First question: What in Sam Hill is Roanoke, Virginia, doing with a Democratic mayor anyway? This is Jerry Falwell territory (Lynchburg is an hour away). The city has a sizable black population (around a quarter) but is still 70 percent white. So before we even get to what David Bowers said about the Japanese camps, let’s figure this one out.
It doesn’t quite compute. It’s the kind of place where you flip through the dial on your motel TV and there are more religious stations than news channels. But Roanoke City and Roanoke County are different political entities, and Democrats regularly carry the city in presidential elections. According to the Times, Obama throttled Romney there by 61 to 38 percent. If the city’s Wikipedia page is to be trusted, Ronald Reagan didn’t even carry Roanoke City in 1980!
So it’s a little blue lighthouse in a big red ocean. Actually, the neighboring county, Montgomery, is where Virginia Tech is, in Blacksburg, so it can be bluish, too, but you get the picture. So, OK, a Democratic mayor.
But it seems he’s, you know, a different kind of Democrat. A Kim Davis Democrat. And from the looks of things, he may not even be a Democrat for much longer.
So in case you missed it: Wednesday, Mayor Bowers had this to say about the Syrian refugee situation: “I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from Isis [sic] now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”
Bowers wasn’t musing out loud to a City Hall reporter he’d known for 15 years. He wrote this down! It was in an official press release. Headed “City of Roanoke, Office of the Mayor.” The city seal. The whole shmear. A staff of people wrote and edited and proofread this thing!
The avalanche started within seconds. Twitter, of course, and liberals everywhere made fun of the guy and his hick town. Other Roanoke pols quickly saw the municipal disaster that was brewing. On the website of the Roanoke newspaper, you can watch this video in which City Council members hastily called a press conference to separate themselves from His Nibs, using the words “juvenile” and “childish” and “narcissistic” and “selfish” and “irrational.” Bowers’s office had released the statement without consulting any of them.
Bowers got kicked off Hillary Clinton’s Virginia leadership team. The state Democratic Party denounced him, as did the state ACLU, and even the state GOP, whose leader said that internment was “a gross historical injustice.”
I hope you don’t need me to tell you about that, but just for record: In 1942, after Pearl Harbor, the Roosevelt administration—yes, a Democrat; those were very different times with regard to both civil liberties and matters of race—rounded up about 120,000 Americans of Japanese extraction and pulled them out of their homes and put them in internment camps. Most of those affected were U.S. citizens. The idea was that their ethnicity meant by definition that they were potential enemies of the United States.
The program was run by Milton Eisenhower, Dwight’s brother. Eisenhower once justified the move with these words “When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, our West Coast became a potential combat zone. Living in that zone were more than 100,000 persons of Japanese ancestry: two-thirds of them American citizens; one-third aliens. We knew that some among them were potentially dangerous. But no one knew what would happen among this concentrated population if Japanese forces should try to invade our shores. Military authorities therefore determined that all of them, citizens and aliens alike, would have to move.” Some of that rhetoric should sound familiar.
Worth noting of course is that we had two other enemies back then, but somehow, Roosevelt never rounded up German Americans or Italian Americans. It’s a piece of Fiorello LaGuardia-related lore that FDR once discussed interning Italians with Hizzoner, but when LaGuardia pointed out to him that this would mean rounding up Joe DiMaggio’s mother, the president dropped the idea. That may be apocryphal, but the point is, only Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes. Occam’s Razor would suggest that skin color was the reason.
It has of course gone down as one of the most shameful episodes in American history, and rightly so. We have a consensus around this, as you can see from what the Virginia GOP leader said above.
But here’s the dirty little secret of l’affair Bowers: I wonder if we do have that consensus now. How many people out there are secretly agreeing with Bowers? How long will it be—and I mean hours, not days—before someone on the right writes or tweets that well, in fact, the internment was wholly justified, because after all, look, we had no trouble with those 120,000 for the duration of the war, and who knows what would have happened if we’d just let them go about their potentially traitorous lives?
Someone is going to say it, and slowly, the idea that we ought to be able to do the same with Middle Easterners today will gain traction. I remember being blown away back when Ann Coulter wrote that book defending Joe McCarthy. I’d thought history was settled on him. But it wasn’t. History can be unsettled, and although a revisionist view of Japanese internment will never gain purchase outside the hard right, if it does gain purchase there, it moves the center rightward and affects the whole discourse.
And Bowers? Why’d he say it? He announced just two weeks ago that he’s retiring from the mayoralty. One city councilman, who is mentioned in the video above, notes that Bowers gave a recent interview to a local reporter in which he mused about the various regional offices he might seek. “David’s always running for something,” the man said. “In order to run for any of those seats, he’s gotta move himself to the right. And this does it.” And he becomes another Joe the Plumber-style hero. Probably already has a Kickstarter page.