Recently I saw a car with large professional lettering on the back that said, "The biggest lie is that vaccinations are safe and effective." My initial though was that if this person had their way tens of millions of people, particularly children, would die needlessly. Later it got me to thinking about my most memorable vaccination.
With the post World War II baby boomer generation everything changed. I know, every generation thinks that, but the baby boom coincided with science that fundamentally altered human expectations.
Our first thought might be of nuclear power: the bomb, the cold war, electricity too cheap to meter. I remember some of that, including mutual assured destruction, duck and cover drills, rampant paranoia. But it never seemed real. It was too abstract, too removed from anything in my day-to-day life. It wasn't scary in part because it had no connection to anyone or anything I knew.
Now polio, that was scary and real. I don't remember adults talking about nuclear war or the Soviet Union and certainly we kids did not. But adults talked about polio in grave voices with worried faces. The kids talked about it too, especially after a kid in our area contracted it and was confined to an iron lung. That sounded like the most terrifying thing we could imagine. So, we wondered, how might we catch polio, how could we avoid it? Stay away from sick people, don't touch anything, be extra good, pray. Were Catholics protected? Lutherans, Methodists, maybe Jews?
We in our childish way were doing what humans had done for their entire existence. When something is inexplicable you attribute it to the gods or luck or some superstition. So we washed our hands like we never had before. We worried about every cough, whether ours or anyone else's. If anyone acted "funny," whatever that was, we avoided them. We wondered if it was safer inside or outdoors. We made up causes and hoped for cures. Everyone thought about it but seldom talked about it.
While humans, for good or ill, had control over nuclear weapons, doctors, scientists and politicians could do nothing to stop the spread of polio. And polio was just one disease. During the first half of the twentieth century tuberculosis, smallpox, malaria, measles, mumps, scarlet fever and a host of other diseases mostly defied real medical treatment. While public health measures for improved sanitation and clean drinking water significantly reduced the incidence of a variety of diseases, infections in this pre-antibiotic era continued to be a problem. Remember that antibiotics only became widely available after WWII.
So we lived with this dark shadow. Then one day a miracle occurred. At school each class in turn was marched out of their classroom through the hallways and into the door at the end of the gymnasium. We lined up single file along the back wall in alphabetical order. The line went down the length of the gym, made a left turn along the far wall and then went through the door at the far end. This was a clever design because we could not see what was happening until we took our turn and stepped through that doorway.
By that time you just had a couple of kids ahead of you and only had a few seconds to take in the scene - a long table, a doctor standing beside it, two nurses, and one clerk. The clerk was marking off your name on the list. One nurse was filling syringes and laying them in a neat row on the table, the second swabbed alcohol on your arm. The doctor held the syringe up to check the level of the vaccine. The needle, at least a foot long, glistened in the light. Without a word the doctor stuck you with the needle, pushed in the plunger, and then placed the used needle in a box. The nurse put a band aid on your arm and then a teacher whisked you away. Some kids cried, some screamed, but for most of us it was so fast, so surreal that we didn't react at all. We just marched ahead as directed not really comprehending what was happening.
This all happened without consent forms, opt out provisions, public discussion or parental involvement. There were no consultants, no information meeting and no pretense of democracy. It just happened and the reaction was universal - everyone was grateful and amazed. The dark cloud was lifted and we got back to being kids again. Adults talked of baseball and the year's hay crop.
A miracle had taken place, the miracle of normalcy.
March for Life
When I looked at pictures from the March for Life events I saw black and white and brown and every skin tone imaginable. I saw dreadlocks and crew cuts, braids and bangs, tattoos and tans. I saw people who might trace their heritage to any and every part of the globe. I saw people of different religions and cultural traditions united by a common purpose, a higher purpose than themselves. I saw youth and energy and promise. I saw love and empathy and a desire to make the world better. I saw the future. I saw America.
The contrast is stark. When I look at pictures from the White House, from this administration I see old men, white men, angry men. I see hate and greed and a disdain for others. I see ignorance exceeded only by arrogance. I see fear and rot. I see the past.
The current generation of engaged young people is a sign of hope, but beware, we have been here before. Remember peace and love? In the 1960's and 70's millions of baby boomers rallied to stop the war, to support civil rights and women's' rights. They marched in the streets and worked in the political system. They registered people to vote who couldn't, they worked to end segregation, they demanded justice and equality. They were black and white together.
