On this week’s edition of Real Politik James speaks with University of California Davis Professor Darrell Hamamoto. The two discuss the UC’s recent persecution of Hamamoto for his outspokenness on controversial issues in the classroom, the “managed consent” and orthodox nature of academic ethnic studies and multicultural programs, and Hamamoto’s most recent book, Servitors of Empire: Studies in the Dark Side of Asian America (TrineDay 2014).
Darrell Hamamoto holds degrees in political science, popular culture, and sociology, and is a graduate of University of California at Irvine’s Comparative Cultures doctoral program. A Fullbright Scholar (Japan) Hamamoto is presently the senior ranking professor in the Department of Asian American Studies at UC Davis. Throughout his 30 year academic career he has become a major figure in the study of media, race, and popular culture. Professor Hamamoto is also the author of Monitored Peril: Asian Americans and the Politics of TV Representation and Nervous Laughter: Television Situation Comedy and Liberal Democratic Ideology.
Over the past several months Professor Hamamoto has been subjected to persecution by his employer, the University of California, for remarks he’s made in the classroom that have sometimes challenged students’ beliefs and sensibilities. The program against Hamamoto included a formal standoff with alleged disgruntled students and UC administrators and attorneys. “They brought in the top guns and they grilled me for eight hours,” he notes. “Then we had one week’s hiatus and it was our side’s turn to rebut their campaign of defamation, I would call it.”
“I was represented by one of your previous guests, Dan Siegel, out of Oakland, California. He’s a civil rights attorney, he’s a former head of the Students for Democratic Society when it was real … It’s public knowledge that the University of California has been on a campaign. I’m at the campus called Davis, and it’s a very conservative campus and conservative community, although most of the professors and staff people like to present themselves as cosmopolitans. It’s pretty much of a cultural backwater. That’s true right across the board, even among the so-called hipsters.”
Hamamoto came to national attention several years ago through his examination and involvement in the production of Asian erotica, even encouraging Asian American males to become involved in the adult film business. A central motivation involved challenging dominant Western stereotypes of Asian males as physically and behaviorally passive and inferior. Yet Hamamoto admits that such endeavors, while also intending to put his university on the map, have failed to endear him to UC Davis pooh-bahs.
“Part of the reason for doing these types of projects is to help the UC Davis campus overcome its inferiority complex,” he notes. “You know, this notion that we’re always living in the shadow of University of California at Berkeley. But they don’t seem to appreciate my puckish efforts in trying to polish our image beyond just sort of a cow college, or a monkey, simian lab experimentation center. Pick your animal.”
The case has yet to be decided at the time of our discussion. The UC administration will penalize Professor Hamamoto by reducing his salary by one quarter for six months in the event they find that he acted unprofessionally in the classroom. Hamamoto argues that teaching at university is increasingly unattractive because many students fear faculty members to think outside the box.
There’s this precious idea that the students cannot be harmed. They cannot be offended in any sort of fashion. They cannot be challenged. And this is part of the “managed consent.” Behaviorally they’ve been refashioned. And this precedes of course their university experience. But they’ve been refashioned to rethink that everything and anything that they don’t like or makes them feel uncomfortable is a capital offense, and they university encourages that.
The UC Davis professor argues that in the early 2000s universities across the US increasingly turned from academic instruction to providing students with a “fun” experience away from home as they bilk their families’ savings and accumulate student loan debt. University administrators as a whole “figured out that none of these majors are resulting in jobs, so what they need to do is hype them up on Prozac and entertain them, build giant student centers where they can go rock climbing, and hire a bunch of psychotherapists–with the emphasis on “psycho”–so they can do touchy-feely and get in touch with their inner self, their inner child. And that way they won’t notice that they’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars for a prolonged adolescence, where they don’t really have to come grips with adult realities.”
Hamamoto’s 2014 book, Servitors of Empire, takes an especially novel approach toward Asian American studies that stands apart from that academic field. In fact, despite his established notoriety in the discipline no university publishing house would take the project on.
I started out writing about Asian American criminality, and I had a very conventional set of assumptions. But the more I dug in to it, the more I read about it [my perspective changed]. In the meantime we had all these individuals coming to the fore. They were the epitome, the embodiment of social evil. People like John Chu Yoo and Viet Dinh writing the USA PATRIOT Act and the Torture Memos … and high level finance people. It forced me to radically rethink Asian Americans. And I think there are analogues in other groups, by the way. We know about the people to run La Raza and MEChA and all that. They’re mostly upper middle-class professional Latinos. Or maybe they’re professional transnationals who have Latino last names.
In Asian American studies we have Asian transnationals who like grew up in Malaysia, or who went to German elite boarding schools who are the daughters of Singaporean ambassadors, or the sons of someone who worked in the Philippines for the World Bank, who are now rockin’ race and ethnicity in Asian American studies and ethnic studies. They have no lived experience of racial oppression. But, since the model of uniform racial-ethnic-gender oppression is the orthodoxy now, that’s now you get over in academia. So they’re gonna keep playing that game.
So this book is intended to pull the foundation out from under their feet, and also the posers who are exploiting the very real advances that we have made socially, politically, economically. Not just Asian Americans.
I also want to focus on the real issue, which is this endless war against the rest of the world that is being managed and orchestrated by forces at a much higher level, but keeping us locked in to this race-ethnicity-gender conflict model as a form of control.
As the ensuing discussion demonstrates, Servitors of Empire probes the frequently overlooked stories of other prominent Asian Americans as well, including Norm Mineta, Elaine Chao, Iris Chang, and Yoko Ono, to further illuminate the complex relationship between race, ethnicity and the broader power relations of the New World Order.