Monday, August 13, 2018

Why I Collect Racism

I have started to collect racist ephemera — specifically directed toward Asian immigrants and their American descendants. I mean artifacts in paper such as pamphlets suggesting that Asiatic hordes would invade and take over, posters promoting the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese American internment, documents containing ethnic slurs (“chink,” “jap,” “gook,” “Chinaman,” “nip,” “slant-eye” and so on), and advertising featuring caricatured images. I would like to frame this propaganda and hang it. Since almost all Asian Americans whom I know, among others, have objected to this endeavor, I would like to explain the point of the project.

My purpose is to provoke. I would like to disrupt our shared comfort. The greater the upset caused by references to the past, the more intense the urge toward action for the future. Memorabilia should be saved for many reasons, and not all of it needs to inspire nostalgia for the past.

My idea comes from a story I read some time back about African Americans who have a similar hobby. It turns out there exist a few, not many but not none, African Americans who search out articles such as lawn jockeys and then display them. (Although the genealogy of the lawn jockey is disputedthe bulk of contemporary opinion deems this piece of Americana to be derogatory toward blacks.)

A colleague of mine who is Caucasian and a librarian (thus in the profession of accumulating objects) said to me she thought a person with this type of mania would appear to be very angry. My sense is just the opposite: just as people who buy a book feel they have acquired its content even if they have not in fact read the pages, a person who possesses racist art gains control over it. The idol loses its power.

As an amateur student of history, as we all are at least as to our own lives, I would like prove the past was what it was. Many people, including Asian Americans themselves, deny that Asians in American, whether new arrivals or native born, now face or for that matter have ever faced significant discrimination rooted in bigotry. They suppose “politically correct” complaints refer to only the expected adjustment that all newcomers have had to make, learning different cultural patterns, nothing more. Asian Americans are too proud to acknowledge once having been victims before becoming successful.

Hardly anybody recalls, for example, the glib xenophobia of Ogden Nash, the best-selling author of light verse (only his accompaniment to Saint-Saens’s Carnival of Animalsorchestral suite is recited nowadays), or Dr. Seuss, the perennial favorite among children’s authors, of The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. They have been whitewashed. Nash described “the Japanese” as “how courteous” as he “grins and bows a friendly bow; so sorry, this is my garden now.” Seuss supposedly wrote Horton Hears a Who as an apology of sorts for his earlier anti-Japanese graphics (not archived within Seussville).

The few items I have purchased — a union membership booklet with rules prohibiting the patronage of Chinese or Japanese businesses, with signed cards for attendance at meetings, and sheet music with lyrics of mock sing-song broken English — make an argument more effectively than I ever could advance explicitly. Too rare for my means are the perfect specimens extant: political flyers that directly assert California confronts a choice whether to be reserved for white Christians, against a background depicting the horror of heathen Orientals. The talismans of racism constitute convincing proof.

The hatred of Asians was open, overt, hardcore, egregious, and unembarrassed. And it was racial. It was not simply directed at anybody coming to these shores, since some of its advocates themselves also were foreigners. Nor was it about assimilation. The demand that Asians conform to the majority was accompanied by the declaration that it would be impossible for them to do so; they remained untrustworthy, inscrutable.

I wince whenever someone who intends to be progressive declares that she has a problem with a work of art, because she deems it offensive. So much art is (or was in its own era) transgressive. Attraction and repulsion are bound together.

Those of us who care about civil rights harm our cause by implying that social justice is merely etiquette. It reduces the issue from substance to appearance. What is wrong is equated with what is ugly, and vice versa. Universal principles are overwhelmed by subjective opinions.

Our opponents, after all, take advantage of the same rhetoric. The Nazis judged modernism to be degenerate. (My own aesthetics would not surprise anyone: I am impressed by painters such as Chaim Soutine, who produced garish canvasses of beef carcasses hanging in the butcher’s storeroom.)

These perceptions extend beyond tastes. Haters can claim to be offended by interracial couples holding hands. If the test were simply whether an individual has her feelings hurt, and no doubt the observer shocked by love transcending color is genuinely agitated, then their aversion about the effrontery of the act they have witnessed is not subject to refutation. Emotions cannot be denied, because they are by definition beyond reason. If creativity is judged by whether it has avoided giving offense, the racists’ sensibilities deserve equal respect to Susan Sontag’s essays.

There are risks to reappropriation. Irony is easily misinterpreted. A contemporary print I have purchased, by Roger Shimomura, shows two couples in a Pop Art style. In “Mix and Match,” the Caucasian male and Asian female are portrayed as romantic and ideal; the Asian male and Caucasian female are portrayed as disgusting and distressed, respectively.

I am not alone in my enthusiasm. A few years ago, John Kuo Wei Tchen, a professor at New York University, curated an exhibition of this material. Now he, with co-author Dylan Yeats, has published a book entitled Yellow Peril: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear. They offer details on the exclusive nature of Manifest Destiny. The new world of the nineteenth century drove toward the Pacific but stopped by protecting our side.

Yet our anxieties recur. The concerns about the decline of the West, and the rise of the East, have become acute again. There is another possibility. The differences could cease to be meaningful, as civilizations come together.

