Argument and Emotion in InternmentEugene Volokh, and others have critiqued the latest in the ongoing saga of Malkin vs. Academia, a letter sent from the "Historians' Committee for Fairness". This really has been the part of the debate that has interested me most, but one that I have dealt with the least. Malkin relies on an ad-hominem attack of historians to avoid engaging significantly with their work. In this she mirrors a larger dissatisfaction with scholarship in general shared by many of her fellow travelers on the right. How to deal with accusations of bias in the academy in an honest, responsive, intelligent and convincing manner will probably be the topic of a future post (my answer is really that I have no clue how to do this). I do, however, have a few preliminary thoughts on the more narrow issue at hand; how should historians deal with someone whose claims are as outlandish as Malkin?
It seems to me that the first aspect of any response should be to do what I think Eric Muller and Greg Robinson have already done very well. Calmly and thoroughly lay out the evidence and argument that prove the opponent wrong. It seems to me that one must make it clear that nobody is afraid of being “unmasked” for the hacks they really are. I think it is not overstating Muller and Robinson’s argument to say that they contend that Malkin’s work itself is a hack job, that any reasonable researcher (and not just academic) should be ashamed of producing. This should be demonstrable with simple facts and reasoning.
Unfortunately the appeal of a book like Malkin’s goes beyond its argument. One need only peruse the debates on Muller’s blog to see that some are convinced beyond any stretch of reasonableness or logic that scholars have been lying all along about internment, and pretending it was racist (intentionally or otherwise) pulling the wool over the public’s eyes. I suspect that this appeal has as much to do with emotion as argument. In a patriotic moment like this one it is easy to condemn any criticism as anti-American, and jump to the conclusion that the scholarly community is really out to condemn America as a bastion of true evil. Academics, like any set of “elites” are obvious targets for this kind of criticism, and it’s easy to see how a certain amount of pleasure can be taken in boldly assaulting them.
None of this even trenches upon the fact that most people’s minds will be made up, not after a review of the relevant literature, or even after a thorough reading of Malkin’s book, but by very short engagements in print, radio and television. It takes in many ways a truly perverse sort of person to want to wade through the ponderous prose and arguments of academics, to struggle to create a mental map of the relevant chronology and evidence, and finally to come to a conclusion. Most people have far more pressing matters to attend to with their time than the masochistic engagement in detailed argument in which academics delight.
So a second ground is needed to make the case with something like internment, and that ground is that of emotion. Muller has indeed used this tactic on occasion, but I think he could do more with it. The image of Japanese Americans being interned and still fighting and dying for their country is a powerful one. The image of women, children, and the elderly forced from their homes into crude camps has emotional force. These images may do more for many than argument, and as well they should. Our sympathy for fellow human beings is not, after all, as base or dishonest grounds for appeal.
I suspect that neither of the two ideas I have outlined will be enough to properly fend off this kind of criticism. With regard to what would, I must say I’m in the dark. But I think they may be a good start.