At last week’s National Communication Association (NCA) annual conference, Penn State’s Kirt Wilson gave a moving lecture on Dreams of Union, Days of Conflict: Communicating Social Justice and Civil Rights Memory in the Age of Obama.
Responding to the “civic calling” theme of this year’s conference, Wilson praised the urged to get involved, but cautioned that we must do so wisely – first understanding “the nature of the society we are called to,” and critically interrogating the civic actions we take on its behalf.
We all know that our society is not perfect – indeed, that is why we so acutely feel a civic calling; a need to engage in the hard work of democratic living. But even with the need for such a “process-model” utopia, as Erin McKenna calls it, the entrenched inequities of our society require more than a moderate amount of collective civic work.
Wilson pointed to the innovative activism of Black Lives Matter, which seeks not only to ameliorate an immediate problem, but to fundamentally disrupt the paradigm which has supported and normalized the perpetual murder of black people.
Wilson quoted Fredrick Douglass: “Slavery has been fruitful in giving itself names…and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth next.”
Black slavery still exists today, Wilson argued, but we call it by other names. The school-to-prison pipeline; the new Jim Crow; police-community relations.
When we act, when we respond to the civic calling of our times, we must do so with a critical eye to the institutions which shape our society and the how our actions will affect them.
Black Lives Matter has come under fire for the disruptive nature of their protests; for breaking with the protest approach of their 1960s peers.
But Wilson made a compelling argument for that shift in strategy. The civil rights movement made tremendous advances, but it did not end the insidious remnants of slavery and oppression. Slavery only changed its name.
The only way to truly change this institutionalized oppression is to disrupt the system, to change the paradigm.
Wilson argued that the radicals of the 60s “marched because the only life affirming response to death and to slavery is to resist.” Today’s young activists organize out of a similar need.
“Black life matters,” Wilson said, “because people are dead and they didn’t have to die. And more are going to die tomorrow.”
I really want to read Hidden Figures, the new book by Margot Lee Shetterly which chronicles “the untold story of the Black women mathematicians who helped win the space race.” If you aren’t as excited about this book as I am, it highlights the work and experiences of the West Area Computers – a group of black, female mathematicians who worked at NASA Langley from 1943 through 1958.
But life at Langley wasn’t just the churn of greased gears. Not only were the women rarely provided the same opportunities and titles as their male counterparts, but the West Computers lived with constant reminders that they were second-class citizens. In the book, Shetterly highlights one particular incident involving an offensive sign in the dining room bearing the designation: Colored Computers.
One particularly brazen computer, Miriam Mann, took responding to the affront on as a her own personal vendetta. She plucked the sign from the table, tucking it away in her purse. When the sign returned, she removed it again. “That was incredible courage,” says Shetterly. “This was still a time when people are lynched, when you could be pulled off the bus for sitting in the wrong seat. [There were] very, very high stakes.”
But eventually Mann won. The sign disappeared.
I love this story.
Not because it has a hopeful message about how determination always wins – but because it serves as a reminder of the effort and risk people of color face every day just in interacting with their environment.
The West Computers were tremendously good at their jobs and were respected by their white, male, colleagues. I imagine many of these colleagues considered themselves open-minded, even radical for the day, for valuing the talent of their black colleagues.
When I hear the story about how Mann removed the “Colored Computers” sign every day, I don’t just hear a story of the valiant strength of one woman.
I hear a story of white silence.
I hear a story about how other people didn’t complain about the sign. I imagine they barely even noticed the sign. It didn’t effect them and never weighed upon their world.
John Glenn reportedly refused to fly unless West Area Computer Katherine Johnson verified the calculations first – such respect he had for her work.
And yet it never crossed anyone’s mind that a “Colored Computers” sign might not be appropriate.
That’s just the way the world was then.
And that makes me wonder – what don’t I see?
To me, this story is a reminder that people of color experience the world differently than I do – because people like me constructed the world I experience. There must be so many things every day that just slip passed my notice, no matter how open minded or progressive I’d like to be.
It’s easy too look back at the 1940’s and see that a “Colored” sign is racist. What’s hard is to look at the world today and to see that sign’s modern day equivalent.
My mother is big genealogy enthusiast. Her enthusiasm, however, is unmatched by many in our family. I mean, we’re glad someone‘s doing the research, but we don’t seem to get that same spark of awe which for her is so inherent to the process.
So she wrote this thing, exploring what we learn from genealogy; the individual effects of the great sweeps of history.
I share it here with permission.
