When I was growing up, I dreaded every December 7th. That was the day my Mama, reliably open-minded and non-racist the rest of the year, turned into a raving hater. As we stumbled into the kitchen for breakfast, she'd turn and say "You know what today is? A date that will live in infamy!"
Which meant as we sipped our Tang or Bosco, she would be telling us the story of listening to the radio with her parents and friends, hearing FDR announcing we were at war with Japan. While we spread margarine on Sunbeam toast, she'd fill our ears with how the various sections of the U.S.S. Arizona blew up, disassembling or crisping sailors. As she packed our lunchboxes (never any Little Debbie snack cakes for us, too expensive -- usually a bologna sandwich and a thermos of milk, and twice a week, a piece of fruit), she explained how sadistic the Japanese mind was, how treacherous, how they lacked the capacity to honestly care for other human beings. She'd comb my long hair into braids, muttering the names of the boys in her high school who died in the Pacific. Whatever the weather was that day, it was a relief to leave the house, finally, to suck in deep gulps of air and head for a segregated school, where the malevolence was more muted.
This from a woman who fought the rest of her family to never allow any other racist epithet under her roof, who had embraced Indian culture and given up Christianity in favor of believing in reincarnation, who went to the "Mexican" grocery stores instead of the "white" ones, who was ecstatic when we re-established diplomatic relations with China because she said it was the oldest and greatest civilization on earth.
But I never once heard her say a good thing about Japan or its people.
As a child, this contradiction in Mama's thinking, this obvious character flaw, was tremendously upsetting. As a young teenager, I threw it back in her face during our fights about Vietnam, and likely I scored with this tactic: Deep down, she knew she was irrational about Japan, and when I compared that to our country's racist views toward Asia in general, she was too conscientious not to listen. Once I reached adulthood and moved away from home, her example was useful to me as an activist: Good, smart people could be that deluded. I wanted to help them get past their delusion, no longer interested (most of the time) in using it as a weapon against them, to prove my own moral superiority.
During the 1980s, I studied what I could about World War II pop culture. I went to a documentary at the Jewish Film Festival which unearthed FDR's core anti-Semitism as part of the reason why the rail lines to Auschwitz were never bombed, despite hysterical pleas from the most prominent Jews in America. I visited one of the sites of a Japanese-American internment camp near Tule Lake in California, and I wrote that despicable history into some of the chants and flyers I helped create for political actions linking violences from the state. One of my exes and one of my most intimate living partners were Japanophiles, and I absorbed all I could from them.
And, when a retrospective of the banned cartoons produced by Looney Toons opened at the Castro Theater, including a series of propaganda cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny and crew, I went to see it. Twice. Taking in the unthinkably vile characterization of Japanese culture portrayed supposedly for laughs, although it's hard for me to understand how this was ever funny. The anti-Hitler stuff was focused on Hitler; the anti-Japanese stuff was across the board, comparable only in intensity to the Steppin Fetchit portrayals of rural blacks also in the series. These cartoons were shown before every movie in those days, followed by Movietone newsreels of the war -- a perfect propaganda one-two punch.
This week, watching The War documentary series by Ken Burns, I found myself focusing much more on what World War II did to our psyche as a nation than the military details. There's a lot of grist for my mill. More than one of the soldiers explains his progression from believing that killing is morally wrong to someone who takes pride and pleasure in his kills, and more than one of them are articulate about their hatred of "Japs" (though none evince a similar animosity toward "Germans" or "Italians"). Some of them rationalize this hatred of Japs as a return of Japanese viciousness aimed at Americans, and I'm not going to argue with their accounts: It's well-documented and inexcusable.
But pales in comparison to German-constructed death camps. And the torture the Japanese dealed out is far, far less than what we are doing at Guantanamo.
