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Sep 9, 2004 10:27 pm

Bad History; Great Press Relations

MichelleMalkin will be speaking at UC Berkeley tonight, just downstairs from the History Department.

The California Patriot [conservative student magazine] invited Malkin"because she's a great speaker and has lots of interesting things to say," said the magazine's managing editor, Amaury Gallais, a junior.

Asked whether the relocation of Japanese Americans was justified, he said,"This event has clearly been misrepresented. It might have helped us win the war in many respects -- it's hard to say." [Note: not only does that quotation end the article, but Malkin's critics are represented almost entirely by Japanese-American organization leaders, not historians]
Hard to say? Japanese military strategy has been studied in depth and detail for six decades, and nobody has ever argued that Japan had even wild-eyed plans for attacking the US mainland in force. Balloon-bombs, yes; Hawai'i was even considered as a strategic target, which accounts for some of the fighting in the Aleutians. So how, exactly, could the forced evacuation and resettlement of over 110,000 productive citizens and longtime legal residents (remember, Japanese immigration ended, except for a few token spots, in 1924, so we're talking about a population that had been in the US for at least 17 years) have aided our war effort?

If you take Malkin's readings of MAGIC cables at face value, the best that can be said is that the internment disrupted Japanese intelligence-gathering activities without compromising the MAGIC decoding operation. But this ignores two damning facts:

  • the intelligence supposedly gathered by Japanese agents would have been useless in the face of the rapid reversal of military fortunes in the Pacific (the Battle of Midway was less than four months after the internment order was issued) (one could even open a line of argument that if the Japanese had a clear idea of the overwhelming strength of the US Pacific forces, that their surrender might have been less brutally won)
  • German and Italian intelligence operations were quite effectively disrupted with much less broad actions, as were Japanese operations in Hawai'i which was much more strategically important. (See John Stephan, Hawai'i Under The Rising Sun: Japan's Plans for Conquest After Pearl Harbor and Franklin Odo, No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawai'i During World War II for very complete discussions of both the threat and response)
As it happens, you cannot take Malkin's readings at face value: she is highly selective, aggressively one-sided in interpretation and has been backpedaling parts of her argument since Greg Robinson and Eric Muller began making substantive critiques. Greg Robinson and Eric Muller each have an HNN article this week, in which a small portion of their arguments against Malkin's work is aired. (Muller's devastating investigations into Malkin's assertions continue here, and David Neiwart is also tackling both her ethical and practical statements on an ongoing basis)

Interestingly, though, her publicity statements have not moderated:

"The ill-founded conclusion that there was absolutely no military rationale for the West Coast evacuation/relocation is indeed affecting War on Terror policies today," she said in an e-mail response to The Chronicle."My book gives example after example of current opponents of threat profiling invoking the 'internment card' as an excuse to do nothing to fight Islamic extremists in our midst."

"I am not advocating rounding up all Arabs or Muslims and tossing them into camps," her book says,"but when we are under attack, 'racial profiling' -- or more precisely, threat profiling -- is justified. It is unfortunate that well-intentioned Arabs and Muslims might be burdened because of terrorists who share their race, nationality or religion. But any inconvenience, no matter how bothersome or offensive, is preferable to being incinerated at your office desk by a flaming hijacked plane."
Ashleigh Brilliant wrote"Only after the struggle is over will we know how many of our sacrifices were unnecessary." But we know that the sacrifice of property and freedom of over a hundred thousand people was unnecessary. It behooves us to learn from that mistake. Not doing the obvious, and unnecessary, and ethically atrocious, again is not the same thing as"doing nothing."

update: Malkin's appearance at Berkeley was a rousing success, according to her, though she also admits that College Republican groups are apparently getting pressure from both university administrations and the Bush campaign to stop inviting her around. Malkin apparently"said she should not be classified as a 'right-wing pundit,' adding she is critical of the Bush administration's profiling measures." Which measures? The ones they are not taking. In other words, she's not"right wing" because she thinks the government should be doing more profiling. Tim Fong was there, and he was much more frightened than impressed.

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Richard Henry Morgan - 9/11/2004

Well, Jon, I think you're right about the discussion thing, I just don't think that, qua historians and scholars (as the group puts itself forward), moral assessment and herald of the oppressed is the special province of historians and scholars -- you would think, with all the evidence to the contrary, that just getting the facts right (an activity a little more central to their domain) would keep their plates full.

As for your other observation about blogs, I agree. I did a cursory inspection, and found that almost all treatment of Malkin's work can be found in blogs, and HNN (the blogs, with more or less predictable results, though some actually get into substance to some depth). The idea that scholars have been systematicall excluded from media in responding, while true, seems a bit misleading.

Malkin has done a few op-ed pieces on radio, and one in the NY Post and a San Francisco paper. She got roughed up on MSNBC, in the Boston Globe (by Cathy Young of Reason) and in the Denver Post. She did appear on FoxNews' Hannity and Colmes (the Tweedledee and Tweedledummer of TV), where each played his expected role. As I understand it, FoxNews pulls about 18% of the TV news audience, the tv news audience being a smaller and amaller proportion of the news audience. If scholars have been systematically excluded from the media in responding to Malkin, it may be (in part)because she has such a low profile there herself.

