Friday, June 27, 2014

Reparations Are Our Collective Responsibility

MLK, in a short video clip, speaking about reparations
People get ready, there's a train a-comin',
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin',
Don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.
—"People Get Ready," Curtis Mayfield

Just over a month ago, Ta-Nahisi Coates, national correspondent at The Atlantic, posted "The Case for Reparations," a 15,000-word piece of journalism that I have been unable to put out of my head ever since. Part historical narrative, part on-the-ground reporting, and part persuasive rhetoric, "The Case for Reparations" persuasively and compellingly lays out an argument in favor of reparations for African Americans who have been negatively affected by structural, legal, government-sanctioned racism in America.

The subtitle of the piece is "Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole." In enumerating the harms done to African Americans since slavery, the subtitle points toward the thing that separates this Case from your ordinary street-level conversation about reparations: the basic argument against them has always been "the slaves are all dead now." Coates points out that you don't have to go back to dead slaves to find African Americans who have been harmed by legalized racism; there are people alive and well today who could and should benefit from direct reparations.

~   ~   ~

Reparations have never before this year been a subject of interest to me; while my interest in left-wing politics has been growing for some time, reparations haven't really ever been on my radar, and if you'd asked me about them any time before 2014, I would have told you I thought they sounded like a bad idea at best.

"The Slave Trade" by Auguste Francois Biard. Source

The thing that jolted me into turning in a different direction was an article about how slavery made the modern world. The article describes the way slavery (that is, the West's race-based chattel slavery of the last several centuries) undergirds so much of what we take for granted in modern life. This is especially true in America, where slave labor was the economic engine that drove the most of country's early growth and prosperity.1 American slaves, of course, were never officially compensated for their unpaid labor, much less the loss of their freedom, and the result was that emancipated African Americans as a group started their free lives with grave economic disadvantages compared to most of their fellow citizens.

Since reading that article, my opinion on the need for reparations has gradually shifted from a hard "no" to a soft "yes." I found myself musing about it at odd moments: "So what if the slaves are all dead now? Let's do a thought experiment: my father works for a company that denies him a paycheck, and then he dies. Don't I have the right to ask the company for the money he was owed, since I would have inherited it if they hadn't denied it to him? How much more, then, do the descendants of slaves have a right to ask of the society that never paid their ancestors for their labor that they be given something in compensation? After all, they, and their parents, and their grandparents, and so on, would have inherited and benefited from that original wealth if it had not been unjustly denied to the slaves."

~   ~   ~

Abraham Lincoln addresses the nation. Source
In "Puritans and Prigs," a wide-ranging essay about America, society, religion, and morality, Marilynne Robinson laments the current shift away from a sense of collective responsibility in America. She writes of our country before its most recent decades:
When things went wrong in Calvinist America, the minister or mayor or governor or president, including of course Lincoln, would declare a Day of Fasting and Humiliation, during which businesses and offices closed and the population went to their various churches to figure out what they were doing wrong and how to repent of it. The assumption of present responsibility for the present state of things was a ritual feature of life in this culture for two and a half centuries, and is entirely forgotten by us now.
The Death of Adam, pg. 155
Americans have a pretty good grasp of individual responsibility; it's considered quite important here, especially on the political right, where it's an absolutely essential, core value. I take care of myself, and I am responsible for my own failures. Collective or societal responsibility, though, is valued almost nowhere in the States, except perhaps on the fringes of the political left. The notion that I can or should be held responsible in any way for something I didn't personally do—like, say, enslaving people—runs directly against the grain of modern American individualism. What Robinson goes to some lengths to show in her essay is that this blindness to collective responsibility is not a fundamentally American phenomenon but a modern, recent American phenomenon, and that it is something very much worth pushing back against.

~   ~   ~

In an interview with the Washington Post, Ta-Nehisi Coates points out that collective responsibility isn't actually all that foreign to modern Americans either, if we just stop and think about it:
We pay for things all the time that we didn’t do...I wasn’t around when World War I happened but we’re still paying pensions. That had nothing to do with me, but I understand that I have to pay into that. That’s sort of what government means. If a state dies with every generation, what kind of state is that? When people talk about debt, or the state of Social Security, they talk about what kind of world are we leaving to our children. They understand that the country continues, that the country was here before us and that it will be here after we die.
All Americans benefit from slavery, because we live in a country that was built by slaves, not just in economic and other figurative ways, but also in a very concrete sense.

