2005-6-12

University of Washington School of Law Graduation 2005

Commencement Speaker: Mr. Dale Minami of Minami, Lew & Tamaki, L.L.P.

Before I begin my remarks, I want to offer a big congratulation to all of you on your graduation from law school. Pure victories are rare in life and this is one of them to celebrate. I know you are happy to graduate but I know your parents may be even happier. So congratulations for supporting these graduates through law school.

I want to thank the University of Washington School of Law for inviting me to speak here today. I love to come to law school events to talk because I don’t have to take notes. I don’t get asked questions or take tests and I never have to provide the rationale or reasoning for opinions. I just get to talk.

At a commencement, however, I am supposed to dispense words of wisdom from my vast experience and advanced age. But if I really were smart enough to offer you sage advice I would have invented the iPod and Google. So I don’t have any brilliant insights only observations and I’m still not quite sure how I was voted to speak here today.

Japanese Americans view social and political phenomena in reference to generations. They have even developed nomenclature for these categories. The Issei - first generations immigrants born in Japan; Nisei - second generation born here; and Sansei - now we’re talking ‘bout my generation. These classifications are not unique to Japanese and may be somewhat artificial categorizations to explain phenomena. They are over-generalizations but highly useful when disparaging someone’s music or when pretending to offer grand insights about life’s lessons, global issues and advice at commencements. The labeling is a shorthand way of describing cultural, political and social movements and attitudes at a given point in history/time

I do, however, believe that each generation writes its own history. Which is why it is more difficult for each succeeding generation to be greater than the former generation. Just as history is written by the victors, the mythology of culture is written by those in power. That is why Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington used to be the greatest music around and that is why at this time in history, there will never be greater music than from Motown or The Beatles. Come on - “My Girl”?. “Tracks of My Tears”? “Yesterday”? Okay, the Rolling Stones lasted five decades, and maybe you don’t even recognize those other groups.

But you may know the title of a popular historical book - “The Greatest Generation” - written by journalist, Tom Brokaw, about my parents’ generation. Its subject is the ordinary folks who showed extraordinary heroism fighting fascism during WWII. Perhaps Mr. Brokaw anointed them the greatest because overcame so many disasters - the Stock Market crash of 1929, the grinding poverty of the Great Depression, World War II where 290,000 Americans and up to 80 million people died and from where they returned from the battlefields of Europe and Asia to make the United States the richest, most powerful nation in the world.

They are dying now, the greatest generation, to be replaced by my generation of leaders, workers, artists, slackers, and activists. But the Greatest Generation is not completely gone, so I’ll just call my generation the Great Generation.
Our Great Generation grew up in the 50s - a time of hope, innocence and dizzying opportunity for many Americans. Social, political and cultural upheavals had not yet upended our society. Ninety percent of the country was white. Issues of racism had not yet surfaced in our Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver world. As we came of age, for many of us, a funny thing happened on the way to middle class America. We were hijacked by the Civil Rights movement which rocked America and our idyllic world by unmasking the phony rhetoric that we people of color were the equal of Caucasian Americans.

We pushed that agenda of equality, extended it to women, disabled, gays and lesbians. And student strikes on campuses demanding a true history of people of color pried open the Ivory Towers of academia to Ethnic Studies courses, a direct descendant of the Civil Rights Movement. Ethnic studies taught a United States history in Technicolor and deconstructed the myths of race built up over a century. We take ethnic studies for granted now but these programs were not given without a struggle.

A Washington footnote: In 1978, I sued WSU with UW law graduates Rod Kawakami and Gary Iwamoto to create an APA Studies program. We were told that the history of Asian Americans was not important enough to study. Our class was certified, one of the largest classes in history I contend, because it included all persons of Asian ancestry who have attended, are attending or may attend Washington State University, which potentially included everyone in China and India. After certification, we settled and gained an Asian American Studies program as well as support services, a victory then, although I understand there are still race problems at WSU today.

