*Manzanar, Part One:  History, Heritage, Humbug, and the Internment of Japanese-Americans

"Welcome to Manzanar":  Plaque at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo:  Vinay Lal, July 2015

“Welcome to Manzanar”: Plaque at the Manzanar National Historic Site.
Photo: Vinay Lal, July 2015

Shortly after the conclusion of World War II, Eugene Rostow, a professor of jurisprudence at Yale, and subsequently a prominent civil libertarian, penned an article for Harper’s Magazine (September 1945) entitled “Our Worst Wartime Mistake.”  In the immediate aftermath of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, 2,000 Japanese-Americans, “the most dangerous of the persons” believed to be capable of harboring loyalty to the Japanese Emperor rather than to the American Constitution, were taken into custody; “each arrest”, the then Attorney General reported, “was made on the basis of information concerning the specific alien taken into custody.  We have not used dragnet techniques and have conducted no indiscriminate, large-scale raids.”  But this was not even remotely America’s “worst wartime mistake”:  shortly thereafter, 120,000 Japanese-Americans were packed off to camps in remote parts of the United States, there to spend, in most cases, the rest of the war years.  Some were resident “aliens”, a word which continues to resonate among those who have lived in the United States, often for decades, without taking up American citizenship; others, however, were citizens of the United States.  That distinction, which still determines whether a person gets finger-printed or not upon arrival at an American port of entry, was wiped out in an instant, no doubt a casualty of what was deemed to be an emergency which stipulated that the protections ordinarily available to American citizens would no longer be conferred upon a class of people who, merely on account of their ethnic origin, were now viewed as potential traitors to the land that they had adopted as their own.

Plaque at Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo:  Vinay Lal, July 2015

Plaque at Manzanar National Historic Site.
Photo: Vinay Lal, July 2015

We may leave aside for the moment the question whether the unlawful internment of all Japanese-Americans, barring those who lived in Hawaii, was the “worst wartime mistake” of the United States.  No doubt Rostow, writing after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the firebombing of other Japanese cities and towns, was thinking only of “mistakes” with respect to the conduct of the US government against some of its own citizens.  A little more than two months after the commencement of hostilities between the United States and the Japanese Empire, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066, which authorized any designated military commander to prescribe or name “military areas . . . from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”  Though this document did not by name mention any racial, ethnic, or religious group, it was to be the instrument by which, in the first instance, the removal of Japanese Americans, over two-thirds of whom were Americans citizens, from the West Coast to the American heartland was effected.  The executive order also provided, in benign and innocuous language, for the “transportation, food, [and] shelter” of the presumed convicts (for they were treated as such), and it is this provision which led to the eventual incarceration of the Japanese Americans in what were euphemistically termed “relocation centers”.  The story of the internment of Japanese-Americans has now been told in hundreds of books, and, as liberal democracies often do, Japanese-Americans have even been tendered an official apology.  Unlike many “apologies”, on the politics of which I have written at some length in numerous places over the last fifteen years, the apology to Japanese-Americans was accompanied by material restitution (to the amount of $10,000 to the family of each person that was “relocated”), and that, not surprisingly, at a time when Japan was at its height as an economic power.  Nearly ten years before Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act which acknowledged American wrong-doing to Japanese-Americans, Harvard Professor Ezra Vogel had published Japan as Number OneLessons for America (1979).  Perhaps, if another Muslim empire should arise within the next generation or two, the Muslims of America will also find themselves being offered an “apology”—though I very much doubt they will be receiving even a nickel from the American government.

The apology to Japanese-Americans is of course part of a grand narrative common to the United States and the West, the centerfold of which is the argument that the West, though it may have erred grievously in partaking of a history of exploitation and imperialism, is possessed of the unique capacity to admonish itself, correct its shortcomings, and even, as in the case of one Pope or the other, seek the forgiveness of those it has victimized.  The willingness of the former West Germany to seek the forgiveness of the Jewish people, and thereby concede the barbarity of its past, is routinely cited as the greatest instance of this capacity for self-correction, and receives greater resonance from the frequent juxtaposition with Japan, a country which—on the conventional view—has been reticent if not niggardly in recognizing the enormity of its own war crimes.  Korean “comfort women” who worked as sexual slaves in Japanese-run wartime brothels are routinely trumpeted as an illustration of the barbarousness of the Japanese, though, to take only one instance, there is scarcely a discussion of the mass rapes of German women by victorious American troops at the end of the war.  And, though this point scarcely needs elaboration, no American president has yet offered an “apology” to the Japanese for the crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  What the Japanese ought to understand is that they need not seek an apology:  the word apology not only connotes the meaning of being sorry, but also conveys the impression that the person rendering an apology begs forgiveness of those whom he has injured; moreover, what is tacitly present when we offer an apology is the idea that we shall endeavor not to repeat the deplorable conduct of which we stand indicted.  No elected American official is, of course, ready to seek the forgiveness of the Japanese for American war crimes against their country; besides, considering the hysteria which has led the likes of John Bolton, who is routinely granted access to the op-ed pages of the New York Times, to advocate the nuking of Iran, there is little reason to believe that there is any overwhelming sentiment in the United States against the use of nuclear weapons if that thing called “national interest” demands such a course of action.

