In (Partial) Defense Of Michele Bachmann

[ Posted Thursday, April 8th, 2010 – 16:56 UTC ]

I've written here before in defense of Sarah Palin, and since the two just recently shared a campaign rally stage, I thought it'd be timely to write at least a partial defense of Michele Bachmann today. Because a recent comment by the Minnesota Representative has gotten a lot of ridicule from the left side of the blogosphere, but nobody bothers to point out that she's actually right in what she says about the U.S. Census Bureau and Japanese internment during World War II. This is intellectually dishonest, I feel, which is why I have to make the attempt to defend her words.

What Bachmann actually said to cause all the hullabaloo was:

Take this into consideration. If we look at American history, between 1942 and 1947, the data that was collected by the Census Bureau was handed over to the FBI and other organizations at the request of President Roosevelt, and that's how the Japanese were rounded up and put into the internment camps... I'm not saying that that's what the [Obama] Administration is planning to do, but I am saying that private personal information that was given to the Census Bureau in the 1940s was used against Americans to round them up, in a violation of their constitutional rights, and put the Japanese in internment camps.

Now, the reason why Bachmann is being called a lunatic (and worse) for this statement is that she is no stranger to conspiracy theories, having previously darkly warned that President Obama was planning on rounding certain Americans up and placing them in "re-education centers." And this isn't the only quote from Bachmann on the Census/internment issue, either. She's not just pointing out something from history, she's also connecting the dots between then and now, and intimating that filling out the Census form will lead you and your family straight to a concentration camp under the leadership of President Obama, if you've ever listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio (OK, perhaps that's a wee overstatement of her position, but not by much). That's the part of Bachmann's theory that is undeniably crazy. But in all the hoots of laughter from the Left, the fact that she is actually right about what happened in World War II is being lost.

Which is a shame, because it is the sort of history that we certainly don't get taught as schoolchildren, and also a part of history that really needs to be more widely known if the goal is not to repeat such mistakes in the future.

The first time I ever heard of the Census/internment link was watching one of those historical documentaries on PBS -- not exactly a hotbed of right-wing conspiracy theory. Without getting too far into the history of the event, within days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Census Bureau voluntarily compiled data on Japanese-Americans, and offered it up to the rest of the government. Nobody even asked them for this data, they considered it their patriotic war duty to offer it up, on their own initiative. Which, when put that way, is certainly understandable.

Now, there are several types of Census data. There is aggregate data, which lumps everyone in a certain geographical area together, and then there is individual data -- who lives at precisely what address. For years, the Census Bureau maintained that they only gave up the aggregate Japanese data, and that they never gave up personal information. The aggregate data was specific enough, though, as it was as precise as numbers within a single city block -- much more focused than was normal, back in the 1940s. They later offered up more of this data when the actual internment program began.

The law at the time was similar to the law the Census operates under today -- individual data was supposed to be sacrosanct, and utterly, utterly private. By law, the Census Bureau was not supposed to ever give this information out. But there was a war on, and the law was quickly changed to allow it (the law, soon after the war ended, was changed back and the privacy policy strengthened). And during this period, the Census Bureau did indeed provide individual data to the rest of the government -- something it took them until very recently to admit. From a 2007 article in Scientific American (again, not exactly a hotbed of right-wing conspiracy theorists):

A new study of U.S. Department of Commerce documents now shows that the Census Bureau complied with an August 4, 1943, request by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau for the names and locations of all people of Japanese ancestry in the Washington, D.C., area, according to historian Margo Anderson of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and statistician William Seltzer of Fordham University in New York City. The records, however, do not indicate that the Bureau was asked for or divulged such information for Japanese-Americans in other parts of the country.

Anderson and Seltzer discovered in 2000 that the Census Bureau released block-by-block data during WW II that alerted officials to neighborhoods in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Arkansas where Japanese-Americans were living. "We had suggestive but not very conclusive evidence that they had also provided microdata for surveillance," Anderson says.

. . .

"The [new] evidence is convincing," says Kenneth Prewitt, Census Bureau director from 1998 to 2000 and now a professor of public policy at Columbia University, who issued a public apology in 2000 for the Bureau's release of neighborhood data during the war. "At the time, available evidence (and Bureau lore) held that there had been no … release of microdata," he says. "That can no longer be said."

The newly revealed documents show that census officials released the information just seven days after it was requested. Given the red tape for which bureaucracies are famous, "it leads us to believe this was a well-established path," Seltzer says, meaning such disclosure may have occurred repeatedly between March 1942, when legal protection of confidentiality was suspended, and the August 1943 request.

Anderson says that microdata would have been useful for what officials called the "mopping up" of potential Japanese-Americans who had eluded internment.

This is scholarly research, not conspiracy theory. Meaning that Bachmann's words are literally correct.

The common reaction to the implications today of this historical fact, though, is unrealistic: "Oh, but that was a long time ago, we'd never do that today, because there are laws against it." Anyone mouthing such reassurances must have an awfully short memory, because they simply don't remember what American was like immediately after the 9/11 attacks.

