When I was your age we had to walk five miles uphill in the snow to get liberal Democracy
The bucolic painting that introduces this post is entitled Mother and Cat; it is the creation of the American artist Miné Okubo.
Born in Riverside, California, Okubo chose to study art most of her early life. After earning a Masters in Fine Arts from UC Berkeley, she followed the footsteps of painters celebrated and unknown alike, and travelled to France and Italy in the hopes of developing her craft and being “discovered.” She honed her skills in Europe for over two years, and while in Paris she studied under avant-garde legend Fernand Léger. Returning home, Okubo chose to work for the Federal Art Project from 1938 until just after 1941, when – while working with the famed muralist Diego Rivera – she was relocated to the state of Utah by her government in the name of public safety.
Though she was an American-born citizen with no ties to Japan, Okubo was a guilty of the “crime” of living in California while being of Japanese descent. And so on April 24, 1942 she was detained with 110,000 other American citizens of Japanese descent in internment camps. She was interned for two years along with her brother, under the government-assigned designation Citizen 13660. After the last camp was closed in 1946, the same government that essentially imprisoned her decided that Okubo and the other internees might be entitled to some compensation for their material loss under the American Japanese Claims Act. In order to do so, Okubo need only make a compensation claim by submitting the proper application with a copy of her 1938-42 tax records. Unfortunately, the IRS had destroyed all the tax records of all internees prior to the AJCA’s passing, and most of the internees had been unable to secure their own personal records prior to internment. Because of this, Okubo – like most internees – did not receive any compensation for the loss of her time or her property.
It should be noted that at the time, Japanese-American internment was wildly popular among most non-Japanese Americans, especially the California farmers that were the neighbors to the majority of the internees. In fact, there was no real public outcry whatsoever. The Los Angeles Times neatly summed up the editorials of every other major publication in the country:
“A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched…. So, a Japanese American born of Japanese parents, nurtured upon Japanese traditions, living in a transplanted Japanese atmosphere… notwithstanding his nominal brand of accidental citizenship almost inevitably and with the rarest exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, and not an American…. Thus, while it might cause injustice to a few to treat them all as potential enemies, I cannot escape the conclusion… that such treatment… should be accorded to each and all of them while we are at war with their race.”
Thank God, then, that neither Okubo nor the 110,000 other American citizens of Japanese heritage that were interred were forced to schedule an extra 15 minutes whenever flying to have their luggage and persons X-rayed by TSA officials.
There are many questions I have about our gathering to ask if liberal democracy is viable, but none so much as this one:
I confess I find the viability question bizarre, and yet another piece of anecdotal evidence that we Millennials are perhaps the first generation in this country’s history that have their obligatory parental-offspring rebellion synapses wired backwards. Just about every other generation I can think of is driven by the belief that they know better than their parents and grandparents, and it has been those generations’ elders that long for the shimmering, mythic, Eden-like past that has been lost over time. We Millennials, on the other hand, seem oddly connected to this belief that if only things could go back to the way they were a generation a two ago we’d truly have a Utopian garden worth tending. From what I’m reading in the symposium, liberal democracy isn’t an instrument of progress; it’s a one-way ticket to gradual despotism. I suspect this is because in this age of internet-backed confirmation of any belief system, we Millennials have a picture of the way this country used to be that is a complete fiction.
As I have been reading the posts and commentary of our Symposium, one of the central themes I have noted is that, thanks to liberal democracy, we have chosen to trade in our long-standing financial success, freedom, and adherence to the US Constitution for something akin to a soft dictatorship. In Burt’s post on the TSA drawings, he asks if democracy can “learn to make good choices with respect to liberty.” The answer in the threads is a resounding “No!,” and the consensus is that the erosion of liberty in the name of state security is a one-way sliding slope. The farther we move forward in time, I am asked to believe, the less free we become – and there is no turning back without scorching the fields and starting over.
In the aforementioned post by Burt, the TSA is presented (and discussed in the threads) as a chilling example of how over-reaction to hardship leads us to abandon our most sacred liberties. I do not like the TSA, and suspect that its policies are overly cumbersome, intrusive, expensive and inefficient. But I have to say that I think of it as more of an inconvenience than an infringement of my rights. In fact, I think it says something not entirely positive about us as a people that in the wake of 9/11 we are collectively sure that having us take off our shoes to check for bombs on airplanes is the worst kind of despotism, but blocking the building of mosques is more of a gray area.