Recently, in an effort to imagine what it might have meant to be “relocated”, without a relocation allowance, I paid a visit to Manzanar, which is located some 200 miles to the north-east of Los Angeles on Highway 395; to its east is Death Valley, and to its west is Sequoia National Park.  Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental United States, is slightly to the south-west. The landscape is very much what one expects of the western United States:  massive expanses of land, roads seemingly without end, the overwhelming sense of being confronted by infinity.  The land even today seems desolate, hostile, unforgiving:  if the idea was to relocate Japanese-Americans to a “relocation center” where they could not make contact with the enemy, and where the enemy itself could make no inroads, then Manzanar was well-chosen.

The original entrance to Manzanar Relocation Center. Photo:  Vinay Lal, July 2015

The original entrance to Manzanar Relocation Center.
Photo: Vinay Lal, July 2015

The Visitor Center at Manzanar National Historic Site, seen from the south-west. Photo:  Vinay Lal, July 2015

The Visitor Center at Manzanar National Historic Site, seen from the south-west.
Photo: Vinay Lal, July 2015

Manzanar, from the Spanish, means “apple orchard”; but its history begins with the Paiute Indians, who (thankfully) did not come into contact with the Europeans until the 1820s, perhaps even a little later.  Homesteaders and miners forced their way into Paiute lands in the early 1860s and the US military helped “relocate” over 1,000 Paiute Indians to Fort Tejon in 1863.  (America has been spectacularly good at “relocating” others throughout history—but that’s the subject of a book.)  There are other arresting chapters of the history of Manzanar and the Owens Valley:  this, too, is the subject for a long disquisition on how Los Angeles acquires its water.  Jack Nicholson got only a broken nose when he started nosing around, being overly inquisitive about the water flowing into Los Angeles and the parched gardens of the wealthy; the Indians, typically, were relocated when they were not killed outright, and they all got broken hearts.

In the aftermath of the war, Manzanar was torn down and the camp was dismantled; the barracks in which the internees were held were taken apart.  The camp was officially closed on 21 November 1945.  However, history, heritage and humbug conspired, as they have done so on thousands of occasions in the United States, to have Manzanar declared a California Historic Landmark in 1973; nearly two decades later, George H. W. Bush, that great custodian of liberties, signed into law a statute which declared Manzanar a National Historic Site.  The onus to remember the past, allegedly in order to avoid the mistakes of the past, is of course deeply scarred into the sensibility of western modernity:  thus the triumphant place of history in the radical, liberal, and conservative imagination alike.  The same sensibility also encourages every ethnic group to assimilate into the fabric of American society, and yet retain pride in its own heritage:  thus the ascendancy of identity politics on the American campus and elsewhere, which is now a non-negotiable element of the discourse of American multiculturalism.   The other word for all this is humbug—but I shall delve into Manzanar, the “National Historic Site”, in the second part.

*Joel Stein’s Edison and the Rage of Indian Americans

Indian Americans, the so-called model minority, have recently been up in arms. The object of their rage is an American columnist by the name of Joel Stein, who had the audacity, Indian Americans bitterly object, to write a piece called ‘My Own Private India’ [after ‘My Own Private Idaho’] which begins thus:  “I am very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J.  The mostly white suburban town I left when I graduated from high school in 1989 – the town that was called Menlo Park when Thomas Ava Edison set up shop there and was later renamed in his honor – has become home to one of the biggest Indian communities in the U.S. . . .”  When Joel writes that he is “very much in favor of immigration”, he seems to want to signal his distance from those bigots, in Arizona and elsewhere in the US, who have declared their determination to keep the US as much free of immigrants as is possible; but the qualifier, “except Edison, NJ”, was not bound to go down well with Indian Americans who feel outraged that Time’s columnist should have marked Indian Americans as the undesirable immigrant community.

