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August 11, 2004

A Matter of Focus

I intend this post merely to offer a quick reply, without expectation of further discussion, to Eric Muller's response to my post about Michelle Malkin's exchange with him. Mostly the point worth making is that we continue to speak with different emphases in ways that complicate dialogue. Writes Muller:

I'll say little about Justin's speculations and assumptions about my politics, my tone ("breathless aggression," "untempered condescension," etc.), my approach to history, and the appropriateness of my shouldering the respresentation of my cohort of "so-called scholars" on The Academic Left.

Rereading my post, I don't see a single instance of speculation about Muller's politics or approach to history. Given my interests and area of most competence, my emphasis is on the way in which the various parties approach their debate and the likely effect that those approaches will have on the more immediate public discussion. In essence, I'm lamenting, in accord with Glenn Reynolds, that the historical argument is "hijack[ing] the discussion of what to do today" and hoping to redirect what's already been said.

The first step toward doing so is to make the participants cognizant not only of their relative locations along the spectrum of understanding, but also of how the public will perceive them. Tone, in short, is not something about which a reader offers "speculations and assumptions," but something about which he testifies. Indeed, the sentence after the one from which Muller draws his parenthetical quotations explicitly disconnects how something reads from the author's frame of mind while writing it.

As I suggested at the close of my initial post, Malkin's turf along society's path toward assessment and reapplication of its past inherently makes her genre of writing more action than review. She has determined that the internment of Japanese people in America plays centrally in a cultural aversion to the sort of measures that the War on Terror necessitates — in a phrase, ethnic profiling. To overcome that aversion, she has to challenge a popular perception of history's lessons fostered, in large part, by scholars (who are, yes, predominantly Left-leaning).

To be sure, I'm at a disadvantage in that I haven't read Malkin's book, and I intend to do so when possible. (Funds and time remain tight.) It may be, therefore, that I'm not being balanced in my criticism, but with a view toward the book's effect, it seems to me that Muller has helped to ensure that those who lean toward Malkin's position will be repelled from, rather than drawn toward, a thorough understanding of history and its implications. They are less concerned about the past than the present; they have less time for reiteration of the cautions that the past has rightly instilled than for the overcaution that has wrongly accompanied them.

Suggesting, as Muller does, that "Michelle could defend narrowly-tailored profiling measures without taking on the additional burden of defending the wholesale eviction and detention of an entire ethnic group from the West Coast during World War II" evinces (surprise, surprise) a rather academic application of historical argument to political debate. Similarly, insisting that Malkin must be judged primarily as an historian because she devoted the bulk of her book — which genre and purpose require to be something less than an academic tome — to the historical accounts that she's questioning is to ignore the setting of the debate.

As I understand Michelle's intention, it was to spur the realization that the received wisdom in this area can be challenged — in turn, that the sense, in our collective gut, of what can and cannot be justified under current circumstances can be questioned. We're a long way from being a society in which In Defense of Internment could plausibly be put forward as stealth advocacy for gathering up American Muslims. And Mullen's dark insinuations that Malkin must be doing so are sure to evoke the impression that laymen, rightly or wrongly, have that scholars might withhold the truth about history because they believe that the rest of us will take it as an excuse to repeat its worst parts.

Posted by Justin Katz at August 11, 2004 2:42 PM


As a commentator on contemporary American politics I could write a book deducing a whole new set of policy initiatives from the fact that the sky is purple. If meterologists, climatoligists, and other "sky" specialists come along and present rather convincing evidence that the sky is in fact not purple, then what does that say about my argument?

What I said I wrote the book to decry the conventional wisdom that the sky isn't purple, or, in your words, to show that the conventional wisdom can be challenged?

Who cares? I could publish a book next week consistently of nothing but jabberwocky and claim that it challenges the conventional wisdom that gravity exists. So what? Does that help us understand our world any better? Does it advance my arguments about public policy?

Malkin is attempting not just to show that the conventional wisdom regarding the WW2 internments /can/ be challenged, but that it /should/ be, and that those challenges tell us something about our present-day situation. The worth of her arguments then, in large part, depend on the strength of her arguments about the historical record.

Posted by: Simon at August 11, 2004 5:38 PM


I don't mean this flippantly, but could you publish your anti-gravity jabberwocky next week? Have you that sort of access to a freewheeling publisher? My point: it would seem that people do care about Malkin's argument, and at issue in reactions to it is how effectively they advance a different public policy.

I think I can skirt pomo rhetoric, here, without slipping into it, and suggest that there are multiple ways in which one can "understand our world any better." Included among them is the understanding of social presumption. In some cases, conventional wisdom should be challenged as a matter of course, particularly when it is applied to new circumstances, and in this respect, Malkin has brought to the light a murky suspicion that, to my experience, was festering under many a citizen's assessment of current politics.

