Two weeks ago, I attended the conference of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development in Washington, D.C. One of the speakers, Tom Ikeda, is the founding executive director of Densho, an oral history project preserving and sharing the stories of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. (Densho is a Japanese term meaning “to pass on to the next generation,” or to leave a legacy.)
Ikeda mostly introducing a panel of activists, but one thing he said struck me as incredibly important. He said “if there had been a resistance,” the incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II “wouldn’t have happened.”
He said he had studied the documents of the Roosevelt government, and found that there was significant concern and dissent within the government, and lawyers ready to litigate against it as unconstitutional. But they didn’t get pressure. They only heard from folks who wanted it, and so they took the cowardly way out and pandered to people’s fear and distrust. They took what seemed like an easy political win. But Ikeda feels strongly from his research that they weren’t committed enough to stick to it in the face of meaningful pushback.
I think this is important because it’s so easy to think of history as inevitable, whether for good or bad. We tend to think the gains we have made would have naturally come along eventually (ending slavery, increasing civil rights, increasing women’s equality).
This is a common argument deployed against justice movements (“stop rushing, give us time and we’ll get there if you don’t screw it up by being so obnoxious”). Even leaving aside the question of whether it is acceptable to ask people to wait patiently for things like freedom and basic rights (pro tip: it’s not), there’s no evidence that this is universally true. While cultural attitudes do experience sea changes that make some things feel inevitable, they aren’t born from nowhere. Without the support and groundwork laid by a gay pride movement, the wave of people who came out to their families, which is what caused a cultural shift that made something like legal marriage conceivable, wouldn’t have happened, for example.
Also, see all the examples of societies backsliding from open, democratic societies into much more repressive ones. Look up photos of Afghanistan in the mid-20th century if you need some reminders.
On the flip side, I think we can also think of the horrors of the past as inevitable. To some extent this is comforting when we feel helpless. “People are just like this. You can’t always stop it.” I know I slip into that sometimes. And I don’t think it’s entirely wrong. People are complicated, and many of the instincts we evolved with are sadly not very adaptive.
Nonetheless, any given instance is not inevitable. I was reading this morning about Stanislav Petrov, a Russian military officer who got a satellite warning in 1983 that the United States had fired nuclear missiles at the USSR. He suspected, for various reasons, that it was a computer error, not an actual attack (he was right), and did not raise the alarm, earning him the moniker “the man who saved the world.” But most of us don’t know this story. I didn’t. It’s a fairly short story, after all, with a “nothing changed” ending.
There’s a reason that in novels the heroes never succeed in heading off the impending disaster good and early, the first time they try, before things get bad. There’s a reason Voldemort actually rises and nearly wins. Same reason why every single time bomb in an action movie that is disarmed has less than five seconds left on its timer. Those scenarios make for better stories.
But they make for worse worlds to live in.
That’s why it’s important to remember that they aren’t inevitable. Sometimes sticking up for what’s right works. Sometimes it works so well it doesn’t even become much of a story. I’d be OK with more of that, honestly. More not waiting until people are dying in the streets to act. More proactive solutions. More not needing to make the history books to win.
I’d be OK, for example, with these iterative healthcare repeal efforts meeting such continued, steady, eye-rolling resistance from so many of us, if they end up a quiet footnote on the historical path to universal health care.
Now this may not be the best historical moment for this wish. We are, clearly, going to have plenty dramatic, novel-worthy fights in the coming months. The message is not to shy away from those fights. If anything, it’s to join them sooner, and not to listen to the little voice that wants to say it always has to get worse before it gets better. We need to be ready to face the worst, but also not wait for it to come get us.