Fifty years later we look back and see endless war; an education system more segregated than ever and that is under-funded and under attack; a relentless campaign to disenfranchise voters; women harassed, assaulted, underpaid and denied control of their own bodies; Blacks shot in the street and locked in prisons. We see that greed and hate and fear and willful ignorance has often replaced peace and love, equality and justice. Will this new generation get us back on track? History teaches that a better future is not assured.
I had not intended to write about guns anymore. The killings go on endlessly. Every day 93 people on average die from guns in the US. Most go un-noticed and are accepted as normal in this country. Oh, we express outrage and grief over the mass killings that garner national media attention but within a few days it all returns to normal. Just a ritual that we play out. Sort of like going to church – well, that is taken care of and we return to our regular lives. Nothing changes.
But after the Florida killings a group of kids stood up. They demanded to be heard, not as victims but as advocates. They refuse to be pandered to and then dismissed. They are doing something we are not used to. They are acting like responsible adults, in sharp contrast to our so-called leaders. I do not know if they will succeed in any meaningful way. The $30 million a year that the NRA spends to buy politicians is a huge obstacle and they and their co-conspirators are masterful at turning what should be a rational discussion about how to make us all safer into a culture war.
Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, said that those calling for gun control after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., “hate individual freedom" and were involved in a socialist plot "to eradicate all individual freedoms.” Just the kind of considered, thoughtful discussion that we need when confronting the scourge of 30,000 deaths a year.
Is it hating freedom to want to save all those lives? Is it hating freedom to want children to be safe? Is it hating freedom to not want to see another grieving father or distraught mother?
What does it say about us if we need to have a gun to feel free? What does it mean to be free? More than 20 years ago after a mass shooting, Australia banned most guns and instituted a mandatory buyback program. Since then there have been no mass shootings in Australia. I have been to Australia, walked its streets, hiked its country side, talked to its citizens. I did not discern a lack of freedom. If freedom means being able to travel where you want, vote in elections, read what you please and speak your mind freely than these people are free. And there is no greater freedom than feeling safe while living your life. If you need a gun to make you feel free maybe you need a different kind of help.
Will the kids from Florida and their supporters effect meaningful change? It is unlikely. At best they will get some window dressing measures - raising the age to purchase to 21, prohibiting bump stocks, etc - that are unlikely to reduce the violence significantly. There are already over 300 million guns in the country so it is not like there will be a supply shortage.
There are two models to look to that might hold some promise. Things that have actually made a difference in other areas that might be applicable to gun violence. One is to make gun violence (not guns) a public health issue. It is not about the second amendment or freedom or rural vs urban or red vs blue. It is about saving people's lives, children's lives. The model here is smoking. If 25 years ago you had told most people that smoking would be banned in virtually every public building, restaurant, office, bar and park in the country they would have thought you delusional. Yet in spite of the nearly unlimited resources of big tobacco companies it has happened; smoking has declined dramatically and millions of lives have been saved. The same needs to be done for the violence caused by guns. Like the gun issue, smoking advocates tried to characterize it as about individual rights and personal freedom. That didn't fly then, and the same approach needs to be applied to gun violence.
A second model is automobiles and driving. Just like cars and drivers, guns and their owners should be registered, tested, licensed, inspected regularly and most importantly insured. The insured part is critical. Insurance companies for all their greed, bureaucracy, and bad service have driven life saving measures such as seatbelts, air bags, child safety seats and ABS brakes. If liability insurance was required for gun owners as coverage for any death or injury resulting from the weapons they own, you can bet that trigger locks would be mandatory, smart gun technology common and fewer deaths would occur. Traffic fatalities have declined for many years on American roads. It is time to do the same for America's schools and streets.
You don't have to hate freedom to want to save lives.
Things I Miss
Tom Paxton is fond of saying that it's OK to look back as long as you don't stare. I'm trying not to stare and actually am not much into nostalgia but there are a few things I miss.
I miss having a full head of dark wavy hair.
I miss lying in the hay up under the eaves of our barn listening to the rain on the metal roof.
I miss all the dogs and cats that have shared my life. I even miss the goldfish I inherited from a broken home.
I miss when I believed the president and trusted the government (that ended for me in 1968).
