Friday, July 10, 2009

A Tragedy of Democracy

One of the pleasures of having a blog is the opportunity to properly puff the work of friends, and I have just finished reading my friend Greg Robinson’s A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America, just out from Columbia University Press. It is a masterful overview of this sorriest episode on the WWII homefront. It starts with from the beginning of anti-Japanese discrimination in North America, to the decision to evacuate Japanese from the West Coast, the camps and the legal challenges to them, to the postwar fight for redress and recompense. It is somber in its tone, nuanced and careful in its conclusions, with just the right mixture of anger and sober analytical prose. It is at once concise (only about 300 pages)and utterly authoritative; really the first place to turn for an overview of this critical subject.Greg, a native of New York City, who teaches at the Universite de Quebec a Montreal, has written the best example of “"North American” history that I have ever read, with the seamless and pertinent integration of the histories of the US and Canada (I had no idea that the treatment of the Canadian Japanese was as atrocious as it was, in many ways worse than the treatment meted out in the USA.) Another fascinating aspect of the book is its in depth treatment of the racially motivated decision to keep Hawaii under martial law for almost the entire duration of the war. Anyway, its a remarkable book, and one that can be properly judged by its remarkable cover, of faceless people in a confinement camp, designed by Greg’s partner, Heng Wee

It is a story replete with analogies for the recent past and the present. All the progressive groups who might have been expected to stand up for the Japanese, with the exception of Christian pacifist organizations, decided to take a powder, cowed by the government or too intent on following their own agendas to raise a peep. (I learned that the American Communist Party expelled all Nisei members after Pearl Harbor) And in the United States, all of this took place under perhaps the greatest American president of them all, certainly the greatest of the 20th century. As Greg concludes, if stalwart liberals such as FDR and Hugo Black (author of the majority opinion in the Korematsu decision) cannot be trusted to defend minority liberties, “it seems to me that no lesser figures should. Rather, we owe it to ourselves to be jealous of our liberties,” and this is just as important in the age of Obama as it was during the dark days of his regrettable predecessor.

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