid, but it was evidence of the divisions existing in America at this time. Stupid? Yes, most likely, but was the encounter also "dumb?" Being dumb is being ignorant and, as Emma Goldman warned, leads to violence.
I wondered what kind of America we were living in?
Are we divided, ignorant, fearful, suspicious, hateful and mean? Is that where we are now, America?
Yes, I'm afraid so.
Has our President, George W. Bush, given us leadership to help alleviate this situation?
Instead, his policies create more division, fear, suspicion, hate and the promise of endless war, cloaked in Orwellian "Newspeak."
Regarding "Newspeak," consider the name given the Iraq War by the Pentagon: "Operation Iraqi Freedom." Do you think Iraqi freedom is what the war was (or is) about? Do you think our government Godzilla cares a whit about the Iraqis, or "democracy" in the Middle East, or equal rights for women? If you do, I have a bridge to sell you. It runs across the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn.
The political cartoonist/journalist, Ted Rall, has named our Fearless Leader, "Generalissimo El Busho." Rall has a point:
"One nation! One Leader! One IQ point!" (12)
It appears that the supporters of the "Generalissimo" share the same intellectual qualities: mean, not too smart and, hence, dangerous!
Should we be surprised?
Sadly, not. (At least not if you're over 50.)
· · · · · ·
References and Resources
1. Nakatsu, Russ. Historical background on the Nisei, Kent (WA) School District. 1995-2003. See: http://www.kent.k12.wa.us/ksd/sj/nikkei/the_nisei.html (back)
2. Proclamation 966 did not apply to persons of Japanese descent living in the Hawaiian Islands. The Japanese living there coined the term "Ka-tonk" to describe their brethren living on the mainland. According to the Hawaiians, "Ka-tonk" is the sound you hear when you hit mainland Japanese Americans on the head with a rock. To the Islanders, those who migrated to the mainland were stupid to do so and obviously thick in the head. Needless to say, the term is undeserved, as most of the immigrants had little choice. Yet, one can still hear "Ka-tonk" used in Hawaii. I heard it regularly in 1982-'83, when I was teaching at Iolani School, Honolulu HI. ("Hey, Brah, you Ka-tonk for stay goin' mainland.") (back)
3. I was eight years old at the time and the epithets and jokes made an impression on me. After the war, the Japanese Americans became "good" again. I attended high school with many Nisei and they were my friends and teammates in football and track. The epithets and racist jokes didn't die, though. They merely morphed to fit the enemy du jour. They became "Commies," "Gooks," "Chinks" and "Buddha heads" in Korea and Vietnam. I note that today, they are "A-rabs," "Sand niggers" and "Rag heads." War is always good growing weather for racists and mean people filled with hate of the "other." (back)
4. See: "Nisei Soldier," Center for Educational Telecommunications. http://www.cetel.org/nisei.html (back)
5. I have a copy of this photo in my archives. It is part of a photo set I purchased in "Little Tokyo" (located near the civic center in Los Angeles, California). The set commemorates the internment of the Issei and Nisei in California. (back)
6. Burns, James MacGregor, 1970. Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, p 215. (back)
7. During World War II, in Creston, California, the head of the Heilmann family had to report to the head of the Lindquist family on a daily basis. The Lindquists then reported their findings to the government authorities. Both the Heilmanns and the Lindquists are still rancher/farmers in the Creston area. I am acquainted with members of both families. Was it important to keep an eye on the Heilmanns? Maybe. The oldest member of the Heilmann family once confided to me that he thought Hitler was right. Right about what? He didn't elaborate. (back)
8. Clark, Drew. "Ashcroft begins tour for defending anti-terror powers." National Journals Technology Daily, August 19, 2003. (back)
9. Göering, Hermann. Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, Nuremberg, Germany, 1946. (back)
10. Arendt, Hannah, 1970. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin Books, New York, pp. 287-288. (back)
11. My Marine drill instructor at Quantico, Virginia, Sergeant Gettys, told us to never forget that we were "PPK's"-paid professional killers. Sergeant Gettys also told us that dumb was bad. "A dumb Marine is a dead Marine," he warned. I never forgot this either. (back)
12. Rall, Ted, 2003. One can see the cartoons and editorials of Ted Rall at http://www.rall.com/ Rall's dominant cartoon character is "Generalissimo El Busho," accompanied by the slogan: "One nation! One Leader! One IQ point!" (back)
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Richard Macintosh was a Public High School Teacher in California (1956-1989). Ed.D, Educational Leadership, BYU, 1996. MA, Liberal Studies, Wesleyan University, 1982. BA, history, Stanford University, 1956... Macintosh is currently a part-time consultant on Personnel/Team matters in Washington State.
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