06 November 2006


When some group of human beings decide to treat another group as "the enemy," as "evil," as a threat by virtue of their very existence (meaning their race or ethnicity or heritage or language or religion) the first step typically involves dehumanization. An extreme example is slavery which, as Orlando Patterson perceptively notes, typically means powerful actors treating those whom they enslave as "socially dead." This treatment involves various symbolic and ritual actions - physical segregation, expropriation of property, special clothing or physical markings, and so forth. Once marked in this way and thereby relegated to "social death," slaves are placed outside the rules of justice and morality and, therefore, can be treated by their masters in whatever way the latter choose. Of course, this process is never complete and seamless, but it is seemingly ubiquitous - recall that in the Rwandan genocide Hutu murderers referred to the Tutsi population as "cockroaches." Clearly, there is a continuum of such treatment ranging from slavery and genocide in the extreme to cases of less systematic but nonetheless morally reprehensible and legally questionable practices such as those that various American Governments have at various times undertaken in the name of national security.
Dorothea Lange documented this pattern to great effect in a series of images of the ways Japanese-Americans were treated during WWII (otherwise known as "the good war"). These long "lost" photograpahs have been collected in a volume just published by W.W. Norton. You can read a review of the book from the New York Times here. That is where I lifted the images and captions below. The internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942 (which is when Lange made these images) involved precisely the sort of dehumanization that Patterson discusses.

A family in Hayward, California awaits an evacuation bus.

People of Japanese ancestry arriving at Tanforan Assembly Center,

a former racetrack in San Bruno, California

Horse stalls at Tanforan that were transformed into living quarters for internees.

Inside a barracks apartment at Tanforan.

The editors of the volume, Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro, are not shy about drawing parallels between the situation Lange depicts and current events. I don't think we should be bashful either. The parallels are striking in terms not just of how the administration is treating, or aspires to treat, whole categories of persons, but in terms too of how they are seeking to control information about their own activities. The fact that Lange's visual record of the internment camps simply disappeared for so long should raise suspicions, no?

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