"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Monday, October 24, 2005

Dave Neiwert interview

A long posting, but since the Strawberry Days review had to be limited in length, I couldn't include all the great comments I got from Dave in our e-mail exchange. With that in mind here is some raw journalism (Yes, here in The Woodshed, we report and you decide) - my email Q&A with the proprieter of the blog Orcinus (see blogroll) and most recently, the author of Strawberry Days.

What made you want to turn your earlier newspaper work on the internment into a book, and why now?

David Neiwert: Actually, I had worked steadily, if intermittently, on this project as a book ever since I finished up the newspaper series back in 1992. I thought then that it was worthy of a book, and it was actually the first full manuscript I ever produced. I had it peer-reviewed by historians, though, and the results sent me back to the drawing board, with good cause. So, in between other book projects that seemed more current and thus more pressing time-wise, I kept conducting interviews and performing research on it up through last year, even as I was applying finishing touches. But there's no doubt that 9/11 gave the subject fresh urgency, and let me put things into sharper focus.

You discuss the racist anti-Asian and specifically anti-Japanese movements that arose in the 1920's and 1930's, how mainstream were these groups and to what extent was the internment a continuation of those movements?

These groups were really as mainstream as could be. White supremacism was part of the cultural air that Americans breathed back then. The campaigns emanated from the core of power politics, i.e., both the moneyed and the working classes. And there was a clear connection between those campaigns [which, incidentally, were mostly between 1910 and 1924] and the internment; many of the same figures emerged to promote internment (Miller Freeman being a classic case), and nearly identical arguments were heard throughout, especially those that painted a portrait of Japanese Americans as likely traitors.

Did internees from places other than the Bellevue area face similar problems returning to their former lives when the internment ended?

Yes; I discuss this in Chapter 6. Essentially, the Bellevue experience was replicated in small Nikkei farming communities up and down the coast -- the farmers had great difficulty owning their property, and the large portion of their reclaimed and largely leased lands had, during the war, become much more valuable for their white owners as potential developments for suburban neighborhoods. Something in excess of 60 percent of the internees were involved in farming before the war; after the war, less than 20 percent were able to return to those occupations. Most found work in urban manufacturing and services.

Was the evacuation and internment of Japanese done across the country or was it limited to the West Coast?

Strictly the West Coast, which comprised the entirety of Gen. DeWitt's "exclusion zones."

In Strawberry Days you write at some length about the role of Japanese truck farmers in the 1930s and 1940s in larger national agricultural picture. To what extent did the internment and effective confiscation of their farms push Japanese-Americans out of agriculture and into a more white collar or at least urban socioeconomic strata?

To a very large extent. (See the answer to the above question about internees from other places.) Though I would describe it more as "forced abandonment" than "effective confiscation," because it was rare that anyone took over their farms for agricultural uses. Mostly they went fallow. But this was part of the historical pattern of transiency that had been forced on Japanese Americans, which meant that they always remained flexible.

Most of the Issei came from rural prefectures and initially took up railroad and cannery work upon arrival, and then found ways to get back to farming, which they knew best. But even then, they moved constantly, forced (through the alien land laws, mostly) into a pattern of short residency on small tracts that they cleared and, typically, turned from marginal lands to productive and habitable properties.

Another important factor in all this was the respective ages of the Issei and the Nisei during the internment years. Most of the Issei were becoming elderly by 1942; nearly all of them, after all, had arrived before 1924, when all Japanese immigration was cut off. Most of the Nisei were in their teens and early 20s, so that by the time the war was over, many of them had taken over as chief breadwinners for their families. Most were better educated than their parents, and with a return to their former farms largely foreclosed as a possibility, they rather readily adapted to moving into an urban lifestyle.

Is the internment still a sore spot for Americans outside the Japanese-American community? Is it still a sore point in Bellevue? Should it be?

Only for those who are actually aware of it. In the readings I've done, and my subsequent interactions with the audiences, I've been kind of astonished by just how astonished everyone else is about all this, especially a lot of the history regarding the racist treatment of the Japanese immigrants (some people can't believe we denied them the right to naturalize prior to 1952).

Of course, I had something of an advantage: My parents grew up in Twin Falls, the "big town" nearest to the Minidoka camp, and I had gone pheasant hunting at the camp site when I was a boy; so I knew about this episode early on; and later, I had a Japanese American classmate with whom I was close whose father had been an internee. But I realized much later that we were taught nothing about the episode in our public-school history classes.

What kind of education about the internment is provided in the U.S. school system and do you think it is sufficient?

Well, I understand that discussion of the internment is included in some public-school curricula, but I don't think it's terribly widespread. It's often viewed, I think, as a minor incident in the war. But its significant long-term ramifications have become crystal clear in the past four years, I think, and because of that, I think some information about the internment should be a standard part of high-school history teaching on World War II. In our currently conservative and jingoistic environment, I don't know if that's going to take place.

What attracted you to this issue initially?

