How Did I Not Know George Takei Spent Three Years of His Childhood in an Internment Camp?

George Takei was on Wits this week. Listening to the podcast on the train yesterday, I learned something I was shocked to not have already known. As you do on a talk show, host John Moe asked Takei about his latest project. The Star Trek star and activist discussed his musical Allegiance that will move to Broadway this year. Then, he described the play's inspiration: 

When I was five years old, soldiers came to our home in Los Angeles and ordered us out of our home at bayonet-point. And we were incarcerated for the duration of the Second World War simply because we happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor. I was born in the United States. My mother was born in Sacramento, California. My father was a San Franciscan. And there were no charges, no trial therefore: our due process simply disappeared.
 Takei as a child at Rohwer Internment Camp in Arkansas

Takei as a child at Rohwer Internment Camp in Arkansas

I'd never known that Takei was a victim of internment. He's given a TED Talk about it, talked about it in his documentary, and now made a musical about it, but still I'd yet to come across the story.

He'd spent three years -- the same length of time he played Sulu on the original Star Trek -- in sunbaked camps surrounded by barbed wire as a child. Considered potential spies and saboteurs by the government, over 110,000 Japanese-Americans (the majority of whom were citizens like Takei) were kept in these camps. Internment destroyed communities and left families like Takei's penniless.

It was a brutal act motivated, as the federal government itself admitted in legislation that granted reparations to the victims in 1988, "by race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." The prejudice is clear even in how Executive Order 9066 was carried out. Despite vastly more German-Americans living in the country than Japanese-Americans, the total interned of German ancestry was a tenth that of the Japanese count. What's more, the Germans sent to camps were overwhelmingly foreign nationals while interned Japanese-Americans were overwhelmingly native-born citizens (foreign-born Japanese could not become naturalized citizens until 1952).

While its existence by no means justified internment, there actually was espionage by German-Americans during the war. The Duquesne Ring -- a spy ring of 33 German nationals, German-born naturalized citizens, and American-born citizens with German ancestry -- was the largest espionage case in American history. The leader, Fritz Duquesne, was born in South Africa and a naturalized US citizen. His incredible exploits as a hunter, soldier, spy, and journalist are worth reading about -- in particular, I can't recommend Jon Mooallem's American Hippopotamus highly enough.

By contrast, there don't appear to be any actual cases of espionage among Japanese-Americans whatsoever. Members of the Japanese government and military spied on the U.S. of course, but the suspicions that led to internment were clearly based on racial bias. A telling line occurs in this interview of George Takei. In 1943, he and the 110,000 other interned were asked a series of questions to determine their loyalty to a country that had imprisoned them without cause or due process for a year. One of the questions asked him to 'foreswear' loyalty to the emperor of Japan. 

For a Japanese-American, someone born and raised here, the word ‘foreswear’ was very offensive because it assumed by birth that you were ingrained with an inborn loyalty to emperor. I mean, you can’t foreswear something that doesn’t exist.
 Japanese-Americans imprisoned at Tule Lake, the concentration camp at which George Takei spent two years of his childhood.  Photo: Wikimedia CC

Japanese-Americans imprisoned at Tule Lake, the concentration camp at which George Takei spent two years of his childhood. Photo: Wikimedia CC

What was shocking about learning George Takei had spent three years in one of the concentration camps was that I only learned about it now.  was one of the starkest breaches of American values in our history, but it doesn't seem to have the visibility of other civil rights abuses. Perhaps it was so recent and so brutal that it simply tore a community up from its roots and it hasn't recovered since. San Francisco has the oldest (and at one point largest) Japantown in America, but it was emptied by internment. The neighborhood still has the name, and many returned after the war ended, but the dispersal of internment and the later destruction of homes under urban renewal efforts made it a shadow of its former self. 

One of my very closest friends is fourth-generation Japanese-American. Members of his family were sent to internment camps. The wrong that was done, and the racism and xenophobia that caused it, is not in the distant past. They are within our lifespan -- so much so that beloved public figures like George Takei were victims of it themselves. We need to learn from it and be continually reminded of it. In an interview with Democracy Now, Takei corrected his interviewer that the February 19th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 is not called the "Day of Internment," but the "Day of Remembrance."

Decades later, the domestic threat we fear is not espionage and sabotage, but terrorism. As that threat is prevented and prosecuted, we would do well to remember 1942. Internment was the product of a hate and fear so strong it silenced anyone preaching tolerance. And, as Takei put it, simply looking like the enemy should not make anyone the enemy.

NOTE 1 Here's that interview of Takei -- it's really worthwhile.