What follows in Joel’s piece is not surprising.  The sparkling town where Joel grew up is unrecognizable though, if anyone knows America, it is doubtful in the extreme that it was recognizable in the first instance.  The Pizza hut outlet – one of hundreds of thousands in the country, which along with Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC, Jack in the Box, and Dunkin’ Donuts have succeeded remarkably well in making every American town look like any other – has been replaced by an Indian sweets shop; the local A & P – never mind that this chain was anyhow destined for obscurity – has given way to an Indian grocery store; the Italian restaurant “is now Moghul” (by which our enlightened writer means not that it has become a movie palace or an icon of a movie Moghul but rather that it serves ‘Mughlai’ food); and the local multiplex, where Joel and boys of his ilk once gyrated their loins to the music of R-rated films, now screens Bollywood films with their buxom belles and serves samosas during ‘intermission’.  Joel and his friends, modern-day Huckleberry Finns, shoplifted, raided the cash drawers, and sneaked into places where they did not belong.  But those days belonged to the past:  “There is an entire generation of white children in Edison”, Joel bemoans, “who have nowhere to learn crime.”  The place of those delightful pranksters was taken by nerds from India, who all seemed adept at computers and to the white boys appeared nothing short of “geniuses”.  At this point, one almost expects to read a comment pointing to the winning streak of Indians in the national spelling bee over the last decade and more, but Joel departs from that script only to adopt another predictable point of view.  Over time, he says, that first generation of educated and professional Indians gave way to a more motley crowd of relatives who would run Dunkin’ Donut shops, 7-11 franchises, and gas stations.  Some years later, the not so dazzling “merchant cousins brought [over] their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.”  And, luckily for the white man, he could once again begin to feel like he was on the top of the world.

Joel’s attempt at humour, for that is evidently what he had in mind, appears not to have succeeded.  Following the publication of his column, there have been loud and insistent calls by Indian Americans to have his column removed, and to have Joel censured for his ‘racist’ comments.  Some in the Indian American community have been outraged that as prestigious a journal as Time, for that is how this long-standing conduit of mediocrity is imagined, should have allowed the expression of the most tiresome stereotypes:  perhaps all that is missing from Joel’s piece is a comment about the smell of curry taking over the town.  As I have previously argued on numerous occasions, ours is a culture of ‘apologies’, and it is not surprising that the Indian American community should immediately have striven to exact an apology from Time and Joel Stein.  “We sincerely regret”, responded Time, “that any of our readers were upset by this humor column of Joel Stein’s.  It was in no way intended to cause offense.” Poor Joel followed suit, though his apology deviates from the standard form:  “I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it.”  One of the least commonly explored facets of Americanization is how immigrant communities embrace the dominant idiom of literal-mindedness that pervades American society, and the irony and ambivalence of Joel’s remarks was certainly lost on Indian Americans.  A place that he associated with his childhood had irretrievably changed, and Joel found himself outside, so to speak, his ‘comfort zone’.   The small town seems remote, perhaps even an ungainly sight, after the dizzy pace of life in the metropolis; in Joel’s case, the sense of alienation he may have experienced upon his return to Edison was compounded by the fact that even the intimacy and familiarity promised by the town had disappeared.

In the exchange that has followed the publication of Joel Stein’s essay, neither Joel nor Indian Americans have across as impressive figures.  Some commentators have deplored the absence of humour among Indian Americans, to which of course they have responded with the observation that they have for long been the target of insults and jokes and have had enough of “humour”.  In India, some writers and media broadcasters have not fully understood the emotions that are understandably aroused when Joel, adverting to the fact that townsfolk started referring to the Indians as “dot heads”, adds by way of trying to be ironical:  “In retrospect, I question just how good our schools were if ‘dot heads’ was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.”  Caricatures of a religion never go down too well with its adherents; moreover, there is a lasting memory, especially in New Jersey, of a previous chapter of racial history when the “dot busters” went around assaulting Indians and even killing a couple of them.

Indian Americans, on the other hand, give every appearance of being a trifle too sensitive.   They have accepted the designation of ‘model minority’ with gratitude, scarcely realizing that the term was less a recognition of their achievements and more an admonition to African Americans and Hispanic Americans to shape up; consequently, they feel all the more slighted by Joel’s apparent characterization of them as undesirable.  If an ‘over-achieving’ community could be so easily slighted, what hope is there for immigrant communities or ethnic groups that are less affluent or less characterized by high educational achievements?  This is a reasonable enough claim, except that Indian Americans have never been keen on expressing their solidarity with less affluent or otherwise stigmatized communities.  Moreover, much of the anxiety stemming from Joel Stein’s unimaginative attempt at humour owes its origins to the widespread perception that Indian Americans are an ‘invisible minority’, whose decency and relative distance from the mainstream of American politics has rendered them susceptible to onslaughts and humiliations that would never otherwise be imposed on a community otherwise distinguished by its affluence, attainments, and general reputation.  All this, I would submit, is germane to an understanding of why Joel Stein’s column, ‘My Own Private India’, has been so unsettling for Indian Americans.