Well, it kind of started when I was working as the news editor for the little paper in Kent, WA, in 1990, and wandered into the White River Historical Museum in neighboring Auburn one rainy afternoon. They had a wall there of photos from the Minidoka camp, which set off all kinds of memories for me, since I knew that landscape well. I realized we were coming up on the 50th anniversary of the internment, and thought it would be a good project for the paper to write about.

So I started digging around into the local story there. A little while later I was transferred up to the Bellevue paper, where I was also news editor, and I decided to keep digging, but from the Bellevue angle. The story of the Bellevue community was, I realized, in some important ways more interesting and more telling in several regards, not least of which was the presence of Miller Freeman and his major role in the history of the community.

So I took off from there and produced a nice series for the paper that ran in May 1992. But when I was done, I wanted to do more with the story ... and eventually, I did.

What makes the issue of internment a timely one today?

Well, a lot of things. First is the overarching lesson of the internment: That Americans, in times of great national stress, were willing to completely discard the rights of our fellow citizens -- so long as it wasn't us. We also were willing to assume that race or ethnicity itself was cause to suspect others of treason.

I don't think these propensities have gone away; in fact, they've been resurfacing a lot since 9/11.Structurally speaking, the most important lesson of the internment is that the entire episode was sanctioned within the halls of power for one primary reason: it gave the military the precedent it sought to enable it to arrest and detain civilians in a non-battlefield situation without any recourse to the courts. That precedent has come back to us in the form of military tribunals and "enemy combatant status" instituted by the Bush administration since 9/11.

I like to remind my audiences of Justice Jackson's famous dissent in Korematsu (the infamous Supreme Court ruling that placed an official seal of approval on the evacuation), in which he described the precedent set by the internment as "a loaded gun" that could be turned on the rest of the populace at any given time. That warning, I say, has now come home to roost.

Could this sort of thing - the United States government imprisoning an entire class of its own citizens on the basis of race, religion or ancestry - be repeated or did the combination of accepted notions about race at the time, the hysteria after the sudden attack on Pearl Harbour, the depression and the push for internment from long-existing fringe groups produce a sort of "perfect storm", an ideal environment for the internment?

Oh, I think it could be easily repeated, given that the fear levels in America become high enough. More terrorist attacks would definitely make it possible.

In your previous books you've written a lot about hate groups and the militant right-wing fringe, what attracted you to these issues?

Well, what I really like to write about is the Pacific Northwest, and I am attracted to social-justice issues. And you know, I have some deep background in dealing with the matter of white supremacism, which includes some knowledge of its history, and that certainly was useful in giving the book a special edge. (A concomitant familiarity with conspiracy theories was especially useeful.)

But there is a thread running through all of my work so far, including my last book, which was about hate crimes: they all deal, in one shape or another, with eliminationism.I've studied fascism a great deal and have come to the conclusion that eliminationism is a signal marker of that particular pathology, since it encompasses so much of its core traits. It's been present in American history throughout: the Indian genocide, the Klan, lynching, the internment. And it's still with us today in the form of hate crimes -- not to mention, of course, the growing tide of eiliminationist rhetoric directed at liberals and war dissenters by the mainstream right, which so far has largely remained in the realm of words and not action. So far.

In the end, though, what really attracted me to this was that I see storytelling as a writer's greatest calling, and this was a great story.

Tell me a bit about your thoughts on blogs. Your website is a popular one, especially among progressive bloggers, what the appeal of doing a regular blog? Do you think they have much impact on politics and public in general or are they largely an echo chamber?

I write a blog for a couple of reasons:-- I'm a stay-at-home father now and don't have the constant buzz of a newsroom to keep me writing as well as tied in to the flow of information, so a blog gives me a reason to keep up my writing disciplne, work out writing ideas, and keep myself in the flow of current events.-- I'm an old editorialist without a mainstream outlet. A blog gives me one. And they are a terrific way of doing so and still finding an audience.

I do think that mainstream media has allowed its traditional role as a filter of bad information to become a bottleneck instead, so that information that should be getting disseminated isn't. Editors have too many preset agendas now and operate on the basis of their own preconceptions too much.So blogs kind of represent a market-of-ideas response to this bottleneck: they're a way of getting information disseminated that bypasses those filters. In fact, I think the function that bloggers most closely replicate (and thus eventually may supersede) is not that of the journalist but that of the editor.This can be good and bad, obviously; the removal of the filters has meant that a lot of bad information is now being disseminated as well. And I think the much-touted "self-correcting nature of the blogosphere" is mostly a sham. But there's little doubt that the fresh flow of information created by blogs has affected the political world in important ways.

So it's a wild and woolly media world we face now, and I really have no idea how it will all shake out. But it's definitely fun being involved.

What is your latest project on orcas all about?

Well, as I said, I like to write about the Northwest, and the orcas are perhaps the most fascinating of all the many creatures were cohabitate with here. But we are at real risk of losing them, for reasons that are closely connected to the environmental degradation of Puget Sound. There is a political component to that issue which I intend to explore in depth, though I also want to write in depth about the nature of the killer whale as well.

And finally - not that I want to start a slanging match or anything but is Michelle Malkin nuts, brain-damaged, just plain deluded or what?

She is a crass opportunist peddling a fraud, that's all.

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