Mind you, I do not believe that we live in a world of unicorns and rainbows. People here are quite correct that 9/11 created an atmosphere where liberties were allowed to be curbed. This is neither new nor unique. Reaction to fear can always lead to bad choices by societies where freedom is concerned, regardless of the political framework of their nation. The pendulum is always swinging, and those in control – be they a monarch, a dictator or the masses – will always sway between lax and rigid control, depending upon the times. If we’re really going to ask if our liberal democracy is viable, then, it seems wise to compare where we sit today against where we sat before, and not against some Utopian ideal. And a quick trip in the Way Back suggests that we look pretty good:
When our country was brand new we fought an undeclared war with France, and during that time those journalists that were critical of the President publically were thrown into prison. This tradition continued in the early 20th century. As previously noted, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor we rounded up all Japanese-American citizens in Military Zone 1 and put them in internment camps for years. When we were first made aware of the Red Menace, we set up a Congressional apparatus designed to destroy the careers and reputations of anyone foolish enough to be caught not loving our government enough. Organized protests of the Vietnam War were countered by domestic military forces, sometimes with deadly force. All of the instances of government overreach I have mentioned above have two things in common: each was widely supported at the time, and the thought of any of them happening today – let alone being popular – is almost inconceivable.
What those that think we’re on an ever-downward spiral of safety-over-freedom don’t realize is that we’re actually moving in the opposite direction. When I compare the Patriot Act (which I rightly despise) against the actions we as a nation took in the past when the pendulum swung toward “Fear,” I don’t see a nation sliding into despotism – I see a people that are constantly pushing toward a more free society. That evolution is something that we, as a people, have consciously chosen over time. And the mechanism that has allowed us to constantly push those freedoms forward is liberal democracy.
Our Founding Fathers gave us two gifts, which I like to think of as a Treasure and a Map. The Treasure was our love for the concept of Freedom and Liberty. In the writings of our founders, it is obvious that those forward-thinking men thought each to be sacred in theory. But as I have discussed before, there is a difference between what is sacred on paper and what is sacred in practice. Their practice of Freedom and Liberty saw voting rights extended to a minority of the privileged, allowed the taking of land and natural recourses from Native Americans, gave second-class citizenship to women, granted them the power to imprison or detain their detractors, and allowed one set of humans the ability to forcibly enslave another set of humans. And had they simply given us the one gift, there is little reason to think that we might still be close to having that kind of Freedom and Liberty in practice today. But they also gave us the Map. The Map, of course, is liberal democracy. Mind you, it’s not a very accurate map, and it rarely gets us to the freeway. But it gets us where we need to go.
Our history as a nation has been one of us as a people cautiously edging toward more freedom – emphasis on “cautiously.” We’re like a kid in the pool of Freedom, always wanting to be in the deep end but always just a little intimidated by it at the same time. We inch a little deeper ever year, until every now and then we realize “we’re another foot deeper!,” get freaked out, and back up a few inches in a mild panic. But we almost never go as far back as we were the last time we got freaked out. And soon enough, being in that deep end calls to us and we start inching out farther still. When we stop to look back to check out far how we’ve gotten, we see that we’re actually already farther in than we thought: Two hundred years ago we put people like me saying we shouldn’t be fighting overseas in prison. Today I can slap on a toupee that looks like a dead ferret to my head and go on TV to claim the President is a Kenyan sleeper agent that is out to destroy America. Seventy years ago we were bombed on our Pacific side, and we happily stripped Miné Okubo of all of her rights as a citizen of the United States. Ten years ago, we were bombed on our Atlantic side, and the thought of setting up internment camps for Muslims didn’t even occur to us as a viable trade-off for feeling safer.
That’s where the Map has led us; that’s where liberal democracy has allowed us to come. We’ve taken a step back, but it’s important to keep in mind that it’s a relatively small one from the perspective of where we’ve been. We still have the Patriot-Act mindset with which to contend, what with its wire-tapping and ability to assassinate designated combatants. And if we’re smart, we’ll continue to fight that back into the history books as quickly as possible. But we’re still on the right road. We’re still slowly moving closer to the Treasure.