International House of Dan: On the Holocaust and reparations

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

On the Holocaust and reparations

Note: This post is long, it deals with topics that probably need to be addressed separately. It is meant to spark thought, not imply a hierarchy of evil among human tragedies.

Sixty years ago tomorrow, Soviet troops liberated the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The United Nations met in special session Monday to commemorate the event. I know that I lack the writing ability to move one to comprehend the horrors of genocide, past or present, but I still want to ask that we take the time in our busy schedules to think, for even one minute, about the limitless capacity that mankind has to do both tremendous good, and unspeakable evil. When we juxtapose these extremes I have to believe that the good has the power to overcome the bad, that in the end, the very worst in us will always bring out the very best in us. The more severe the tragedy that befalls our neighbor, the more compelled we feel to take action, and the less we even give a conscious thought to trying to find a way not to help. We might drive by a car accident and not stop because we're running late, but who among us would entertain a thought about where we need to be at the sight of an injured child crawling from the wreckage? Clearly that example is an extreme one, just as the holocaust is an extreme example of man's capacity to do evil. But why is it that the institution of slavery, clearly a similar extreme, does not spark the same outrage in us? Why do we support reparations for Holocaust victims' families, but generally not for slave descendants? Is it a logistical matter? A time-distance matter? Is it simply because Holocaust reparations tend not to involve us?

In the case of reparations for Holocaust victims, we see matters as fairly clear. The Nazi government stripped Jewish (and other ethnic) prisoners of enormous amounts of property and wealth, and then used these ill-gotten riches to finance their escapes from prosecution for the most unspeakable crimes. Recently, the survivors themselves, or their children or grandchildren, have been able to trace their families' belongings right to the vaults of European banks, and the international community supports their efforts and criticizes entities such as the Swiss banking industry and the Vatican for their past reluctance to relinquish present wealth that was ill-acquired some sixty years ago. I, of course, join the international community in its condemnation of institutions which turned a blind eye on evil for the sake of financial gain. I support the efforts of survivors and their families to recover the property which was rightfully theirs before it was forcibly taken from them by the lowest of men. What prompts me to thought, though, is that I don't believe most of us can apply the same clear-cut standard to the matter of reparations for descendants of slaves, and I wonder why that is...

Consider Liberia, a nation whose plight we have often ignored, and dismissed, until the bodies of the dead were piled on our embassy grounds to the point where we could no longer sit by silently. Liberia, a nation settled by freed American slaves, under the "guidance" of the American Colonization Society, a group whose purpose was to remove free, U.S. born blacks and emancipated slaves (stripping both of their three-fifths citizenship, I suppose), has had a very torrid history. While the Liberians were not forcibly returned to Africa by the ACS, I am appalled that our state governments contributed financially to this, but allowed the ACS to fail in its role as "trustee" for the fledgling African nation. I mention Liberia because the role of our government in its formation, and that of private individuals of the time, is far more easily traceable than those tenuous generational links that are often cited as cause for opposition to reparations for individual descendants of slaves. Yet our national attitude towards reparations is such that we don't recognize any special onus to help the people of present-day Liberia.

We find a similar example of national nonrecognition of a moral debt owed to the people of Haiti. Our government's attitude towards this island neighbor has historically been reprehensible. From the 1820's, Haiti was forced to pay reparations of $150 million (in modern dollars this is estimated to be over half a billion, without accounting for interest or inflation) to France for having "appropriated" French property (land and slaves). The U.S. helped enforce a repressive payment regime which stripped the fledgling nation of the vast majority of its income. It was often American banks, after all, that extended Haiti the credit needed to make payments. Additionally, it is arguable that Haiti might have never been subjected to such reparations if it could have counted on some recognition from the international community. Thomas Jefferson would not recognize the island's independence, because of the implications it would have had on American slave-holding interests (how can the president receive one black man as a dignitary while holding another one as a slave?), and in fact the U.S. did not recognize the second oldest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere until 1862, nearly 15 years after (former colonizer) France had. The U.S. occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, allegedly plundering the island's reserves, and has since supported individuals and regimes which have been damaging to the island's interests. Haiti has been a catalyst for democracy in the Americas, ending slavery in the neighboring Dominican Republic (1822) and providing support and asylum to Simon Bolivar (1815). In the 1990's, when Haitian refugees tried to escape their plight by making the perilous journey to the U.S., we turned them away.

