Keep Digging Until You Hit Bones: Exception, Invisibility, and Trump’s America


Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want (1943)

“He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging.” – Walter Benjamin, “Excavation and Memory”

       One of the more prominent and disturbing advisors to president-elect Donald Trump is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (currently under consideration for a high Cabinet post). An architect of draconian immigration policies during his tenure, Kobach recently proposed a national registry for immigrants from “Muslim” countries. Defending the proposal on Megyn Kelly’s Fox News show, another Trump surrogate, Carl Higbie, cited the Supreme Court’s 1944 decision, Korematsu vs. United States, to show that such a Muslim registry could pass Constitutional scrutiny. The Korematsu decision upheld the Constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, which ordered Japanese-Americans into internment camps during WWII. It did not matter if these Japanese-Americans were citizens of the United States or legal immigrants, all were deported to camps based solely on their ethnicity.

        I remember a few years ago, while on a walk with my brother in the town where he lives in Northern California, we passed by a middle school named after Fred Korematsu. I pointed it out to my brother, remarking positively about the name of the school, but he had no idea who Korematsu was. My brother was not alone in his ignorance; I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of people in the US have never heard of Fred Korematsu. Fred Korematsu was a United States citizen. He tried to join the US Coast Guard during WWII but was denied entry on the basis of being Japanese-American. In 1941, he refused to comply with Executive Order 9066 and went into hiding. He was found, arrested, charged, convicted and sent to the camps. He continued to challenge his conviction and detention and ultimately it was his case that went to the Supreme Court, where he lost in a 6-3 decision. Even after the war was over, Fred Korematsu continued his quiet activism. In 1983, he filed a petition demanding the overturning of his criminal conviction for refusing to comply. This time, he was successful, though the precedent established by Korematsu was never over-turned. Reflecting many years later, Korematsu said, “All these years I thought that the Supreme Court decision was wrong. To have the opportunity after 40 years to reopen my case and have a District Court judge rule I was not a criminal proves that justice in this country is still possible” (cited in Minow, 1998, p. 98). Fred Korematsu is an American hero, but his story is muted. Outside of a few school districts in California, his name will not be found in history books. And the places that hold and honour his memory and what he stood for are often but blips on the landscape that so many Americans pass by without remark. I believe that Americans have forgotten Fred Korematsu, or perhaps were never able to remember, and that this lack of memory is deeply implicated in the recent election of Donald Trump. How nations and societies remember their past, and what they choose (or are forced) to forget, creates the imaginative boundaries of our collective presents and futures.

American Exceptionalism

       It is probably Tocqueville who is responsible for the origin of the concept of “American exceptionalism,” though perhaps its clearest treatment is in the work of the influential political scientist and historian Seymour Martin Lipset (1997) and the famous “frontier thesis” of Frederick Jackson Turner (1921/2014). It perhaps has three inter-related components, first, the foundational ethos of the US state is “freedom,” “liberty,” and “democracy” and is unique in world history, second, the United States has an exceptional imperative to expand that ethos to the edges of the frontier and beyond, and third, this imperative places the United States in morally superior position to the rest of world society. During the arduous presidency of George W. Bush, the ideology of American exceptionalism seemed to be finally cracking. Enmeshed in wars without end, against enemies unspecified, and facing crisis after crisis at home, it seemed like Americans as a whole were increasingly willing to question what in fact that malleable term “freedom” meant. Writes Andrew Bacevich, a retired Colonel in the US Army turned academic and foreign policy critic, whose son was killed serving in Iraq in 2007:

           Yet even as they celebrate freedom, Americans exempt the object of their veneration from critical examination. In our public discourse, freedom is not so much a word or even a value as an incantation, it’s very mention enough to stifle doubt and terminate all debate. (2008, p. 6)