Much of what we can know of our ancestors has to be suppositioned by our knowledge of history and prevalent customs of their times. The lives of most of these people did not make a big splash. Many were illiterate and, as a result, did not leave much documentation of their experiences. Life was frequently short due to lack of medical discoveries that are so much a part of our current lives. But I would suspect that they lived more in the moment than we do now. So much was out of their control, they had little choice but to focus on the things that were occurring, leaving the rest in the hands of God. Given the difficulties of sustaining life, as an aggregate, what they accomplished was remarkable.
Each era had its own agenda, but the commonalities remained the same for several hundred years of our country’s history. People married young, reproduced prolifically, and attempted to provide for their children. Many of the accomplishments were a result of this drive. Starting with the Pilgrims and the indentured servants of the South, our ancestors were seeking an environment that would provide opportunities to build lives for themselves and their progeny. The hardships they endured were more than many of us could even consider, but the conditions that existed in their current lives spurred them forward. Whether it was religious convictions or abject poverty, they all made the leap. They got on a boat with little real knowledge of what they would meet and forged our future. The heroes are the many people who will never appear on a family tree because they died in the process of trying to reach this goal. It was the sheer numbers of people who would make this attempt that made our ancestors successful. It created a movement that would be reproduced in 1700’s and the 1800’s and would populate this country with Europeans.
Family life could have many variables, but the notion of childhood is very recent idea. Children were loved and cherished, but expected to participate in sustaining livelihood from a very early age. Frequently their mothers, and sometimes their fathers, were nothing but children themselves. Many people had multiple marriages due to the loss of a spouse. You could not remain unmarried once you had begun family building. It was impossible to continue the care of your children and the growth of your farm without two adults, and, in many cases, young adults to keep up the work. The family home would be small and bursting with people. Every space would be a bedroom at night. This caused the older children at a young age to look to new options. Friends and relatives who had moved further west would encourage these young people to join them. Single men and women would be told that there were many marriageable people waiting to find mates. Young couples would frequently be intermarried with sisters or brothers of a specific family with the thought that when they emigrated they would remain together. The reality of this westward movement was the disintegration of the original family unit.
Communication would be difficult. In this era of cell phones and e-mail, it is hard to imagine the absolute impossibility of keeping in touch. Frequently, several siblings would end up in the same location over time. The first arrivals would help their siblings establish themselves, and then they set to the task of recreating a new network of relations. The ones left at home were usually so young that they had little feeling for their older siblings. If the family was large enough, another move would be made by the younger children resulting in a separate conglomeration in a new location. Frequently an aged parent would die in the home of a child in the second migration.
There were, of course, some people who remained in the same location generation after generation. When you reconstruct the families through genealogy, they are our cousins. Our ancestors were the ones on the move.
For the last year, I’ve been working in a building on the Christian Science Center Plaza in Boston. I get a lot of questions about this building and the plaza’s architecture, but I never knew the answers. So – I set out to find out.
The plaza is home to the Mother Church of The First Church of Christ, Scientist – more commonly known as Christian Scientists. The broad topic of Christian Science is too much to cover in this post, the church was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1866 when, as their website describes, a critical injury caused her to understand her faith in a new way.
The oldest building on the plaza is the original Mother Church. The Romanesque Revival-style building was built in 1894 and was followed in 1906 by the Mother Church Extension, arguably one of the most beautiful buildings in Boston.
The building I work in, the Brutalist-style Administration Building tower, constructed in 1972 and now leased to office and academic tenants, is not.
The whole complex was designated a Boston Landmark in 2011.
The Boston Landmarks Commission, which made that designation, was kind enough to release a detailed public report on the features that make the plaza a notable landmark.
The complex contains six buildings – three original buildings, constructed in 1894, 1906, and 1937; and three newer buildings, constructed in the late 20th century along with the plaza that unifies them all.
The 1906 Mother Church Extension is perhaps the most interesting architecturally, described by the Commission as a “cathedral-scale, Byzantine and Renaissance Revival-style church.”
According to the Commission, the building I work in measures “approximately 183 feet long by 86 feet wide” and is “a 26-story office building, with an additional story below ground. The structure rises 355 feet from a rectangular footprint.”