We also fought to stop the degradation of our environment and we experienced the counter culture movement which, if fully embraced, made you forget about everything else. With our fascination with television and transistor radios, we helped democratize American culture. And like the Greatest Generation, we also knew war through a small, theretofore unknown country in Southeast Asia - Vietnam - where 58,000 Americans and 2 million Vietnamese died. It was the longest war in American history and a war, justified by lies and fought for no good reason by young men and women, destroyed our innocence about politics. As did the revelation that our nation’s leader, Richard Nixon, the President of the United States, had authorized the illegal break in at the Democratic National Headquarters as exposed by Deep Throat, I mean Mark Felt now that we know who he is.

So our values were forged in a crucible of social upheaval on the streets, in civil rights movements, in the haze of the counter-culture, in protests against the Vietnam War and in the end, challenging America to become the America we were taught existed. Of course, this social maelstrom didn’t touch all of our generation in the same way as the polarization between Red and Blue States today demonstrates.

After the Great Generation come you. If my parents’ generation was the greatest and we were just great, I guess you’re the chopped liver generation....but just for now because our generations made much progress but we also left much undone. The generations before you won WWII but started the Vietnam War, invaded Grenada, Afghanistan and Iraq. They passed civil rights acts, outlawed discrimination but never reached Dr. King’s mountaintop of equality. We didn’t legalize gay marriage, although we’re trying. We didn’t erase poverty in the richest country in the world and that hole in Ozone layer is just getting larger

This is where you come in - not by making the United States richer or more powerful. Other generations have been there done that too. But by making America reach greatness by regaining its moral authority in the way it treats its own citizens and other nations.

I see the world through the lens of my experience as a Japanese American whose parents and then one year-old brother was sent to prison during WWII as threats to the United States’ national security, along with 120,000 other JA’s, two-thirds of whom were citizens, without notice of charges, without the right to an attorney without a trial and without good reason. I see the world as a person of color, as an attorney and as a person with an FBI file for starting a poverty law clinic and representing unpopular causes and clients. Civil liberties are not abstract concepts to me.

So I am greatly concerned about the path our country is taking. I am acutely sensitive to racial profiling in the aftermath of Sept. 11 because in 1942, what was done to JAs during WWII was nothing less than massive racial profiling where the use of race became the determinative factor in the banishment of a whole population of Americans, demonizing innocent people with the brand of disloyalty.

I am worried about assault on civil rights embodied in the Patriot Act which was rushed thru Congress from initial draft to final adoption without virtually any debate in six weeks and which is now being considered for renewal and expansion. These laws are theoretically aimed at terrorists but applicable to all Americans. They gut the Fourth Amendment and allow wiretaps, surveillance, private searches without warrants, indefinite detentions and deportations. The government can browse your medical, financial, educational or even library records without evidence of a crime and without you even knowing. It can review your credit records; track your e-mail and Internet usage.

I don’t believe it is just a response to 9/11. Much of the Patriot Act was drafted before then. It is part of a larger context of exploiting the Trojan Horse of anti-terrorism to centralize power in the hands of the Executive and carry out anti-crime agenda disallowed by former laws and the Constitution. In fact, this Act is used more often against alleged white collar criminals, illegal immigrants and pornographers than suspected terrorists.

If these assaults are not fought, these laws will be used against ordinary Americans who dissent from official policy and will become permanent because if the Patriot Act is based on the notion of War on Terrorism, an undeclared war against no specific nation and a war can never be won, according to our President, then the justification for this law will go on forever, meaning these restrictions become permanent. We should not be fighting a war against terrorism abroad to lose war for civil rights at home. The danger was recognized by Ben Franklin centuries ago: “ A society which would sacrifice liberty for security deserves neither.” It was also recognized in the powerful dissent of Justice Robert Jackson in Korematsu vs. United States:

The Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens. The principle lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.

The weapon is now being reloaded.