          It appears the ugly side of American exceptionalism is re-asserting itself, the other side of Lipset’s ‘double-edged sword.’ But nativist racism and xenophobia has been a constant throughout the 20th and 21st centuries in the United States; it’s cyclical appearance only a manifestation of its proximity at different times to the centres of political power (see Perea, 1997). But I want to make two points in the remainder of this essay, the first is to draw out the interlinkages between exceptionalism and states of exception (Agamben, 2005; 1998; Butler, 2004; Edkins, 2003), and the second is to examine how American exceptionalism/exception confines those outside of its ambit, and their traumatic memories and histories, to the perpetual periphery of the dominant social imaginary (cf. Castioradis, 1988), to perpetual social invisibility. I argue that it is this exception, and the invisible memory of exception, that leads to the perpetual reoccurrence of Trump. And until Americans can truly see their own histories, their own “shadowed ground” (Foote 2003), scored and pockmarked by trauma, murder, and dislocation, American exceptionalism will retain its inexorable hold over us and American society will remain plagued by the re-occurrence of hatred and nativist fear-mongering.

State of Exception

         Japanese internment is Giorgio Agamben’s “state of exception” par excellence. Drawing on Carl Schmitt, Agamben argues that sovereignty is the power to suspend the law, to decide on a time when the law no longer applies, which he refers to as the state of exception. But power in Agamben is also the ability to legitimise a right-to-rule. Legitimation takes the form of a dialectic between ruler and ruled, a continuous circular transmission of values, ideologies, and normativities. Thus, exception is not merely the suspension of law itself, but the power to alter the legitimating dialectic. Sovereignty asserts itself during times of crisis and the state of exception can only be narrated into existence when the subject population accepts that a crisis state is occurring. But again, such a state is constructed and subjective: “Far from occurring as an objective given, [crisis] clearly entails a subjective judgment, and obviously the only circumstances that are necessary and objective are those declared to be so” (2005, p. 30). The paradox of the state of exception is within it, the sovereign authority suspends our rights, norms, and laws in the name of protecting them. And as Higbie told Kelly, “we have to protect America first,” conveniently categorising Muslim-Americans as “not” or “outside” of American.

         Bodies trapped within the state of exception are at constant risk of having their rights suspended, their rights to more-than-life and their rights as juridical subjects. The crisis of Japanese entry into WWII and the bombing of Pearl Harbour allowed Japanese Americans in the entire Western half of the United States to be reduced to homo sacer, to life and nothing but; it allowed us to confiscate their property (which in most cases was never returned), and frog-march them off to dusty camps surrounded by razor-wire in the most desolate corners of the United States. And the image of America as fearlessly riding into Europe to rescue Britain and France, of GIs bravely island-hopping their way across the Pacific to save Asia from the “yellow menace,” is not interrupted or even challenged by the memory of American fascism, built on the state of exception, being practiced at home (Doss 2010). And the memory of internment is perhaps best encapsulated in a paradigmatic moment of visible invisibility. The Japanese-American Memorial, located on that venerable yet chaotic junkyard of statues where America is produced and re-produced endlessly, the National Mall, was unveiled within days of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (Roosevelt of course being the President who issued Executive Order 9066) (Savage 2009). In choosing the date of the unveilings, American politicians simply did not realise or even notice the problems with the dates, failed to even notice why it might be problematic to have a Japanese-American memorial and an FDR memorial in the same memory-space. Internment is still absent, invisible, unheard. It is memory is contained in what Marita Sturken calls “absent images” (2001), the ability of a single image or memory-place to shoulder out and obliterate the inherent complexities of the past. The dominant memory-place in turn reframes internment as either benevolent, inevitable, or an aberrant blip, random noise.

A Place Doubly Disgraced

       I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Northcentral California, near the border with the state of Oregon. My father was a Public Defender (in the United States this is someone who provides legal defence to those who can’t afford private counsel). Once a month, my father would get into his car and drive the three-plus hours each way out to a place called Tule Lake to provide legal service to people (mainly Native Americans) living in one of the most desolate and rural spaces of the country.


