I’m in the middle of two books. The first (as an audiobook), Traci Chee’s We Are Not Free, is historical fiction based on the imprisonment of Americans of Japanese descent in “camps” during World War II.
The second book is Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods, by Amelia Pang. This non-fiction account of Chinese labor “camps” (also called laogais) explores the circuitous (and sometimes not-so-circuitious) journey of the goods manufactured by the prisoners there. Specifically, the book talks about how they end up on store shelves in the US and other first-world countries.
I was halfway through both when I realized they share a theme — that of being imprisoned by one’s own government for fabricated reasons.
My thoughts about this are somewhat disjointed, and I’m writing this post partly to clarify them for myself.
These books made me think about freedom and how quick people are to talk about someone infringing on theirs, to talk about their rights being trampled, when most of us have no idea what it means to truly lose our freedom without just cause.
That’s thought number one.
Thought number two is a trait I noticed when I was working as a librarian. It’s this: Many people who are very concerned about their own rights are scarcely troubled about trampling those of others. A good example of this is when people try to ban books they consider immoral. Not content to simply choose from the hundreds, indeed thousands, of other books in the public library, they want to be able to decide what was appropriate for all readers.
A second example is the whole Hobby Lobby lawsuit on freedom of religion. At that time, the company had 572 stores employing a substantial number of people, yet somehow the owners’ beliefs in regard to birth control trumped the religious views of all employees expecting the birth control health coverage previously guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act.
At the same time, the company was perfectly willing to pay for vasectomies and erectile disfunction.
Think about that for a minute. The whole argument behind this lawsuit was that their religious beliefs are that sex should always be for procreation (and I’m not even going to talk about how eff-ed up and unrealisitic that idea is). I don’t agree with that concept, but one could argue that Viagra might contribute to that goal, if one sets aside the reality that erectile disfunction is more common in older men whom I would guess are probably not interested in becoming fathers.
But, what do I know? Perhaps there are thousands of men in their fifties and sixties who are panting to have a baby in their lives.
However, the fact that Hobby Lobby was willing to pay for men’s vasectomies tends to support my belief that their beliefs are less about the sanctity of life and more about controlling women.
This leads to my first conclusion: Being allowed to exercise your freedom should not adversely affect mine or anyone else’s.
Another thing I noticed while working at the library is that often those that speak most strongly about their rights don’t consider the responsibilities that go along with those rights.
My example is always the parent who says, “It’s my right to decide what my child reads. Now, show me where you keep the good books.” Obviously, I’m paraphrasing, but this is basically what many parents were asking.
Do you see what’s happening here? These parents wanted to exercise their right to say what their child reads, but were unwilling to be responsible for making the decision.
As a librarian, I could guide them to age-appropriate material. I could not say what would be best for their kid because — spoiler! — every kid is different, and the ability to handle different themes varies from child to child.
Any rights we are privileged to be able to claim must come with the responsibility to exercise them with the care and respect they deserve.
And part of that, I think, should be to recognize that we aren’t all the same and to try to learn not to demonize someone different from ourselves.
Like the institution of the public library, a free society must maintain a precarious balance between the needs/wants of the many and the needs/wants of the individual.
America and Americans have not been perfect in this regard. What many view as the “good old days” were indeed good for some, but certainly not for everyone. And your chances of them being good were definitely better if you were a white man.
Please don’t read this as all white men had it easy. They didn’t, I know. But our country has been led by white men for a very long time, which means — intentionally or not — it’s set up to best serve white men.
If white women had been in charge, it would doubtless best serve white women.
And if any other group had been in charge, it would best serve them.
Our own experiences are all we know, so of course we would make things to work best for people like ourselves, and it would probably be done with the best of intentions.
This is why diversity is so important.
My life has been a white life, a middle-class life, not without problems, but those problems are not the same as those I would have faced had I been born with a different color face, a different body, in a different place.