I miss being young and stupid and believing I was immortal.
I miss driving country roads very late on moon lit nights with the headlights turned off.
I miss when there were not lights everywhere and it was really dark at night and you could see the Milky Way any clear night.
I miss working in the hay field on a hot summer day and then going swimming in the creek.
I miss wanting to run everywhere.
I miss sitting on the lawn on a warm summer night and being able to identify every car that went by just from its head and tail lights.
I miss being able to stay up late and sleep till noon the next day.
I miss when I went to the gym to play games rather than for "fitness".
I miss fast cars on slow roads.
I miss a lot of musicians but no politicians.
I miss the USSR because "Russia" sounds somehow vulgar.
I miss new love and old friends.
I miss kids being free-range like the chickens are now.
I miss cars that sound like cars, not sewing machines.
I miss pickups that were trucks, not luxury barges.
While I miss these things, mostly I say let the past lie. Many things are better today, I mean the beer and the ice cream are way better - enough to keep me looking forward. May you do the same.
Truth has been much in the spotlight the last year. There has been a lot of discussion about what is true and not true and according to whom. There are discussions of facts and alternate facts and lots of fact-checking by individuals and organizations from many different points of view. The news media and others who purport to bring us the truth have been maligned and scrutinized in a way that hasn't occurred in a long time. Despite all this attention I think the words of the American humorist Josh Billings (yes the namesake for the Great Josh Billings RunAground) still prevail “As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand”
Truth is elusive. Webster defines truth as :”the property of being in accord with fact or reality” but facts and reality are often subjective and imprecise. Webster does not elaborate about the different kind of truths that exist. The two most common for most of us are empirical truth and philosophical truth.
Empirical truth relates to things that we can see, or hear or touch or measure. These are the truths, the facts that are often discussed. It is assumed that such truths are unequivocally discernable, that there is only one possible meaning and therefore everyone should be able to see them in the same way. Doesn't work. Consider the body of evidence regarding eyewitness identification by crime victims that demonstrate the utter unreliability of such identifications. If we think that what we see or what we remember are facts we are mistaken nearly as often as we are correct. So much for reality. And facts change. It was once a “fact” that stress caused ulcers, that removing tonsils would cure ear and throat infections in children and that Pluto was a planet. Some of today’s empirical facts will undoubtedly change over time.
Philosophical truths, which include religious truths, are things that can not be empirically proven or demonstrated in most cases. The truths that Thomas Jefferson held to be self evident were derived from the enlightenment philosophers. They were more aspirational than demonstrable. In an analogous manner Christians would see truth as emanating from God as when Jesus, said, "I am the Way and the Truth…”. In these cases truth is something to be taken on faith, it is a belief. Too often these two different kinds of truths are commingled and this is the source of some of the problems of discussing what is true.
I think there are a couple of different perspectives on truth that are worth considering that don't seem to be getting much attention.
The Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman is quoted as saying “when someone says something don't ask yourself if it is true. Ask what it might be true of.”. What Kahneman is suggesting I think, is to look beyond the veracity of the initial statement for the deeper meaning behind the statement. Consider the case of President Clinton when he said that he did not have sex with Monica Lewinsky. The statement, as we soon learned, was not true. But what lies (pun intended) behind that statement? Is there a different truth that is revealed? We can not know for sure but we can speculate that the truth that Clinton feared was the consequences of publicly admitting his infidelity to his wife and to the country more than the possibility of being caught in a lie.. Another truth might be that Clinton’s position of power made him think the rules did not apply to him. This is all too typical of people of wealth, power and privilege from Wall Street traders to corporate executives to political leaders.
So when the leader of North Korea says that he will destroy the United States consider not just whether North Korea has the capability and the reason to carry out such a threat but what might compel him to say such a thing. What is the truth behind that statement? It might be that Kim Jong Un is paranoid or that there is a reason for him to be afraid or that he is engaging in the time-honored practice of rallying domestic support by enlarging the threat of a foreign enemy. This latter possibility is something that authoritarian figures have done throughout time and continues today. It is one way of viewing many of the statements and making sense of the truth of the current occupant of the American White House. Many of the things that he says may have more to do with diverting attention from another vexing issue or retaining support from key constituents then the actual facts of the statement made.
