When I was your age we had to walk five miles uphill in the snow to get liberal Democracy

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Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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56 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak
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    says:

    Good piece Tod. I’ve been sort of puzzled by a lot of the posts so far. Not that i don’t get all the criticisms of the Big D. It is also the dominant paradigm of our time, and well actually the last century or more, to think the world is going to hell in our lifetime and it was always better “back then.” We are freer in many important ways now and there is no reason things will get worse. It might but that is up to us and in the long run sometimes the good guys win.

    My contribution to the symposium is: Democracy means you will not get what you want sometimes. Maybe even a lot. And just because you don’t get what you want doesn’t mean you are oppressed.Report

  2. Avatar James Hanley
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    One of the questions I’ve frequently pondered is whether our liberty (in America) is increasing or decreasing There’s a bit of built-in absurdity to that question, and perhaps not a small amount of white male privilege. Clearly ethnic minorities and women have more liberty now than in the past, in a multitude of ways, and whatever reversals in liberty the public in general has suffered are small compared to those groups’ increase, so on net they are clearly better off than in the past. And it’s indisputably an advance in liberty that we didn’t round up Arabs after 9/11.

    But what about the liberty of the “standard American.” Yes, that standard American is a white male, but obviously the increased liberty of minorities and women is a path toward making them politically/legally indistinguishable from the white male–that is, women and minorities are increasingly (albeit obviously still imperfectly) indistinguishable from the standard. So if the standard American loses liberty, so will they.

    Is the standard American losing or gaining liberty on the whole? I’m not entirely sure, but I think there are in fact good reasons to be concerned. Perhaps it’s my libertarian tendencies, or just a natural pessimism, that leads me to focus on particular things of concern, but nevertheless, here they are, and they explain why I’m not entirely on board with Tod (and who’re you calling a millennial, anyway?!).

    1. I am worried about increasing security at the airport. The issue isn’t just the inconvenience of having to arrive earlier and stand in line longer. The issue is that they have the right to touch us in ways that in almost any other context constitute sexual assault. I can still claim liberty if the security line is slow, but can I really claim liberty if I must endure the equivalent of sexual assault to travel? At what point is it a loss of liberty? Surely no one is going to argue that we’re just spoiled whiners if we must submit to a strip search that involves rectal probes, but do we have to go that far before we can legitimately object.

    But even more than the equivalent of sexual assault is the general trend toward travel–at least airline travel–being a privilege rather than a right. A people that does not have a fundamental right to travel…can that be a free people?

    2. Restrictions on political speech. In many ways we are freer to speak now than in the past. But we may have passed the high point on that and our free speech rights may be eroding. It is now common to have “free speech zones,” which are a means of allowing free speech where none of the targets can hear it, and disallowing free speech where the targets might hear it. One of the elements of McCain-Feingold was that it disallowed certain political ads within 90 days of an election. That is, the speech was allowable when few people were paying attention, and disallowed when it might actually have an effect; a temporal free speech zone.

    3. Surveillance. We are now subject to more surveillance, nearly all of it warrantless, than ever. The president claims, and the courts and Congress allow, the authority to issue warrantless wiretaps. Our government is seeking to search every scrap of electronic communication.

    If the trends continue, and we end up in a country where we need permission to travel, have little in the way of free speech rights, and every communication is surveiled, are we still are free people? Can we still claim to have liberty? At what point in that path are we allowed to object, or express concern, without being dismissed as just a bunch of post-adolescent “rebels.”Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to James Hanley
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      says:

      “If the trends continue” is doing a lot of work. I admit i have an extreme disrgard for slippery slope arguments but still the point is things swing back and forth. Yes some things are swinging in the wrong direction. Expressing concern is great and one of the things that will stop those bad trends.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to greginak
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        You start by disregarding slippery slope arguments, next you reject arguments by analogy, and pretty soon you’re like a brainwashed cult member.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to greginak
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        says:

        greg, I fully agree that “if the trends continue” is doing all the heavy lifting. I see the trends continuing, albeit more likely somewhat slowly than quickly. Two related reasons for that are the century+ long trend toward presidency-centered government and the fact that we’ve been in a national security state for over 60 years now, and never took major steps toward leaving it even after the end of the Cold War. A third reason, as I noted above, is that I’m a pessimist. I admit that the latter doesn’t qualify as evidence for the thesis.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to James Hanley
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      says:

      James, aside from the economic advance that others have pointed out, it’s worth noting that freedom-from-government is only one axis.