The companion to the War on Terror is the war on dissent. After the Twin Towers attack, America was deluged by a tidal wave of patriotism. President Bush issued challenges to the world: You are either for us or against us. The rhetoric around the war against Afghanistan, Iraq and the war against terrorism was a simple message - in times of crisis, you cannot criticize the government or you are unpatriotic. The very title “Patriot Act” implies that any one against it is not a Patriot.

This suppression of dissent is repugnant to a free society. In 1942, Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi, a grad student right here at the UW defied the government orders aimed at one race of Americans. Acting with the noblest of motives, they were criticized, reviled and called disloyal. But History has proven them right. In 1942, very few dissented from the decision to imprison Japanese Americans. Congress passed laws unanimously; the Supreme Court acquiesced meekly; the public remained silent, and we experienced a civil rights disaster.

So from my perspective formed by the tragedy of our history, a claim of military necessity or national security can be an utter lie. We must demand concrete and real justifications before we allow any intrusion into our civil liberties.

The attack on civil liberties at home parallels the disdain for international human rights. The United States has become a renegade nation, an international bully employing its military might and economic power with little regard for the sovereignty and opinions of other nations. Again, this is not just a response to 9/11, but is played out in larger context of increasing the dominance of the United States in international affairs, unfettered by international organizations like the United Nations or international laws like the Geneva Conventions.

The torture of prisoners at Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq is the most blatant example of this attitude. We manipulated the interpretation of the Geneva Convention to justify torture and created a new category of “Enemy Combatants” who live in some nether world without rights. I say “we” because I believe we all bear some responsibility as Americans. This approach was recently condemned in Amnesty International’s annual report on State of the World’s Human Rights. The report found that the treatment at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib emboldens abusive regimes, weakens human rights around the world and supplies a license to others to commit abuse with impunity and audacity.

Other examples of our disregard for the rule of International Law are the United States’ failure to recognize the authority of the International Criminal court, its refusal to sign the Kyoto accords on the environment and the invasion of Iraq on the phony pretext of weapons of mass destruction.

The long term interests of our country are not served by such abhorrent acts. We should be better than to torture and then try to justify its barbaric employment. We should be better than to deny basic due process to citizens and non citizens. We must be better or the squandering of any moral authority will someday return to haunt us!

I do have great hope for all of us. Unlike 1942, in the aftermath of 9/11, political leaders, including President Bush, and the media urged restraint in blaming all Muslims and Arabs for the attack on the Twin Towers. Communities of all color came together to support Muslim and Arab people. Over 100 jurisdictions, most notably the State of Hawaii, have passed resolutions refusing to comply with the Patriot Act. Librarians have also refused to honor its sneak and peek provisions. And unlike 1943 and 1944, our Supreme Court refused to acquiesce in the indefinite confinement of two citizens, Jose Padilla and Yaser Hamdi, who were held incommunicado for two years as “enemy combatants”. With barely a reference to the embarrassing Korematsu decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Conner wrote eloquently: “A state of war not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation’s citizens.”

My grandfather, first generation Issei, came to this country in 1906 from Japan. My mother-in-law immigrated here in the 1970s. They came for the same reason - opportunity and freedom. I am not so naive to believe we can create a perfect world but I am not so pessimistic to believe it cannot be made better. So this is this a challenge to your generation: Pass the Bar exam, survive your Quarter Life Crisis and get working to write a better history so you will become the next Greatest Generation.

Years ago, we had a dream - of a multi-cultural, diverse, egalitarian country where poverty had become a stranger. Today, we have a nightmare - a country where civil rights and human rights are being sacrificed on the altar of unrestricted power. Where the polarization of its people is more pronounced than at any time in my life. Just think 129 votes as a metaphor.

Tomorrow, we must create a new dream
Of respecting due process;
Of embracing diversity;
Of tolerating, no, encouraging dissent;
Of eradicating poverty;
Of respecting human rights and international law

I end with the words of a great educator, Horace Mann, to the first graduating class of Antioch: Be ashamed to die, until you have won some victory of humanity.

Godspeed to you all on your journey.