You might ask, how leaders can get away with repeatedly stating obvious untruths? That leads to my second point. Facts do not exist in isolation but in context. As anyone who has worked in a large office can attest, everyone may agree with the empirical fact that the thermometer reads 69 but some people will say that it is too cold while others will maintain it is too warm. And for many their answer will be different in the summer than in the winter. So context is critical to what is perceived to be true and the most important, the most persuasive context are our beliefs. Yuval Noah Harari in his book “Homo Sapiens” notes that Spanish conquerors in the New World put it this way, “A single Priest does the work of a hundred soldiers” meaning that if you can get people to accept your beliefs they will be compliant and the need for coercion is diminished. This trait is not limited to religion, political and cultural values are just as effective.
The convergence of these three realms - religion, culture and politics - creates an environment where people not only create their own truth but often ignore their own self interest. I have heard people remark in bewildered frustration about how some people can support politicians who advocate taking away their health insurance or providing tax cuts to the wealthy that they themselves will never benefit from. Issues such as abortion and gun control are highly emotional issues that transcend facts, self interest or compromise. Cultural and religious beliefs and values become the prism through which we “see” reality. The aforementioned Daniel Kahneman and many other researchers may shown the power of things such as confirmation bias and priming on people’s ability to perceive facts and the behavior they exhibit.
It is useful to remember that we are all susceptible to the influence of our beliefs on what we perceive and how we act. It is not limited to “other people” i.e. those with whom we disagree on an issue. For example, I believe that economic inequality in the US is unfair and is harmful to the nation. Therefore, based on my beliefs, I support higher wages for workers and a more progressive (higher) tax rate even though such policies would likely cost me money due to higher prices and higher taxes. Yes, I am prepared to vote against my own self interest. So like abortion or guns I can be a values driven voter. But self interest does not drive all our actions. In fact most acts of charity, kindness and respect are not necessarily in our material self interest and yet they are often our most satisfying and rewarding experiences.
As we debate truth, facts, alternative facts and such, remember the words of that great American philosopher Tommy Smothers (he was the "dumb" one). "Truth is what you get other people to believe". And so it is in religion and politics.
Nothing Left to Say
Las Vegas.: another tragedy; more carnage; more bodies and destroyed lives. Another "law biding" citizen with military weapons. The endless media coverage would have you think this is an unusual event but it is only unusual in that all the deaths occurred in one place. On average every day 93 people die by the gun in this country. Yes every day and 7 of them are children. And we accept that as normal. Just another day in America.
I have nothing left to say. It has all been said and nothing changes. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. Every time it is more guns will make us safer and more people die. We seem to all be crazy.
I wrote the following poem after another mass killing but felt the need to share it now.
The Price to Be Free
This time twenty eight
This time Newtown
This time a tow headed boy, a curly headed little girl
This time a five year old, a child of six
This time a teacher, a mother, a lover
Every time they say it’s not the guns
Every time they say it’s not the bullets
Every time they say it’s not the hate
Every time they say it’s not the yelling and the lies
Every time they say it’s not the line in the sand
Every time they say it’s not the wars
Every time they tell us it is the price to be free
Last time it was Oak Creek
Last time it was only six
Last time it was Aurora
Last time it was a dozen
Last time it was a father, a mother, a daughter
Last time was supposed to be the last time
But every time there is a next time
Every time there are the screams
Every time there are the tears
Every time there are the hollow eyes and the fear
Every time there are the bodies
Every time there are the pious empty words
Every time there are the guns
Every time they tell us it is the price to be free
A friend asked if I was going to write something about Charlottesville. I said, no, that it was too raw, too soon to have a real perspective. And then I couldn't stop thinking about it.
First and foremost Charlottesville was an outrage and a tragedy. But there is a new tragedy every day. It is endless, ceaseless. We are numb from it. How do you sustain outrage day after day? It is the new normal. Outrageous people have made it commonplace and almost acceptable.
It is somehow how apropos that this took place in Charlottesville, Virginia the home of what Thomas Jefferson called his most important contribution, the University of Virginia. When we visited a few years ago you could walk around the main quad that Jefferson had laid out and which remains to this day the way he designed and built it. A place for learning, principled discussion. A space for peace and reflection. The very seat of the Enlightenment in America.