      I mean, if the government has the right to squelch political ads on television 90 days leading up to an election (a right it absolutely should not have, but even so), but we have unprecedented ability to reach greater and greater audiences through the Internet, is our freedom of speech greater or less than it used to be?

      Advances in transportation could be said to negate the inconveniences or restrictions imposed by the government.

      I’ve got nothing to say on communication surveillance, though. Definitely a few steps backwards (not just from the government, either).

      Anyhow, my point is that it seems like the government has to play a huge game of catch-up to make us less meaningfully free in more ways than not.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Will Truman
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        says:

        it seems like the government has to play a huge game of catch-up to make us less meaningfully free in more ways than not.

        You may be right. I hope you’re right. Maybe I’m just feeling especially pessimistic today.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Will Truman
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        says:

        As far as the ‘electronic surveillance’ angle goes, and aside from the govt.’s actions there, the essential tension may not be btw liberty/security, but btw technology/privacy.

        I may not really think I *want* to surveill my fellow citizen, or be surveilled by him, all that much; but fire up Foursquare, and there you are.

        I am trying to think of a single (widely-used) recent technological advance that has *increased* privacy, but am coming up short. In a way this makes sense, as improved technology tends to enhance ‘positive’ human actions/abilities – they enable us to ‘see’ farther, ‘hear’ better, ‘move’ faster, ‘know’ more – but the technology to enhance our ability to take a ‘negative’ action seems to be lagging (for that, we must consult Monty Python’s ‘How Not To Be Seen’).

        So at least the recent trends seem to be a one-way ratchet on that. I loved Star Trek as a kid, but it does seem sort of oppressive/bland now. For better or worse, we’re probably headed more towards Transmetropolitan.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Glyph
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          says:

          I think that’s largely true. I also see the increased snooping as partially a response to increased technology. The more you can do without leaving your house, or using public and traceable phones, the more antsy the watchmen become.

          As far as technological advances increasing privacy, there is an argument to be made that the Internet has on the whole *if we take advantage of it*. The whole “Will Truman” thing would have been harder in a previous era, I think. Also, various encryption technologies.

          Which is not to say that you aren’t right, on the whole.Report

          • Avatar Glyph in reply to Will Truman
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            says:

            Yeah, I am not so sure about that. I have a sneaking suspicion that if ‘Will Truman’ *really* wanted to find out who ‘Glyph’ *really* is, it would be easier today than ever.

            I did consider encryption/TOR and the like, but most people don’t use them. Maybe that will change.

            And my inner geek compels me to clarify my Star Trek remarks – while I found the way the Federation came to be depicted to be sort of yucky, I will always love OG Star Trek.

            But that is because, in part, Kirk is the swashbuckling rebel – he refuses to play by the book of the stuffed shirts of the Federation. The lead character rebels against conformity of his own (and various aliens’) society. It seems later iterations of the show forgot this, to their detriment.Report

    • Avatar LauraNo in reply to James Hanley
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      I stopped having liberty -to my mind – when ‘my’ govt began sexually assaulting potential travelers. I never once partook of gym class grade 9 – 12. Straight Us. I did not want to shower in public. I was 13 – 17 and had much more personal liberty than I have now. They feel up 4 year olds! And 80 year olds! Many good points have been made here, I am re-thinking some stances I hold but govt sexually assaulting us is one I won’t be.Report

      • Avatar Rod in reply to LauraNo
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        Given how many women report having experienced some kind of sexual assault over their lifetime (something like a third or more)… well, first, it makes me ashamed of my gender, even though I’m not that kind of guy. But going to an airport shouldn’t entail triggering PTSD for female travelers.Report

    • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to James Hanley
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      We are now subject to more surveillance, nearly all of it warrantless, than ever. The president claims, and the courts and Congress allow, the authority to issue warrantless wiretaps. Our government is seeking to search every scrap of electronic communication.

      This is a legitimate concern, especially when we’re talking about surveillance by the state., which is what you’re talking about there.

      But I do offer a qualification to this other point, from another of your comments here:

      We’ll just be tagged and monitored every step of the way through our cushy lives. Between our increasing use of electronic transactions (guilty), businesses offering us discounts in exchange for tracking our purchases and creating individually designed coupons targeted to our tastes, and the inherent trackibility of cell phones, there’ll scarcely be a moment of our lives that is ours and ours alone.

      While there is a lot of undeniable truth to this, I suggest–as one of Will’s comments also implies in its discussion of new technologies carrying the coincidental cost of surveillability–there is a tradeoff. Someone living in a stereotypical small town or a close-knit neighborhood of a larger, big city, was, is, or could be, subject to a lot of surveillance of a sort that a lot of newer technologies can help us evade. Even as our activities are in principle (and in practice) more and more monitored, they are to some degree more opaque to our neighbors.