One woman, the sister of a soldier from Mobile, Alabama, Katherine Phillips, is especially eloquent and acknowledges her focused hatred on Japs with an embarrassed laugh. I appreciated her honesty. She also points out that the first images the U.S. government allowed to be released of the war to show American dead was of floating corpses in the surf at Tarawa, and the impact this had on her and her friends. When the only death and dismemberment you are allowed to see is from Japanese hands, isn't that going to skew your viewpoint?
I had a chance to talk with Mama often about the impact of the war on her worldview, since it was the overriding influence of her adolescence (began when she was 13, ended when she was 19). We discussed how she had no idea what the Nazis were doing to Jews and other minority groups in Germany; how the first information about concentration camps didn't reach her ears until after the war was over. This was confirmed by my Aunt Sarah, Mama's older sister, who lived and worked in Lawton, Oklahoma (a military base town) during the war, married a Jewish airman for her first marriage, and remained closely tied to Jewish culture her entire life despite a quick divorce and a later marriage to my Uncle Stuart, a Gentile. Aunt Sarah, too, said there was "not a whisper" of what was happening to Jews in occupied Europe. I know from Jewish friends this silence was not the case in their parents' communities, not across the board. Still, it reflects some kind of lid being held down that was not observed regarding Japanese atrocities.
I haven't yet seen the final episodes of The War, so I don't know how they are going to handle the discovery of concentration camps or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I can hear a beginning drumbeat, however, in the repeated comments from both soldier interviewees as well as narration quoting military leaders about how "those Japanese would never surrender, they fought to the last man". One former GI talks about how after the capture of an island in which 30,000 Japanese soldiers were killed, a few survivors began swimming into the ocean, preferring to drown than to surrender. He and his friends sat on the cliffs and had a sharpshooting contest, to see how many Japanese heads they could hit with a bullet. He gave a chuckle as he told this. It's going to be an easy segue from this to justifying the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians as an alternative to the invasion of mainland Japan.
In recent years, we've learned about how Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) was enlisted to create political cartoons for the New York newspaper PM. A search through the University of California, San Diego archive of his cartoons by subject shows he drew 60 that are anti-Japanese propaganda, but only 6 that are anti-German. This is despite his far greater emotional reaction to the war in Europe.
Austin Kleon at his website has produced a cartoon about watching one of these interviews. I'm indebted to him as well for the link to a critical review of the documentary by Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker. Another great resource for my unraveling our wartime prejudice about Japan was reading Sarah Bird's book The Yokota Officers Club.
But rationalizations after the fact of oppression are never the cause for the oppression. And who on earth can argue that racism didn't play a serious role in the difference between how Japanese-Americans and German-Americans were perceived and treated during the war? I know, very well, there was anti-German persecution. One of my exes had two German grandparents who lived here during the war, I've heard. But the propaganda was different. Racism is easy to build on. It's a default foundation, waiting for lies to be added. And even self-identified liberals are swallowed by the confusion, as can be found in a recent thread at the Dykes To Watch Out For blog.
As a child, I was home sick a great deal, unable to leave the house. I survived by reading. I was always cruising Mama's books, which she got in stacks at the used book store. I can't remember her ever stopping me from picking up a particular volume, although she did check out what I was reading and sometimes grilled me afterward about what I'd gotten from it. Thus, by the time I was 11 I'd gone through Fanny Hill, Look Homeward Angel, Lolita, and On the Beach -- none of which I would now allow a pre-teen to read.
One day I picked up Hiroshima, by John Hersey, and on the first page it focused on August 6, which was the day after my birthday. That was enough to keep me going. It's a journalistic style of writing, a slender volume, and I read it through in one sitting. When Mama discovered me on the front porch, hunched into a metal lawn chair halfway through it, she almost took it away from me -- that was the only time I can remember her openly considering censorship. I did have nightmares afterward, and I thought that was why she had hesitation about me being exposed to that particular book. But perhaps it was because the first-hand accounts of what dropping the bomb did were moral proof we had no right to use it. No matter what. Perhaps on some level she understood that.
