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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Classical Liberalism, Individualism, and Park51

To build or not to build?

My mother’s family fled Los Angeles 68 years ago to avoid imprisonment under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which made it a crime in many areas of the United States to have a Japanese ancestry.

Those living in Los Angeles, and other places deemed sensitive by the national government, had as little as 48 hours to report to a collection point to then be shipped to what were euphemistically called “relocation camps.”  Even now, when a group of Japanese Americans talk about “camp” they probably don’t mean where they spent their summer vacations.

(For anyone who’s interested in this shameful episode in American history, Michi Weglyn’s book, Years of Infamy, is a frequently cited source.)

While atrocities were being committed against Jews and other minorities by European governments, in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor the U.S. government began systematically rounding up over 100,000 American residents of Japanese descent, the majority of them American citizens.

At that time in my hometown of Mesa, Arizona, near where my Arizona-born father and his family were farming, the military used Main Street as a line of demarcation.  Japanese Americans who lived south of that line either had to move or be sent to camp, while those on the north side were tolerated so long as they didn’t try to cross into the south side.  (There were, however, notable instances in which the people of Mesa ignored this edict.)  And because neighboring Phoenix was also off-limits in this way, my father could not himself deliver his produce to the main market there without breaking the law.  And so it remained until the end of the war.

Guilt by Association

The rationale for these injustices was simple.  Because members of the Japanese government had demonstrated a willingness to aggress against Americans, American citizens who shared an ethnicity and culture similar to the enemy were regarded as ipso facto potentially dangerous.  No one of Japanese heritage could be trusted, and that included my mother and father.  This demonstrated a profoundly anti-individualistic attitude.

(Curiously, the much larger German-American community, which had similar ties to another enemy government and posed perhaps an even larger threat, somehow escaped this kind of treatment.)

Then, in 1988, Ronald Reagan signed a formal apology for these actions on behalf of the U.S. government, which included both redress and reparations to victims still living, for what it called “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

That Was Then, This Is Now

Last week a good friend sent me a statement (pdf) released by the Japanese-American Citizens’ League concerning the controversial Islamic community center, now called Park51, proposed for a site near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.  Among other interesting facts, it contains the following, which I didn’t know:

As recently reported in the New York Times, in 1944, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia opposed the opening of a hostel for Japanese Americans who sought to resettle from the World War II detention camps to live and work in New York City.  The hostel was in a location sensitive to many Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor — roughly a mile from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  After the ACLU, churches and other organizations began to voice support for the hostel, it opened and by the end of the war it housed about 35 of approximately 2,000 who resettled in the city.

(The Times article this is based on is here. Coincidentally, this hostel was located only two blocks from where my family and I now live.)

I am aware that there are people of goodwill on both sides of the Park51 debate, and the ideas and sentiments I express in this column are my own.  I know, for example, that there are those who do not dispute the right of the owners of the property on which Park51 would be built to use it as they see fit (any government privileges and such that might be involved notwithstanding), but would like to see it moved elsewhere.  By way of explanation, some say that locating it so near Ground Zero demonstrates a “lack of sensitivity.”

But in what way are Park51’s advocates being insensitive?  The reasoning seems to be the following: 1) A fringe group of Muslims was behind the attack on the World Trade Center; 2) the developers of Park51 are Muslim; 3) therefore, Park51 makes me and others like me uncomfortable.

Those who feel this way, of course, have the right to protest peacefully against or eventually boycott Park51, as well as any company or person who does business with it.

Given my background, however, I find this attitude deeply disturbing. Painting all Muslims or Islamic organizations with collective guilt goes against the essence of the individualist principles of classical liberalism.  Opposing Park51 because it represents a religion with the same name as that perhaps practiced by the 9/11 attackers is like opposing the hostel for Japanese Americans in Brooklyn or forbidding Japanese Americans to live on the “sensitive” side of Mesa simply because they shared an ethnic and cultural background with those who committed aggression in World War II.  There are, of course, differences between these situations in the role played by the government, but it is the underlying sentiment that is so troubling.

On this particular issue, I wholeheartedly share the view of New York’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, when he said in remarks at the Ramadan Iftar dinner :

This is a test of our commitment to American values. We have to have the courage of our convictions. We must do what is right, not what is easy. And we must put our faith in the freedoms that have sustained our great country for more than 200 years.

Amen to that!

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.