The Misplaced Fear of 'Normalization'

The battle over norms is lost—but thankfully, the battle over outcomes remains.

The former living quarters at a camp where Japanese Americans were imprisoned (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

Weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times published a Travel-section article about Tule Lake Segregation Center, “the biggest and most notorious of the Japanese American internment camps established by the U.S. government during World War II,” where 120,000 people were held against their will “for no other reason than their ancestry.” The site is run by the National Park Service. “We take a dark spot in our own history, something other countries might want to cover up,” Ranger Angela Sutton said, “and we maintain it and preserve it so that future generations can learn.”

For the U.S. government, official regret for imprisoning Japanese Americans dates to passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, when Congress created a trust fund to pay reparations to those affected by the policy and declared that “a grave injustice was done to both citizens and permanent residents of Japanese ancestry … without adequate security reasons,” adding that it was motivated “largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Unfortunately, those widely held, historically accurate conclusions are not universally shared, as L.A. Times readers were reminded days later, when the newspaper published two reader letters under the headline, “Were the stories about Japanese internment during World War II unbalanced? Two letter writers think so.”

One correspondent defended the prison camps.

The other letter writer stopped short of justifying the forced imprisonment of American citizens, but declared that World War II-era Japan treated its prisoners far worse.

Many outraged Los Angeles Times readers sought to rebut the wrongheaded letters, whether in web comments or in additional letters sent to the editors of the newspaper. And some argued that it showed poor judgment to publish the letters at all, especially with Donald Trump suggesting a registry to track Muslims traveling to the United States from abroad, and one of his supporters, a former spokesman for a Super PAC that supported the president-elect, declaring on Fox News that the imprisonment of Japanese Americans was precedent for such a policy. One upset reader spoke for many when denouncing the newspaper’s publication of the pro-internment letter as “normalizing the ‘alt-right’ and white supremacy.”

Was she correct?

* * *

Last month in Wired, Emily Dreyfuss noted that Americans are using the word “normalize” twice as much this year as last year, with an additional 50 percent spike after election day. “Don’t normalize this has become a liberal mantra, a reminder to stay vigilant in the face of aberrant presidential behavior that Americans may feel tempted—or emotionally bludgeoned—into excusing as just the way the country works now,” she wrote. “The country right now feels like a strange, alienating place to many people on the losing side of the election. In that darkness, the word ‘normalize’ becomes a way to send up a flare to others who see the world the way they do—a linguistic Bat-Signal to come together and push back.”

I share the belief that Donald Trump is transgressing against core liberal norms, that the citizenry should oppose his excesses, and that Muslim Americans are at particular risk. But I wonder if this particular “linguistic Bat-Signal” does more good or harm.

For my entire adult life, I’ve worried that living through the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks predisposed many millions of Americans to regard civil liberties abrogations, torture, extreme assertions of executive power, never-ending foreign wars, government surveillance, and the targeting of religious minorities as normal. A large part of my professional life has been dedicated to dissenting. The unique vulnerability of Muslim Americans has been a particular, recurring concern.

So I’ve written on an ugly, hysterical effort to deny Muslims the right to build a place of worship; President Obama’s decision to kill a U.S. citizen in secret, without due process, and how his spokesman justified the killing of that man’s 16-year-old son; the indefensibility of the drone war as it has actually been waged; Herman Cain’s 2012 proposal to force Muslims to take a loyalty oath; then-NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg’s secret, illegal, needless spying on innocent Muslims who were attending college outside New York City, its horrifying effects, and Obama’s praise for Ray Kelly, the police commissioner who presided over it.

I’ve fretted over the innocents wrongly accused of the Boston marathon bombing; the killing of Ibrahim Todashev; denying Muslims the right to travel abroad when they decline to be informants; questioning the patriotism of Muslim Americans; ways that NSA spying imposes especially heavy burdens on immigrants; more religious profiling by the NYPD; undermining due process rights and travel rights in ways likely to affect Muslim Americans most; the risk of an anti-Muslim backlash after terrorist attacks; and the threat that Donald Trump poses to religious liberty.

All those articles offer substantive reasons to reject illiberalism. And some of them appeal to a sense that U.S. leaders were violating norms that ought to be sacrosanct.

If I had it to do over again, I’d spend less time invoking those norms.

