Only four weeks, and we are already fatigued with the daily barrage of demonstrable lies and outright propaganda coming from the new Administration. Terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news” have suddenly entered the lexicon. In his climate of misdirection, it’s more critical than ever to hold tight to a sense of reality and a common set of facts.
In that regard the Densho Project in Seattle has been a leader in the documentation of facts about the WW2 incarceration of Japanese Americans, both through the video capture of first-person narratives and the preservation of photos and documents. So it is worth taking note when Densho addresses the question we’ve raised before of the historical integrity of the musical Allegiance, screening again today on this Day of Remembrance.
Here are the facts. No resistance leader was hunted by guards like an inmate escaping Stalag 17. No one at Heart Mountain was beaten bloody by guards. And for god’s sake, no guards shot and killed any white nurse in a jealous scuffle with a resister. But even among those who acknowledge both the fabrication and falsification of history in Allegiance, two excuses are often offered: it’s worth doctoring history if it introduces the camp story to more people, or helps “educate” the public.
Densho Content Director Brian Niiya has come forward to disagree. Niiya is editor of the definitive Densho Encyclopedia and editor of two print editions of the Encyclopedia of Japanese American History. After evidently seeing the film-of-the-stage-production in December, he posted this critique, “ALLEGIANCE: See the Film, But Watch For These Historical Inaccuracies,” in which he questions “whether these issues make it unsuitable as an introduction to the story or as an educational tool.” And he adds, “Isn’t there a limit, some point where things veer too far from what really happened, to say that maybe we shouldn’t support the work, that it would have been better if had not been made?”
Read the full Densho post to see more of the factual issues Niiya raises. Then, if you attend the screening or watch the inevitable DVD, look past the melodrama to critically see the “alternative facts” being peddled.
Documenting the history of Japanese American incarceration, and the resistance to incarceration, was always important, but it remained just that — history, something good to know about, to make sure that mass exclusion on the basis of race “never happens again in America.” But when rangers in the National Park Service have to go undergound, and Smokey the Bear is raising a fist in flames, you know something has gone terribly wrong.
We have just passed the tipping point and now live with an authoritarian American government. #Resistance is a trending hashtag. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich posts a daily “Resistance Report” on YouTube. Former sportscaster Keith Olberman rebrands his show on GQ as “The Resistance.” Reuters is instructing its reporters how to cover the new Administration as if it were a banana republic. And the story of the Heart Mountain resisters is getting renewed attention.
Thanks to host Bill Radke and producer Shane Mehling for having me on Seattle’s NPR affiliate today, on KUOW’s “The Record,” to connect the Japanese American resistance to the current actions in the streets. Here’s a link to the full 11-minute conversation, which has been well-received. As I said to Bill, I feel both validated that the Fair Play Committee is getting recognized, and appalled that we are now talking about a very real threat to Muslim Americans and Mexican Americans for the purpose of fulfilling a campaign promise to a resurgent white nationalism.
Now everyone can know how the Heart Mountain resisters — 63 young men of high school and college age, really — felt in taking on the United States government in court and putting their futures and families on the line. But here’s a key difference — their draft resistance came two years after the initial expulsion and incarceration. Breaking the Selective Service law as the last hitch upon which they could hang a test case. Thankfully, as the mass actions of the last two weeks have shown, a significant number are standing and resisting now, before the authoritarian crackdown comes down. My favorite sign from last weekend’s airport protests against the Muslim travel ban, edited for a family audience, was the one on the right. It captures the spirit of resistance today, one which comes with the benefit of knowing our history.
As social media posts are teaching us now about the German playbook from 1933, and how the German people came to embrace fascism, we’ve learned there’s a German proverb to “Beware the Beginnings.” We’re clearly at the beginning of something right now. I fear this is not likely to end well for our nation. What we can do is rely now on individual and collective action. To quote my favorite dystopian, time-travel film series, which also features a Resistance: “The future’s not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” We can hope for the best, but we must prepare for the worst and work to avert it.