       Tule Lake is a place doubly disgraced. In 1872, after an internal struggle within the tribe, a band of approximately 150 Modoc Native Americans led by Captain Jack (Kintpuash) broke off from the main tribe and refused to be settled on the Klamath Indian Reservation (the Klamath were historical enemies of the Modoc). Numbering only about 52 warriors (the rest were women and children), the Modoc violently rose up against white settlers and demanded the return of their ancestral land. In response, the US Army invaded. The Modoc retreated to the nearby lava beds, a dense warren of easily defensible terrain, and the 52 warriors easily routed the Army contingent. The subsequent efforts to dislodge the Modoc cost the US government an estimated $400,000 (a vast sum of money in that time). Captain Jack and the leaders of the revolt were executed and buried in unmarked graves. The rest of the surviving men were imprisoned on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Harbour. The women and children were held as “prisoners of war” and later forcibly moved to Oklahoma. I do not know who eventually returned to mark the graves of Captain Jack. But someone stored that knowledge of where they were buried away and protected it, making sure to leave the smallest of traces in a field in the empty prairie.


    Later of course, Tule Lake would become the largest and most nefarious of the Japanese-Internment camps. In March 1943, approximately 100 men demonstrated peaceably against their confinement. Here is how the local paper described it:


The Tule Lake camp also contained a group of internees who had been recruited as strikebreakers, Japanese-American internees who stamped out any sort of ‘agitation’ or activism within the camps, easily deployable by the army across the gulag. These cannot help but remind us of the Sonderkommandos (Kapos), Jews responsible for terrorising new arrivals to Auschwitz and for operating the crematoria and the gas chambers (Levi, 1989). Nor was it any coincidence that Tule Lake was selected as a prime location for internment, grafted neatly down across the bones of Captain Jack and the cries and pleas of his family. The War Authority chose sites such as Tule Lake and Manzanar specifically for their geographical isolation, where “Real America,” to employ Sarah Palin’s timeless phrase, would not have to encounter homines sacri, the bodies stripped down to life and nothing but.

      Today, in the town of Tulelake (pop. 1,010), in the central ‘plaza,’ there is a bronze plaque. Carved into that plaque is the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution, that foundational document of “freedom” and “liberty” that was birthed by and has given birth to “American exceptionalism.” There is no mention in that plaza that there was once America’s largest concentration camp located just down the road (Michel, 2016). Drive down the road and you might see (if you’re being diligent and don’t blink) another small plaque, about waist-high and standing off to the side of the road.


Get Out Your Shovels

           I slept very fitfully on the night of Trump’s election. At around 4 in the morning, I cursed and got out my computer to check the results. Just as I opened the window, they called Pennsylvania, and the election, for Trump. With a lump in my throat, I got out my headphones and started listening to music. A bit cliché certainly but I began with REM’s “The End of the World,” but then I decided I didn’t actually feel fine, thought about my friend who had just told me about how she had been subjected to a racist attack recently, and decided it was more appropriate to play “This One Goes Out to the One I Love,” thinking about all my friends and family back home that I had left behind 3 years ago when I emigrated to Ireland. This segued into “Losing My Religion,” as the last clinging drops of faith I still had in the United States as something worth believing in dissipated and fell away.

        In the morning, Americans crashed the Canadian immigration webpage. In response, a friend of mine, who is a foreign student studying in the United States, wrote this on social media (she also runs an excellent blog on African Politics for anyone interested):

        “Let me just remind those responsible for crashing the Canadian immigration website (this equally applies to Brits searching for their long lost Irish bloodline), the people who have worked hard — really hard — to make the United States shameful did not run away. They have never tired from rolling up their sleeves every morning and putting out the hatred that has fermented into this evil. They have toiled and toiled and they have now got their reward. So for liberals whose first instinct is to flee, put down your passport. Canadians have worked for their society; now you work for yours.”