Yet this place embodies at its core the central contradiction of Jefferson and of our nation. How could a person write such impassioned, stirring words - "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" and simultaneously possess other human beings thereby depriving them of any semblance of liberty or equality? It is also probable that Jefferson was a rapist, at least by modern standards. He began his "affair" with Sally Hemmings when she was 15 or 16 years old, too young for consent - as if a slave could refuse.
This contradiction is mirrored in the nation. People speak of liberty and freedom but mostly they mean freedom for their group and to do what they want to do regardless of the impact on others. We all speak the words but mostly live in our little enclaves; closed worlds of like minded people. Too often freedom comes down to being free to denigrate, discriminate or hate.
It is worth remembering what precipitated the Charlottesville events. The "Unite the Right" gathering was to protest the city's plan to remove a statute of Robert E Lee and rename the park from Lee Park to Emancipation Park. After 150 years the Civil War continues. The South lost the war but largely won the peace through a concerted campaign of Jim Crow, lynchings and violence and continuing to today's efforts for state rights (at least where they find it useful), voter suppression and reverence for the "heroes" of the Civil War.
Think of those Civil War monuments, of what could have been done. Consider as an alternative how Germany has handled the Nazi memorials. Germany banned the swastika from public life. And since 1945, its government has worked to systematically get rid of Nazi-era memorials and architecture. Nazi officials were buried in unmarked graves. Swastikas were ground off buildings. Monuments and statues from the Third Reich were torn down. And most importantly the monuments and statues that were retained have been used as vehicles to educate people and especially children about the horrors of the Nazi regime. I have heard many people justify the retention of Civil War monuments and the use of the Confederate flag as honoring those who fought, those who died and as part of their history and heritage. I have yet to hear one person use those monuments as a vehicle to discuss the horrors of slavery, to explain how the economy and prosperity and wealth was built on forced labor, of the crime of succession and the traitors to the nation who tore the country apart, of how the actions of these historic figures resulted in a war that took nearly 1 million American lives, of the use of "state's rights" as a cover for racism and discrimination. If Germany had taken our approach there would be statutes of Hitler, Goring, Gobbelels and Eichmann and the children would be learning about their glorious Nazi heritage.
So the war never ends, we know no peace, " A thousand people in the street...Mostly saying, 'hooray for our side'"
We know not what we do.
Lady in the Harbor
Somehow the 4th of July and hearing Joe Jencks perform his song "Lady of the Harbor" soon after triggered this dream about the Statue of Liberty:
The Lady of the Harbor stands tall and proud, a sentinel to those who would be free, raising her torch above the glistening sea. I look down on her from a tower above. I see peace and love.
But in the air the whispers say, "they are not like me, they are different, they do not belong". Voices of hate and fear.
From the Lady a tear slowly forms and rolls down her steel cheek until it adds its salt to the sea. Like a mother crying for her lost children.
The whispers grow louder becoming shouts, demanding action. There are raids and roundups. With each brick in the wall, each knock on the door, Her flame grows fainter fading into the night, lost in the sea. Finally it is extinguished and gone. Darkness descends. Darkness prevails.
But the voices are not done. The words are co-opted, shouted and screamed, turned on themselves until truth and reason disappear with the light. On the Lady's plaque the words on the inscription grow faint. The "huddled masses" are not needed, have been replaced - the words are erased. "Yearning to breathe free" is too dangerous - deleted. The wretched, the homeless are wanted no more. They are invisible like the words on the plaque. Finally the plaque is blank and follows the tear into the sea. Swallowed by the same darkness.
Then someone says that the Lady is un-American. At first there is a gasp but the refrain is repeated and repeated, louder and louder. This new word travels fast. The case is made. She is a foreigner, worse she is French, she is undocumented, she is unrepentant, she is colorblind. She is dangerous, the children will learn the wrong lessons. She must be removed, deported.
They celebrate her departure.
As I watch the people who drove the Lady away build a barrier. Perhaps it is to wall themselves in, to protect the rest of the world from them. They are free to hate, to be alone with their weapons, alone with their fear.
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door. by Emma Lazarus
On a warm spring afternoon I am sitting outside with an adult beverage watching the carpenter bees eat my house. Its not as bad as it sounds. After years of trying to discourage them we have come to an understanding - they confine their drilling and burrowing to a couple of large fascia boards and I leave them alone. Since they reuse the same nests and areas each year the damage is somewhat limited and I accept this as the price for all the good they do.