NOTE 2 On WWII-era German spying: Nazis landed spies on American shores in 1942 to stir panic and sabotage industry that supplied the war effort. As War is Boring describes, it failed colossally. However, the curator of the International Spy Museum in DC says at the end of their piece: "It could have legitimately knocked the U.S. out of the war if public support for the war diminished enough, or at least kept us chasing our tails long enough to knock the British out from lack of supplies." The case that tried them is still used as precedent for trying terrorists as enemy combatants in military tribunals.

NOTE 3 I use the term 'internment camp' here to make the historical event I refer to clear, but know that activists and scholars on the subject often simply refer to them as 'concentration camps.' And they were concentration camps, by the very dictionary definition of the term as NPR's ombudsman shows. I use both terms here for the dual purposes of clarity and honesty. Maybe finding a term that accomplishes both would help keep this awful history more present in the American psyche. I haven't found an instance of Takei using the term "concentration camp" -- I'd be curious to how he (and his musical) refer to the camps. Either way, I'm glad it's coming to New York.

EDIT: He says in a 2007 interview, "It was a concentration camp, pure and simple. The euphemism was 'relocation center,' sounds very innocuous. Innocuous? Machines guns pointed at us, barbed wire..."

Remembering Philip Levine, Among Other Losses

There has been far too much death lately.

David Carr, the beloved New York Times media columnist, died a week ago. Yesterday morning, the science writer and researcher Oliver Sacks published an article that announced, and characteristically reflected on, his terminal cancer diagnosis. Comedian and writer Harris Wittels, who I've heard for years on Comedy Bang Bang and whose writing on Parks & Rec I loved, passed away yesterday. The night before last, I learned the parent of a friend passed away this past weekend. And, a few days ago, Philip Levine died.

Levine's passing was perhaps the least 'untimely' of those mentioned -- his was not a life cut short at thirty by an overdose or even at fifty-eight by an unseen lung cancer. He died at home in Fresno at the age of 87. Despite the particular grace of passing at his age, I've found myself profoundly affected by his death. For those unfamiliar with him, Levine was one of our greatest living poets: one of the most deeply American and one of those whose writing I admired fiercely. He held every award, office, and byline an American poet could want in a lifetime and lived with a ferocity that shone through his work.

I heard a recording of him reading his famous poem "What Work Is" when I was in college. I wish I could find it now. His voice is gravel and he walks through the poem with a control and strength that's a pleasure to listen to. The recording's real gem comes at the end though, when the interviewer asks him if he'd like to do another take (it was the first pass on the reading) and the near-octogenarian responds "Fuck no." He got the take and he knew it.

As many obituaries have noted, Levine was a child of Detroit. Headlines said he "found poetry on Detroit's assembly lines" or "found poetry in blue-collar life," calling him "the 'Walt Whitman' of industrial Detroit," a "champion of the working class," and a "poet of grit, sweat and labor." His early years around the foundries and work lines of Detroit indeed embedded deeply in his work. His free verse was profoundly autobiographical and spoke with the sharp authority of experience. But it didn't speak down to you. It felt like a world-worn elder telling you how life really worked -- not like a grandfather with a repeated anecdote or an uncle with one too many drinks, but like an old veteran who decided you were worth a damn and deserved to be put in your place for your own good.

While some of his best known poems -- "What Work Is," "They Feed They Lion," and others -- focused on Detroit, he left relatively early in life, moving steadily west to Stanford and his eventual home in Fresno. Fairly or not, I identify with that trajectory. I was born in rust belt Pittsburgh, moved to Stanford, and my dad's lived in Fresno the last ten years. Levine's "Our Valley" puts me in central California as well as any Steinbeck novel ever can and his direct prose poetry of Detroit reminds me of the skeleton of industrial Pittsburgh that I grew up in. 

Purely out of Ohio River bias, I tend to think of James Wright's clipped, emotionally electric poetry before Levine's when considering 'rust belt' poets. But with every reading, the steadfast directness of Levine's writing has a weight that reaches out and grabs me as much as any written word. In a review, Thomas Hackett wrote that Levine’s “strength is the declarative, practically journalistic sentence. He is most visual and precise when he roots his voice in hard, earthy nouns.” Levine's journalistic poetry is as responsible as the poetic journalism of Hendrik Hertzberg for my current career path -- my choice to become a journalist after studying poetry.

In a week heavy with obituaries, I found myself continually re-reading Levine's. While other losses were like lightning strikes, igniting the forest at random, this one came like the felling of an immense redwood -- like something whose very age and stature seemed to defy the mortality they carried with them. I think perhaps I also felt something was lost with him, as one would with the cutting of an old-growth forest.

With modern poetry so academic it can feel irrelevant or distant, his poetry came from a hardscrabble reality. He was rejected from Iowa and went anyway. He wrote with a weight of experience. His arc reminded me of Jack Kerouac or Frank O'Hara, writers who felt alive in the world, writers whose living seemed to actually matter to their writing, whose pages were as speckled with wine and blood as they were with ink. Rightly or not, I felt like that kind of writing was lost to time and the academic professionalization of poetry. But Levine was an old-growth redwood. He was still around and he was a writer who had lived. Reading a poem of his I had posted on the wall of my lonely San Francisco apartment in 2009, it felt like scripture from a living prophet.

