I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the irony of probably the most historically illiterate generation in American history (i.e. everyone living today, not just the young) getting so worked up over issues that are often predicated on allegations of historical injustice, whether it be to blacks, gays or otherwise. We are constantly told, particularly by those in the homosexual movement, that we need to be “on the right side of history.” And yet, many of the very people who make this charge are completely uninterested in history – except, perhaps, to use it as sales pitch apparently.
It is even more interesting that those most involved in perpetuating historical grievances, particularly racial grievances, tend to not be Christian, or even religious. I don’t believe this is a coincidence. The religious person, particularly the Christian, tends to have faith that all wrongs shall be righted “in the end” by God, whomever they hold that to be. This does not alleviate our responsibility to be the salt and light of the earth, serving always, improving when possible, but it does remind us that complete solutions here on earth (or as the more serpentine of our species have declared, “final” solutions) are not possible. The Christian in particular has at least a nominal understanding of forgiveness, and without this understanding, bare-boned as it sometimes may be, grievances can never die.
This issue recently came up when Ta-Nehisi Coates “debated” Shelby Steele on ABC’s “This Week.” Mr. Coates, who is an atheist, asserted that “History matters. … [W]e have a problem talking about history when it disadvantages us. … [W]e have to talk about it when it disfavors us [too].” In a sense, I agree. I am not among those who thinks America is beyond reproach, as so many people at least functionally believe. I believe we should be talking about the darkness in our past. What I fail to understand is Mr. Coates’ contention that we have not done or been doing this. He acts as if the Civil Rights Movement and all its progeny (including a black man being president of the United States) did not happen. Could we be better? To ask such a question as it relates to human beings is to desire an automatic answer. Obviously, yes, we could do better. But of course, Mr. Coates wants more. He wants money. He wants reparations.
He went on to assert that the government actions which have divided us are “the taxes put on African-American labor during enslavement,” in addition to the criminal justice system’s apparently disproportionate impact on the black community, etc. (whereas, I would argue that, in general, and while acknowledging some glaring exceptions, blacks have unfortunately interacted with the justice system in a disproportionate way, which is why we behold the aforementioned incongruence).
The problem with arguments such as these is they do not answer the fundamental question: Why should a people who have not committed the crime (i.e. Americans today) be saddled with the punishment? Mr. Coates compares the case he is making with that of German reparations to the state of Israel for the Holocaust. But is there any such comparison to the problems of race in America? I have studied too much American history to downplay the horrific nature of how blacks were treated in this country. However, when people like Mr. Coates seek to draw a comparison between that and events such as the Holocaust, I must take the risk of sounding unfeeling in pursuit of the truth.
There are insurmountable problems with the argument based on German reparations to Israel: First, as a preliminary point, I did not mete out slavery, nor racial discrimination toward blacks. Nor did my father. Nor did my grandfather. Some people’s grandfathers did, but only some. So why should I or others today be strapped with a bill for their sins? In what sense in this just? Imagine a warrant being issued for someone’s arrest because it had been discovered that their grandfather had committed a crime. This would be an absurdity and a mockery of justice.
Second, the reparations Germany paid to Israel were quite literally paid by those who actually committed the crime. This is perhaps the greatest distinction – those who had elected Hitler, those who had fought for him, those who had lived their lives in a country that carried out the Holocaust – they were the ones who paid. Was every German directly responsible? No. But they were citizens of the country that was responsible, and they were part of the generation that was responsible, so the punishment out of necessity partially fell on them.
Third, what most people do not know is that reparations from Germany caused an enormous outcry in Israel. Few people wanted it. They felt it cheapened their loss, and the loss of their murdered loved ones, as if you could put a price tag on such immense suffering: “Yes, that’ll be $7 billion [in today’s money] for 6 million Jews, thanks for your business.” That was how many Israelis saw it.
Finally, Mr. Coates fails to make a basic distinction between the United States and Germany – while the federal government no doubt engaged in racial discrimination, the federal government did not impose slavery. That was done by individual slaveholders under the guise of British law, and when we became independent, this was upheld by state law, and when we became a constitutional republic, the federal government was given no power over slavery or state laws on domestic matters, which would include racial discrimination. That was our great sin, a sin of omission. As awful as that was, it cannot be compared with the intentional, planned and direct enslavement and murder of millions by the Nazi regime. The federal government of the United States simply did not carry out any scheme that can be compared to the Holocaust.
Perhaps what irks me the most about arguments such as those made by Mr. Coates is this: Where does it end? If he seeks reparations from white people in America who had nothing to do with the crimes of their ancestors, why not pursue reparations from the African countries where black people sold their own into slavery to white European vandals? And what about a people as persecuted and as hated as the Jews? Should they also seek further reparations from the rest of Europe? How about from Russia for the pogroms? Or France for the Dreyfuss affair? Or Spain for the Inquisition? What about the Arabs for the expulsion of nearly one million Jews with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948? In fact, why not go after the Egyptians for the slavery imposed on the Jews by Pharaoh? Should white Europeans get reparations from North Africa for the centuries of slave trading carried out against them by Muslim pirates? Should Mongolia pay reparations to all of Asia for the sins of Genghis and Kublai Khan? Should Italy pay reparations for the sins of Imperial Rome? Should Turkey now pay up for the massacres carried out by the Ottoman Empire?
Surely all of these things have continued to ripple on through history. Why not assert claims of reparations for them, too? Mr. Coates and those like him espouse a principle of “justice” that they root in notions of benevolence. But exactly where does such “benevolence” end? Cannot every people group on this earth claim to have been persecuted or mistreated at some point in history?
Hannah Arendt, the famous German-Jewish political philosopher who reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, made a profound observation: “Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.” But true forgiveness is impossible, subject to a very short list of exceptions, for the person who truly believes all scores are settled now, in this life or never – that there is no such thing as ultimate justice. In other words, for the atheist and secularist (like Mr. Coates) who are so often involved in reparations movements, forgiveness is an ultimately meaningless concept. Why offer such a thing when there is no payout in the here and now, which is as far as any of us will ultimately get?
What else explains the fact that those blacks who once were slaves themselves, Christian men like Douglass, Washington and King, chose forgiveness, and some blacks today, who are neither slaves nor Christians, choose reparations?
Because forgiveness matters. And it only exists in a moral universe in which the arc bends toward justice, as Dr. King said. And that universe only exists if there is a God, for morality is not a concoction of chemicals. Incidentally, Mr. Coates has stated explicitly, “I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends toward justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos.”
And when all you believe in is chaos, all that matters is getting what you can get. Nothing more. Forgiveness is meaningless. And that is why reparations, in the name of progress, would embark us on nothing more than an unendingly regressive path of bitter vendettas.
Find a historical grievance, get a reparation. Sounds like chaos to me.
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