~   ~   ~

Two things about "The Case for Reparations" set it apart and make it really shine. First, as I mentioned at the start, even if you reject the notion of paying people for evils done to their deceased ancestors, Coates makes a strong case for reparations to living people, too. I won't spell it out here, since this post is getting long, but suffice it to say that living African Americans have been harmed by official, legal policies of the US government, and deserve restitution for that harm.

Second, and even better, is what Coates elsewhere calls the "radical practicality" of reparations. The idea of reparations has this veneer of pie-in-the-sky, crazy bleeding-heart liberal scheme to it, but Coates shows that it is actually completely doable, for a number of reasons:
  • It's been done before: 
    • Americans have paid reparations for other collective wrongs, internment camps for Japanese Americans, for example. 
    • We've actually also paid reparations for slavery, just the wrong way round: a post-Civil War act of Congress paid reparation to former slave owners for the loss of their "property" due to emancipation! 
  • It's been done elsewhere in the face of staunch opposition: Germany paid reparations to Jews after WWII, even though most Germans and Jews opposed reparations, and they ended up both boosting the German economy and helping build the foundations of the new state of Israel.
  • There's even a bill in the US House of Representatives, that ordinary Americans can support by calling their representative. It's brought before Congress every year, and it advocates a simple study of the idea of reparations, surely a very practical measure.2 
~   ~   ~

My dad always said the conclusion to any piece of writing has to answer the question, "So what?" In this case, the more pointed and relevant question is: "Why are reparations important if I'm not going to be a beneficiary?" I think the answer is complicated, but it's related to that Marilynne Robinson quote from earlier. American society has a profound need to grapple with the issue of collective responsibility, responsibility both for the way things are now and for recognizing and correcting the wrongs in our past. Many of our country's deepest ills stem from a refusal to acknowledge or atone for collective wrongs, past and present. I think the conversation about how race factors into those wrongs is crucial, and it's a conversation that's not been adequately attempted or even imagined by most Americans. I think the idea of reparations in general, and discussion of "The Case for Reparations" in particular, can be a step in the right direction for our nation.3

~   ~   ~

Two final items: first, here is a link to all the articles on reparations that I've found and posted on my Tumblr this year; I'm sure there will be more over time. Second, if you're looking for the quickest and funnest entry point into Coates' work and ideas, check out his six-minute interview with Stephen Colbert below.

1. For example:
In the United States, scholars have demonstrated that profit wasn’t made just from Southerners selling the cotton that slaves picked or the cane they cut. Slavery was central to the establishment of the industries that today dominate the US economy: finance, insurance, and real estate. And historian Caitlan Rosenthal has shown how Caribbean slave plantations helped pioneer 'accounting and management tools, including depreciation and standardized efficiency metrics, to manage their land and their slaves'—techniques that were then used in northern factories.
2. John Conyers, the bill's author, says of it:
H.R. 40 has strong grass roots support within the African American community, including major civil rights organizations, religious organizations, academic and civic groups from across the country. This support is very similar to the strong grassroots support that proceeded another legislative initiative: the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday bill. It took a full 15 years from the time I first introduced it on April 5, 1968 to its passage in the fall of 1983. Through most of those 15 years, the idea of a federal holiday honoring an African American civil rights leader was considered a radical idea. Like the King Holiday bill, we have seen the support for this bill increase each year. Today we have over 40 co-sponsors, more than at any time in the past. What is also encouraging is the dramatic increase in the number of supporters for the bill among Members of Congress who are not members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
3. My biggest concern about the implementation of reparations is backlash from white people. Not because I think white people are inherently racist, but because we happen to be living in a time of incredible economic inequality. I suspect that if white people see back people getting an economic benefit without a simultaneous effort to enact some kind of all-encompassing, non-racial economic equalizer for American society in general, things are going to get ugly. Which is less a concern about reparations than about economic inequality in general, I suppose.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Godwin's Law and the Nazi Rhetorical Paradox

Mel Brooks as Hitler, sans Hitler costume. Source.

