Indiana State University Newsroom

Crime and Pop Culture Conference links past to present

October 4, 2012

The author of nearly 50 well-loved children's books, Dr. Seuss is often associated with "The Cat in the Hat" or "Green Eggs and Ham."

Thus, it was surprising to see a 1942 political cartoon penned by the children's author questioning the loyalty of Japanese-Americans and depicting them as a quiet threat to American safety.

Cherstin Lyon, associate professor of history at California State University-San Bernardino, used the visual to demonstrate the way criminality is socially constructed in times of war, focusing on the unfair treatment of Japanese-Americans.

Lyon was one of the nine featured speakers of the fourth annual International Crime, Media and Popular Culture Studies Conference which is sponsored by the ISU Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. She spoke after a welcome from Indiana State University President Dan Bradley and conference chair Frank Wilson, among others.

"In this area of study, there have always been small pockets of research, but never in a centralized venue. That's why I think it's starting to take off," said Wilson, also an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at ISU.

Over the course of the three-day conference, attendees had the opportunity to attend 25 panel sessions. Each panel offered multiple presentations, with topics varying from violent crime on television to a study of criminal behavior in the "50 Shades of Gray" novel.

The conference had about 100 registered participants and hundreds of ISU students attend, with registrants bringing more paper presentations than any previous years, said Wilson. The diverse crowd represented 27 states and approximately 15 different countries, including Iran, Nigeria and Lithuania.

"We're in a global society. I think that shows the whole area of study is not isolated to the United States," he said, also noting that the diversity allows students to be exposed to scholarly research form around the world.

ISU students packed the balcony for a presentation about cognitive linguistics by Amy Cook, assistant professor of theater history, theory and literature at Indiana University.

In her address, Cook explained the way that moral judgments are influenced by narrative and social settings.

"We take sides instinctively and then use reasoning to justify our perspective post hoc," said Cook.

Scott Vollum, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, agreed, applying the theory to an emotionally charged debate within the field of criminology.

"We create how we feel about the death penalty, then attempt to support our opinion based upon social underpinnings. Our attitudes stem from deeply engrained cultural beliefs," he said.

Cook discussed the role in which speech can play in shaping those beliefs, using Shakespeare's character of Henry V as an example of a character whose leadership is built up through narrative.

"Like Henry V, we all want to fall in line. No longer a spectator, we are part of an audience, a band of brothers," she concluded.

The following speaker, Lyon, referenced the darker side of a strong narrative or the powerful desire to belong to a group.

She described the loss of rights and struggle for constitutionality during the World War II Era, as Japanese Americans were forced into Japanese internment camps and stripped of their rights.

"Remember this thing we have called the 14th amendment? You can't single someone out based on their identity," said Lyon.

She went on to describe how Gordon Hirabayashi, a United States citizen of Japanese descent, saw his rights dwindle during the first few months of the war. One of the restrictions imposed a curfew on Japanese-Americans from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., ordering that they be in their homes at this time. Hirabayashi violated the law because of its unconstitutionality, turned himself in and was eventually convicted, because in the actual words of the judge, "there was no way to tell a loyal Japanese from a disloyal Japanese."

Two students from Eastern Kentucky University's master's program for crime and justice studies, offered their thoughts following the presentation.

"I was surprised to see the complete lack of resistance to that type of treatment," said Craig Jenkowski, originally from Richmond, Ky. Lyon noted that this part of American history is not necessarily a popular topic.

"We don't talk about how exclusivism was embraced in the United States by moving populations around. Americans were far more comfortable with that before World War II," said Lyon.

Lyon made practical ties to today, discussing how two years ago, the Texas Board of Education modified historical details to give what some argue is a biased take on historical events, presenting information that gives the appearance that Japanese-American internment was not motivated by racism.

"Many textbooks are made in Texas, so this potentially has a wide impact on other states across the nation," said Johnathan Felden, also of Richmond.

Lyon mentioned other laws, such as the recent National Defense Authorization Act passed earlier this year, that have the potential to strip Americans of their citizenship, eerily reminiscent of Japanese-American treatment during WWII.

"These sort of issues are prevalent right now. I definitely saw more towards how they can relate to today," said Felden.

"Overall, we hear these things at the conference and see how closely tied they are to current issues," said Jankowski.

Photos: Cook, an assistant professor at Indiana University, speaks about cognitive linguistics during the fourth annual International Crime, Media and Popular Culture Studies Conference. Cherstin Lyon points out unfair treatment of Japanese Americans during the WWII era using a 1942 political cartoon.

Contact: Frank Wilson, conference chair and assistant professor, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Indiana State University, at

Writer: Bethany Donat, media relations assistant, Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, at