In a recent article by Sally Lehrman of the Institute for Justice and Journalism at USC Annenberg on the work of social psychologist Brian Nosek, she reports:
"Despite our best intentions, our minds construct expectations about the world and then perceive it accordingly, says Nosek. We notice different motives, actions or performances based on the biases we've accrued, unaware, over time. Nosek, who is a professor at the University of Virginia, studies these perceptual mistakes with colleagues Mahzarin Banaji at Harvard University and Tony Greenwald at the University of Washington. They are trying to understand our underlying assumptions and how they influence behavior.
"To measure them, they have developed a tool called the Implicit Association Test. It times users' reactions to prompts on a computer screen associated with race, gender, skin tone, religion, sexuality, disability and other characteristics.
"The team has studied automatic reactions through more than 5 million Web-based tests so far. About 80 percent of users have shown a preference for young over old. Nearly the same proportion of self-identified white people and Asians have a more favorable impression of white faces relative to black ones. Users also prefer able-bodied people over those with limited physical abilities, straight people over gay and thin people over heavy ones.
"Worse yet, according to the team's research, test results sometimes trumped respondents' expressed attitudes when the team analyzed judgments, behavior and physiological reactions. Unconscious assumptions especially influenced people's reactions and decisions in ambiguous situations. Such assumptions took front stage when users weren't sure what was most important or when they were pressed for time. Sound familiar?
"Our automatic reactions often don't match the conscious attitudes we hold, the researchers have found, and yet we act on them every day. Even though a majority of people explicitly expressed the opposite view, for instance, most test takers implicitly considered Native Americans less "American" than white citizens. Native Americans themselves, however, strongly disagreed. Asian Americans also fell short of belonging, according to users -- even those who were Asian American themselves. The team discovered it was easiest for test-takers to associate harmless objects with white people. And what about black people? With them, users of all races found it easier to associate weapons.
"What does all this mean for a journalist? How about, 'Question everything you think you see'"?
"Not just for journalists, of course, but anybody concerned with justice and fairness" add commenter Meteor Blades at Daily Kos.
Another confounding psychological entity, "inattentional blindness", obliquely referred to in this article is a video experiment I first learned about several years ago. Called the Opaque Gorilla Video, two groups of three people each -- one team wearing white, one wearing black -- are depicted passing a basketball back and forth. The viewer is told beforehead that at the end of the video, they will be asked to state how many times the ball was passed from a team member wearing one color to a team member wearing the opposite color. In the middle of the action, a woman wearing a gorilla suit clearly walks into view, beats her chest and then walks off. In the study, after seeing the video, the viewers were asked for their ball pass count. They were then casually asked "What did you think about the gorilla?" Almost half of the viewers replied "What gorilla?" They hadn't seen it -- because they didn't expect to see it. It's hard to believe, but it's true and has profound implications for our so-called powers of observation and objectivity.
I don't believe we can pretend any aspect of our thinking is free from millenia of distortion and propaganda. I don't believe we can rely on thinking as separable from emotion -- indeed, the best of human endeavor unabashedly combines the two. I believe, as activists and artists, we are morally bound to examine our own conditioning and ruthlessly, relentlessly clean house: It's not something you do briefly in your 20s and presto, cross that chore off your list.
And that's just the individual work, the clinical aspect, as it were. On an activist level, I think we have to examine resources like The War for clues to what we are facing when 130,000 military personnel return home from Iraq. Not that the two wars are cleanly comparable: Iraq never attacked us, it's a war based purely on economic control, and the training our soldiers are receiving is how to distrust and kill apparent civilians in an urban setting. Far more dangerous to our culture upon their re-entry, and you can rest assured our government will assume no responsibility for helping these women and men process their wartime training and experiences. Once they return, the real work of "supporting our troops" will kick into overdrive, and the racist overlay that's found a home in "the war on terra" will have to be cleansed from our cultural myth in order for sanity to be restored.