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A Fertile Land for Growing Hate Groups

Here’s a story about our past and our present. I can’t claim that it means a great deal, but this story intrigues me because it involves a certain recurrent pathology. A pathology that, as far as I know, is peculiar to Southern California.

It begins with Manzanar, the Japanese-American relocation center that held 10,000 internees during World War II. Several weeks ago, we discussed in this space the likelihood that Manzanar would become a National Historic Site. Having fallen to ruin in the Owens Valley, the internment camp was finally getting its due, and we came down foursquare in favor of the designation.

This was hardly an act of journalistic derring-do. Half a century after the government rounded up the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast and locked them away for years, the nation finally seems willing to acknowledge its crimes by commemorating one of the camps. Establishment of the historic site is expected before the end of the year.

So I was not prepared for what happened next. There was a reaction of a certain kind to that column, the kind that seems organized. It came first in the form of a letter from Robert M. Garrick, who identified himself as “Rear Admiral USNR Ret.”

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Garrick is a plain-spoken man. “Hasn’t the time come,” he began, “for you and the other bleeding hearts on your paper’s staff to knock off your disinformation.”

Specifically, Garrick meant to set me straight about the nature of Manzanar. It contained no prisoners but only voluntary visitors, he wrote. The visitors were treated royally, given every amenity, and had “all they could eat at our government’s expense.”

Then there were other letters by other writers, all with similarities. Manzanar is a hoax, they said, perpetuated by the Japanese operating through shadowy groups. In fact, the camps were cheerful refuges from the stresses of wartime America. The Japanese wanted to live there. The stuff about barbed wire and guard towers is all lies.

Finally Rear Adm. Garrick wrote again. He suggested that if I wanted the real truth about Manzanar I should contact one Lillian Baker of Gardena.

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So I called, and began to understand from whence the letters came. Baker, it turns out, is the guru of the Manzanar-is-a-hoax school and has written three books on the subject. She talks loud, she talks fast. She has many facts.

“There’s been four decades of cover-up,” she says. “And the Japanese have tried to blacken my name because I want to air the truth.”

Contrary to the myth, she says, the Japanese benefited from the camps. They arrived poor, without skills. They left educated and trained for high-paying jobs. The very site of Manzanar was chosen by a thoughtful federal government because it would remind the Japanese of the slopes of Mt. Fuji.

And why have the Japanese-Americans created this big lie about imprisonment, property loss and personal pain? Because, she says, the West Coast Japanese needed an issue to divert attention from their complicity with Japan during the war.

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“They have guilt,” she says, “And they’re trying to conceal it.”

OK. Let’s not get into the dreary business of arguing with Baker’s many points. As you probably have guessed, Baker and her disciples are well beyond argument.

I tell this story for another reason. Do you recall, a few years back, the sudden rise of an outfit known as the Institute for Historical Review? This was the crowd that said the Nazi Holocaust was a hoax, a historical trick perpetrated by the Jews to generate sympathy for Zionism.

Before it collapsed, the institute once offered $50,000 to anyone who could prove that a single Jew had died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Eventually someone did, and the publicity was worldwide.

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The Institute did not grow out of New York or Warsaw or London. It was a local product. For some reason it germinated and blossomed here in Southern California. Now Baker and her clones of the Historical Review crowd have sprung from the same soil.

More than a generation ago, novelist Nathaniel West observed that Southern California had bred more hate groups than the rest of the country combined. He laid it to the bitterness of people who came to live in the sunshine and found instead boredom and disappointment.

And that part of Southern California has not changed, no matter how much we have otherwise grown. As far as Manzanar goes, soon it will become a historic site and the truth will be told about the barbed wire and guard towers.

But it won’t matter to Lillian Baker. She is writing another book on Manzanar and the Japanese, she says. And this time she will have even more facts. This time she will get the full truth out, for sure.

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