When it comes to the lesson of terrorism and fear, L.A. Times gets the example of Little Tokyo wrong

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In the moments that follow events like those in Brussels, or San Bernardino we look to our news media in the hopes of finding clarity and context—sobriety and a hard-headed humanity when the ugliest passions seethe through our politics.

Sometimes we get what we need, but far too often what we find is soft-headed, ill-informed, harmful and just plain wrong. Take, for example a piece that appeared on the Los Angeles’ Times front page the day after the Brussels terror atrocities.  Matt Pearce, one of the paper’s national reporters and Sheldon Chad, a Canadian screenwriter and journalist reporting as a stringer from Belgium wrote this concerning Molenbeek, the mainly Moroccan Brussels neighborhood from which the killers emerged: “The latest events are also reinforcing outsiders’ suspicions of Molenbeek as ‘the jihadi capital of Europe,’ or something similar to how Los Angeles viewed Little Tokyo in 1941: a den of dangerous outsiders nestled in the heart of a great and imperiled city.”

Really?

It’s hard to know precisely what the writers were trying to convey with that ham-fisted analogy, but the comparison isn’t just wrong and unhelpful. From both an historical and cultural standpoint it is so far off the mark that it manages to slander two generations of loyal, patriotic Japanese Americans.

First, Molenbeek is home to hundreds of jihadi who have traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS. The Paris and Brussels terrorists came from or passed through there, as have numerous other killers. While most of its residents appear law-abiding, it’s also clear that crime, violence and a particularly murderous religious and social pathology also fester in its self-segregated streets and flats.

By contrast, Little Tokyo in the 1940’s was the cultural hub of an immigrant group making the most strenuous efforts to integrate itself into American society. Its annual cultural festival even included a Miss Little Tokyo beauty pageant and was woven through expressions of American patriotism. More important, when the Second World War broke out, Japanese Americans were the target of a wholly unwarranted racist xenophobia whipped up in large part by The Times. Los Angeles never was imperiled by them.

Japanese Americans provide about as clear an example of how immigration is supposed to work—improving both the lives of the newcomers and, though their contributions, that of their adopted country. Molenbeek, by contrast, is an object lesson in Europe’s failure to formulate workable approaches to immigrants or their assimilation into their new countries.

No single Issei (Japanese immigrant) or Nisei (their American born children) ever was found to have engaged in espionage or any other form of disloyalty. To the contrary: Even though they and 110,000 of their friends and family members were rounded up and shipped to concentration camps inland, dozens of bilingual Japanese Americans would make invaluable contributions to U.S. intelligence operations in the Pacific and thousands more would fight the Nazis in Europe as members of the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Infantry Battalion.

“Dangerous outsiders?”

The profound differences between Molenbeek and the real Little Tokyo are, in fact, actually instructive:  By the late 19th century a small group of Issei merchants had established themselves along Los Angeles First and San Pedro streets, close to a hotel that a merchant seaman named Charles Kame had established there in 1886. Early in the 20th century, another 2,000 immigrants arrived, recruited by Henry Huntington to lay track for his Pacific Electric Railway.

When anti-Asian rioting occurred in the aftermath of San Francisco’s great 1906 earthquake, thousands more Issei migrated to LA. Forbidden by state law to  own land, many nonetheless found stable livings in fishing, truck farming—on leased tracts—and as wholesale produce brokers. As citizens, their Nisei children benefited from public education, found success in virtually every walk of life and moved away from Little Tokyo to lands and homes of their own.

They came back to Little Tokyo from time to time for its restaurants, ethnic groceries, classes in flower arranging or bonsai or Zen and the annual Nisei Week festival. Though they continued to confront virulent racism in many quarters, including most tragically government, Japanese Americans provide about as clear an example of how immigration is supposed to work—improving both the lives of the newcomers and, though their contributions, that of their adopted country.

Molenbeek, by contrast, is an object lesson in Europe’s failure to formulate workable approaches to immigrants or their assimilation into their new countries. Most were brought to Belgium to fill post-war labor shortages, as occurred in other Western European countries. No real effort was made to assimilate them into the political or social cultures of their new countries. The opposite occurred: A de facto form of soft segregation took root in which the immigrants were allowed to self-separate from the national mainstream, which is why you now have places like Molenbeek, the grim Islamic enclaves of Britain’s Midlands rust belt or the teeming and hopeless tower blocks of France’s suburban banlieues.

There, the immigrants are allowed to live out their lives as if they’d never left the Maghreb or Middle East and a dangerously bigoted and sexist religious obscurantism is allowed to flourish unchallenged and unchecked. Partly out of misplaced fellow-feeling, partly as an ex post facto justification for bad social policy the existence of these self-isolated communities has come to be described as “multiculturalism.”  It’s not that; it’s cultural segregation—an egalitarian, modern, secular culture for the Europeans and a failed, oppressively traditionalist culture rife with religious fanaticism for the immigrants.

A cohesive nation cannot have multiple political and social cultures; it must have one of each to which all subscribe and give their loyalty. Such a nation can, however, have a diversity of customs, social and religious rituals, so long as their practitioners extend tolerance to the customs, personal and familial rituals of others.

The European notion of multiculturalism is, in fact, a hollow fraud. (Right-wingers here in the United States grouse about multiculturalism, but it’s really not something we practice in any serious way.) A cohesive nation cannot have multiple political and social cultures; it must have one of each to which all subscribe and give their loyalty. Such a nation can, however, have a diversity of customs, social and religious rituals, so long as their practitioners extend tolerance to the customs, personal and familial rituals of others.

Example?

Well, a quinceañera is a charming and joyful Latin American custom; female circumcision is something no civilized nation can permit, no matter how deep its cultural roots.

As Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s former director of counter-terrorism has pointed out, there are reasons Belgium with a Muslim population of 660,000 has sent 470 militants to fight with ISIS—the most of any European country—while the United States with more than 3.3 million Muslim people has sent just 250. Similarly, Benjamin has written, “Since 9/11, the four largest attacks in Europe—Madrid (2004), London (2005), Paris (2015) and Brussels (2016)—have claimed at least 426 lives. In the United States, even with the Fort Hood shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing and San Bernardino, the total is 45. Add in a passel of smaller attacks over the years in Europe, and the difference with the United States is a factor of 10. “

Partly, this is because the United States has spent far more on counter-terrorism than any of the European states with the exception of Britain. Perhaps just as important, it is because Muslim Americans overwhelmingly are successful professional and small business people who are integrated into the larger American society. When radicalization occurs here, as it does, it’s usually done over the Internet and not in some dreary and hopeless ethnic ghetto.

Our concept of diversity is derived from well-tested experience; the Europeans’ notion of multi-culturism is at best a form of self-deception. It’s the kind of distinction our news media ought to make clear.

Photo credit: First Street, ‘Little Tokyo’, Los Angeles, 1953 — by Frank J. Thomas.

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