Reparations and denial

I had an interesting conversation in the race and ethnicity class the other day. We had just watched one of the great heroic historian movies, Paul Verhoeven’s “The Nasty Girl” featuring Lena Stolze.

Lena’s character gets herself and a lot of other people into a bunch of trouble by digging at the Nazi past of her nice little hometown, and so we were talking about anti-Semitism in the 1930s, exploring the idea that the past could be left to bury its own dead, as they say. It’s an appealing idea even to a professional historian, when the alternative is dredging up pain and ruining lives and just generally a lot of fuss.

The movie shows that local fortunes were built on the expropriation of the Jews. So I asked, what about people enriched and impoverished in the present because of historical injustice? One of the (white) students remarked that it would still make sense to move on, as long as there were some kind of reparations. It paused and got a faraway look about halfway through the word ‘reparations’. As a teacher I don’t take positions on such matters, so I just let the moment sit there.

Just now I was looking over Liam Hogan’s post “Debunking the imagery of the ‘Irish slaves’ meme” (first of a series). It consists of a helpfully curated series of historical images from the meme, along with properly researched reattributions. It turns out the myth of the Irish slave is an American equivalent of Holocaust denial, complete with preposterously repurposed ‘evidence’ to support the conclusion that there’s no legitimate beef and the ‘victims’ are just trying to get away with something at good folks’ expense.


  1. Maybe naively, watching, or, now thinking about, David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA always gives me the willies. Close behind are all those imperialist flicks from the Hollywoood and London 30’s: Gunga Din, Beau Geste, etc. The story of El Orans takes place at the time when Carl’s grandfather was a teenager — so, a couple of generations ago. The first thing that blows my mind is that one man, albeit a very weird one, could have such an impact (even discounting the filmic poetic license). Since I’m really interested in the stability and instability, robustness and fragility of complex systems, the “success” of Lawrence’s shenanigans fascinates me. Of course what also fascinates me is the unfolding of the aftermath of the boundary drawing and the economic alliances that got the region where it is now.
    Not surprisingly, my ignorance always defeats me. I find it very difficult to get beyond the sloganeering excuses for history I’m offered to anything that makes for coherence. I don’t have access to the symbolic space as it lives in the minds of the people, factions, and even nations involved, all of which gets instantly swallowed up in the slogans. Now, along comes Carl’s student, who prompts me to wonder “What would reparations for centuries of colonialism be? Who ought to get what?
    I’m in better shape (but only just} when I think, in parallel, of the internal colonialisms of the US, and what they’ve gotten us into at the moment. Apparently, the solution to the problem of “diversity” that’s the inevitable consequence of colonialism is a system of well financed ghettos and gates. At least that’s as far as we yanks have gotten; and the Europeans are currently forced to confront the situation in a way they’ve never had to do before. As must have occurred to the student in mid-sentence, how do we figure out who deserves to get what. “One never knows, do one.” as Fats Waller used to say. But we’d better figure out something, over the next few months.
    Carl doesn’t like my Malthusianism. Well, neither do I; but I also don’t like the politics of the NFL, and that doesn’t make Bellichek go away. I’ve got my Malthusianism intellectualized enough to get past the image of starving each other in our fecundity. For humans, at least, the core of the scarcity Malthusianism always threatens is an analogy with the thermodynamic notions of “mean free path” and “degrees of freedom”. What kinds of things can you do, and what’s the extent to which you can do them. Except that with humans it gets to be what kinds of things can you be, and to what extent can you be them. Furthermore the question is mediated by the symbolic space of self-conception, historic identification, and the rest of the usual. Is the extended mediation required by diversity and fragmentation part of the accessible space?
    I hate to bring it up, but since I’m thinking about it all the time in my present work, climate change is a humungous turn of the screw along these lines. In the ecology community, the subterranean consensus is that Capitalism (however outdated that may sound) ought to pay the reparations for screwing up the environment, though they don’t really dare to put it that way — grant money and all, you know. Outside that community very few dare to let that question arise in the first place. Apparently, the global strategy of economic growth, the strategy that mitigated US fragmentation for a couple of centuries, needs to be extended to buffer the dislocations and disasters of the change from climate to crapshoot. From that point of view, in a post industrial economy in which, as Carl keeps pointing out, the value of labor ahs gone from positive to negative, something like Bernie Sanders is a ludicrous anachronism. It isn’t obvious that any of the alternatives are any better.
    Ideally, you’d like to see signs of successful, or at least sincere, mediation of some of these things; but if there are signs, they’re nearly as rare as an Amish Tweet.

  2. Ayup. I keep trying to work out the reparations our Norman ancestors owe our Saxon ancestors, but my head just goes all fuzzy.

    Of course no Eisenhower Republican needs to sweat any of this, exactly. What complex systems do is they churn, they metastabilize, they tip, they evolve and/or they crash. Achilles is not imaginable with powder and ball; in England, Lawrence works for a bank and drinks himself to death. Or quits and starts a greenhouse business. Ideas and practices of justice are enabled or disabled as system flows afford and withdraw resources. Sanders and Trump are two toboggan runs down the same slope.

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