August 5, 2004 · Tim Wu
Every so often someone defends, with a straight-face, that which we think undeniably wrong. They say, for example, that the holocaust never happened, or perhaps that slaves actually liked slavery, or that some degree of torture is fine as government policy. Orwell called this ability “Blackwhite,” or “a willingness to say black is white when party discipline demands this.” In its advanced form it leads to “the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know black is white, and forget that one has ever believed the contrary.”
Michelle Malkin, a journalist, has released a book that is does just this: it defends the eviction and incarceration of more than 70,000 American citizens during World War II. Her book “In Defense of Internment,” takes the position that the Government was right to round up the Japanese then, and Arab-Americans now. The mainstream position that the internment was wrong (expressed in Ronald Reagan’s apology), Malkin attributes to a “conspiracy.”
It is true that, on rare occasion, something everything takes for granted is wrong, like, say, the Bohr model of the Atom. But more often, moral sense is restored by rebuttal — we remember that black is, in fact, black, and regain our senses. This time sense is restored by this week’s must-read Volokh Conspiracy which features two historians who destroy the book in every aspect. Malkin, it turns out, is more Ahmad Chalabi than Albert Einstein.
As historian Greg Robinson concludes, “Malkin’s book is not a useful work of history, but a polemic that relies for its attraction on sensationalism and overstatement.” Or in the words of Eric Muller, “A person certainly can ‘provoke debate’ (uninformed debate, at least) by going about things in this way. But a person can’t “correct the record” in this way, or report history in a way that anyone ought to believe. It’s just not possible, and it’s not credible.”
But there is more than historical accuracy or the career of a silly journalist at stake. The role of the Constitution in wartime is defined by a consensus that Korematsu was wrongly decided. Thankfully, that consensus is unlikely endangered by this soon-to-be-forgotten leaflet. If you want to be radical, you have to actually be good.