Perhaps the most striking feature of the plaza is the Reflecting Pool, constructed during the 1970s expansion. The Reflecting Pool “measures approximately 690 feet long by 100 feet wide by 26 inches deep, bordered by an infinity edge of curved, polished Minnesota red granite.” Interestingly:
The Reflecting Pool was designed to be functional as well as aesthetic. Although the initial intent was that the Reflecting Pool also serve as the cooling system for the complex, it seems that this function was never implemented with any success. Based on early memos, correspondence, and discussions with facilities staff, it appears that some cooling system use was tried for a portion of one early season and then discontinued as impractical. When the cooling towers were installed at the fifth floor of the Publishing House Building in the early 1970s, the Reflecting Pool water connections for HVAC cooling were eliminated.
I’ve been reading Sarah Bakewell’s delightful At the Existentialist Café, something of an existentialist study of the existentialist movement. The book follows the life, times, and beliefs of some of the 20th century’s most prominent existentialists, the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, his protégé Martin Heidegger, and continuing through the great French philosophers Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Along the way we meet many of their friends and colleagues – notable philosophers in their own right – whose lives are integral to Bakewell’s study but whose stories are not the focus of this particular work: Edith Stein, Emmanuel Levinas, Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, Arthur Koestler, and many others.
I’m familiar with the famous works of these philosophers, but beyond a passing familiarity with the most prominent relationships and various author’s historical contexts, I hadn’t previously appreciated the deep, interconnected network of personal and philosophical relationships. The waves of history that brought these great philosophers together and ultimately tore them apart.
Phenomenology, which formed a basis for later existentialist thought, seeks to describe things as they are, as they present themselves. In this way, Bakewell’s book can be seen as a phenomenological study of generations of thinkers desperately exploring “how we can be free and behave well in a complicated world.” A world that saw two world wars, a massive calculated genocide, a showdown of super powers, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.
As someone interested in civil society, I see this question not simply as an individual one: how can I be free and behave well – but as a collective one: how can we all get along while wrestling with the challenges of being free and behaving well in a complicated world.
The story of the existentialist movement is one of carousing nights, passionate debates, and conversations at cafés. It’s a story of drinking, dancing, and sucking the very marrow out of life. It’s a story of being free.
But it’s also a story of fault and discord. Of unforgivable sins and spiteful fallings out. It a story of individuals struggling with the burden of what it means to be free: of trying to make the right choices and often making the wrong ones. Of people searching for what they stand for in difficult times – and breaking from those who disagree.
It’s a story of love and betrayal. Of betrayal and love.
The most notable villain in this story is Heidegger, whose Nazi activities make him still a controversial figure today. Elected rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933, Heidegger joined the Nazi party and was responsible for carrying out Reich law, including firing all Jewish professors and stripping emeritus faculty – such as his friend and former mentor Husserl – of their privileges. Heidegger’s personal notebooks from that time were published in 2014, revealing “philosophical thoughts alternating with Nazi-flavoured anti-Semitic remarks…Heidegger was a Nazi, at least for a while, and not out of convenience, but by conviction.”
Heidegger’s Nazism is topic much larger than this post, but needless to say, he fell out with his Jewish friends and colleagues. He rarely spoke with Husserl. In letters he tried to assure Hannah Arendt – for whom Heidegger had formerly been a lover – and mutual friend Karl Jaspers that he was not really a Nazi, but eventually they broke ties with him.
Edith Stein, who’d been a student of Husserl’s shortly before Heidegger, had converted to Christianity and joined a convent long before the war. She was detained, imprisoned , and murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.
But beyond the staggering actions of Heidegger, the story of existentialism tells of many more every day betrayals.
Emmanuel Levinas, another of Husserl’s students at a time of devotion to Heidegger, acted very much like a 23 year-old in 1929 following a debate between the magnetic Heidegger and old guard philosopher Ernst Cassirer. Cassirer’s wife, Toni, walked in on Heidegger’s students “satirically reenacting the debate.” Levinas played Cassirer, “dusting his hair with white talc and twirling it into a high quiff like an ice cream cone. Toni Cassirer did not find him funny. Years later, Levinas wished he had apologized to her for his irreverence.” Levinas – who was also Jewish – lost his love for Heidegger soon after.
Meanwhile, a tight-knit group of existentialists was forming in France. Simone de Beauvoir and her childhood friend Maurice Merleau-Ponty met Jean-Paul Sartre and his childhood friend Raymond Aron. Beauvoir and Sartre quickly became lovers and remained primary partners for the rest of their lives. In a Parisan café, under the burden of German occupation, the pair met Albert Camus. Hungarian scholar Arthur Koestler also joined their circle.
And as the dark days of the war faded, there was a golden time of love, friendships, and good natured but passionate debates.