The males swarm around by the dozens trying to get a date. They come and buzz around me but the males don't sting so it just provides an opportunity to watch close up the "impossible" i.e. the flight of creatures that some have claimed should not be able to fly. When not on the dating scene the bees work the flowers and bushes in our yard. Its a perfect symbiotic relationship, the bees get nectar for food and we get flowers pollinated.
Carpenter bees are classically "busy as a bee," in constant motion as long as the weather is warm enough. Still I can't help but wonder if there are any lazy ones. Are there a couple of males (I'm sure it would be the guys) hanging out in the nest sucking down mugs of fermented nectar and watching the Three Stooges on TV? Well, probably not.
So where does it start? If bees are hardwired to be busy, to work, to do their part for the social order and not be slackers, where does the tendency to be lazy, to get a unfair advantage, to take advantage of others, to be greedy, start? Is it something that happens mostly among "higher" order creatures?
A few years ago we volunteered to work at Okonjima Nature Reserve, a cheetah wildlife preserve in Namibia. This preserve rescues and rehabilitates cheetahs and where possible returns them to the "wild". I put wild in quotes because released cheetahs are confined to a preserve that is fenced to keep them in so they don't eat farmers livestock and to keep poachers out. Still at 55,000 acres (about 4 times the land mass of Albany, NY or 3 times Las Cruces NM) it is both large and wild. What they have found after releasing dozens of cheetahs into the preserve over the years is that after having been in rehab where they are fed and cared for until ready to be released, a few of the cheetahs will not hunt for themselves. They are dubbed "welfare" cheetahs and live out their days in 5-8 acre enclosures eating donkey meat delivered to them.
It is impossible to know if their condition results from never having learned to hunt (many of the animals at the preserve because their mothers were killed when they were kittens) or if they just were addicted to the free food. Perhaps they are the cheetah equivalent of Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens". As we consider primates it seems more evident that some individuals are looking for a free ride when they can get it. It is interesting to consider that the more intelligent a species is, the more likely there are to be individuals who want to beat the system, live off the work of others or gain an unfair advantage, often by hook or by crook.
These elements of greed, deception and entitlement are evident in what economists call rent seeking. No, rent seeking does not mean renting out your spare room via Airbnb. Investopedia defines rent-seeking "as efforts to obtain economic gain from others without reciprocating any benefits to society," i.e. getting something for nothing or freeloading. This often involves lobbying and campaign contributions designed to obtain subsidies, grants or tariff protection from governments. These activities don't create any benefit for society; they just redistribute resources from the taxpayers and consumers to the company or individual.
A good example of rent seeking is sugar, that stuff we tend to eat too much of and which is difficult to avoid since it is added to nearly every packaged or processed food we buy, from cereal to soda, sport drinks to apple sauce. The sugar industry has been very effective in lobbying for tariffs on sugar imported to the US. As a result, the price of raw sugar is about 6 cents a pound higher in the US than the world average. Six cents? A pittance you say right? Well, Ben Franklin admonished us to be "penny wise" and in this case it means that US consumers paid about $1.4 billion more in just one year (2013) than they should have. That is money that the sugar industry took from your pocket and put in theirs (source: Heritage Foundation report). Their only added expense was the money spent on campaign contributions and lobbying. Nice work if you can get it.
A second example is the way a very well know billionaire got rich. The New York Times reported that this individual received at least $885 million in tax breaks, subsidies, and grants for his apartment, hotel, and office developments in New York City. That is nearly a billion dollars that City, state and federal taxpayers had to pay because an already rich person did not. And that was just the properties in New Your City. He became a billionaire by taking money from you and me. And he is one of many, the takers, the greedy, the ones who live off other people's labor.
Rent seeking behavior is characterized by greed, deception, deceit and a strong sense by the perpetrators of entitlement and often superiority. This requires an advanced brain and apparently it is a successful strategy for reproductive success since it seems to have thrived through homo sapiens' evolution. So should this behavior be vilified or celebrated? Should we all be bees or welfare cheetahs? That in effect is one ingredient in the political divide on the country.
