NEW YORK – The massacre in Norway in July 2011 and the recent attack on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, were the work of right-wing extremists who sought to remake the world in their neo-Nazi image. Likewise, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were the work of Islamist extremists who view other religions and cultures as a threat. But it would be simplistic to believe that our leaders do not add fuel to the fire of hatred, even if their chauvinism takes a more “civilized” form.
Just ask the Japanese, who were continually denounced in the 1980’s as wicked traders. Or consider how the unceasing refrain against outsourcing nowadays has demonized India.
This is not new. Japan’s heavy burden of atrocities during World War II effectively erased from America’s popular memory the Immigration Act of 1924 and other federal legislation aimed at excluding the Japanese and the Chinese from the United States, as well as racist state legislation, such as California’s 1913 Alien Land Act. With the war’s outbreak, Americans of Japanese origin were expropriated and herded into concentration camps. California Attorney General Earl Warren championed the measures – the same Earl Warren, who, a decade later, as Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, would oversee the rejection of the separate-but-equal doctrine at the heart of America’s segregation of its black citizens.
The anti-Japanese hysteria of the 1980’s fell on fertile ground. Many in the US feared that, just as the nineteenth century had been British and the twentieth century had been American, the twenty-first century would be Japanese. But, unlike the British or the Americans, the Japanese allegedly were gaining ground in nefarious ways, exporting aggressively to the US and unfairly excluding US exports from their domestic market.
Virtually every Japanese policy was interpreted in the worst possible light. The propaganda was bipartisan in the US, and, with few noteworthy exceptions, was widely disseminated by the country’s uncritical and pseudo-patriotic media. I recall the Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson – alongside John Maynard Keynes, arguably the greatest economist of his time – remarking that anti-Japanese propaganda had gone so far that Japan’s critics would argue that the Japanese bow in greeting Westerners to make it easier to cut them off at the knees.
The effect, particularly given a long history of anti-Japanese sentiment, was a predictable wave of racist violence, including the destruction of Japanese cars. The beating death of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American who was mistaken for a Japanese, also resonated historically, recalling a pseudo-scientific article on how to distinguish the Chinese from the Japanese that Life magazine published in December 1941.
The Indian situation in the US today is different; there is no baggage of unpleasant memories on which prejudice and violence can draw. Yet, like a desert cactus, hate can thrive on very little.
Unfortunately, US President Barack Obama’s administration has continually harped on outsourcing to India as a cause of American job losses. Similarly, Senator Charles Schumer of New York has indulged in Japan-bashing, China-bashing, and India-bashing – a singular record of truculence and economic illiteracy – while Senator Barbara Boxer of California attacked her most recent electoral opponent, Carly Fiorina, for eliminating 30,000 jobs at Hewlett Packard during her stewardship of the company. In fact, in a highly competitive world, Hewlett-Packard managed to save 150,000 jobs by sacrificing those 30,000.
In the current presidential election campaign, the Democratic Party is attacking Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, on the same specious grounds, with a complacent media acquiescing in the Democrats’ de facto India-baiting.
The net result has been to fuel resentment against India that spills over into occasional violence. Groups calling themselves “dot-busters” have attacked Indian women. When I have written in favor of freer trade and liberal immigration, I have been denounced as a “curry nigger.”
Nor has the Obama administration helped matters by shifting the blame for the failure of the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations onto India. Outside the US, it is well known that Obama himself pulled the plug on Doha. The notion that “we are open and others are closed,” a cherished belief of US politicians and media – and an article of faith with the current administration – also feeds the notion that countries like India are wicked traders, much like the Japanese in the 1980’s.
Much of the world expected more elevated behavior from Obama. Unfortunately, it has gotten a much lower standard than it anticipated.