Thursday, November 30, 2006

Book Review: Just Americans

Just Americans: How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad—The Story of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II (Robert Asahina, Penguin, Gotham Books 2006) (nb. I plan to review Soldier, General Colin Powell's new book, and Fiasco, by Tom Ricks next. Readers, please feel free to write comments as I would like these pages to be a place for the give and take of ideas).

The Japanese, like the American Indian, the African American, the Mexican American, the American Vietnamese, Chinese, and every other hyphenated-American nationality, possess a unique history. But the Japanese experience has been even more uncommon than others. The book, Just Americans, tells the story of that uncommonness. It makes an important contribution, not only because at least once in every passing year we honor Veterans who matter, but also because it is far too easy to forget that immigrants matter too. A lot.

Just Americans is the comprehensive guide to one ethnic group in particular, the Japanese. It tells a saga of the Japanese-American nissei, the sons (and daughters, but sons mostly are featured here) of immigrants who until relatively recently have unfortunately not mattered very much. This is to say that the immigrant cannot matter too much in a country which has been populated almost exclusively by immigrants, without whom we might still be eating buffalo meat and venison instead of the likes of baklava, spaghetti, cabbage, wieners, baguettes, bagels, sushi, pho-tai, and lemon grass chicken.

Historical perspective makes for a grand appertif, which is always essential. The idea of immigration at this moment in our history has come to be closely associated with the notion of “illegal.” We are at the brink of a massive immigration imbroglio at this very moment because of the recent uproar over the illegals. Viewed in isolation, past illegal migration has been no big deal and, in fact, industry has been heavily reliant on this source of labor in the past and American agribusiness still relies on it. But, unfortunately, our newfound fear of terrorism has caused this once-beneficent source of cheap labor and, most particularly, the way in which foreigners commonly arrive and depart and especially the ease with they do so, to be viewed with increasing suspicion. This is not the first time that immigrants have been viewed with boatloads of suspicion. This has, in turn, created a populist groundswell and a most well-deserved furor among the rank and file. The fury has its origins in many quarters. It is well deserved as a matter of fact, but mis-directed to the extent that it seeks to blame the immigrant, any immigrant.

First, allow that terrorism and the fear associated with it sells. It sells very much in the same way that sex does, with copious passion and verve. Patriotism and nationalism, sometimes called jingoism, are endless fonts of deeply rooted but increasingly irrelevant imagination running amok, and only add fuel to the fury. It does not help that the minimum wage is so low at this time and has not kept pace with inflation or the cost of living. What our economics does is to encourage immigrants to come to our shores by hook and by crook, and to work for these not-even-subsistence-level wages in America, and then to send this booty home, where it actually amounts to a small fortune. It is a sad commentary on reality that many, many people living in places near and far still survive on a dollar a day.

And, amidst all of this, Americans loudly complain that immigrants keep wages low, that immigrants take jobs away from ready, willing and able Americans, that the cheap labor hurts middle and lower America; the immigrant hogs all the low paying jobs and they also compete for scarce and dwindling social services with the the regular middle-class American.

Unions generally oppose the guest worker program proposal by President Bush that will not allow immigrants to apply for citizenship. The point is, however, that immigration, and those unfortunate immigrants who seek only a better life for themselves and to feed the ones they love by taking advantage of conditions over which they have absolutely no control have always been a ready-made target for politicians and social engineering types.

And so we have arguments like this one, which asserts that it is disingenuous to argue that, in the 2006 elections Arizona rejected enforcement when [as Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies points out,] it approved ballot measures to deny bail to illegals, bar them from collecting punitive damages, keep them from receiving certain state subsidies, and make English the state's official language.

Most Americans believe illegal immigrants should be allowed to become guest workers and eventually U.S. citizens, but that Congress should do more to close the border to stop more illegals entering the country, according to a new poll conducted by Quinnipiac University. By a margin of 69 percent to 27 percent, American voters say illegal immigrants should be allowed into a guest worker program with the ability to work toward citizenship over a period of several years. Such a guest worker program has wide support among voters of all political stripes.
Immigration is a political issue. Congressional Democrats earlier this year supported President Bush's vision for a policy revamp, which included tightened border security, a guest worker program and a process to give millions of illegal immigrants legal status. After the GOP lost big in November, Rich Lowry (a conservative) writes,
“there is no good evidence that championing strict immigration enforcement was a loser for Republicans, or that voters elected Democrats explicitly to permit illegals already in this country to stay and to invite more of their brethren to come. Any suggestion otherwise comes from advocates of amnesty who interpret
anything voters do -- now up to and including expressing their discontent with
an unpopular war -- as a call for more immigration.”


The painting of politically expeditious bulls-eyes on immigration and immigrants does, unfortunately, conceal the nature of the true threat to our nation. That remains fighting anything and everything that threatens strong, pluralist, liberal democracy at home (and abroad). It is pollution of the air and of our waterways even more than terrorism, or Islamism.

We are not, surely, unable to secure our own international boundaries from the terrorists who would enter to do us harm but we have been unable to accomplish that aim as of today. Terrorism can also be home-grown. This means that questions of domestic tranquility are equally as important if not more than securing foreign borders from external threats.

Just Americans bravely shows how the Japanese instance of problems with immigration, when combined with questions of national security, was mistakenly handled in the past, and then required remedial political action. The book does more than that however, as it tells the military history of the European campaigns and stories of individual heroism: of conflicted emotions and loyalties as well as “relocation” “exclusion” and imprisonment at home. My favorite place to go for more information about books, and this one in particular, is (if I had the money I'd buy it. Say Jeff, what about a loaner program for prisoners? Wanna buy an ad here?).

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