We live in a world where people are imprisoned and enslaved because of their religion, because they look different, or just because they are women who spoke out and dared to ask why their lives were, by law, more constricted than those of men.
Less than ninety years ago, we rounded over 120,000 people because they were of Japanese descent or origin. Forced to sell up their homes and businesses for pennies on the dollar and allowed to take only what they could carry, they were taken away, eventually landing at de facto prisoner of war camps surrounded by guard towers and fencing.
Before reading more about this imprisonment, I believed the reason truly was national security. It wasn’t. As the National Park Services site says, “Many of the anti-Japanese fears arose from economic factors combined with envy, since many of the Issei farmers had become very successful at raising fruits and vegetables in soil that most people had considered infertile. Other fears were military in nature; the Russo-Japanese War proved that the Japanese were a force to be reckoned with, and stimulated fears of Asian conquest — “the Yellow Peril.” These factors, plus the perception of “otherness” and “Asian inscrutability” that typified American racial stereotypes, greatly influenced the events following Pearl Harbor.”*
The labor camps in China are worse, with detainees suffering torture and force-feeding, as well as being used as slave labor. The majority are imprisoned mainly because they lead lives that differ from the preferred Han culture.
Goods produced by these prisons are sold to international companies, and we buy them every day. Nike, Adidas, Apple, Microsoft, and many other companies’ products have been traced back to facilities using these practices.
Made in China offers some ideas on what our governments can do to help end this barbarity. More importantly (at least to me), it emphasizes how changing our “disposable” everything way of life can also change things.
If we consider a few questions when shopping, we can not only save money(!) and reduce our footprint, we can also cut the demand for cheap (or expensive) items that are likely to have parts produced and/or been assembled by prisoners.
Here are the questions, suggested by the author who says they were based on a (now defunct) sustainable shopping site called “Man Repeller”:
“Do I already own something that serves the same purpose?” (I’m thinking of my two winter jackets.)
“Is this item so much better I would feel compelled to donate three things in its place?” (Few of my purchases would make the cut. I’ve always gone on the “One in, one out” idea, but three would definitely be better.)
“If it were more expensive, would I still try to figure out a way to afford it? Or am I feeling an urge to buy this because it’s extremely cheap?” (I definitely struggle with this one, constantly having to remind myself that I don’t need something just because it’s a great deal.)
“If the product I’m considering is an updated version of one that I already own, is my current one working just fine?” (Scoring myself not guilty on replacing my laptop last year.)
“Am I sure I will wear or use this product a lot? Or will this likely end up sitting in storage after one use?” (Unfortunately, I can think of several items to score myself guilty on this one, but I am getting better.)
To circle back to the beginning of this post and what freedom is, I think freedom is simply being allowed to live our lives as we see fit as long as we are not harming others. This doesn’t mean the guarantee of an easy life or even the life we expected. Things change. Our world has changed, and we all need to adjust our lives to accomodate the damage we have already done to it and prevent as much further damage as we can.
Enjoying even this type of freedom comes with the responsibility of sharing this freedom with others, allowing them to live their lives as they see fit, even if that way is not in accordance with our own beliefs.
Only a fool would believe this will actually happen, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
And now, Dear Reader, as a thanks for sharing my wandering thoughts, here are some photos of the flock of robins that has been dining on berries in the brush beside our house (and leaving the evidence all over our front porch!). The quality isn’t the best (taken through a window several feet away), but when I see a flock of robins, I know spring will come once more.
For more on the Japanese Internment:
For more on Chinese Labor “Camp”:
Or just read the newspaper.
*Addendum: An ironic twist — in early 1943the US government “allowed” Japanese-Americans to enlist in a “special” unit (much like the African-American segregated units). This unit, the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team became one of the most decorated in the conflict. The following year, the US began drafting Japanese-Americans from the camps. Not surprisingly, a substantial minority refused to fight while their families remained imprisoned.