      For example, as Glyph pointed out here, the pseudonymity on the internet is probably not very pseudonymous if someone wants to find our identity. But in practice, the internet provides a forum in which I can speak more or less freely in a way that carries minimal risk of being identified.

      Your concerns are certainly legitimate, and I’m sure there’s reason to be pessimistic, and maybe we’re making a faustian bargain of sorts. But there is a tradeoff and some benefits to that tradeoff.Report

  3. Avatar Burt Likko
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    says:

    Damn! Looks like you took issue with my post, my friend, from premise to execution. Which is A-OK with me.

    Just because USA-PATRIOT is not as awful as the internment of our own citizens based solely on their race was in the 1940’s does not mean that what we’ve done to ourselves since 9/11 should be celebrated as a triumph of liberty. This seems to me akin to a Confederate apologist responding to moral criticism of the southern practice of slavery by saying, “I’m not going to argue that southern slavery was morally right, but bear in mind that southern slaves weren’t treated nearly as cruelly as northern factory workers.” It reduces to a quantifiable matter of degree something that is more properly viewed as a categorical, qualitative issue.

    So we didn’t round up all the Muslims and put them in internment camps, or shoot them, or seize all the mosques and convert them to national guard armories. Yay us! Aren’t we all good civil libertarians, all we did was subject our entire citizenry to systematic warrantless searches!

    But just like the little kid swimming in the deeper part of the pool for the first time sometimes calls out in triumph “I’m another foot deeper!” sometimes the little kid also gets scared and turns back for a while. Liberty can be scary. There the analogy must end, because there is a consequence to turning away from the Treasure of much more gravity than a little kid needing time to summon up the nerve to swim where her feet can’t touch bottom.

    All of which is to say, I hope you’re right and my pessimism is misplaced. I like the optimistic idea that the trend of liberal democracy has been to liberalize, not to securitize, over time. Historically, that’s true. I do believe I mentioned that point towards the end of my pessimistic post and if I edited that out during the trimming-down phase, then that was a mistake. One of the reasons we’ve gone in that direction, though, is because people look at what’s happening in contemporary events — just as there were those who objected to interning the Japanese-Americans — and call “foul.”Report

    • Avatar Rod in reply to Burt Likko
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      says:

      So we didn’t round up all the Muslims and put them in internment camps, or shoot them, or seize all the mosques and convert them to national guard armories. Yay us! Aren’t we all good civil libertarians, all we did was subject our entire citizenry to systematic warrantless searches! [Added emphasis mine]

      YES! That’s a very good thing. Sort of like what FDR did with SS but in reverse.

      Think about it… Do you know anyone–conservative, liberal, or libertarian–who likes the TSA? I listen to a fair amount of liberal talk radio and I can personally confirm that the TSA, as well as the rest of the Patriot Act bullshit, is thoroughly despised on the left. So the point you (I think it was you, anyway) made in another post is very true: that politicians are reticent to publicly call for dismantling the security apparatus for fear of backlash if something goes wrong. But on the other hand, no one is strongly committed to it in a public way either. Mostly no one in the political sphere actually talks about it a lot.

      So what I see happening is that, over time, the TSA bs will lighten up a bit at time. No politico is going to sponsor a bill that explicitly dismantles it. There won’t be any thunderous floor speeches or White House signing ceremony. But there will be cuts to the TSA quietly enacted in conference committee and buried in a 1000 page omnibus spending bill. There will be quiet administrative rule changes and a certain amount of looking the other way. And maybe ten years from now you’ll board an airplane and realize that you didn’t have to remove your shoes or get groped.Report

      • Avatar Rod in reply to Rod
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        says:

        Let me add here that a factor that made the Japanese internment camps possible in the first place was simply that very few people were Japanese. It simply didn’t personally touch very many people; maybe one in every thousand or so. It was easy for most people to ignore or justify as happening to The Other. But the Patriot Act and the TSA and all the rest of the security-state rigamarole is a very visible PITA to everyone.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Rod
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        says:

        This makes complete sense and corresponds largely to my experience, and yet…Report

    • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to Burt Likko
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      says:

      Just because USA-PATRIOT is not as awful as the internment of our own citizens based solely on their race was in the 1940?s does not mean that what we’ve done to ourselves since 9/11 should be celebrated as a triumph of liberty. This seems to me akin to a Confederate apologist responding to moral criticism of the southern practice of slavery by saying, “I’m not going to argue that southern slavery was morally right, but bear in mind that southern slaves weren’t treated nearly as cruelly as northern factory workers.” It reduces to a quantifiable matter of degree something that is more properly viewed as a categorical, qualitative issue.