Her book was only put out last month. Contrast with Bellesiles' book, which by this time had received rave reviews in major media. I persist in thinking that the best way to kill a book that has yet to gain positive purchase in major media is to pretty much ignore it, but if this group wants to do their thing, well, let them knock themselves out.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/10/2004

My point about productive citizens was simply to point out the wasted time, energy and resources of the internment policy. You're right that some of them were not directly involved in productive economic activity.

I disagree wholeheartedly with your statement that it is only directly aggrieved parties who have a right to demand an apology from a slanderer (or, in this case, libeller). And, for that matter, I don't think you would want to maintain that standard in other cases.

The whole point of having an historical profession, and a community of scholarship, and truth as a social and ethical value, is that we are all parties to the discussion, and the quality of that discussion matters to us.

Richard Henry Morgan - 9/10/2004

No, I didn't say or suggest that "unproductive" Japanese-Americans could have been rounded up, I was just pointing out the rhetorical descent to an argumentum ad populum (the elevation of all 110,000 plus to "productive") that mars your otherwise sensible piece. Since you are the one who introduced the "productive" characterization, rather it is I who should ask you whether internment of the "unproductive" would be defensible -- but no, that would be unfair argument.

Nor would I have it that you demand a PhD for entering the argment. In fact, I think Cramer's point is a bit outre -- if you publish a work that purports to be history, then you are liable to the same standards that should characterize other works of history. It seems to me that if some Japanese-Americans feel slandered by the work (and not Japanese-Americans as a whole, but those actually subjected to internment) then it is their sole right to demand an apology -- I'm not aware that they have elected this group of historians to make that demand on their behalf. I suggest the historians watch an episode of Frazier so that they can get better acquainted with what preening self-righteousness looks from the outside. I'm also eagerly awaiting Shelley Fiskin's no doubt magisterial work on the subject, demonstrating her expertise in the matter.

If the historians have been denied access, then all power to them. Their arguments, when they care to restrict themselves to arguments, seem to have the better of the subject.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/10/2004

Do you seriously mean to suggest that "unproductive" Japanese and Japanese Americans could have been interned without it being a gross misuse of resources and moral failing?

The vast majority of the 'free publicity' for the book is coming from Fox affiliates, not from the Committee. The controversy doesn't hurt Malkin, rhetorically, because she casts it as political correctness rather than a function of her distortions and errors. And her critics have indeed been 'systematically denied access' by the outlets that are promoting her, and have found relatively few outlets for serious engagement outside of the blogosphere and HNN.

I have not, if you look carefully, ever said that non-Ph.D.s should not or could not do history; actually, I've publicly said quite the opposite, and this point has a great deal to do with my interest in and support of HNN as a place for academic, non-academic and other interested parties to come together without credentials mattering quite so much. My support of the Committee is a function of the historical and historiographical distortions on a subject about which I know enough to speak with some authority. I wasn't part of the group that drafted the letter, nor was I inclined to create a new group to write a better one.

Richard Henry Morgan - 9/10/2004

I can understand requesting the opportunity to answer Malkin, and to appear when she appears, as a corrective. But ginning up an organization with the risibly self-flattering name of Historians' for Fairness (who thought 'Swift Boat Veterans for Truth' could be trumped?), and demanding an apology -- do these professors have any idea how ridiculous they look using a howitzer to swat a fly? Of course not. They're professors. I can understand such a tactic if Malkin's critics were systematically excluded from access to the media, but come on ...

I wouldn't be surprised if Regnery ends up laughing all the way to the bank with all the free publicity the group has given the book -- a book that might otherwise (to borrow a phrase from Hume) have "fallen stillborn from the press". And do you seriously mean to suggest that every last one of the more than 110,000 were "productive"? (just a small pecadillo in an otherwise sober piece)

Keith Halderman - 9/10/2004

I think your point about immigration ending in 1924 is especially telling.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/9/2004

Thanks! (and thanks for the link)

I'm still grappling with why she is being so successful in planting her ideas. It's not just that she has immense media power behind her (and is an experienced media person herself), and it's not just that people are scared and it's not just that there's a fundamental political epistemological divide (as Sheldon Richman pointed out recently)

I think part of her argument, and part of her success, is the way in which she is waving 'intelligence data' as support for her argument. We take that kind of information very, very seriously, now, and the idea that a review of the intelligence data 'reveals' something we didn't see before is a trope that echoes our current events. That our view of the quality and utility of intelligence data has more to do with Tom Clancy than Tom Ridge helps her gloss over the context and implications of her argument.

Her argument is exciting, in the sense that it creates a sense of danger narrowly, and cleverly, averted. It's a great plot, and her 'secret history' exonerates us of one of our most memorable moral failures.

David T. Beito - 9/9/2004

I'm glad you are on top of this. Unfortunately, even some of my libertarian friends find her to be persuasive.

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