The musical, “Allegiance,” which recently closed on Broadway, is based on the childhood experience of actor George Takei and his family in an internment camp during World War II. I haven’t seen the play, but I recently listened to the album. While set in the 1940s, the themes are echoed in the hate-filled shouting match that is the 2016 US presidential campaign.
Out of irrational fear and prejudice, President Roosevelt treated American citizens of Japanese ancestry as criminals, depriving them of liberty and property without due process, stripping them by decree of Constitutional protections. Yes, this was racist. As noted by a character in “Allegiance,” they didn’t do this to Joe DiMaggio, despite the fact that we were also fighting Italy.
When the writers began their work, this was Takei’s story alone–and a sordid chapter in American history. Who could have known that by the time it was on Broadway, presidential candidates would be arguing for walls on our borders, and for restricting the liberty of Americans based on their religion?
We don’t want to remember the dark corners of our past. We prefer to celebrate “The Good War,” and “The Greatest Generation.” We remember the smiling Roosevelt, the jaunty Roosevelt, the Roosevelt who restored drinking and brought back happy days after the Great Depression. We have forgotten the Roosevelt who ruled with an iron fist, who had US troops trample veterans demanding justice, who put American citizens in concentration camps. If pushed, some Americans will defend these actions, as they defend the dropping of the atomic bombs, by appealing to “security” and “safety” and “protecting American lives.”
September 11 was our generation’s December 7. It stirred up the sleeping prejudices and awakened primal fears and suspicions. Those dark emotions led Americans to cheer on questionable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to support the Patriot Act, and to defend torture.
After fourteen years of war, we haven’t learned its lessons. American forces are back in the middle east for a third try. American politicians send more American soldiers to die, while they vote to cut veterans benefits. They fatten their own pockets through alliances with unscrupulous defense contractors, while fanning the flames of hate. They seem to care for neither peace nor justice, only a security state that protects American interests (our alliance with the Sunni oil kingdoms of the Gulf).
“Allegiance” tells of a divided nation–and divided families. It asks the question, how can we fight for freedom while depriving our citizens of it?
What has happened to the American values fought for by the patriots of the Revolution? What has happened to their love of freedom, their trust in the citizenry, their suspicion of powerful governments and standing armies? What has happened to their Enlightenment ideals? I’d say they’ve been buried under hate and fear, and drowned out by the cacophony of “Reality” TV programs. And so our favored politicians are not those who speak of an optimistic future, but those who scream about danger and fear. We are the audience of the Nuremberg rally; the glow of torches replaced by the glow of our televisions, and “Sieg heil!” replaced with, “You’re fired!” And we cheer an angry populist who vows to make our nation great again.
And “Allegiance,” a powerful mirror of our times, disappears from Broadway after 113 performances.