The demagogues predicted miscegenation would become the norm. They were right. We could embrace the prospect.

This blog originally appeared at HuffPo.

August 13, 2018 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Teaching the Internment to the Resistance

In standing up and speaking out for racial justice, we ought to advance the best argument. That is not necessarily what we suppose it is, especially taking into account the audience we would like to bring around. In a law school seminar, I just worked through the example of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. This episode demonstrates how, in the law, the reasoning is as important as the result. It could not be more relevant.

I am philosophical because I am practical. As a professor, I am committed, with a passion, to what will be useful to students; I am regarded by colleagues as woefully anti-theoretical. Yet I try to point out how what appears to be abstract has potential utility to advocates. That also is true of what might be dismissed as obscure, since in our system of jurisprudence decisions depend on the following of precedent. The internment continues to be controversial. It is cited positively and negatively.

In teaching the four Supreme Court cases that allowed the mass violation of due process, but technically did not approve of the incarceration of individuals conceded to be loyal, I have emphasized that it is not enough to criticize the government actions as “racist.” Although we might agree now that they were motivated by prejudice, they were supported by virtually everyone then — including future Chief Justice Earl Warren, who undid Jim Crow racial segregation in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education; the national ACLU, which liked FDR; and Chinese Americans and Korean Americans, who wore buttons and put up signs declaring their ethnicity (emphatically not Japanese) and stating, “I hate the Japs more than you do.” To be persuasive, either then or now, we have to be able to explain how the assumptions about Japanese Americans, based on their lineage, were wrong as a factual question and why they were wrong as a moral issue as well. It can be done.

Make no mistake. I am as much against the incarceration as possible, having co-written a textbook on the subject funded by the same bill that paid redress (and, I hasten to add, I am signed up to fight any variation imposed on another community). None but my students would suspect me of siding with those who would lock up people for the color of their skin, and I cheer them for their commitment. I would be remiss, however, if I failed to show them that in being against something, you should be for something. In this context, you must articulate a basis for denouncing the internment other than your own preference even if I happen to concur. You might deliberately refrain from the charge of “racism,” anticipating it will be futile. You could select a strategy that looks universal, as if the internment implicates others who would attract more sympathy, a course that has proven successful.

The choice of rationale for rejecting the internment affects the evaluation of contemporary proposals that similarly rely on an inference about background, in assessing the risks of espionage, sabotage, treason, and other treachery. Competing philosophies enter here. In the Western tradition of normative ethics, there are two rival schools of thought: deontological and consequentialist. You could object to the internment within either framework, but they might direct you to alternative conclusions in other situations. Constitutional interpretation has extended these concepts. There have been Justices who have insisted the text offers no opening to consider consequences, and those who have insisted the contrary.

“Deontological” refers to principles of duty. A deontological judge would have, above all, a sense of obligations. You do this, you don’t do that. These are rules that set responsibilities. They might admit exceptions. But if the rule applies, and the exception hasn’t arisen, then it is strict. There is no “if,” “and,” or “but” about the matter. With the internment, you could take the position that generalizing from categories of race or ethnicity is impermissible. If that is accepted as the rule, then consistency would demand that any other state action similarly would be prohibited. (That would include remedial programs or those intended to produce diversity, if they were not neutral in their method.)

“Consequentialist” refers to balancing of effects. A consequentialist judge is utilitarian in assessing benefits and costs. You do this, if it generates an outcome on the whole favorable; you don’t do it if it doesn’t. You are amenable to compromise. With the internment, you could take the position that in this instance the generalization is inaccurate. It is over inclusive of innocent persons with Japanese ancestry and under inclusive of guilty persons of all other heritages. Or it brings about additional repercussions that are harmful, such as curtailing contributions from Japanese Americans who could assist the war effort through special skills. That attitude would not commit you to oppose everything else that resembled the internment. It would compel you to analyze empirical data.

In my own experience such as it is, people equivocate. All of us are a bit “deontological” and a bit “consequentialist.” It tends to be more of the former as we look at others, whose behavior who frown upon; more of the latter as we reflect on ourselves, for whom an excuse serves to vindicate. Such is human nature. I am dissuaded from the deontological severity of Immanuel Kant, by the hypothetical of the Nazi who comes to the door to ask if you are hiding Jews in the cellar. I would lie. I would have no compunction. I am reluctant to endorse consequentialism that is pure in calculation per John Stuart Mill, for it lacks protections against itself. It would limit an internment only if it were irrational. Too much that is tragic has been carried out by objective measurement.

“Deontological” and “consequentialist” are not the same, and not merely in an academic sense. Terms that are fancy describe rhetoric which is functional. A difference of opinion, expressed by those clothed in the authority of black robes, seated on the bench up high, creates the potential for another internment. The internment could be deemed inappropriate or ineffective, neither, or both. But for those who would have voted against it as a legislator or struck it down as a judge, inappropriate and ineffective eventually will diverge. A lawyer who wins a case for one client might have lost it for another client already, well in advance, if she is not attentive to subtleties. So a law student who wishes to promote a cause needs to learn all its complexities.

This blog originally appeared on Huffington Post.

August 7, 2018 | Permalink | Comments (0)