It isn’t that my substantive beliefs have changed. I still think, for example, that Michael Bloomberg perpetrated horrific wrongs by presiding over stop-and-frisk and intrusive surveillance of Muslim American students for no reason save their religion, that he ought to be regarded more like Joe Arpaio rather than like an enlightened centrist. But I no longer think that the normative argument swayed anyone who wasn’t already with me on substance. I certainly can’t see how my complaining about the glowing journalistic profiles Bloomberg receives did any good. He was invited to speak at the 2016 Democratic convention and cheered by the same people who celebrated Khizr Khan and claim to abhor Trump’s targeting of Muslims.

Had The New York Times, circa 2008, hosted a Room for Debate feature raising the question of whether the NYPD should spy on Muslim American college students, I might well have objected that the newspaper’s editors were normalizing discrimination. Now, convinced as ever that my position on such spying is substantively unassailable, I wonder if open debate could’ve helped me to persuade and win. Knowing what happened, it’s hard to conclude a debate would’ve done harm.

Trump’s willingness to discriminate against Muslims on the basis of religion is known in advance. That transgression against liberal norms did not cost him the 2016 election. Will calling anyone out for normalizing anything prove effective at this point?

Consider me skeptical.

It’s more convincing, I think, to oppose illiberalism on the merits. As Noah Millman put it:

I think what people mean when they say that we can’t “normalize” Trump’s behavior is some some version of “we need to keep reminding people that this is not normal.” But the “we” and “people” in that sentence are doing all the work. Whoever says that Trump shouldn’t be “normalized” is implying that somebody — the press, perhaps? — is in a position to decide what is normal, and to inform everybody else of that fact. But that’s not how norms work, and neither the press nor anybody else is in a position either to grant or withhold recognition to the new government.

In fact, the word is a way of distracting from one of the crucial jobs at hand. Trump, for example, is on strong legal ground when he says that he is exempt from conflict of interest laws. But laws can be changed — and perhaps they should be. To achieve that requires making a case, not that what Trump is doing isn’t “normal,” but that it is a bad thing worth prohibiting by law. Saying “we mustn’t normalize this behavior” rather than “we need to stop this behavior” is really a way of saying that you don’t want to engage in politics, but would rather just signal to those who already agree with us just how appalled we are. And haven’t we learned already the dire consequences of substituting virtue signaling for politics?

Matt Yglesias has reached similar conclusions.“Normalization, in this context, is typically cast as a form of complicity with Trump in which the highest possible premium is placed on maintaining a rigid state of alert and warning people that he is not just another politician whom you may or may not agree with on the issues,” he wrote. “But several students of authoritarian populist movements abroad have a different message. To beat Trump, his opponents need to practice ordinary humdrum politics.”

Doing so need not imply that what one opposes is any less wrong.

* * *

After hearing from upset readers, the Los Angeles Times (for which I write an op-ed once a month) published an article addressing those letters about imprisoning Japanese Americans during World War II. The decision to run them was explained:

The Times’ Travel editor, Catharine Hamm, said she approved publication of the letters thinking that the writers’ views, although provocative, would be balanced by subsequent letters of response. Hamm said that, in retrospect, that was not the right decision, because the views expressed in the letters did not lend themselves to reasoned discussion.

The newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Davan Maharaj, criticized the publication of the letters, too. “Letters in the Times are the opinions of the writers, and editors strive to include a range of voices,” he told the newspaper’s reader representative. “But the goal is to present readers with civil, intelligent, fact-based opinions that enlarge their understanding of the world. These letters did not meet that standard.”

That standard is thoughtful and defensible, and my regard for the reader letters is as low. One letter proceeds as if behaving better than the Axis powers was morally sufficient. “As the U.S. was putting families into the internment housing and feeding them, the Japanese were slaughtering Filipinos by the tens of thousands and U.S. soldiers after hideous torture,” it stated. “War is evil, but I would have much rather been interned by the U.S. in California than by the Japanese in their captured lands.” Nothing there challenges the actual case for condemning the internment, as the writer might better appreciate if a representative of the U.S. government stole his house and threw him in jail even as, say, ISIS decapitated innocents.

