Holding These Truths…

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

Paragraph 2 of the United States Constitution

Hold These Truths

Just what truths are “self-evident”? What are the “unalienable rights”? Are all men really “created equal”?

In 1942, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, public outrage, suspicion and hysteria led President Roosevelt to issue an Executive Order that resulted in the internment (imprisonment) of all Japanese and Japanese-Americans on the West Coast of the United States. They were removed from their homes; allowed one suitcase each, forfeited their property, and relocated to camps in the interior of the country. 62% of them were American citizens.

Earlier this month M and I saw Jeanne Sakata’s play Hold These Truths at ACT Theater. This one act monologue tells the story of Gordon Hirabayashi a University of Washington senior who defied the order, saw his family relocated to an internment camp, and spent a year in federal prison for disobeying the government order. Hirabayashi, who died in 2012, took his case to the US Supreme Court in 1943 but lost the appeal. After the war, he earned his PhD in sociology and taught overseas, in Beirut, Cairo, and Calgary, until his retirement when he returned to Seattle. Nevertheless, he didn’t give up the legal fight and in 1987 the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned his conviction when it was shown that the government had withheld evidence in the earlier Supreme Court case.

The play is riveting. Ryun Yu, the actor playing Hirabayashi, held our attention for over an hour with a monologue that was by turns touching, angry, funny, and physically demanding. The play is an interesting and troubling look back at a wrong-headed government decision that led to four years of incarceration for 120,000 Japanese-Americans, but the questions it raises continue to be timely as we struggle to address today’s immigrant and refugee issues, Guantanamo Bay imprisonment, Muslim extremists, and over zealous NSA operatives.

HNL family

These are three of my grandchildren. Today they live on the hill overlooking Diamond Head in Honolulu. In 1942 they, and their parents, would have forfeited their home, and been sent to an internment (concentration) camp somewhere in the desert of California or Nevada.

Yesterday, the bloviating Donald Trump told an audience in Iowa that as President he would round up all the illegal, murderous, raping, drug-addled, thieving, slacker “Mexicans” and ship them back where they came from. Never mind that there are 11,000,000 of “them” or that most cross border immigrants are fleeing repressive regimes in countries other than Mexico. But The Donald is eager to build a fence (that Mexico will somehow magically pay for) to keep the next wave of rapacious Mexicans on their side so that we real Americans can enjoy our “unalienable Rights” without any woggish brown-skinned interference. This is not an immigration strategy; it’s plain old racist demagoguery.

The world is not the same as it was in 1942. In many ways it is “better” but in other ways it is clearly worse. Population migration has become a global problem, Mr. Trump. What do you even know about immigration? Let’s stop the race-baiting, xenophobic naval gazing and look around. The wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Mali, and Central African Republic have produced a tsunami of immigrants and refugees. In April the Italian government rescued 4000 migrants in one 48-hour period and the tiny Greek island of Lesvos saw the arrival of 55,000 refugees from the Middle East via Turkey in the first seven month of this year. Germany anticipates 800,000 asylum-seeking refugees in 2015. 150,000 have crossed the border into Hungary this year and ABC News reported tonight that 340,000 Middle East refugees have arrived in Europe. According to the United Nations High Commission on refugees, Jordan has taken in 1.4 million refugees and Turkey an estimated 1.9 million all fleeing the ravages of the Syrian and Iraq wars.This is not just an American problem. We aren’t going to fix the problem if we don’t acknowledge that it is our shared responsibility as global citizens to seek humane solutions.The US Constitution is an aspirational document. The founders were dreamers but imperfect men. They imagined a country full of goodness and free of repression though some were slave owners and most regarded women as unworthy of the vote. We’ve come a long way since then.

I doubt that America will see another government action like the one that sent Japanese-Americans to internment camps in 1942, but racial and ethnic profiling, hate crime and the demonizing of groups continues to exist. Sheriff Joe Arpaio persists in flaunting federal court mandates in his relentless pursuit of Hispanics, and since 9/11 Muslims are being singled out and persecuted  for nothing more than adhering to their own dress code. I continue to believe that we can do better. In spite of bilious demagoguery by self-promoting politicians the majority of Americans view the country’s founding principles as aspirational guidelines and the Bill of Rights as the best single expression of a government’s responsibility.

Marilynn and I share 12 grandchildren, 5 of whom are children of color. These two are Ben and Lucie. A year ago one of Lucie’s classmates challenged her to explain “where” she was from. When Lucie failed to understand the question the classmate told her she was not a real American, that she was from India, not America.

Ben and Lucie

Children can be cruel, but cruelty and prejudice are learned. We can do better. Let’s do away with our racial, ethnic, immigrant and refugee prejudices. We Hold These Truths!!!

I am reminded of the lyrics of the song You’ve Got To Be Taught from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught
To be afraid of people
Whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught.


  1. Sequestering Japanese-Americans after the Pearl Harbor may have been questionable ethically: however, the tactic of isolating people who kook exactly like a terrifying and seemingly invincible enemy was entirely valid militarily. If nothing else, living in the camps protected people from beatings and mob vigilante attacks. The real crime was committed by “patriotic” Caucasians who swept up their property made vulnerable by un-payable by taxes and mortgages. Like nazi-stolen art, some small measure of morality could only be achieved by returning the stolen stuff. ti


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