      I don’t think this is an entirely fair reading of Tod’s argument. He’s not saying the Patriot Act should be celebrated as the triumph of liberty. He seems to be saying that US history should be celebrated as the (gradual and fitful and eventual) triumph of more liberty, despite developments like the Patriot Act, which are steps backward.Report

  4. Avatar Stillwater
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    says:

    Whew! Now I don’t have to write my own contribution, Tod.

    Thanks!Report

  5. Avatar Kolohe
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    says:

    You know, some of us are against both the TSA and stupid racist post-facto zoning laws.
    Just sayin’Report

  6. Avatar Pierre Corneille
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    says:

    Tod,

    I like your post and I more or less agree with it, but I’ll add a couple of observations:

    1. I think it’s pretty clear, to me, that the *general* trend in the US is toward greater liberty along most definitions of “liberty.” But I think it’s a mistake to believe that things cannot go backward. Your post warns us against the ahistoricality (a real word?) of neglecting to look at the elements of the past that were much worse than today, but there’s also the ahistoricality in the claim that we cannot go back, or more accurately, that we cannot revive oppressive modes (duly re-calibrated to fit with modern technologies and contingencies). I don’t think you necessarily make this claim, or even agree with it, but I think it’s possible to infer the claim from your post.

    2. I get what you’re trying to do by analogizing the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII with the anti-Arab / anti-Muslim reaction in the post-9/11 US, and I appreciate it. But the analogy (like all analogies, unfortunately) breaks down: The Japanese Americans who were interned were a very discrete group in a more or less discrete region of the country notorious for its anti-Asian and anti-Japanese sentiment, and it was easier to round them up into camps. Also, the perceived threat of actual invasion and a fifth column was superficially more credible than any such threat post-9/11. (I won’t insist too much on this last point. I don’t want to justify the unjustifiable, and if memory serves, 9/11 and the anthrax attacks provided grist for the mill of those who would take stronger action against Arab- and Muslim-Americans.)

    I think a better analogy might be the anti-German reaction during WWI or perhaps the anti-immigrant reaction following WWI (the “Palmer raids” designed to imprison and or deport illegal aliens because of alleged radicalism). I won’t insist that the post-9/11 reaction was worse or as bad as what happened in the US c. 1917-1921. In fact, I suspect a systematic analysis might show that Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans have been treated better than the targets of those earlier years. But the comparison is much closer than your comparison with what we saw in the 1940s.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Pierre Corneille
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      The anti-German reaction during WWI led to petty nonsense like sauerkraut being dubbed “liberty cabbage” or hamburgers “Salisbury steak”. Given that after 9/11 Middle Eastern food was left alone and the only similar change was “Freedom Fries”, the obvious conclusion is that today xenophobia comes combined with equal amounts of batshit.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Pierre Corneille
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      says:

      Pierre,

      the ahistoricality (a real word?)

      Ahem, shouldn’t you be telling us whether it is or not? 😉

      A minor quibble about the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII–it was a West Coast phenomenon, but did not happen in Hawai’i itself. (Ironically, then governor Earl Warren was enthusiastically in favor of it–it’s no wonder Ike was shocked at Warren’t pro-civil liberties enthusiasm as Chief Justice.)Report

      • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to James Hanley
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        says:

        Thanks for the quibble. It’s a point that needed to be made, and one that tends to support the proposition that internment was more a hysterical reaction than a reasonable measure for public safety.Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Pierre Corneille
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          says:

          But what if it had turned out to be a reasonable measure for public safety? There’s the hard part.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Tom Van Dyke
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            Well, I hate to say it, but I agree with you on that Tom. Not the ‘it was’ but the ‘what if’ part, acourse.Report

          • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to Tom Van Dyke
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            says:

            Tom,

            Let’s assume internment of the West Coast Japanese-Americans had been a reasonable measure for public safety, presumably to protect the Western U.S. from a fifth column of hardworking farmers and others, 2/3 of whom were born and raised in the U.S., who apparently had bided their time just so they could help the motherland in the improbable event of an invasion of California.

            If that assumption be true, then it would be almost criminal foolishness to decline to inter the Japanese in Hawaii, a place that had already been attacked and would have likely–or at least plausibly–been a target of invasion before California. And yet, how many fifth column activities were there by the denizens of Japanese on the islands? I’m inclined to say none, but even if there had been a few (b/c I’m not prepared to deny that there might always be whackadoodles in any population), Hawaii stayed safely in American hands throughout the war.

