20 November 2015

Refuting Ignorance

George Takei posted on his Facebook page a letter issued by David A. Bowers, mayor of Roanoke, Virginia.

The mayor's comparison of the Syrian refugee crisis to internment of Japanese Americans in World War II demonstrates that Mayor Bowers understands neither history nor current events. There is an underlying theme of xenophobia.

Takei's comments have gone viral, reappearing in many publications.
Mayor Bowers, there are a few key points of history you seem to have missed:

1) The internment (not a "sequester") was not of Japanese "foreign nationals," but of Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. I was one of them, and my family and I spent 4 years in prison camps because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. It is my life’s mission to never let such a thing happen again in America.

2) There never was any proven incident of espionage or sabotage from the suspected “enemies” then, just as there has been no act of terrorism from any of the 1,854 Syrian refugees the U.S. already has accepted. We were judged based on who we looked like, and that is about as un-American as it gets.

3) If you are attempting to compare the actual threat of harm from the 120,000 of us who were interned then to the Syrian situation now, the simple answer is this: There was no threat. We loved America. We were decent, honest, hard-working folks. Tens of thousands of lives were ruined, over nothing. 
Mayor Bowers, one of the reasons I am telling our story on Broadway eight times a week in Allegiance is because of people like you. You who hold a position of authority and power, but you demonstrably have failed to learn the most basic of American civics or history lessons. So Mayor Bowers, I am officially inviting you to come see our show, as my personal guest. Perhaps you, too, will come away with more compassion and understanding.

-- George Takei

Learn more about our show here:

I might take issue with one small point in Takei's refutation. The Interment of Japanese Americans did take place after Pearl Harbor, but there was planning and discussion of the enterprise in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor. The degree and extent of United States actions against both the Japanese and the Germans prior to formal declaration of war is too easily forgotten.

Concerns about the loyalty of Japanese immigrants and their citizen children had been thoroughly investigated earlier in 1941 by Curtis B. Munson, who gathered much of his information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of Navy Intelligence.

Munson addressed the prospects of putting Japanese Americans in concentration camps.
We do not want to throw a lot of American citizens into a concentration camp of course, and especially as the almost unanimous verdict is that in case of war they will be quiet, very quiet.
As quoted in Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 66
When I taught this material at Washington State University in the 1990s, students would often insist that only late twentieth century liberal critics of the Internment Camps would use the term concentration camps. The textual evidence of the time reveals that concentration camps was the term used prior to Pearl Harbor. Only after the the declaration of war and the firing up of the government's propaganda machine did the term "relocation centers" come into use. Later, these camps were named "internment camps" to distinguish US actions from those of Nazi Germany.

01 October 2015

Richard Slotkin on Guns and Violence

Another school shooting today raises anew why these tragedies occur with growing frequency in the United States. Richard Slotkin spent his career researching violence in American culture. His discussion with Bill Moyers in December 2013 is worth viewing. Segment: Richard Slotkin on Guns and Violence | Moyers Company |

18 January 2015

12 December 2014

History as Science

Reading the important introduction to Hayden White's Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), I am struck by White's lucidity. I do not recall a clearer explanation of why history is not a science.
[H]istory differs from the sciences precisely because historians disagree, not only over what are the laws of social causation that they might invoke to explain a given sequence of events, but also over the question of the form that a "scientific" explanation ought to take. There is a long history of dispute over whether natural scientific and historical explanations must have the same formal characteristics. This dispute turns on the problem of whether the kinds of laws that might be invoked in scientific explanations have their counterparts in the realm of the so-called human or spiritual sciences, such as sociology and history. The physical sciences appear to progress by virtue of the agreements, reached from time to time among members of the established communities of scientists, regarding what will count as a scientific problem, the form that a scientific explanation must take, and the kinds of data that will be permitted to count as evidence in a properly scientific account of reality. Among historians no such agreement exists, or ever has existed. ... [H]istorical explanations are bound to be based on different metahistorical presuppositions about the nature of the historical field, presuppositions that generate different conceptions of the kind of explanations that can be used in historiographical analysis.
White, Metahistory, 12-13. 
The assertion, "[t]here is a long history of dispute...", catches my eye, however. White offers here a proof that settles the question of the unsettled matter of historical method and narrative. How is it possible to make such an assertion without taking sides in the dispute under investigation?

16 July 2014

The Columbian Exchange

The Columbian Exchange (1972) by Alfred W. Crosby is among a small number of texts with which every American historian has some familiarity. Although many historians, perhaps even most, have read Crosby's text by extract, few are ignorant of its thesis.*

Crosby expresses the thesis succinctly: "the most important changes brought on by the Columbian voyages were biological in nature" (xiv). He then proceeds to elucidate the impact of disease, the spread of Old World flora and fauna in the Americas, and examines the impact of New World plants on the Old World. He also offers a reconsideration of the origins of syphilis, although others have reconsidered it since the publication of his seminal work.

Efforts to minimize the significance of the Columbian Exchange characterize A Patriot's History of the United States, as I have expanded upon at length in this blog. Michael Allen and Larry Schweikart dispute the significance of disease, while almost wholly ignoring the impact of pigs, cows, wheat, peaches, Russian thistle, and so on. Howard Zinn errs another way. In A People's History of the United States, he uncritically accepts and transmits the crude and almost certainly exaggerated population estimates of Bartolomé de Las Casas (see "Fragments from Bartolomé de Las Casas"). He does little better than Schweikart and Allen on the history of the peach, as well as cows, pigs, wheat, and thistle. Both A People's History and A Patriot's History are driven by politics. One serves the cause of today's conservatives, while the other serves socialist-leaning liberals.

Among the enduring impacts of the Columbian Exchange:

  • The peppers in General Tso's chicken
  • Tomato sauce on spaghetti
  • The Irish Potato
  • Kansas Wheat
  • Lakota horses, the American rodeo, and everything associated with cowboys
  • Mullein along the Spokane River (see photo)

*"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others..." Francis Bacon, "Of Studies" (1597).

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