I've had the chance to meet many of my poetry idols: Louise Glücke, Mark Doty... I even took a seminar with Kay Ryan while she was Poet Laureate. But I know that never seeking out Levine while visiting my dad in Fresno will be a regret of mine.

I don't mean to compare the tragedy of his death to that of others, certainly not to claim his as any more tragic. I only write this because, amidst the catharsis and reflection on the losses of David Carr and Harris Wittels, and the impending loss of Oliver Sacks, I found myself reading only dutiful obituaries of an aged poet that listed his titles and awards. I wanted a space for emotion.

There are worthwhile reads remembering Levine, of course. I recommend the Poetry Foundation's in-depth bio and their remembrance collection of his work. The best obituary I read may also be the shortest. David Post wrote a one paragraph blog in the Washington Post and added a poem at the bottom that he called "a wonderful place to start" for Levine newcomers.

At the risk of sounding like a copycat and a newcomer myself, that poem is also the one I intended to close this post with as well. It's the title poem of his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1995 collection The Simple Truth. It was also the one I hung on my wall years ago. It's writing that felt tactile and personal, but also ethereal and all-meaning at the same time. The closing lines still put a shudder through me, and I hope they always will.


The Simple Truth

by Philip Levine

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks I overheard the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat,” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”

Some things you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

Air Travel in 2014 Has Been Anecdotally Disastrous, but One of the Safest Ever Statistically

The tragic news of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 seems to close a year of airline disasters. First there was the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and its 239 passengers and crewmembers. Then another Malaysian flight, MH17, was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 on board. A week later, to much less press coverage, Air Algérie Flight 5017 disappeared over the Sahara Desert and claimed 116 lives. All these disasters have dramatic death tolls and a mystery to them -- where the plane went, why it crashed, or who exactly caused it. In May of this year, I wrote a story about a near miss I was aboard for and the data considerations surrounding mid-air collisions and near collisions.

In the story and the ensuing press coverage, I tried to emphasize that air travel is tremendously safe. I have no qualms about boarding an airplane, though my expression of this confidence was often edited out of my television interviews (as a result I tended to argue for live broadcasts over pre-taped interviews). One of the points I made in the piece is the distinction between the "statistical" life and the "actual" (or "anecdotal") life. Essentially, a single occurrence like a plane crash has a visibility and visceral enormity that can eclipse the statistical reality behind those occurrences.

The classic example of the statistical/anecdotal divide is speed limits. We accept that raising a speed limit X many miles per hour likely means Y more fatalities on the road. Those lives are numbers though. A mother trapped in an overturned minivan or a teenage driver breaking through the guardrails -- those are the anecdotal lives that make up the numbers. They act on our emotions entirely differently than cold data. Hearing those stories in place of the number Y might even lead to a different choice in speed limits. Most often though, the anecdotal tends to obscure the statistical reality.

That point is especially important to remember as this year draws to an end. The year in air travel has been a terrible one anecdotally, but one of the best ever statistically. 

 Chart by Nick Evershed for  The Guardian

Chart by Nick Evershed for The Guardian

Nick Evershed, a data journalist for the Guardian Australia, compiled the year-end numbers on air disasters from a variety of sources and charted them in this excellent rundown. The accident rate has been in a long decline that continued this year.

 Mourners of the 298 people aboard Flight MH17 leave flowers in a makeshift memorial at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.  Photo:  Roman Boed  via Flickr Creative Commons

Mourners of the 298 people aboard Flight MH17 leave flowers in a makeshift memorial at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. Photo: Roman Boed via Flickr Creative Commons

As for fatalities, the count is up slightly -- the highest since 2010 according to the Airline Safety Network (ASN) or 2005 according to the Bureau of Aircraft Accident Archives (BAAA). The ASN data excludes terrorist or hostile events, thereby leaving out MH17's 298 deaths.  Both figures include AirAsia's 162 passengers and crewmembers however. I recommend reading the Guardian article for the full story. Also, currently at the top of Reddit's r/DataIsBeautiful subreddit is a charting of the same ASN data with the title "Airline Crashes Since 2000...contrary to what the news might say 2014 has been one of the safest years in the airline industry."

Air travel this year has indeed been tremendously safe, in spite of all the high-profile accidents and attacks. The news right now is working though that same anecdotal v. statistical divide I mentioned in that May article in Medium. It's no surprise that the recent AirAsia tragedy has led many to reflect on what seems to be a particularly dangerous year in air travel. As we do look back though, I would just encourage us to remember the data as well as the human stories.