Think, for a moment, if 9/11 hadn't been perpetrated by a shadowy and nebulous terrorist group, but instead by a sovereign country (because we are discussing conspiracy theory in general here, I must explicitly point out that I am not suggesting this as any sort of theory of what happened on 9/11, I am merely employing the reader in a thought experiment). Don't you think, the very day after the attack, Americans would be calling for the heads of people from whatever country attacked us? Do you think they'd really care that some obscure federal privacy law said that the government couldn't access data on where they all were? Do you really think politicians would be nobly standing up for the ideal of data privacy, or would they be falling all over themselves to prove their toughness? Remember the PATRIOT ACT (standard disclaimer, I am not "shouting" in all caps there, the whole name is actually a giant acronym), and how it flew through Congress?

No, the only thing restraining the government and the Census Bureau in such a situation would be the fact that the Census probably doesn't have such detailed information about every single citizen any more, and the fact that the information is probably much more easily accessible from other sources than Census data.

Part of the misunderstanding is the fact that there are two Census forms -- the "short" form and the "long" form. The short form (which everyone gets) does ask race and ethnicity questions, but does not ask citizenship or country of origin questions. The long form (which only goes out to about one percent of Americans) does ask more intrusive questions, but one percent is not enough data to identify everyone from any particular country.

Of course, in Bachmann's world-view (which I am not defending in any way, shape or form -- hence the "partial" in the title of this article), if the government came to lock people up, it likely won't be looking for foreigners from a country we're at war with. Big Brother, in Bachmann's paranoid outlook, would be rounding up (one assumes) Republicans, Sarah Palin fans, Tea Partiers, and Glenn Beck viewers. Or something -- it's hard to tell what Bachmann is worried about, at times.

All of which should indeed be open to the ridicule it so richly deserves. "Barack Obama Re-Education Camps" are simply not going to spring up any time soon, no matter what Bachmann has to say about the possibility. And the Left should also feel free to gleefully fuel this Census paranoia on the Right, because every time someone on the Right buys into the fear of the Census and refuses to fill their form out, it means a better chance that other (less paranoid) states will increase their representation in the House of Representatives. In fact, I would suggest a massive campaign of fueling such paranoia in places like Texas, where losing a seat they were entitled to would be a real possibility.

But, snark aside, while it's fun to ridicule the paranoia expressed by people like Michele Bachmann, and doing so certainly provides lots of good, harmless entertainment on the Left, I have to say that Bachmann's original statement is not some tinfoil-hat lunacy, but actual historical fact. And that historical fact should be examined, because when America is attacked (as with Pearl Harbor and 9/11) the Constitution is often the first thing jettisoned by our government in the rush to protect ourselves. And comforting ourselves with "well, that could never happen nowadays" is foolish optimism which bears no relation to reality. Yes, it could happen. Not the way Bachmann is talking about, and likely having nothing whatsoever to do with the Census, but the "round them all up" impulse is basic human nature when our country is attacked, and we shouldn't shy away from admitting it. Sure, saner heads might ultimately prevail, but think back to October or November of 2001, and ask yourself what we would have done if we could have singled out one nationality that we were at war with -- and, if you're brutally honest, you can see the possibility of history repeating itself (with or without the Census Bureau's help).


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


6 Comments on “In (Partial) Defense Of Michele Bachmann”

  1. [1] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    The site appears to be back up and running. Let me know if anyone has any problems with it in the next few days. I don't know what maintenance my ISP did, but everything should be back to normal, so let me know if it isn't. Thanks, and sorry for the interruption in service.


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Yea, politicians do love their conspiracy theories..

    The problem is, like so many other things they say and do, it's always situational-based...


  3. [3] 
    dsws wrote:

    You would never make it in the mainstream media. Facts? No, there's only the controversy. It must never be suggested that the earth actually has a shape, independent of what the two sides (of the controversy, not the earth) say about it.

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    First off, welcome to the site, I'm assuming you're the same dsws from over at HuffPost...

    Secondly, why would I want to make it in the MSM? Heh.

    Seriously, though, are you sure this didn't get posted to the wrong article? I mean, this is indeed a valid criticism for Friday's column, as we endulge in all-out partisanship on Fridays here (for which I get a lot of heat for, but still enjoy doing). But this article is all about facts -- the fact that Bachmann is technically right in her statement (although not in her far-flung conclusions, of course). So I really don't understand your complaint. Which facts did I ignore? Or do you take exception to the conclusion I drew? I'm confused. I'm not being sarcastic, just encouraging you to expand on your comment a bit.


  5. [5] 
    dsws wrote:

    Thanks for the welcome. Yes, I'm the same dsws as on HuffPo, Dan S. Wylie-Sears (although if I ever start an organization I'll call it Don't Subsidize Wall Street).

    Sorry I wasn't clear. I was griping about the MSM, not about you. I say it so often I was thinking you must have heard it from me on HP.

    You're getting it right: all-out partisanship within the bounds of full respect for facts even when some facts favor the other side. The MSM gets it wrong: even-handedness to the point of pretending that there's no distinction to be made between flat-earthers and round-earthers. I just get elliptical about it when I feel like I'm turning into a johnny-one-note.

    Coming from me, "you'd never make it in the MSM" is a compliment. As you say, why would you want to?

  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    Aha! That makes more sense, indeed.



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