The fence is gone
They say it was barbed wire
They barracks are gone
They called them chicken coops
The towers are gone
They say they were wood
The guards are gone
They say they carried carbines
The prisoners are gone
But the ghosts remain
If you stand at the edge of the compound
You can almost see the them lining up at the mess hall
If you listen closely
You can hear the voices
English over here
Japanese over there
The wind whispers of times forgotten
Forgotten to hide the shame
Now in 2017 I am standing at the edge of a cotton field where row on row of barracks once marched across the muddy land, home to 8400 Japanese Americans. The ghosts still linger. Each family known by a number that replaced their name. Another step to invisibility. This camp is in Rohwer, Arkansas far from much of anything but importantly on a rail line to facilitate the transport of prisoners.
In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the removal and incarceration of 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent (about 70% native born Americans) to camps in California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas.
The Supreme Court upheld the action in Korematsu v. United States. In a 6–3 decision, the Court sided with the government, ruling that the exclusion order was constitutional. Six of eight Roosevelt appointees sided with Roosevelt. The lone Republican appointee, Owen Roberts, dissented. The opinion, written by Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, held that the need to protect against espionage outweighed the rights of Americans of Japanese descent. During the case, Solicitor General Charles Fahy is alleged to have suppressed evidence that questioned the need for removal. To this day, the Supreme Court has not overruled its decision. Since this stands as the law of the land it could offer precedence to the incarceration of Hispanics, Muslims, or other targeted groups.
From the vantage point of 75 years later it is easy to vilify those who advocated and implemented the internment program. It is difficult to put ourselves in that time and place. Perhaps the closest we can get is to recall the aftermath of 9/11, the fear, the anger and even the desire for revenge. The attack on Pearl Harbor understandablely brought those emotions and more. In the book In Defense of Internment, Michelle Malkin argues that the internment was appropriate and just. Unfortunately rather than present an historical analysis based on verified evidence the book is mostly a polemic focused on discrediting opponents.
The book does reproduce important original documents including Japanese diplomatic communications and US intelligence reports. Perusing these documents reveals a couple of key patterns. First, while the Japanese government did try to establish a spy network in the US they had little success. Support among people of Japanese heritage was virtually nonexistent. Second, the US intelligence assessments show little evidence of support and indicated that internment was probably not needed. In fact a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence stated that there was no evidence that Japanese Americans were acting as spies or sending signals to enemy submarines. Its is worth noting that not a single instance of espionage or sabotage was ever prosecuted or proved among the 120,000 internees.
The real driver for internment was the long standing racism against people of Japanese background. Historian Nikki Nojima Louis paints a picture of the racial environment on the West coast through newspaper headlines and stories, oral histories and other documentation. Political leaders and leading newspapers in the West had been calling for the expulsion of Japanese at least since the beginning of the 1900's. In1923 the state of Washington passed a law that effectively prohibited native born Japanese Americans from owning property. Japanese immigrants had already been prohibited from owning property and were also prohibited from becoming citizens. This law was modeled on the slightly less restrictive California Alien Land Law of 1920 targeting Japanese farmers who owned or leased land.
When the Rohwer camp was closed after the war, everything was torn down - the barracks, the mess hall, the guard towers even the barbed wire fence. It was as if the shame was already so clear that the stain needed to be eradicated. Only the land remained. Land that the prisoners had transformed from worthless waste to valued crop land. Today that land grows cotton and rice and corn.
In 1945 the residents erected two large concrete monuments in the Rohwer Memorial Cemetery. The first was decorated with floral patterns and artwork symbolic to both Japanese and American cultures. This monument was dedicated to all those who died while interned at the relocation center. The second monument commemorates the young men from the Rohwer Relocation Center who fought and lost their lives while serving in the U.S. Army’s 100th Battalion and 442nd Combat Team. The juxtaposition of these two monuments speaks louder than words.
To this day the 442nd Regiment of Japanese American soldiers is the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in American military history. The 4,000 men who initially made up the unit in April 1943 had to be replaced nearly 2.5 times. In total, about 14,000 men served, earning 9,486 Purple Hearts.
Just as black soldiers fought for their country only to return and be denied basic civil and political rights, returning Japanese were targets of racial slurs, discrimination and vigilante violence.
And so the ghosts remain
The ghosts of our past
Too easily forgotten or ignored
But if we fail to heed them
They may be the ghosts of our future
One Small Voice
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