I disagree with my friend regarding her implicit characterisation of Canadian society (though it is clear to see that it is merely a departure point for her argument) especially in the aftermath of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the despicable treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada (Niezen 2013; Regan 2010), especially Indigenous women. But she is absolutely correct in saying that as Americans, we must work for the society we want to realise. I’m getting out my shovel and I’m calling on all my friends and family and anyone who still believes that there is something out there worth saving to get digging. It’s time we excavated America’s brutal, tragic pasts and returned faces and forms to the millions who were rendered into dust by the double-barrel blasts of exception and exceptionalism. This is a battle of visibility versus invisibility. In Milan Kundera’s words, of memory against forgetting. You’ll find that battle in the upcoming years in every street, every neighbourhood, every community. It’s everywhere black men and women take to the streets to demand that their lives must matter. In doing so, they are standing against a history that forgets the ubiquity of American fascism and terror, lynching, how lynchings were communal events, street parties in truth, where the homemade liquor flowed freely and men and women dressed in their finest to hobnob and socialise and murder, where photographs of the murders where made into postcards and shared with friends and family.


It’s everywhere women demand that their bodies are not for grabbing, where they take back the night, take back their campuses and their workplaces. It’s everywhere that a young girl cries when her mother tells her to take her head-scarf off when she goes outside because she won’t be safe wearing it. It’s at Standing Rock. It’s right next to Standing Rock, at Mt. Rushmore, where (literally, I swear this is true, see Doss, 2010), Gutzon Borglum, who would go on to be one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, literally carved the four horseman of the Native American apocalypse, timeless symbols of American pompous grandiosity, into the Black Hills, the most sacred spirit-place of the Dakota/Lakota/Nakota peoples. It’s everywhere Thanksgiving Day still drips with the shameful veneer of Norman Rockwell’s domesticating, whitewashing, saccharine simulacrum. It’s those places and so many more. Let’s get to work. Get out your shovels. And if your ancestors were navvies and coal miners, like mine, you might ask to borrow some dynamite.

       I’m starting at Tule Lake. As I dig down into the layers of sediment, I’ll stop to admire the lava rocks, but I’m going to keep digging until I’ve hit bones. And moving carefully, reverentially around their glinting contours, I’m going to try and help empower those who must excavate their memories. Let’s build a place for them, a place they can call home.

by Joe Robinson


Agamben, G. (2005). State of exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Agamben, G. (1998). Homo sacer: Sovereign power and bare life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bacevich, A. (2008). The limits of power: The end of American exceptionalism. New York: Macmillan.

Butler, J. (2004). Precarious lives: The powers of mourning and violence. London: Verso.

Castioradis, C. (1988). The imaginary institution of society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Doss, E. (2010). Memorial mania: Public feeling in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Edkins, J. (2003). Trauma and the memory of politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Foote, K. (2003). Shadowed ground: America’s landscapes of violence and tragedy: Revised and updated. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Levi, P. (1989). The drowned and the saved. New York: Abacus Books.

Lipset, S. (1997). American exceptionalism: A double-edged sword. New York: Norton.

Michel, C. (2016). Tule Lake: Memories of Japanese internment. The Diplomat Magazine. Online. Available at:

Minow, M. (1998). Between vengeance and forgetting: Facing history after mass violence. Boston: Beacon Press.

Niezen, R. (2013). Truth and indignation: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Perea, J. (1997). Immigrants out! The new nativism and the anti-immigrant impulse in the United States. New York: NYU Press.

Regan, P. (2010). Unsettling the settler within: Indian residential schools, truth-telling, and reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Sturken, M. (2001). Absent images of memory: Remembering and re-enacting the Japanese internment. In Fujitani, T., White, G., & Yoneyama, I., eds. Perilous images: The Asia-Pacific War(s). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Turner, F. J. (1921/2014). The significance of the frontier in American history. Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books.


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