Conservatives and even libertarians often view history through the prism of “the road to serfdom,” believing that there was some golden age of liberty in the past that is progressively being eroded. Two recent articles remind us of some of the problems with that thesis.
An obituary in today’s Washington Post told of what happened to American-born May Asaki and her family after the outbreak of war between the United States and her parents’ home country of Japan:
On May 8, 1942 – May Asaki’s 23rd birthday – she and her family were loaded into the back of an Army truck and sent to a detention center. They were allotted one suitcase each.
May, who was the second oldest of 11 children, spoke only rudimentary Japanese and had known no home but California. Her older brother volunteered for the Army the day after Pearl Harbor, but his patriotism didn’t help her family. U.S. authorities considered Americans of Japanese descent to be potential enemies during World War II, and the Asaki family eventually ended up at an internment camp in a snake-infested swamp in Arkansas. Within six months, May’s mother was dead at 48.
“My older brother was serving in the U.S. Army while our family was incarcerated as criminals,” May wrote in her memoir, “the stress of which was too great for our mother to bear.”
The only good thing to be said for May’s two years of captivity was that she met Paul Ishimoto, whom she married in April 1944. Three months later, when their internment camp was closed, they moved to Washington. The federal government gave them $25 apiece to start a new life.
We can only hope that census data will never again be used to round up American citizens and imprison them on the basis of their race. Meanwhile, at the Independent Gay Forum, David Link writes about a historian who was frustrated in trying to find stories in the Los Angeles Times archives about homosexuality in L.A. during the mid-20th century. His searches kept coming up empty. Had they simply never covered such stories?
Then he realized that he was searching for words and phrases he was used to using: “homosexual” and “gay” and “sexual orientation.” But those were not the words journalists would have used prior to our own time.
Try it for yourself. If you have access to any database of news stories up to about the 1960s, see how many articles you can find about homosexuality using the words you know to describe sexual orientation.
Than try using these: “deviant;” “degenerate;” “pervert.”
That is the way homosexuality was both understood and reported (when it was reported at all) in days gone by.
Those are the words, and the preconceptions, that would have been dominant, if not exclusive in the minds of the single demographic we can most reliably count on to vote against us today – seniors. Those who grew up in the 1930s and 40s and 50s would have, first, avoided any possible discussion of such an unpleasant and impolite subject as homosexuality. That is how the closet – the don’t ask, don’t tell of its day – accommodated the times.
But denial on such a wide scale has to begin fraying at the edges. And when homosexuality did come up, as Chauncey so vividly described – in criminal trials, bar raids, and mass arrests – the reporting had a condemnatory force built-in. The police arrested a dozen sexual perverts; a high-profile degenerate was found in a love nest; a bar owner lost his license because his business catered to deviants.
Taxes may have been lower in the 1950s (though come to think of it, the marginal rate was 91 percent). Regulation may been less burdensome (except for the New Deal-derived microregulation of finance, transportation, and communications). The labor market may have been freer (unless you got drafted into the armed services, like Elvis and millions of other young men). But stories like this remind us of how many people were excluded from the promises of the Declaration of Independence – the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – throughout American history. Liberalism has always campaigned for a society of merit, not of status. That meant in the first place the dismantling of the privileges of nobility and aristocracy. Over the centuries it has also meant extending liberty and equality to people of other races and creeds, to women, to Jews, to gays and lesbians. And current historical trends are certainly more complicated than worries about a road to serfdom, or nostalgia for “the world we have lost.”