There are two people whose writing ability I would trade body parts for: Christopher Hitchens and David Foster Wallace. Two completely different styles, obviously, and it's hard to imagine content more varied. But both guys are just such an absolute pleasure to read that I really don't care much what the subject is. I've read everything DFW ever wrote (from tennis to cruise ships to lobster festivals and more), and I try to keep up with Hitchens as best I can (though he's so prolific that it's difficult).
In this week's Fighting Words -- Hitchens' weekly column for Slate -- we're met with a sort of sappy sentimentalism you don't normally see from the world's crankiest public intellectual. The spark for all this: a festival in
This time every summer I begin to suspect myself of going soft and becoming optimistic and sentimental. The mood passes, I need hardly add, but while it is upon me, it amounts to a real thing. On the first weekend of every August, in
, the Japanese community opens the doors of its temple and school in order to invite guests and outsiders to celebrate the Obon Festival. Palo Alto, Calif.
Ancestor-oriented celebrations are not exactly my thing, but there is a very calm and charming way in which the Japanese use this particular moment in the lunar calendar to remember those who have preceded them and to make the occasion a general fiesta. (I suppose the nearest regional equivalent would be the Mexican Day of the Dead.) The clement weather allows the wearing of the lighter yukata, or summer kimono, and the staging of the Bon Odori dance, in which all can join, to the soft rhythm of taiko drums. For the rest of the time, the yagura, or wooden scaffold, is the center of a sort of fairground, in which stalls and raffles compete for custom with the sellers of sake and Japanese beer and with an amazing teriyaki buffet.
There's a large turnout of non-Japanese for these attractions, getting larger every year it seems to me, but it doesn't succeed in swamping the main event or in making it into a mere tourist attraction. You come across a group of grave and serious Japanese gardeners, engaged in the judging of a bonsai competition, and you suddenly appreciate that nothing can turn this consideration into a hucksterish sideshow. (One day, perhaps, someone will write something serious about the Japanese genius for small things and for miniaturization, which extends from carvings to plants to the idea of painting on grains of rice and which seemed at one point to lead the world in the concept of the microchip.)
If you've read his stuff before, you'll be a little surprised to see Christopher Hitchens singing the praises of a pseudo-religious, ethnic-identity based celebration -- this is, after all, the author of God is Not Great, among other forceful explications of secular humanism. So why all the gushing? Well, perhaps because it's easy to see how it all could have gone so much differently.
United States, and especially in , the war against Japanese imperialism was also accompanied by collective punishment of Japanese-Americans and the sequestration of their persons and property. When I first came to the Bay Area in 1970, I was introduced by Carey MacWilliams, a great historian of the state, to Lou Goldblatt of the longshoremen's union, one of the very few public figures to have opposed the indiscriminate internment. It was a crime committed largely by liberals like Earl Warren, as many people prefer to forget, and was even supported at the time by the Communist Party. (Actually, why do I say even? Communists by then were getting pretty used to supporting mass roundups and deportations.) California
Hatred and fear and bigotry were probably never more general or more strongly felt than against Japanese people in
Americain the period between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima/Nagasaki, and and the comic book industry kept the feeling alive for some years afterward. Speaker Sam Rayburn of Hollywood Texasdrew howls of laughter when he said a kind word to young Rep. Daniel Inouye, who had lost a limb fighting for Americain Europe, and—thanked for taking the trouble to notice the newcomer—roared: "Ain't no trick to it! How many one-armed Japs we got around here?"* (Actually, I think that was pretty funny.)
It may be that this narrative resonates more with me than most: my twin brother's wife is a fourth-generation Japanese-American from
And so, the point?
Well, my point is that under the azure blue skies that prevailed all of last weekend, you would not have known that any of the bitterness and misery had ever taken place. There were old people present, Japanese and non-Japanese, who had a real memory of it. And there were young people to whom, if it occurs at all, it must seem prehistoric. But there was no awkwardness; no "making nice," no pretense of a false coexistence. All could meet under the great roof of a secular multiethnic democracy, and all did, sharing the food and the music and admiring one another's children. And if this of all reconciliations can occur, without it even having to call itself a reconciliation, then perhaps we are not all heading for hell on a sled as fast as we sometimes think. Ernest Renan said that to form a common nation, people had to agree to remember a few things but also to forget a few things. Without undue amnesia, and without being mandated or enforced or policed, this maxim seems to have been followed naturally in this case.
So why is this meaningful? Well, if for nothing else, then simply because it reminds us how recently our world was riven with violence on a scale nearly unimaginable to those of us born in the latter part of the 20th century. In living memory, as they say. No matter what you think about the necessity or morality of the whole deal, it's a matter of record that hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were immolated by American bombs. Those people were the mothers and fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins and so on of people who lived and live in this country. And yet by and large their descendants don't rage against this historic iniquity, don't seek reparations, don't consider blowing themselves up in shopping malls or airplanes to right the wrongs visited on their ancestors.
And so what? Well, it sort of gives you hope for a place like
So when I see people saying that there's no chance that
Maybe I, like Hitchens, am feeling a little loopy, intoxicated with optimism. (Just not about