Again, I haven't read the book, but even so, I will agree with you that the "the strength of her arguments about the historical record" is of central importance. However, that importance, of itself, does not diminish the legitimacy of focusing on an area of observed tilt, searching for evidence that a tilt does, in fact, exist, and then publishing the findings under restraints set by audience, the need for timeliness, and a policy objective.

I have to believe that the majority of Malkin's readers would be interested in expert responses that take her role into account and respond to her evidence both to explain how it applies (or doesn't) to people's distrust of the conventional wisdom and to suggest ways in which it should (or shouldn't) affect policy now. They are surely much less interested — perhaps to the extent of antipathy — in attacks on her very ability to write the book and questions about her true motives for doing so.

Posted by: Justin Katz at August 11, 2004 6:07 PM


1) I'm not sure the fact that some publisher somewhere was willing to publish the book tells us much. A few minutes on Amazon (or a few days reading law review submissions and subsequently-published articles) tells me that there are far too many publishers chasing too few good books. And, relatedly, there are some people who will publish (and purchase) anything. Cf. Robertson, Pat, "The New World Order."

2) The ability to bring new suspicions to light and end the festering should be judged -- as should our responses -- by the quality of the argumentation employed. It's not enough simply for Malkin to say that someone needs to challenge the status quo; she must (and she attempts) to show that the convention wisdom is wrong.

3) There is a "weak" version of your claim floating around somewhere that says that democratization of academic subjects (including history) is a good thing. I'd agree, if you're willing to qualify it by admitting that those historians, amateur and otherwise, should still be held accountable for their mistakes or misrepresentations. But there's a stronger version of the argument you make that leads me to . . .

4) "take her role into account," which I find inexplicable. Why should her role -- as a commenator, historian, or whatever -- affect our interpretation of her argument? I'll agree not to privilege Muller's statements simply because he has a doctorate and has written books on the subject if you'll agree not to subject Malkin to the soft bigotry of low expectations because she hasn't.

5) I think your last comment re the conventional wisdom is a conclusion in search of supporting argumentation. Unless I have some visceral distrust of all reported history, why would I doubt the coventional wisdom about any of it? And even if I have such distrust and such doubts, why would I listen to people challenge it based on arguments that other people effectively (at least so far as I'm able to tell) rebut?

Posted by: Simon at August 11, 2004 6:53 PM

This has been a slipping point in these exchanges all along. Regarding your fourth point: I didn't say that Malkin's role should affect "interpretation" of her argument, but it should affect how one publicly responds to her argument.

To consolidate into an oversimplified representative statement: attacking the length of time that she spent in research is bound to repel any among her audience who see her as a voice for questions that they themselves have. This is not to say that errors ought to be held free from rebuttal, but that acknowledging the circumstances and purposes of Malkin's book is critical if we're to avoid the sectarian-like devolution of debate into irreconcilable priorities.

Posted by: Justin Katz at August 11, 2004 7:16 PM

But why shouldn't the length and type of her research be relevant? (Most especially for those of us without first-hand knowledge of the topics at issue.) To take an extreme example: if you post a entry saying that you've discovered cold fusion while mixing oil and vinegar, isn't it o.k. for me to infer something about the merits of your claim?

And I still don't see what the "circumstances and purposes" of her book have to do with measuring its quality. We usually stop giving 'A's for effort' when people graduate from high school. If Malkin wanted to write something ambitious and thought-provoking about the war on terror (or WW2 internment, or both) then she should have done so expecting to meet some basic level of competence.

Posted by: Simon at August 11, 2004 8:28 PM

Suppose that we wanted to find out what Cuba under Castro is really like. We could call someone with lots of firsthand knowledge about the country. We could call an official high in the Cuban government. After all, who would have more accurate information at his disposal than a high-ranking government official?

That official would no doubt assure us that Cuba is indeed the workers’ paradise that Castro says it is, and any unhappiness in the country is solely the fault of the United States.

But we might have some reservations about that official’s view. It might not be completely unbiased. First, Cuban officials who admit that Cuba is a wretched place tend to end up dead after days of torture. So if the official suspects that Castro’s propaganda doesn’t quite square with reality, then he has an incentive not to mention it.

Does this mean that the Cuban official is lying to us, struggling to suppress the truth within himself? Not at all! Cuban officials are no doubt chosen for their ability to sincerely believe in Castro’s propaganda, despite all evidence to the contrary. So he probably believes whatever he tells us.

I simply don’t care what Eric Muller thinks about the Japanese internment or relocation, for the same two reasons:

First, he cannot freely choose to believe otherwise. He is a law professor. If he agreed with Malkin, he would be hurt professionally.

Second, like the official, he was chosen for his political beliefs. He has had lots of time to become a super-expert on this subject only because he holds a job in academia. (Recall that he wondered how Malkin could have done the necessary research while holding down a job in the private sector.) And the only way to get an academic job is to specific political views. So everyone with that level of expertise will hold the same view, which has nothing to do whether that view is correct.