The other letter is worse. “Japanese have an extremely strong attachment to family, and even more so back then,” it states, as if attachment to family is an unusual trait. “First- generation and, to a lesser extent, Japanese here would have been expected to follow the wishes of their elders in Japan,” the letter goes on. “Some, most or almost all might have refused, but the threat was there.” It neglects to note that, in hindsight, a threat justifying the policy was not in fact there.

“Had the Japanese been left on the streets of our city they would have been subject to hostility, injury and death at the hands of other citizens whose emotions ran high,” the letter speculates, arguing that “the U.S. government needed to concentrate on the war effort, not keep track of every reported espionage claim leveled against the Japanese.” But the apology for the imprisonment is grounded in the studied conclusion that the war effort would have been brought to the same successful conclusion without rounding up and imprisoning Americans, which likely required more resources than tracking credible espionage claims.

“By the way,” the reader adds, “there were also internments for U.S. Germans though not as extensive as the Japanese.” That is because ethnic Germans of long residence were not bothered and those of short residence were evaluated individually. The treatment of Japanese Americans was orders of magnitude less fair.

The letter concluded by suggesting that Japanese Americans were relatively lucky to be driven from their homes and imprisoned in shoddy camps with no idea of what their future might hold:

Virtually everyone in the U.S. was assigned jobs to help the war effort. The Japanese were assigned the job of staying out of the way and not causing complications. Millions of Americans were assigned far worse jobs. Hundreds of thousands were wounded or died. The interned Japanese were housed, fed, protected and cared for. Many who now complain would not even be alive if the internment had not been done. I salute the Japanese for doing the part they were assigned during the war as I salute all those that sacrificed for the war effort. I have zero respect for those trying to rewrite history just to make themselves feel good.

Having interviewed a great many Americans from the World War II generation, I have yet to encounter one who wished that they had been imprisoned with their family by their own government rather than carrying out their respective wartime roles. And the passage betrays historical ignorance. Japanese Americans were serving at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked, and in the Hawaii National Guard that mobilized against a possible invasion. Some then volunteered to serve their country. Others were drafted by the government. During World War II, tens of thousands of Japanese Americans fought for the United States, even as their homes were seized and members of their families were being held in prison camps.

Roughly 800 were killed fighting for their country.

And many more Japanese Americans died before receiving reparations for the wrong that the U.S. government perpetrated against them. The writer seems unaware of the massive historical evidence supporting the proposition that much of the support for the Japanese interment policy was grounded in explicit racism, even as many other factors obviously played a part in the unjust imprisonment.

It is the whitewashing of the policy, not the accounts of its odiousness, that are grounded in a desire to feel good and a refusal to face the facts.

For all these reasons, I agree with the Los Angeles Times editor that the letters, taken by themselves, are unlikely to “enlarge reader understanding,” in part because, though I do actually find them civil, they are not fact-based in too many respects. Publishing them without rebuttal was a mistake. But as I’ve tried to demonstrate with my own rebuttals here, the letters do lend themselves to discourse. Critics of the newspaper are far too confident, I think, in their pronouncements that its Travel editor should not have published them at all.

It is wrong to judge or restrict the rights of an individual simply due to their membership in an identity group; imprisoning them on that basis is a particularly egregious abrogation of human rights; the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II was immoral and unconstitutional. But critics went further. They argued that to air contrary opinions, to treat the targeted imprisonment of an ethnic minority as if it is open to debate in 2016, is to normalize something that ought to be stigmatized—a misstep that is particularly dangerous now, with a president-elect who has threatened to target Muslims with discriminatory policies based on their religion.

To definitively disprove that chain of logic is impossible—who can say for sure what the marginal effect of a debate will be?—and I sympathize with the people who operate as if it holds true, even if only out of an abundance of caution. Still, I worry that this logic of the risks of normalization isn’t simply unproven, but counterproductive.

Consider an alternative theory: George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Michael Bloomberg, and many others have prosecuted many policies that would’ve seemed unthinkable before 9/11. The years since the September 11 attacks have already proved that a significant percentage of Americans support targeted discrimination of some sort against Muslim Americans. Trump was elected despite plausible signs that he will go farther.

Put another way, many illiberal impulses are already normal, like it or not.

