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. firstname.lastname@example.org is my email address—and I’ll read all emails with an open mind.