Background: Michelle Malkin has written a book about the forced removal and internment of people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast during the Second World War. In the book, she questions the conventional wisdom, saying that the internment was at least partly justified. Several people are not amused with this, the most notable being Eric Muller, who posted a series of critiques while guest-blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy (start here and scroll up for all ten parts). Malkin has responded, and Muller has continuted the discussion on his own blog. I’m sure the debate isn’t over as of this writing, so there may be more.
First of all, if you’re a history buff, or if you think about how to deal with radical Islamists in this country, you really should read the whole thing, including Malkin’s posted motivations for writing the book. I knew very little about the incident before this debate started, and I am getting a first-class education into the details by following the points being debated. I have to say that I’m not convinced that Malkin is right, or that the standard view of the Japanese internment is wrong, at least not yet. But before today, I certainly wasn’t letting this incident affect my views on current events, such as the question of tolerance for Muslim minorities here.
What was really disappointing, though, was this reaction from Larry Lessig. While I disagree with Professor Lessig on many things, I also agree on many others, and have come to respect his scholarship especially on issues of copyright law and freedom online. I had come to expect better from him.
Now, this isn’t because of his conclusions. Indeed, Eric Muller (and Greg Robinson, who has been assisting Muller behind the scenes) come to the same conclusions as Lessig does. But while Lessig simply scolds, Muller and Robinson rebut. The latter pair is not opposed in principle to the concept of challenging the received wisdom; they just disagree that Malkin has done an effective job. They provide plenty of meat for Malkin and others to sink their teeth into:
Malkin does not respond to my criticism of her case for the military necessity of mass evacuation, which relies on the shelling of Goleta by a Japanese submarine on February 23, 1942. Since this was 12 days after mass evacuation was approved by President Roosevelt and four days after Executive Order 9066, it cannot have impacted the decision. Instead, Malkin repeats her claims on pp. 90-92 of her book, namely that â€œthe Goleta shelling and the famous â€œBattle of Los Angelesâ€ air raid scare a few days later precipitated the forced evacuation of Terminal Island in Los Angeles harbor, which, by the way, had been singled out in MAGIC messages as a hotbed of Japanese espionage activity.â€
(Robinson, quoted here by Muller)
Contrast the richness of this rebuttal with Lessig’s feeble conformism:
But there is more than historical accuracy or the career of a silly journalist at stake. The role of the Constitution in wartime is defined by a consensus that Korematsu was wrongly decided. Thankfully, that consensus is unlikely endangered by this soon-to-be-forgotten leaflet. If you want to be radical, you have to actually be good.
This in a post with no links to Malkin and no discussion as to why this consensus is so vitally important that it must not be questioned. Instead, such questioning is merely evil; better to live in unexamined error than to jeapordize our beloved dogma.
Of course, received wisdom isn’t always good. Consider this hypothetical quote from Jack Valenti:
But there is more than studio profits or the career of a silly professor at stake. The role of copyright in modern society is defined by a consensus that Eldred was rightly decided. Thankfully, that consensus is unlikely endangered by this soon-to-be-forgotten leaflet. If you want to be radical, you have to actually be good.
(Lessig fans will recognize Eldred as the case he argued before the Supreme Court against allowing the indefinite extension of copyright.)
This is why we should not be afraid to question received wisdom, and why Lessig’s arrogance beats Malkin’s irreverence as the far greater sin. My fond hope: that this is an aberration in an intellectual life I have otherwise found compelling, and even world-shaking.
UPDATE: It appears that Tim Wu, not Larry Lessig, posted the story on Lessig’s blog. My apologies to the good Professor.