There is no reason to believe the media can prevent Trump from perpetrating egregious civil-liberties abrogations simply by treating them as beyond the scope of legitimate debate. In fact, a failure to openly debate beliefs already held by the president and millions of Americans could lead to a number of alarming consequences:

  1. Opponents of illiberalism might dramatically underestimate how many of their fellow citizens support policies that they regard as beyond the pale until the threat is so far advanced that it’s too late to organize in opposition to them. Their very ability to stifle expression of impulses with which they disagree on liberal campuses, in liberal publications, and in liberal enclaves might blind them to their spread, so that many would-be opponents won’t even know to take them seriously.
  2. Americans who could be swayed to oppose objectionable policies may wind up ambivalent or weakly in favor; having never been confronted with strong, substantive arguments against a given policy, they may conclude that it makes sense, or significantly underestimate the strength of the case against it.
  3. Insofar as the list of policies that mainstream media regards as beyond the realm of debate expands—if, for example, opposition to gay marriage, skepticism of non-binary gender identities, opposition to Black Lives Matter, and disbelief in climate change are all placed in this category—strong adherents of any one of those positions may increasingly decide that mainstream publications are not for them and cease reading them entirely. Any liberalizing influence those publications have on their other views would be lost.
  4. Issues like the propriety of imprisoning Japanese Americans during World War II wouldn’t cease to be discussed, even if gatekeepers shut them out. They’d just be debated on calls to Rush Limbaugh or on sub-Reddits populated by white nationalists, places where strong dissent is least likely.
  5. Meanwhile, Americans in the subculture most dedicated to protecting liberal norms and civil liberties will become less practiced at defending their beliefs, less able to identify the strongest arguments for positions that they hold dear, and less able to figure out how illiberal influences can best be combatted.

Maybe the most significant effect of publishing the Japanese internment letters really was to “normalize white supremacy.” I cannot ascertain with certainty that it wasn’t.

But consider a different account.

Perhaps readers intent on fighting illiberalism, white supremacy, and future civil liberties abrogations were well-served by the reminder that many of their fellow citizens believe that interning ethnic minorities can be justified; the opportunity to grasp the flawed logic and gaps in historical knowledge that allow some to reach that conclusion; and the occasion to re-assert the case against actions of that sort for the subset of readers who haven’t thought substantively about the matter.

Perhaps the initial willingness to air such a debate helped the newspaper hold on to subscribers who are friendlier to the Japanese internment than makes us comfortable—readers who are nevertheless likely to be less authoritarian in their politics in a world where they subscribe to the L.A. Times than in a world where they cancel, having found that none of the debates that interest them are aired in its pages, causing them to prefer spending more time  in authoritarian echo chambers instead.

Perhaps the increasingly popular premise, that to air a belief is to normalize it, renders a society least able to contest wrongheaded ideas precisely when it is most vital.

Like now, for example.

“As of June,” the Washington Post reports, “half of all Americans supported Donald Trump's unconstitutional proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States.” When asked, “Should most individual Muslims be monitored by the government as potential terrorists?” 43 percent of Republicans, the party that will soon control the White House and both houses of Congress, said yes.  “Americans tend to oppose a national registry for Muslims, though only narrowly (49% to 40%),” YouGov reported. “More Americans oppose registering marijuana users (54%), Christians (64%) and Jews (67%) as well as a national registration system encompassing all Americans (52%) than Muslims, however. And most Americans do support a national registry of gun owners, by 53% to 41%.”

How to oppose this illiberalism?

Public-opinion data like that makes it hard to justify declining to air and forcefully rebut arguments concerning anti-Muslim discrimination for fear of normalizing them.

The battle over norms is lost. Thankfully, the battle over outcomes remains. And liberals have triumphed in plenty of bygone contests of ideas, on harder demographic terrain and in more illiberal eras, before norm-policing became the go-to strategy. “In appealing to what’s typical rather than what’s right or true,” Katy Waldman recently argued, “we’re missing an opportunity to make a stronger statement.”

So perhaps the L.A. Times editor who published those wrongheaded emails has better instincts than her critics do about what would make a future internment less likely. I’m tentatively inclined to think her only mistake was publishing the letters without strong rebuttals right beside them, affording readers a chance to better understand and work through a debate that will not go away, even if the left succeeds in exiling it from all of the subcultures of waning influence it still controls.

While working through these thorny matters I would be grateful for your thoughts. is my email address—and I’ll read all emails with an open mind.