June 18, 2019

Donald Trump’s American dream

Just for fun, I decided to take Donald Trump at his word. 

After the Republican presidential candidate responded to the San Bernardino terror attack by calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” I thought it might be interesting to study a historical example of what state-sponsored racism actually looks like. Consider it a practical form of voter education.

So, last Friday, I drove up to the Skirball Cultural Center to view its exhibition on Manzanar, the World War II incarceration camp for Japanese-Americans located in California’s arid Owens Valley, depicted here through the photographs of Ansel Adams. In describing “the temper of the times” there are parallels to current events that seem so relevant, it’s eerie: “A wave of fear and paranoia swept the western United States and the Hawaiian Islands following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor… Anxiety over possible invasion by Japanese forces or sabotage by Japanese Americans overrode common sense…”

Toyo Miyatake, Manzanar Grammar School Fire Drill, 1942-1945. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of Alan Miyatake, Toyo Miyatake Manzanar Collection.

Just a few months after the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the rounding up and relocation of all persons of Japanese descent, as well as some Germans and Italians, to incarceration camps in the Western United States. Think of this as America’s cousin to the Nuremberg Laws, because in the days and weeks that followed, an estimated 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry — citizens and non-citizens, or what the Japanese referred to as Issei (first-generation Americans) or Nisei (second-generation) were evacuated from their homes; forced to close or sell their businesses at a fraction of their value; and relocated to camps in the American “interior,” where they could be monitored and controlled.  

Ansel Adams, Mess Line, Spring, 1943. Gelatin silver print (printed 1984). Private collection; courtesy of Photographic Traveling Exhibitions.

Fear and paranoia can certainly lead to demented outcomes, as with the camps of the 1940s, or as could be the case with Trump’s current calls for bans and registries. This total collapse of moral sense was well captured by a 1940s Life magazine spread hoping to calm “yellow hysteria” by clarifying for readers the physical differences between Japanese and Chinese, so that people could be easily identified. According to the magazine at the time, Chinese people were “tall and slender” with long legs, while Japanese were “short and squat” with longer torsos and shorter legs; Chinese had “parchment yellow complexion” while Japanese had “earth yellow complexion.” At least Vanity Fair and Collier’s had the decency to limit their demonization to the Japanese military leader who planned Pearl Harbor — and Hitler.

All of this serves as warning against “what can occur when emotion and fear overwhelm clarity and courage,” as Robert Flynn Johnson, the San Francisco-based curator of the exhibition, wrote. For those who think the current descent into paranoid Islamophobia is unprecedented behavior, this exhibit proves we’re in fact repeating the most shameful patterns of our past. The image of a banner declaring “I am an American” draped over the storefront of a Japanese-owned business reminded me of today’s declaration from Muslims that Islamist terrorism is #NotInMyName.

Capitulation to fear and moral compromise are seductive when the world is at war. Even “liberal” Hollywood did its part to disseminate government propaganda by depicting life in the camps as totally normal, even lovely. Film reels boasted of plenty of food; housing; access to health care, education and work; and featured perfectly cooperative Japanese inmates ready to “sacrifice” their freedom on behalf of America’s war effort. The American government was quite proud of itself that it was “setting the standard for the rest of the world in the treatment of people who may have loyalty to an enemy nation.” Mazel tov.

But even with the War Relocation Authority’s strict control of all media, the truth pierced the protective veil. Ansel Adams, a West Coast native, was a peculiar, if ultimately brilliant, choice for documenting Manzanar, given his mostly apolitical portfolio of black-and-white landscape portraits of the American West. Surely he’d have no problem turning his camera away from the biting barbed wire or glowering guard towers that surrounded the camp. And, as a fine-art photographer, Adams had the extraordinary ability to find transcendent beauty in almost everything — under his gaze, even a prison sparkled with pulchritude. 

Still today, Adams’ portraits are stunning in their composition and compassion. They are deeply humanizing, giving life and voice and dignity to a people unfairly imprisoned. Yet, unlike Dorothea Lange’s photographs, which were confiscated by the War Department for revealing “the despair, bewilderment and misery” of the period, Adams’ photos were criticized for lacking grit and moral courage. But Adams was wise to serve up his prettified portraits in an astonishing and brave book, “Born Free and Equal,” which detailed the complicated context in which he worked. 

Judging by Adams’ photographs alone, life in Manzanar doesn’t seem all that bad. Artists continued to make art, cooks made soy sauce, children went to school, and families gathered for social activities. “Despite the harsh conditions of their surroundings and the government’s efforts to strip Japanese Americans of the most basic civil liberties, camp infrastructure provided a foundation for community life,” the exhibition labels explained.

But just outside the frame is evidence of America’s disgrace: the isolation, humiliation and degradation of an entire ethnic group, for no better reason than self-righteous suspicion. “The injustice of it was overwhelming at times,” a former female detainee of the camp says in a video testimony. 

Is this the prosperous future promised by a President Trump?