2008 National Conference » Essays

OUR AMERICA

By Eric J. Alwin

During the course of the seminar I kept expecting and waiting for the speakers to ask and answer the questions, who’s American, whose America, and some did speak directly to those questions. But beyond their specific answers, I came to see that perhaps the more important point was to be asking and discussing the question. For it is that question, and the asking of it, that strikes the hardest blows to this nation’s most striking flaws, a false sense of entitlement by a privileged majority, and complacency and indifference to the denial of basic rights to all. Further, this conference had the courage to explore how citizens of the United States have allowed fear and misinformation to corrupt the integrity of our society. With this backdrop, perhaps the most powerful lesson of this conference is that, as William Hohri has reminded us, “The responsibility for freedom lies not with the government and institutions of our nation but with our nation’s citizens.”

When looking at fear as it influences human behavior, I think we all too easily grant the point as a given, but we don’t often take time to seriously consider its causes. We know that fear arises when one feels threatened. Often this is when one is confronted with things that are new, different, or foreign to them. This was certainly the case in the circumstances of World War II. The hostility created by what was perceived as a “sneak attack” and the resulting deaths of thousands of American military and civilians are also obviously large contributing factors to America’s response of choosing, as Inspire puts it, “security over liberty, racial prejudice over tolerance, and hysteria over rationality.” But there is more to understanding the internment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during the war.

Many things, some in our control, some not, contributed to white America’s xenophobic decision to intern, and there are many avenues we can take to repair this breach in our democratic society, but ultimately, as the organization of the conference underscores, public education is perhaps the most effective means of shaping attitudes about the past for the future, ideally acting as important medicine in treating this country’s relapse in the wake of 9/11.

As it stands, a Eurocentric curriculum contributes greatly to a false sense of entitlement for the white majority. In large part, many have learned that only white people have contributed to America. Further, the injustices of the past often go unaddressed or positioned in a way that is justified now, as it was then, by manifest destiny. As a result, many unknowingly possess a false sense of superiority which all too often leaves us indifferent to the plight of others. On a national level, our moral high-ground is one of our most cherished possessions. But when our moral integrity begins to go, or when it simply taken as a given, we not only loose our ability to stay vigilant in granting all of our citizens an equal chance for a place at the table, but also our credibility to object to various injustices around the world.

To stay with this point a little longer, I would speculate that an understanding of America’s fundamental hypocrisy may be one of the causes of Anti-American sentiment around the world. How could a people allow its representatives to pursue such policies? This contradiction was most evident after September 11th when many people were simply clueless about why anyone would do this to us. One answer would be because we, ourselves, were asking the question. We have, as Hohri points out, invested our institutions with the responsibility to uphold our principles. Much of the American public sits blind to the actions of our government. While it is sadly the case that the current administration has employed secrecy and deception at an unprecedented level, much of the blame lies with a pervasive apathy arising from a strong, but misguided, sense of staunch individualism that has infected our thinking. But are we to be entirely condemned? Perhaps many of the root causes can be tied back to our educational system. We are, to a large extent, products of our society.

Our curriculum all too often excludes, for time’s sake, or at least that is the convenient reason to leave things out (we don’t ever seem to prove for the real reasons for why what is included is included). As such, we have reduced history to a simplistic logic—we won the war over evil; therefore we are totally good and they are totally bad. Clearly, in this environment, a certain set of cultural values are implicitly advanced as more important than others and biases form. If there are portions of multicultural experience left in, they exist as sidebars. This gets us back to the notion of whose American—does our educational system suggest that it is really only the white mainstream? As Pena suggested, we have to reexamine our national principles and definitions. We need to understand that we are all immigrants and that a hundred years here or there, especially when considering the unjust way we overran this land, is ultimately meaningless. When we come to learn history as it truly transpired (allowing white America many unearned advantages), when we begin to learn of the contributions of all Americans, perhaps we can more credibly instill the lesson that we are all equally entitled. If we continue with the educational status quo, advantage will continue to be directly and indirectly inherited with most remaining oblivious to the fact that we are not really all starting at the same point.