Academia has a serious bias problem on any issue that touches on politics. They refuse to address it or even recognize that it exists. Is it any wonder that people find a non-academician’s view of history more interesting and believable than the stale PC melodrama of hysterical white racists tormenting innocent minorities?

The question is not why anyone would believe Michelle Malkin’s view. The question is why anyone would bother to notice yet another academician spouting the same old party line.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at August 11, 2004 10:16 PM

It takes a great deal of skill to argue that any possible evidence opposing your conclusion in fact supports it.

Posted by: Simon at August 11, 2004 11:03 PM

> But why shouldn't the length and type of her research be relevant?

Relevant wrt what issue? It's useless for telling us whether she's correct.

If you think that she missed something, trot it out. It doesn't matter how long you spent looking for it.

Posted by: Andy Freeman at August 11, 2004 11:30 PM

this whole idea that people who delve delve delve and search search search are in some way, closer to the truth than those who find the answer is typical academic self-justification.

sometimes, the truth is revealed--it's found, it's invented, it comes to someone in a dream, a moment of clarity. or at the first stack in the library.

but academia is not about finding insight or truth; it's about sloggin through the status quo, making incremental steps of "progress".

but how then would academics justify their own delving? by making it seem to accomplish something! academics need tenure because if their number of accomplishments per year were held up to a standard private sector employee, they'd be fired. do they serve a purpose? eh, maybe, sure, okay. but whenever they think that everyone else's way is inferior, they yet again show why people discredit them so much.

length of time doing research does not make you brighter, smarter, a better arguer, or even more correct. having the correct answer is what makes you correct. and if there is no clear correct answer here, then the marginal value of more research becomes the issue--toward's malkin's goal, perhaps the marginal value of another day/week/year of research was nil compared to Muller's. But what better thing does muller have to do with his time anyway--and if it's so little, how much does his detailed argument matter anyway?

Posted by: foo at August 12, 2004 2:59 AM

I can't help but think the last two comments represent a wholesale rejection of the scientific method in favor of . . . what, exactly? Divine revelation as a mode of inquiry?

The a short time researching does not preclude someone from coming from the right conclusion, and maybe Malkin has in this case. But it can also help explain some of Malkin's alleged errors.

Posted by: Simon at August 12, 2004 7:23 AM

"I can't help but think the last two comments represent a wholesale rejection of the scientific method in favor of . . . what, exactly? Divine revelation as a mode of inquiry?"

This is history, with a subtext of politics, not science. Obviously, history deals with facts such as dates, documents, etc., but the lessons learned, or the interpretation, is subjective. As far as I can tell from what I've read of this debate, the situation is thus:

1) the conventional wisdom is that white Americans interned the Japanese in America due to racist impulses, paranoia, and wartime hysteria.

2) Malkin comes along and says, no, the internment wasn't based solely on racist impulses, there were good national security reasons for it. (I haven't read the book, but I don't think that she denies that many Americans had racist views in the 1940's, or that there was no wartime hysteria. Her point is just that these were not the sole reasons for the internment.)

3) Some academic experts on the subject criticize her interpretation, based both on claimed errors on her part and on veiled, or not so veiled, suggestions that she's an amateur, and cannot be expected to be capable of giving an accurate reading of the situation.

If this situation is correct, wouldn't it be necessary for Muller et al. to demonstrate that the sole reason for the internment of the Japanese was due to racial aniumus and/or paranoia, in order to rebut Malkin's thesis? I don't think this is what they are saying, so what is the argument about? Is Malkin claiming that the internment was fully justified, and that its implementation flawless? Are Muller et al. claiming there was no national security reason for interning at least some Japanese?

And of course there is the political subtext - what should we do in regard to Arab Americans (or Muslim Americans, or Arab visitors to the US) today? The suggestions that Malkin is saying we should round up all Arab Americans and put them in internment camps are ludicrous. But should they receive heightened scrutiny? If so, isn't the hysteria about racial profiling, amplified by the mass media, making that more difficult?

These are very complicated questions we are facing here - how does an open, democratic society deal with people whose sole goal is to kill as many people in that society as possible? The media and academia are both making that discussion much more difficult by instantly raising claims of racism whenever someone tries to bring up the obvious fact that those who pose the greatest threat are Muslim men between the ages of 20 and 40, or the more nebulous fact that many Muslims, including Muslim Americans, while not prone to violence themselves, tacitly approve of various aspects of the terrorists goals. How is it possible to address such questions if the response to them being raised is "look at what happened when we racially profiled the Japanese during WWII - that was an unmitigated disaster, so we shouldn't make race or religion a factor when discussion terrorism."?

