Last weekend Jess and I went with her cultural geography working group to visit Manzanar, one of the sites of Japanese internment during WWII. It's over the mountains from here, on the other side of Yosemite. It was an interesting experience. I actually didn't find that I responded to it very well. I think I expected it to be a lot worse than it was, and I ended up having a rather non-PC reaction to it, meaning, it didn't prompt me to think about human rights, racism, the fragility of our democracy and... you know, human suffering and all that. I was taken off-guard by photos of people playing baseball, musical performances, painting...
I had to keep reminding myself that this was a prison camp. They had been uprooted and imprisoned for the wrong reasons. I felt like my empathy personality was broken. To kick-start that personality I had to think hard and replay in my head the possible future: I could be imprisoned when the US secedes from Texas (my family is all from Houston).
Still, I kept doing these mental comparisons to other sufferings caused by WWII and by the US govt over the years - other camps, actions, and campaigns. There are so many atrocities that go on. How is this one different from slavery, from Abu Graib, from Hiroshima, from Auschwitz, from Vietnam, from the Contras?
So, rather than sympathizing with the Japanese internees, I kept dwelling on comparisons. Like the issue of reparations - I'm really glad that the Japanese internees got reparations and a fairly good admission of a "tragic mistake" from Reagan. But my mind kept drifting to African
American demands for reparations (which have gone on since at least 1910 or so, if I'm not mistaken) and how generations of slavery, and then subsequent apartheid, are a much worse offense than the internment. I kept thinking that this internment was - comparatively - a pretty safe offense to fess up to. Like if you're facing serial murder charges, it's much easier to confess to burglary.
I know it's not the right perspective to come at this from, but I couldn't stop myself from thinking about where the internment fit in on the "man's-inhumanity-to-man" scale. The interment camp certainly wasn't anywhere near "let's-love-one-another", but it also wasn't close to the worst that we've done. Honestly, it's somewhere in the middle.
The experience of Manzanar for me was thus mostly two things. The first reaction of "oh, phew, this
American offense wasn't as bad as I thought it could have been." And the second reaction of self-flagellation for not being able to summon the appropriate empathy. I mean, when you're at a site of a tragedy, shouldn't you be able to focus on what's facing you, rather than dwelling on other tragedies? It's like saying to the guy who has just lost his arm, "Hey, I saw a guy last week who lost both arms!"
Inner worlds, man. Sometimes they're overwhelming. Not particularly interesting or appropriate, but overwhelming nonetheless.