So how is it that Americans favor the return of property by foreign institutions to individual holocaust survivors, but seem unconcerned with our national policy for states that our government has seriously wronged? Certainly it's not a state/private entity issue, or else what about the news last week that J.P. Morgan Chase held slaves as collateral? They have announced a scholarship for African Americans in Louisiana, and the people seem appeased. I doubt that our thirst for justice would be satiated if a Swiss bank announced a scholarship in Poland to atone for its wartime sins. It seems irrelevant whether the wrongdoer is a state or an individual, our moral indignation seems to follow lines of perceived impact on our daily lives. Litigation is taking place on behalf of holocaust survivors against mostly foreign state and business entities, arising from unlawful enrichment as a result of slave labor during WWII, and the public seems to support these efforts, except to the extent that they are seen to encourage similar lawsuits by U.S. slave descendants.

The Holocaust was evil beyond the limitations of our language... but so was slavery. If anything, the evil of slavery is compounded by the fact that upon its demise as an institution we failed as a society to feel shame, we failed to show contrition, we failed to take action, and today we question the necessity of programs like affirmative action. There was never a time for slave reparation suits, certainly they could not have been brought by former slaves themselves in the atmosphere of segregation and state-enforced intimidation that followed emancipation. So at each incremental improvement in conditions, there remains a problem making such litigation improbable at best. Today we arrive at a point in our society where such suits can be brought with reasonable safety from being lynched for it... but now we say it's too late, because it was too long ago.

I don't know how the logistics of reparations would work in modern America, how to distinguish slave-owner descendants from those of us who immigrated recently, perhaps no such distinction should exist. I know that one who inherits property may effortlessly receive profits, but she might also incur liabilities without having done any wrong... our system is familiar with the "why should I have to pay for something my grandfather did?" argument, and it doesn't buy it. Perhaps we should all share in the burden, even African Americans, as a subtle acknowledgment that every advantage we enjoy as a nation, our mighty place in the world, our comfort and our "freedom from want" were all built upon the backs of slaves. Distribution of whatever reparation is made also presents logistical problems, perhaps the safest way to go is to make payments to organizations that will advance racial justice. Benefits perhaps shouldn't be limited to those who can prove a direct lineage to former slaves, a black Haitian immigrant today has as much trouble hailing a taxi as the descendants of Frederick Douglass. What troubles me is not that there is concern over logistics of such reparations, what troubles me is that our national dialogue focuses on whether, and not how, reparations should be made for what thus far is America's greatest breach against the laws of man and God.

It would be improper to describe slavery as a holocaust, if nothing else because a holocaust (lower case) implies destruction by fire. The Nazis used fire in the camps. They also used gas, knives, guns, clubs, smoke, water, tools, their hands, their feet, other prisoners, disease, neglect, starvation, exhaustion, deprivation, torture, chains, animals, Winter, infection, radiation, science, abuse, electricity, cruelty, poison, etc., etc., etc. Anything that could possibly have been used as an instrument of death, was. Therein lies the difference between reparations for slavery and the Holocaust, but also their frightening similarity. One is for profit-driven cruelty, the other is for cruelty-driven profit. What is tragic, if I'm right about our attitude towards reparations, is that we tolerate action to recover property that was taken as a by-product of a cruelty-driven campaign, but we do not support action to receive compensation for cruelty endured in the name of profits.

Amid concerns that goodwill towards tsunami victims is stealing goodwill from the victims of genocide in Darfur, I hope that goodwill is not a finite resource. We have seen slavery, we have seen the Holocaust, we have seen countless acts of wanton destruction and loss of innocent life, we have seen genocide rear its hideous head again in Rwanda, in the Balkans, in the Sudan, and in countless other countries we just don't seem to ever read about, and we always say "never again". Man's capacity to do evil may well have no limits, it is imperative, then, that there be no limits placed upon our capacity to do good. A great thing happened sixty years ago this week. In the end, I guess, it always does. Let's say "never again" once more tomorrow, let's mean it this time, let's back it up with action, let's right some wrongs, let's exorcise some demons and let's push the limits of "good". I promise that we can't exceed them.

"The road to Auschwitz was built by hate,but paved with indifference." (Sir Ian Kershaw)


Post a Comment

<< Home