Sunday, July 09, 2006

Stupid Idea Gains Momentum

The Associated Press reports that the idea of providing reparations to the descendants of slaves in the US is gaining legitimacy:

Slavery reparations gaining momentum
By ERIN TEXEIRA, AP National Writer

Advocates who say black Americans should be compensated for slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath are quietly chalking up victories and gaining momentum.

Fueled by the work of scholars and lawyers, their campaign has morphed in recent years from a fringe-group rallying cry into sophisticated, mainstream movement. Most recently, a pair of churches apologized for their part in the slave trade, and one is studying ways to repay black church members.

The overall issue is hardly settled, even among black Americans: Some say that focusing on slavery shouldn't be a top priority or that it doesn't make sense to compensate people generations after a historical wrong.

Yet reparations efforts have led a number of cities and states to approve measures that force businesses to publicize their historical ties to slavery. Several reparations court cases are in progress, and international human rights officials are increasingly spotlighting the issue.

Let's cut to the chase, so we can see how serious this is. I mean, the last big sign that this was gaining momentum was that John Conyers supported it. That's like saying that a movie's strongest recommendation was that it was directed by Ed Wood - it's not really the sort of thing that encourages you. But let's ask: what victories are quietly being chalked up?

The most recent victories for reparations advocates came in June, when the Moravian Church and the Episcopal Church both apologized for owning slaves and promised to battle current racism. The Episcopalians also launched a national, yearslong probe into church slavery links and into whether the church should compensate black members. A white church member, Katrina Browne, also screened a documentary focusing on white culpability at the denomination's national assembly.

The Episcopalians debated slavery and reparations for years before reaching an agreement, said Jayne Oasin, social justice officer for the denomination, who will oversee its work on the issue.

Historically, slavery was an uncomfortable topic for the church. Some Episcopal bishops owned slaves — and the Bible was used to justify the practice, Oasin said.

But if we accept the idea of compensating people today for inujstices suffered by ancestors, why stop with simply blacks in the United States? I mean, some of the blacks enslaved in the US had ancestors who enslaved other blacks in Africa. Why should they be credited for their suffering, but not debited for the suffering they dealt out? According to Free the Slaves, slavery goes back almost 9,000 years. If justice demands that we compensate the ancestors of slaves for past suffering, surely it's not a unique claim of American blacks. Equity would demand that we do our best to identify the ancestors of slaves, and the ancestors of slaveholders, and ensure that reparations are rendered.

I mean, I'm sure we can't compensate everyone from 9,000 years ago, but perhaps if we just try to limit ourselves to the last few centuries. Belgium could compensate the people of Zaire for forced labor in rubber production. The British could compensate Peruvians, Malayans, and the people of Hong Kong and Sierra Leone. The Japanese could at last compensate the Chinese for enslaving people during World War II. The Germans could compensate Russians, Poles, Magyars, Romanians, and others for similar offenses. And that's just a brief listing from the past century. As we go back into the 1900s, 1800s, and 1700s, I'm sure we can find a lot more examples.

But I think it would be wrong to stop there. I would argue that enslaving a person is only different from other forms of opression in degree - not in kind. Is it worse to enslave a person - in a circumstance where you have an interest in preserving the slave's life - or to recklessly or negligently kill someone, because that person's life holds no value for you? If we compenate the ancestors of slaves, how can we not in good conscience compensate the Irish for the potato famine, or the Indians for the caste system allowed during British rule, or the Chinese for the Rape of Nanking, or the Poles for the partitions by Germany and Russia that deprived them of their country and identity, or the Greeks for the opression they suffered under Ottoman Rule, or the indigenous peoples of Latin America for their treatment at the hands of the Europeans during the colonial period, or the aborigines, or the native peoples of Hawaii... the list is probably endless.

Do you realize how much good we can do? How many can be compensated, and how many punished? This will probably require a strong international organization to collect the tales of opression, deprivation, and enslavement, attach monetary values to them, compute a fair interest rate, and start handing out assessments.

It's actually quite shocking that advocates of reparations for black slaves in the US have stopped at that. They are clearly people of high moral character; why would they limit the dispensing of justice to this one, limited instance? Don't you see how much fairer things will be?

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