But such times were short lived. Intellectually attracted to communism, but dismayed by fascist actions, the existentialists found themselves pulled in different directions. Was the promising vision of communism worth holding on to given the actions taken in its name? Were the actions of fascist states forgivable given the great good given as reason? Capitalism was deeply flawed and the U.S. had its own sins – so was siding with them really any better?
It was dark, dramatic times.
Koestler threw a wine glass at Sartre and got into a scuffle with Camus. Aron moderated a panel where he allowed Sartre to be verbally ganged up on. Camus wrote pointed pieces attacking the position of Sartre, who took no pause in firing back. Sartre attacked his old friend Merleau-Ponty, and they similarly fell out.
After the wine-glass incident, Koestler ran into Sartre and Beauvoir on the street – from a second hand account of Koestler’s point of view, Koestler suggested the three get together for lunch. “Koestler, you know that we disagree,” Beauvoir reportedly responded, “There no longer seems any point in our meeting.”
This is the fundamental question of civic life.
Can people who disagree so vehemently about such high stakes things continue to coexist in a civic sense? If not, the alternative is to avoid such matter – to stick to safe topics like the weather.
But that is a basic betrayal of civic duty. It may maintain friendships, but at the cost of moral questioning and action. Perhaps small topics are best to avoid – but when the big things are at stake – with the nature of the state and the future of the global world hang in the balance, simply not discussing these topics is not an option.
Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Koestler, and Aron had to take a stand. Their views, voices, and actions mattered. But they found their divergences unmanageable – they could not be friends.
This poses a tremendous challenge to the basic premise of civic life: that each of our voices matter, and that we all must find ways to productive share and debate our views.
It was 1858 in San Fransisco, California. Gold had been discovered at nearby Sutter’s Mill just ten years before. Initial planning for the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was underway, and Congress had recently authorized funding for any company which could ensure stage coach delivery of mail from St. Louis to San Francisco in less than 25 days.
Following San Fransisco’s first great fire of 1849 and a series of destructive fires in the early 1850s, the booming port town formed a volunteer Fire Department and, in 1858, installed its first fire hydrants.
As one San Fransisco museum describes, “The men comprising the first volunteers of the Fire Department consisted of some of the most influential men of the community. None were so high in office or so proud of position that he was not honored by a membership in the early fire brigade.”
While the volunteers put pride aside when a fire was particularly serious, individual fire companies were notoriously competitive, always seeking to put “firs water” on a fire – a competition which “led to many physical combats, and some of the fights reached riot proportions.”
Following the alarm bells one afternoon, the poorly under-manned Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 was falling behind, much to the mockery of rivals Manhattan No. 2 and Howard No. 3. A fifteen year old child from a locally prestigious family saw the Knickerbocker’s plight while walking home from school. The teen immediately jumped into action, helping to man the fire truck’s ropes and shouting, “Come on, you men! Everybody pull and we’ll beat ‘em!”
The teen was no man. She was Lillie Coit, who continued to play an important role to Company No. 5 and San Fransisco firefighters for the rest of her life.
As a woman, she never officially occupied the same role as her male counterparts. She was elected an “honorary” member of the Knickerbockers in 1863 and is commonly referred to as the “patroness” of San Fransisco’s volunteer fire companies. But throughout her youth, she played an active role in the company – always dashing off at the sound of the alarm and otherwise engaging in activities unseemly for a young lady of her standing.
As an adult she was known for having a number of shocking habits such as wearing trousers, smoking cigars, and gambling. Stories say she often dressed as man in order to participate in the latter activity. And she always remained involved and supportive of her beloved fire company.
Upon her death in 1929, Coit left one-third of her fortune to San Fransisco, “to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved.”
In 1933, those funds were used to build the Lillian Coit Memorial Tower, which stands 64 m tower atop Telegraph Hill. A notable sight along a city’s skyline. And while the story is said to be apocryphal, one can’t help notice the similarity between the tower’s design and the popular story: that in honor of the remarkable Lillie Coit, the tower is shaped like the nozzle of a fire hose.
“We accept huge disparities in wealth while expecting our leaders to cultivate the appearance of not being different,” Isenberg argues. Our democracy is all about manners; success is all in the performance. I highly doubt this is a unique American phenomenon, but in building off Isenberg I will keep this post in the American context.
From Andrew Jackson to the current presumptive Republican nominee, populist candidates have been successful by showing themselves able to play the part of a poor, white American – to eat the right foods, to say the right things with the right mannerisms. These are the candidates you want to have a beer with.