The conference exposed me to a variety of media and print resources which may be used to supplement sometimes Eurocentric texts and curriculums. We have seen how the media can be used as an effective tool of misinformation to instill deep-seated attitudes through everything from biased reporting to caricatures rife with distortions and stereotypes. But the Mini-Media festival reminded me of its power to portray the Japanese American experience in a powerful, corrective way. Indeed, the absence of such balanced images within our classroom contributes to our youth’s malediction on the topic.

The hundred and fifty year history of Japanese Americans is a tremendously rich topic for educational exploration because of its vital importance in capturing this nation’s identity. The story of the Issei is the American story, as it demonstrates the results of hard work and sacrifice. The internment represents civil injustices by many. And the latter redress efforts symbolize the atonement many of us must reach. I feel many educators are unaware of the complexity and magnitude of the Japanese American experience. Many, if they even know about the relocation, understand it is as only a minor infraction to a few. At best, in a literature classroom, in a well-intentioned manner, the internment camps might be discussed to build background knowledge for discussion of a poem or short story. But such treatments demean the experience and ultimately the people who endured it.

Surveying the expanse of the 640 acres of the Amache camp first hand and, even on a mild day, coming to understand what the climate and conditions must have been like has profoundly changed my understanding of the seriousness of the issue. Attending the ceremony at the grave yard with former internees and their extended families, whom were also greatly affected, has replaced a mere intellectual understanding with genuine empathy and a stronger connection to fellow citizens. It was also a great lesson about our modern selves. An irony of this ceremony: I will never forget the ringing of the bell accompanied by a row of idling busses, rumbling in background, keeping the air cool for the passengers to return to. Can we ever truly understand the extreme conditions the interned there endured? Can we ever truly understand the remarkable spirit and incredible determination of those who volunteered for military service from behind barbed wire? Can we ever return to the core values that afforded success to so many of our ancestors? A discussion of the internment experience is an integral part of any serious discussion of our national character not only to appreciate the erosion of civil liberties in times of crisis, but also the efforts to maintain them.

Dr. King reminded us that the ultimate measure of a nation is not where it stands in moments of comfort and convenience but rather where it stands at times of challenge and controversy. While he most likely meant this to remind us of our failings, we should look to the actions of the three most celebrated and decorated military units in American military history—the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 100 th Infantry Battalion, and the Military Intelligence Service, as emblems of patriotism. Listening to the stories of Medal of Honor recipients Hiroshi Miyamura and George Sakato on the Fourth of July was a profound lesson in true loyalty and belief in the promise of America. Professor Matsueda’s talk taught me the Japanese value of okagesama, gratitude, the fact that someone else is responsible for your being here. We must remember to canonize all who have made what we celebrate possible.

As a result of the conference, I now see the story of redress as a gift from the Japanese American community. A vital lesson for our future, it is, and should represent, our best aspiration toward achieving a democratic idea. We should relish it, as Inspire puts it, because “the true benefit was to all Americans who cherish and embrace the constitutional values of equal opportunity, due process, and justice for all.” The story of redress is the story of our redemption. An important addendum might be that all white people are not bad. The United States, although flawed, is not necessarily evil. Although we have often fallen short, we can be redeemed. It may be precisely because we have failed in the past that our democratic ideal can still be meaningfully envisioned, made progress toward, and, perhaps, some day achieved. As Senator Inouye sees it, in the story of redress “America demonstrated to the world that we are a strong people, strong enough to admit when we are wrong.” Acknowledging our shame publicly and admitting our error was and is a vital step in healing. But this does not mean forgetting. The need to be vigilant is part of our debt—part of the cost of forgiveness. Money in the form of token reparations, as those paid to Jim at the end of Huckleberry Finn, should not be our nation’s exoneration. Alone they do little to alleviate the true financial losses suffered by Japanese Americans, as documented in the 1982 Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians report, as well as the “physical illnesses and injuries, psychological pain, and unjustified stigma” that resulted from the camp experience.

