FDL Book Salon — Strawberry Days, Part I
David Neiwert is one of the crown jewels of the blogosphere. In an era where the jingo-all-the-way crowd exploit a disfunctional immigration system to rally the bigot brigade into armed militias and fantasies of Atzlan, his blog Oricinus has become a critical resource for the tracking of such militaristic groups as the Minutemen and the Klan and the examination of their rhetoric as it slithers its way iinto mainstream right wing discourse. (As a side note I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes by Digby, who says "This idea of America as a New Sparta is ridiculous. We’re a nation of flabby shoppers.")
In his book Strawberry Days, Neiwert focuses on the agrarian community of Bellevue, Washington where early immigrants from Japan were the only ones willing to clear the old-growth stumps from the land in order to make it arable. He explores the growth of the Japanese-American community that grew up around Strawberry farming in that area, and the fears it awoke in the community. The noises made by Miller Freeman, the Tom Tancredo of his day (the early 1900s), are hauntingly familiar:
There was one central reason why Freeman saw Japanese immigrants as a greater threat than any other: the "Yellow Peril." Like many of his contemporaries, Freeman ardently adopted a conspiracy theory, which posited that the Japanese emperor intended to invade the Pacific Coast, and that he was sending these immigrants to American shores as shock troops to prepare the way for just such a military action, and lay the groundwork for acts of sabotage and espionage when the signal was given. As his counterpart in California, James Phelan, put it in 1900, the Japanese immigrants represented an "enemy within our gates." Freeman frequently cited a 1909 book promoting this theory, Homer Lea’s The Valor of Ignorance, which detailed the invasio to come and its aftermath.
Sketched through many interviews with area residents and their decendents who lived through the era, Newiert paints a haunting portrait of the havoc created in the lives of American citizens when the nuts inflame people’s fears and take over the conversation. Phelan’s words from a mass rally against the Japanese in 1900 (organized by local unions) invoke this very modern sounding wingnut canard:
The Japanese are starting the same tide of immigration which we thought we had checked twenty years ago…. The Chinese and the Japanese are not bona fide citizens. They are not the stuff of which American citizens can be made…. Personally we have nothing against the Japanese, but as they will not assimilate with us and their social life is so different from ours, let them keep at a respectful distance.
Freeman himself got a bug up his ass about Japanese ships off the coast of Alaska, and organized a Naval Militia to protect the coast, which basically sounds like a bunch of skinheads in dingys. So sorry for the Minutemen, but there is nothing new under the sun, not even their nonsense.
On May 20, 1942 the entire Japanese population of Bellevue was carried away on a train (from March 20 to October 31 there were 114,490 people evacuated from the Pacific Coast to relocation centers). The War Relocation Authority began trying to "instill democratic values in their charges." Detainees tried to gain their release through hearings before the Alien Enemy Hearing Board established to handle men’s cases:
"The proceedings were a complete farce," recalled [detainee Masuo Yasui's] son, Minoru, himself a Nisei activist who had challenged the curfew laws in Portland and attended his father’s hearings. "The most incredible thing was when they produced childlike drawings of the Panama Canal showing…drawings of how the locks worked. The hearing officer took these out and asked, "Mr. Yasui, what are these?" Dad looked at the drawings and diagrams and said, ‘They look like drawings of the Panama Canal.’ They were so labeled, with names of the children. Then the officer asked my father to explain why they were in our home. ‘If they were in my home,’ my father replied, ‘it seems to me that they were drawings done by my children for their schoolwork.’
"The officer then asked, ‘Didn’t you have these maps and diagrams so you could direct the blowing up of the canal locks?’ My father said, ‘Oh, no! These are just the schoolwork of my children.’ The officer said, ‘No, we think you’ve cleverly disguised your nefarious intent and are using your children merely as cover. We believe you had intent to damage the Panama Canal.’ To which my father vehemently replied, "No, no, no!’ And then the officer said pointedly, ‘Prove that you didn’t intend to blow up the Panama Canal!’"
Neiwert’s book is an important part of the immigration conversation, a sober reminder that as a nation of immigrants the United States has experienced waves of such hysteria in the past. By taking a microcosmic look at the experiences of Japanese immigrants in the city of Bellevue, Washinigton he makes it possible to place in perspective the catterwauling of such petty, small-minded beasts as Michelle Malkin and paint a portrait of what it portends for all of us if her nonsense goes unchecked.
Return to: FDL Book Salon — Strawberry Days, Part I