Importantly, the actual background of these candidates is not particularly relevant. Jackson did grow up in rural Appalachia, but more recent populists have come from among the upper tiers of society. But that doesn’t matter; what matters is the act.
Embracing a democracy of manners is a failure of genuine democracy. It encourages citizens divest their civic responsibilities to actors who can merely play the part of representing them.
I haven’t yet had a chance to read Isenberg’s book, but I get the impression this democracy of manners is a core challenge which creates a self-perpetuating cycle along several dimensions. In dismissing the fundamental human value of the white poor, white elites create a class they can scapegoat for all of society’s ills. Obvert racism among white poor allows upper classes to pretend as though racism only exists among the uneducated poor. It creates a class who will protect themselves by tearing down any other groups poised to breach elite power.
And, through the democracy of manners, it creates a class that will continually vote against their own self-interest, supporting candidates who look like them and talk like them, but who ultimately serve elite interests.
One of the most intriguing sessions as last week’s Frontiers of Democracy Conference was on “democratic reading and writing,” a topic inspired by Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration.
I’ve only just begun reading Allen’s book, but I am struck by the core of her argument.
“The achievement of political equality requires, among other things,” she writes, “the empowerment of human beings as language-using creatures.”
This seems like something of a bold statement. Not that language is explicitly not required, but there are so many great barriers to political equality, it is easy, perhaps, to dismiss language as the least of our problems.
But words do have power.
In How To Do Things With Words, J.L. Austin argues that words can, in the fullest sense, be actions. The performative act of an utterance goes beyond the physical action of speaking; something is actually accomplished by the words themselves.
“Saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons,” Austin argues, “and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose of producing them…”
Not all utterances are performative acts, but some words do have this power. Words may bind one into an agreement, or may have a real impact on the listener.
The American Declaration of Independence, which Allen close reads in her book, is one example of the power and action of words. It “brings to light the incandescent magic of human politics: the fact that it is possible for people, with ideas, conversations, and decision-making committees – both formal and informal – to weave together an agreement that can define our common life.”
The process of reading and writing democratically is messy, frustrating, and hard. But from it, Allen argues, emerges a greater whole, something better and stronger than would have existed otherwise. “The source of sturdiness is solidarity,” she writes.
The Declaration, Allen finds, “is as much about how to solve the central conundrum of democracy – how to make sure public actions can count as the will of the people – as about anything else. It is about how to ensure that public words belong to us all….I believe the Declaration succeeded, and succeeds still, because it took on the task of explaining why this quantity of talk, this heap of procedures, these lists of committees, and this much hard-won agreement – such a maddening quantity of group writing – are necessary for justice. The argument of the Declaration justifies the process by which the Declaration came to be. It itself explains why they art of democratic writing is necessary.”
In short, as Allen argues: this country was built on talk.
On June 21, 1964, three Americans working to register voters in Mississippi were brutally murdered by KKK members. Their bodies were found 6 weeks later.
The murders were among the most gruesome acts of a summer marked by violence; as America began to come to terms with its racist past and hateful present.
It was Freedom Summer, a remarkable effort led by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of the Mississippi branches of SNCC, CORE, NAACP and SCLC. It was a summer which transformed our nation, though, more than 50 years later, we still have some transforming to do.
For details on this effort, which brought over 1,000 volunteers – mostly white, liberal, college students – to Mississippi to register African American voters, I highly recommend Doug McAdam’s excellent book, Freedom Summer, which thoughtfully details the selection of volunteers, their experiences, and the impact of the summer.
But today, 52 years after the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, I find myself reflecting on what has changed – and how much further we still have to go.
All the Freedom Summer volunteers faced significant violence. McAdams notes that over the course of the 10-week voter registration campaign 1,062 people were arrested, 80 of the Freedom Summer workers were beaten, and 67 black churches, homes, and businesses were bombed or burned.
Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were arrested. For speeding. They were denied the right to make phone calls, and civil rights organizers who called the jail looking for them were told the three men were not there. After they were released at about 10pm, the deputy sherif and Klansman who had arrested them followed them in his car – eventually forcing them out of their own car an into his. The Sherif’s deputy then drove the three to an isolated area where they were murdered.
Chaney, a black volunteer with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was savagely beaten. All three were shot.
I’d like to think something like this couldn’t happen today, but to be honest, I am not entirely sure. If I read this story in the news today, I would be saddened, but not surprised. People of color face so much violence in our communities – more, I’m sure, than I can truly appreciate.
Freedom Summer transformed our nation because it served as a wake up call for white America. When it was their sons and daughters being jailed, beaten, and murdered they could no longer ignore the deep injustice and atrocity faced every day by black people in the south.