Posted by: Mike S. at August 12, 2004 11:04 AM

History may not be a science, but that isn't the same thing as saying that it can't learn and benefit from the scientific method, which, at its most basic level, means stating a hypothesis and subjecting that hypothesis to as much testing as possible. Here, at least according to her critics, Malkin never properly "tested" her hypothesis when she refused to engage the parts of the historical record (both primary and secondary) that do not support her claim.

And, sure, in an alternate universe, Malkin could have made a limited claim about the history surrounding WW2 internments (e.g., whether there was any rational basis for them), or she could have written a book defending the usefulness of profiling and internments in present-day America, or both.

But that's not what she did. She defines her own purpose as defending "both the evacuation and relocation of ethnic Japanese from the West Coast (the so-called 'Japanese American internment'), as well as the internment of enemy aliens, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, during World War II."

That is a much broader and bolder claim, and one that led her right into the buzz saw.

Posted by: Simon at August 12, 2004 11:28 AM

Simon: "It takes a great deal of skill to argue that any possible evidence opposing your conclusion in fact supports it."

It doesn't take much skill to notice that the facts are irrelevant when there's a big man standing over you with a club, telling you what your conclusions will be.

Mike S.: "Are Muller et al. claiming there was no national security reason for interning at least some Japanese?"

Muller comes very close to that. Under "The Truth about Midway and the Issei," farther down on the same page where he replies to Justin, he indulges in some wild leaps of logic involving the Battle of Midway. He starts with "there was no risk of invasion after Midway," then seems to conclude, "the Americans must have known that there was no risk of invasion after Midway," then jumps to this conclusion:

"So no legitimate military concern supported the decision to move people from assembly centers inland to the relocation centers." (emphasis his)

The reviewer he is citing actually says the opposite of what Muller is trying to make him say. Sailer emphasizes how unpredictable the Japanese were, which means that knowing that an invasion couldn't succeed didn't mean that the Americans could be confident that it wouldn't happen.

But even granting that intermediate conclusion, I don't understand what the risk of invasion has to do with moving people from assembly centers to relocation centers. I don't see any connection between them. The fears were about sabotage and espionage, not some popular uprising among Japanese during an invasion of the West Coast.

Reading that post, I get the impression that Muller mostly wanted some excuse for putting "no legitimate military concern" in bold italics. That's the political point he wants to imply, even though he effectively admits in his careful wording that that it is almost unrelated to the facts he has so painstakingly studied.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at August 12, 2004 12:28 PM

Today I made a connection relevant to this thread: Eric Muller works at the University of North Carolina Law School at Chapel Hill. Columnist Dr. Mike Adams also works at UNC Chapel Hill; his columns are at

Judging from his personal experiences , my comments were perhaps too mild. UNC-CH in particular seems to completely fulfill the conservative stereotype of a leftist authoritarian campus. Consider, for example, Dr. Adams' 8-12-04 column on UNC's efforts to forbid religious student groups from restricting them membership to those who hold specific religious views.

It's painful to admit that we must discount the credibility of academicians who work in leftist universities. I would love to be able to take their statements at face value. But that would simply be illogical.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at August 13, 2004 5:41 PM


I've got about a dozen browser windows open, just now, that will contribute to a post related to this general topic, making reference to your point exactly. For the time being, though, let me note that Mike Adams's Web site is

Posted by: Justin Katz at August 13, 2004 5:53 PM

You would do well to go to Muller's blog archives for the last time he was shilling his book with Coble as the ploy.

He then refused to make any distinction between internment and Relocation though that is a critical distinction in understanding what was done to the Japanese-Americans. And, to a lesser extent, what was done to others. I tried to get him to make that distinction but he would not do so. Malkin is now being lambasted for much the same.

And his continuing dismissal of what was done to the groups of European heritage is contemptible.

There is one category of Japanese "internees" that remains unrecognized and uncompensated. Malkin or no, this issue is not settled and does need to be explored.

Posted by: D Anghelone at August 14, 2004 8:31 AM

Adams is a professor at UNC Wilmington, not Chapel Hill. But the overall point is the same...

Posted by: Mike S. at August 14, 2004 1:32 PM

So instead of looking at the merits of Muller's argumetns, we have reached a point where we look at where he works? That seems like a rather weak defense.

In my oppinon, Muller et al throughoutly debunks Malkin's book, and they are quite good at pointing out where she is factually wrong, which she appearently frequently is.

One my find it refreshing that people are willing to go against conventional wisdom, and publish a book on a subject that concludes something entirely different from what the rest of the field agrees upon, but it benoves you to listen when the experts on that subject points out the problematic areas. If you feel they are wrong, fine - explain why, don't just use the excuse that they only say so because the book says something that's not conventional wisdom.
Often, but not always, conventional wisdom, is in fact correct.

Posted by: Kristjan Wager at August 15, 2004 8:15 AM