I love storytelling. Effective storytelling encourages listeners to lean in close. Take it all in. Become invested in the narrative. I believe narrative storytelling is a crucial element for history education. It makes history more human instead of merely a collection of dates and facts. It invites people to connect with individuals in the past instead of merely observing them. The mission of Scapegoat Cities is exactly that.
“A human understanding of how the Japanese-American internment happened.” This is the compelling tagline for Dr. Eric Muller’s podcast, Scapegoat Cities. Over 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent were incarcerated during World War II. Men, women, and children were forced from their homes into concentration camps. They suffered discrimination and exclusion. Typically very heady ideas. Bringing the narrative down to a human level is impactful and valuable.
The host of this podcast, Dr. Eric Muller, is a legal historian and law professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Scapegoat Cities highlights the stories he found in the archives. By putting them on a podcast, he displays them in an accessible way. Many of these stories may not have been brought to the public otherwise.
Muller wastes no time orienting the listener to the scope of the podcast. The opening narration gives a brief historical background and then outlines the purpose of this unique project. This continuity throughout the episodes orients the listener back into that headspace every time. I’ll play a little bit of it here.
“Seventy-five years ago, months after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the federal government opened up 10 concentration camps to warehouse every one of the 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. Two thirds of them were US citizens. Most people believe that such a thing should never happen again in the United States to any group, racial, ethnic, religious, or otherwise. I’m Eric Muller. And I think the best way to make sure something doesn’t happen again, is to know what the thing was that actually happened.”
In an interview with the Japanese American National Museum, Muller stated that he sought to tell the ordinary stories about ordinary people. That goal sums up the content of this podcast very well. Nothing dramatic or highly intense occurs in each episode. They simply tell the stories of everyday Americans going about their lives. Details that a lot of people can relate to. Despite being relatable stories, one does not forget their terrible reality.
Muller adheres to the best practices of historical scholarship despite being confined into a short episode format. The stories are fascinating, intricate, and all true. He takes some creative liberty in storytelling but all the significant details are drawn straight from the archives. Muller does not explain which archives the content is drawn from. However, he does include a list of books on the website for further reading and research.
Each episode weaves together a personal story within the greater historical context. Muller picks one theme to focus on per episode. The construction of barracks in the concentration camps. Resisting the draft. Fear over alleged allegiance to Japan. And more. This wide array of topics exposes the listener to a broad representation of experiences.
Muller’s storytelling style is compelling. He paints a picture of the environment. A small barrack apartment. Surrounding hills perfect for sledding. A tight-knit, dependable community. He uses dialogue to express a particular scene or feeling. It’s as if he’s sitting right beside me, telling me a story. He also uses music to drive home his points. Each episode ends with Roy Rogers singing “Don’t Fence Me In”, a song that was released in 1944. I’ll play a snippet of it here.
“Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in.”
The lyrics are cheerful but in the context of this podcast, the meaning is chilling. Japanese-Americans were literally and figuratively fenced into a confined space. They desired to be physically free from the camps and for personal freedom from negative public opinion. It’s a great way to end each episode.
The podcast is well-produced. The music is well-placed in the background. Overall, an easy listen. Sometimes, the beginning music is too loud but then the narration is too quiet. That’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Just something I noticed. The narrative is cohesive and thought-provoking. Muller organizes the episodes in an easy-to-follow structure. He’ll start telling a story, insert broader contextual details, and conclude with the rest of the story and its aftermath.
For Episode Six, Muller switches things up a bit. He edits the audio to sound like a newsreel or radio show. Advertisements are sprinkled throughout the day’s headlines. His voice is slightly muffled and gravelly. A well-placed change in the middle of the season. Here’s an example of what I mean.
“We toast ’em crisp, we toast ’em light.
You can tell by the taste we toast ’em.
They’re a tasty treat, so good to eat.
Delicious and light and toasty. Post Toasties!”
“Now back to the news from the camps for August 21, 1943. Heart Mountain Sentinel is announcing the first big harvest of vegetables from the camp’s farmland for the 1943 season. 4,738 pounds of green beans, 5,447 pounds of red radishes, 1,100 pounds of cucumbers, 2,363 pounds of Napa cabbage and 16,436 pounds of peas will soon be featured in dishes on mess hall tables.”
See? Fun to listen to.
And anyone can listen to this podcast and enjoy it. You do not need to have any previous knowledge of the subject matter to appreciate it. The stories are informative and engaging. Since the episodes focus on one specific story, you are not overwhelmed with information. Muller gives you just enough details to appreciate the content without feeling bombarded. A slice of history, if you will.
Scapegoat Cities draws inspiration from the memory palace, another short narrative podcast, and you can definitely see the influence. Both consists of short stories in engaging detail. I’ll link them both in the description.
Scapegoat Cities received very positive reviews. People praised the content, delivery, and mission. The podcast’s biggest drawback is its limited run. All the episodes were released in 2017 in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the opening of the internment camps. With only nine episodes, the podcast leaves much to be desired. This is not to say it’s not worth a listen. I’m just now invested and wished there would’ve been more content. I reached out to Muller via his website to ask about the potential for future episodes. But as of this recording, I have not received a response.
Scapegoat Cities is an excellent history podcast. It is amusing and heartbreaking. It brings better perspective to this time in US History. One is struck by how recent these events were. Seventy-five years is not that long ago. The wounds are still fresh and prevalent.
If you are interested in specifically learning more about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII or want to dip your toes into knowing about US history in general, I highly recommend Scapegoat Cities. I hope you come away with a deeper and empathetic understanding of those directly impacted by these discriminatory policies.
For Loyola University Chicago, I’m Caroline Lauber.
Music in this episode: “Perigean“, “Seabed”, and “Amphidromic” by REW>>; “Don’t Fence Me In” performed by Roy Rogers.
Podcast and Article Links:
“Scapegoat Cities: New Podcast Explores Japanese American Incarceration”
Resources from the Scapegoat Cities website for further research!