This is exactly what the black civil rights activists who organized Freedom Summer had in mind. They’d been working for justice for decades, but when it was black bodies dying, the sad truth was – nobody cared.
Bringing white volunteers to Mississippi for Freedom Summer put America’s violent, racial injustice on the front page of the news. The nation suddenly cared.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act – which was effectively gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court vote – was a landmark showing just how much we, as a nation, had changed.
But there is so much more work to do, and we have even lost some ground.
Before Freedom Summer, the injustice faced by black Americans was largely invisible to the mainstream. The experience of blacks in places like Mississippi had no effect on the lives of their white, Northern peers. And, as is commonly charged of white, Northern racism – before Freedom Summer, white liberals could comfortably pretend the problem simply wasn’t there.
When Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two nice Jewish boys from New York, were murdered by klansman, when for ten weeks the news was full stories of white Northerners being arrested and beaten registering voters – it became clear that something needed to change.
But there has been so much death already – so many people of color dead at the hands of police or others who felt the need to ‘stand their ground.’ I’d hope it wouldn’t take even more death to galvanize our nation to change.
The deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were horrific – and I wish they been the last.
Yesterday, some 65,000 people in Naha, the capital of Okinawa Prefecture, gathered to protest U.S. military bases on that island.
The protest was sparked by the recent rape and murder of 20-year-old Rina Shimabukuro, a crime which has been linked to an American military contractor, and is reminiscent of the 1995 protests which followed the rape of a 12-year-old girl by three American servicemen.
Among Okinawans, there is a widespread perception of U.S. bases as “hotbeds of serious crime,” though, as the New York Times points out, “defenders of the military point to statistics that show American soldiers and sailors in Okinawa are charged with crimes by the Japanese authorities at lower rates than locals.”
The strain between the U.S., Okinawa, and Japan, however, runs deeper.
Teacher and protestor Noboru Kitano, 59, is quoted in the Japanese Times as succinctly explaining the heart of the matter: “Japan is still a military colony of the United States. This base symbolizes that.”
As of January 2016, the Japanese census puts 1,432,387 people living on Okinawa, including about 50,000 Americans – making it home to about half the American soldiers and sailors stationed in Japan. About three-quarters of the acreage taken up by U.S. bases in Japan is on Okinawa.
But, here’s the thing – Okinawa and the Ryukyu Island chain of which it is a part, has its own distinct culture and a long history as a political pawn between Japan and China. In 1879 – around the same times our own U.S. civil war – Japan’s Meiji government annexed the then-sovereign Ryukyu Kingdom, creating the Okinawa prefecture we know today.
During the second world war, just 66 years after its annexation, Okinawa was the scene of one of the bloodiest skirmishes in the Pacific, and the largest military engagement in history. The brutal, 82-day, battle claimed the lives of 14,000 Allied forces, 77,000 Japanese soldiers and somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 Japanese civilians died.
Nearly all those civilians were Okinawan, and many of the Japanese soldiers were in fact Okinawan conscripts, drafted by the Japanese government against their will. The shocking death toll of this battle would then be used to justify U.S. use of nuclear weapons – as the American government became convinced that a land battle on the Japanese mainland would be just as horrific as the Battle of Okinawa, if not more so.
It’s entirely unclear if this is true, however. Seen as Japanese by the American troops and considered second-class citizens by the Japanese troops, Okinawan civilians suffered atrocities at the hands of both sides. Caught between the two superpowers, it was Okinawan civilians who suffered – one of the reasons for the horrific toll.
Following the war, the Japanese had little choice but to cede to American interests – which included establishing a strong presence of military operations in the east.
Okinawa, then, provided the perfect setting for rebuilding U.S.-Japanese relations. A strong U.S. presence there mitigated the risk of loosing the island prefecture to China – a manuver in the interest of both U.S. and Japanese officials. Furthermore, the Japanese lost little by ceding Okinawan land, while simultaneously ameliorating their U.S. occupiers. It was a win all around – except for the Okinawans.
This is a history that’s critical to understanding today’s Okinawan protests of American military bases. It’s almost beside the point whether local perceptions of American military crime are accurate or exaggerated. Just a few generations ago, the Ryukyu Kingdom was a proud, independent nation. Desired by China, annexed by Japan, and then colonized by the U.S., Okinawa has found itself continually caught between the interests of these global superpowers. And while great games of politics play out across the world stage, it seems it’s always the Okinawan people who suffer.