            So, as Stillwater says, granted the “what if,” then some things might follow. But event then, we’d have to keep cognizant of the bigger picture.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Pierre Corneille
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              says:

              This.

              But since “what ifs” are always possible, I propose we base all our public policy on “what if” scenarios. What could go wrong?Report

            • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Pierre Corneille
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              says:

              Thx for the thoughtful and principled interrog about the Japanese internment, Pierre.

              My reply can only be about the abstract, that in 1942 there was no way for America and American legal authorities to know that whether Issei [first-generation Japanese immigrants] held the belief that the Emperor of Japan was divine to be of primary importance, or of secondary importance to their allegiance to their new land of America.

              Can you follow me with this? It’s not about the true feelings of the Issei, it’s about the suspicions of a nation that had just been wiped out at Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan, which under its “divine” emperor already had inhumanely [inhumanly!] conducted the Rape of Nanking.

              http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/nanking.htm

              It turned out that the Issei proved themselves fiercely loyal to their new country, the United States of America, and not to the murderous Empire of Japan. But how could anyone have known with any degree of certainty in 1942?

              Think the kamikaze pilots at the close of the war in 1945, splattering themselves before the guns and occasionally on the decks of the US Navy.

              Kamikaze means “Divine Wind,” after a Japanese legend of typhoons that saved the empire 800 years ago, more or less. All things considered, the fear of the Issei after Pearl Harbor cannot be called unreasonable, knowing what they knew and what they didn’t.Report

              • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to Tom Van Dyke
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                says:

                I’ll grant you the following propositions which I think are implied if not explicitly stated in your comment:

                1. I understand that it is/was common practice to detain foreign nationals when the host (nation-)state is at war with the foreign national’s (nation-)state. If my understanding is correct, then that is at least legal precedent.

                2. Americans were, probably, concerned about invasion and from the perspective of January and February, 1942, those concerns might have had a certain plausibility that it is difficult for me in 2012 to empathize with.

                To point no. 1, I will mention the difficulty with which it was difficult for someone from Eastern Asia to gain U.S. citizenship. I’ll also point out that about 2/3 of those placed into internment camps were Nisei, and therefore American citizens under the 14th amendment. They weren’t even “naturalized” citizens, but full-blown citizens who could run for president once they turned 35 years old.

                To point #2, I’ll posit something that one of my undergrad professors claimed (but I don’t know if it’s true): that J. Edgar Hoover, that stalwart defender of individual liberties under the U.S. Constitution, declined to support internment as unnecessary and uncalled for. Now as I said, I don’t know if that’s true, and I’m not going to try to find some possibly apocryphal document from history dot exe to support it, but I do wonder how many Americans in a position to knew really did think the threat of invasion and the threat of a fifth column was imminent.

                And this goes to the Hawaii example. If they really did believe the threats were so imminent, why didn’t they try a massive program of internment on the islands? Were the Japanese there somehow “different”? How and why?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Pierre Corneille
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                says:

                Were the Japanese there somehow “different”? How and why?

                Yeah, there were so many that interning them all would have shut down all economic activity on the islands.

                Which, ironically, means they were actually much more potentially dangerous than the ones in Cali.Report

              • “I will mention the difficulty with which it was difficult”

                I guess I meant, “it was very, very, very, very, very difficult.”Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Pierre Corneille
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                says:

                The Nisei from Hawaii couldn’t be processed because no one could find their real birth certificates.Report

              • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to Mike Schilling
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                says:

                Around here we call this Space Awesome, right?Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Don Zeko
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                says:

                Minkowski Space Awesome. You see, Minkowski Space has a time dimension, useful for working with relativity.

                In the year 1942, reality was profoundly different. We couldn’t know that these Nisei were actually American citizens and therefore endowed with Constitutional rights. Of course, Negroes were caught in a similar relativistic twilight.

                Maybe we need another dimension beyond Time, Minkowski + 1, adding a colour dimension.Report

              • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to Don Zeko
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                says:

                That’s quantum mechanics.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Don Zeko
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                says:

                Yep. Chromodynamics. Yellow and Black are just pigments of our imagination.Report

              • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to Don Zeko
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                says:

                So that comment was time-space awesome? Or perhaps I can say that the more certain I am of that comment’s level of awesomeness, the less I know about where that comment was posted? No wonder this stuff still doesn’t make sense to me.Report

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