The Japanese American redress story is not only a vital lesson about our past, but more importantly for America’s future struggle to fulfill its fundamental promise. It suggests a path that lay ahead: to demand that the government act as we would wish it to, to stand up and challenge the actions of our elected officials, especially when the soundness of these basic rights and responsibilities, such as electing our leaders in an open and honest way, seems to be in question. In 2000, our government used legal technicalities and the Supreme Court to skew the outcome of an election. Now, it has taken seven years for that same legal system to strike down the detainment without habeas corpus of “enemy combatants” in Guantanamo. I see this parallel in the Supreme Court’s role in the relocation of persons of Japanese ancestry. Eric Muller explained that our legal system is reactionary: it can only respond to injustices already done. It takes the initiative of the citizens to be proactive. William Hohri concludes, “The responsibility for extending and ensuring human freedom continues into each generation and to each group or individual who suffers from flaws inherent in our constitutional democracy or failures of the government to uphold our democratic guarantees of freedom.”

At present, we see little challenge, or even reaction to, precedent setting erosions of our privacy. As many speakers pointed out, the real harbinger is that we exist in a time when it is widely accepted that it is understandably unfavorable for a candidate—Obama—to distance himself from the Muslim faith and that his adversaries freely use his middle name—Hussein—in an intentional attempt to malign. As everyone dreams of change, we must remember that is was America’s skewed values that allowed this executive branch to basically unilaterally invade a sovereign nation largely based on lies. In striking similarity to when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, most of the American public is largely uninformed or misinformed. Our fears or prejudices are once again being easily played upon. The reason for and solution to this in many ways must come back to our education.

A curriculum which includes multiple perspectives does not oversimplify history to a sound bite. Indeed, even within various subcultures there is complexity. Not all Japanese Americans thought or acted in the same way with regard to loyalty during war or redress afterward. Many different stories exist, some which even suggest that many had fun in camps and that the camps in some ways provided opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have had. In this heightened time of political correctness, it takes a Japanese American to say this, and it serves as a powerful example of the importance of hearing multiple perspectives when studying complex historical events and current crises, real or imagined.

Another parallel is that like the fear that prompted legislation such as the Alien Land Laws, we are once again gripped with a fear of being overrun by immigrants, this time from the south. When thinking of who is and isn’t an American, many white Americans still unquestionably maintain a picture of a European face. Again, as Pena pointed out, an essential part of moving forward is to simply accept the changing demographics of the country. Understandably, but perhaps unconsciously, whites have a natural resistance to give up their unearned privilege that comes simply by being part of the majority. While many will deny it, we know we enjoy it at some intuitive level. But the real lesson here is that, seemingly paradoxically, we must get whites to see that it is in their benefit to stand up for the rights of others so that theirs are preserved as well. It is in their benefit to accept differences so that theirs are accepted as well. Thinking of others is in everyone’s self interest. As Langston Hughes has put it, “To save the dream for one, it must be saved for all.”

Our America is one which must be shared by all. James Hirabayashi offered that it is this balance of collectivism with individualism that is perhaps Japanese Americans’ greatest contribution to this country. As a group, they learned to work together for individual and collective purpose. Indeed, we can see this as the clearest embodiment of their multicultural identity—Japanese and American. If we can break down our fears of the other through understanding, we can see that, as Americans, this remarkable cultural trait need not be theirs alone, but can be, and is, all of ours. All individuals have the right to be treated equally and fairly, but it takes the belief of all individuals to ensure that this happens. This conference reminded me not to abandon our most cherished values in times of challenge and controversy, but to embrace them, however foreign that may be.

Born in Chicago, Eric Alwin now resides in Denver with Alexandra, his wife of six years, and his two children, Merritt and Chase. A graduate of CU Boulder’s masters in education cohort, Mr. Alwin currently is at Smoky Hill High School where he teaches Multicultural American Literature and AP Language and Composition.