The Greatest Lie of the Greatest Generation?

Chapel Hill is filled with talented, thoughtful folks whose stories – personal and professional – often open new avenues of personal discovery. Eric Muller, UNC Law professor and, lately intermittent, ‘blogger (Is That Legal?), is a Chapel Hillian I’ve spoken of before.

His personal history, finding out what happened to his great-uncle during Germany’s Holocaust (Eric Muller’s Sad Serendipity) and professional research, World War II’s shameful Japanese internment (Free to Die For Their Country), have intersected in gripping fashion – an intersection he has documented over on Is That Legal?.

When I was a kid, I read about this mass internment of United States citizens. I’m not sure where I read about thinly veiled racism that ended in mass deprivation of liberties, outright seizure of long-held property, the disruption of thousands of families lives, but it made a deep impression. This was roughly around the period of greatest tension in the civil rights struggle. Martin Luther King, Jr. was still alive pleading the case for common humanity. Yet, as the “WAR” in Vietnam was shifting into higher gear, some of the same prejudicial rhetoric used against 1940’s Japanese-American internees was making a resurgence.

I was reminded of Eric’s contributions today because of this BoingBoing article linking to scans of internment camp high-school yearbooks.

Internment camp yearbooks?

It seems like ever since Brokaw’s “greatest generation” series made their appearance, the mainstream media’s framing of the World War II era ignores some sad truths – including institutionalized racism against a variety of groups.

That generation’s struggle, as many of yesterday’s Veteran’s Day broadcasts sought to convince us, was more honorable than ours. Yet that generation allowed wholesale discrimination to continue.

Freedom is almost never freely granted, as Veteran’s Day reminds us, but must be pursued and then protected. Progress is incremental, as we our reminded by our own generation’s reverses – like the passage of California’s Proposition 8.

The hope is tomorrow will be better than today.

Eric is currently working documenting what he suggests is the greatest generation’s greatest lie.

Hirabayashi: The Biggest Lie of the Greatest Generation.” The article presents important new archival findings about Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81 (1943), which upheld the constitutionality of a racial curfew imposed on Japanese Americans in World War II. The Court concluded that because of the enormous security threat facing the United States — a threatened invasion of the West Coast by Japan in the months after the Pearl Harbor attack — the ordinary constitutional prohibition on “discrimination based on race alone” was not controlling.

It turns out that all this talk of invasion was a lie.

Lies have been used to send our troops to Iraq, eviscerate the protections guaranteed by our Constitution, approve torture, limit debate and dissent and many other activities antithetical to the proper functioning of an open democracy.

There is some hope that tomorrow will be better, especially if President Obama reverses many of the last 8 years of Bush signing statements, executive orders, illegal surveillance initiatives, shutters Guantánamo and ends extraordinary renditions (ACLU call-to-action).

Our past, as Eric reminds us, does inform our future.


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