It all began down in Munich town,
And pretty soon the word started gettin' around.
So I said to Martin Bormann
I said, "Hey Marty, why don't we throw a little Nazi party?"
We had an election, well kinda sorta,
And before you knew it, hello new order!
To all those mothers in the fatherland I said,
"Achtung, baby, I got me a plan!"
"Whatcha got Adolf? Whatcha gonna do?"
I said "How about this one:
World War Two!"
—"To Be Or Not To Be," Mel Brooks (there is no actual nudity in it, but I can't imagine the video linked here is safe for work at all)

"Say what you want to about the tenets of [insert ideology here], at least it's an ethos."
—a friend of mine, whenever he wants to subtly compare something to Nazism*

A well-known rule of the internet, Godwin's Law, states that "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." A corollary to this law, one which I wish were observed more often, is that whoever uses the comparison automatically loses the argument and the discussion must immediately cease:

"Constantly stopping these briefings halfway through is becoming a pain." Source 
There's a paradoxical quality about appeals to Nazism to bolster one's argument. They don't really work because, on the one hand, Nazis were Pure Evil, and on the other, they really weren't that different from you and me at all, dear reader.**

Let me break that down.

1. The Nazis were Pure Evil

The reason comparisons to Nazism don't work as rhetoric is the same reason the words "never" and "always" don't work as rhetoric.

A few years ago, I learned to avoid absolutes in trying to convince someone of something. If say, you're trying to convince someone to change their habit of eating lots of cookies, telling them "You always eat five cookies when you get home from work" or "You can never seem to keep from eating cookies when you have the chance" is a bad strategy, because all the person has to do is think of one counter-example ("I only ate four cookies when I got home from work on Thursday!") and you're wrong, your argument is suddenly weak, and the person is unlikely to be convinced.

Similarly, comparisons to Nazism are easy to push aside, because everyone knows that the Nazis were just the worst, man, like literally. Since our culture treats Nazism as the absolute height of all evils, and Hitler as the pinnacle and archetype of that evil, comparisons to Nazi ideology or the Fuhrer don't hold much water, because it's easy to find counter-examples and undermine the argument ("Obama isn't just like Hitler; Hitler was a vegetarian!")

2. The Nazis were just some dudes

Some recent reading I've been doing has brought the opposite side of this coin to my attention quite sharply. We treat Nazism and Hitler as radical, ultimate evil, but in reality there's a discomfiting degree of continuity between ourselves and Hitler, between American national ideology and Nazism.

Dale Aukerman's book Darkening Valley: A Biblical Perspective on Nuclear War was recommended recently to me by a friend of my wife (and, I think, a new friend to me also). It initially struck me as an odd topic to read about, but the book's recommender assured me it was worth my time, and he was not wrong.

The project of Darkening Valley is to discuss nuclear war through Bible stories. Each chapter takes a particular story from the Bible and uses it to explain and engage with an element of nuclear war; the opening chapter, for example, uses the story of Cain killing his brother Abel to remind the reader that a tendency toward violence is a deep element of human nature, and then goes on to point out how dangerous that fact is in conjunction with the fact that humans now have the weapons required to destroy themselves nearly instantaneously.

Aukerman touches on Hitler and Nazism often throughout the book, circling round again and again to examine the ways in which the specter of the Nazis has been used to justify war and the threat of war. Most strikingly, in a chapter titled "Hitler and the Woman Caught in Adultery," Aukerman discusses the "dark continuity" between himself and Hitler, between Nazism and the rest of the human race, and uses the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus to illustrate his point. I'll quote Aukerman at length here, since he's substantially more eloquent than I am:

I want to challenge the assumption that there is a sharp discontinuity between who we are and who Adolf Hitler was, and the parallel assumption of discontinuity between our particular society and Nazi Germany. It is crucial for us to recognize not only the continuity between the darkness deep in each of us and the darkness in Hitler, but also a continuity between positive impulses and longings within us and those, even if to a large extent atrophied, within Hitler. 
The evidence that substantiates this dark continuity is manifold: many of the experimental findings of contemporary psychological studies of aggression and violence; any introspection which owns up to lethal sentiments, murderous fantasies and racist presumptions within us; the final stages of World War II in Europe during which the Allied nations outdid the Axis powers in unleashing violence; the prevailing popular attitudes in Allied countries toward the Nazis then and now. The attitude that Hitler and those around him were so wicked that they simply had to be done away with, was identical to the darkness that was being combated: a readiness to do away with those seen as enemies, a driving need to annihilate those reckoned unworthy to live.
It is most of all in the scriptural witness that we are shown the nature of this dark continuity...[T]he most revealing passage is...the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. The Pharisees and the doctors of the law could come as they did because they recognized no continuity between who they had been and were and the publicly exposed adulteress. Jesus, moving to save the woman from execution, sought also to save her accusers from perdition and to bring them to a recognition of this continuity. It may be that most or even all of the accusers had not committed adultery as a physical act. But he who in the Sermon on the Mount probed into the depths from which such acts emerge was doing the same here. He wanted to express to his antagonists that a conspicuous example of wrongdoing, rather than reinforcing an exultant self-righteousness, was to bring awareness of the sin common to all human beings and of the shared need for forgiveness and conversion...  
All the desolation of nature, the razing of cities, the slaughter of millions of human beings carried out by Nazi Germany was only a limited foreshadowing of the desolating, razing, annihilating which the peoples of West and East are prepared to carry out. During years of residence in West Germany, I often wondered how decent, good-hearted Germans could have gone along with Nazism. Some of the answer comes through asking the same question of Americans (including myself at a certain level) and nuclear weapons. There is the drivenness of both those who lead and those who are led; fear of determined adversaries; emptiness within individual and society; the lure of power; the drive to be the center of the universe; the infernal darkness within, which the Dark Powers from without align with themselves. The Yes to nuclear weapons by good-hearted Americans who are distraught by the death of a pet and full of altruism toward neighbors recapitulates that earlier yielding to the Dark Powers by Adolf Hitler and those who moved in concert with him.
Dale Aukerman, Darkening Valley, pgs. 19 and 22, emphasis added 
My point, and Aukerman's point, is not that the Nazis and Hitler were good, or even that they weren't evil. It is simply that when we use the Nazis for rhetorical point scoring, when we hold them up as the highest, purest example of Evil, we miss the opportunity to actually reflect on what Nazism was and to use that reflection for tangible, human good. We miss the chance to see their darkness in ourselves and our neighbors, and to work actively to resist that darkness. We blind ourselves, and we risk a tragic stumble.

*This is a play on a quote from the Big Lebowski.
**I mean, especially if you're a Nazi, dear reader, because I certainly can't tell who you are from this side of the screen. But even if you're not a Nazi, is what I'm saying. Get it? If not, uh, read on, I promise I explain elsewhere outside this footnote.
†It's a hypothetical example. Stop looking at me like that.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Wedding Post

Someday, we'll build a home
On a hilltop high, you and I,
Shiny and new, a cottage that two can fill,
And we'll be pleased to be called
The folks who live on the hill. 
—"The Folks Who Live On The Hill," Oscar Hammerstein III [Spotify link]

A little less than a month ago, I got married. I haven't been blogging much as a result.

Anna and I had the enormous privilege of getting to plan our wedding with little interference from relatives. When we told our parents what we were planning on doing—a quick ceremony with a modest guest list, and a potluck reception afterward—they were like "You kids do you," which was a real relief, since we'd heard many peers' stories of parental demands for blah blah from friends.

We both wanted the ceremony to be relatively simple and reflect the things we actually like about weddings. (Unfortunately, I suffer from a tendency to get a little judgy at weddings, as if my particular tastes were what mattered at all.) Some things we decided to do without:
  • Anna is not a fan of being the center of attention, especially for a crowd of people, as it makes her feel scrutinized and judged. So we didn't have a processional or a recessional. 
  • I have a knee-jerk reaction to cliches, so we did not have the love chapter from 1st Corinthians read, nor did anyone play "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." 
  • We didn't want everything to be focused exclusively on us, so we avoided anything where the two of us would have been doing something on our own and facing away from the congregation. There was no communion off to one side or couples prayer time with our backs to the crowd. (The vows and the rings were the only thing we were even up front for; we sat in the pews the rest of the time.) 
Our officiant, the wonderful campus ministry pastor at the church I've been attending for the past few years, pointed out in her wedding homily what we were trying to do instead of these things: 
Anna and James, more than any other couple I have ever married, understand the reality that the meaning of this celebratory day is not about looking beautiful or spending thousands of dollars on cake and flowers or giving out the perfect favors. In fact, as we planned the wedding ceremony, they insisted on downplaying all of the theatrical elements that some brides and grooms love. If you look in the liturgy book for today, you’ll see phrases like these: “As the prelude ends, Anna and James enter unceremoniously and quietly sit in the front pew” and “immediately following the benediction, James and Anna sneak out through the side door.” They didn’t want this church service to be about them: they wanted it simply to be a church service where God’s everlasting love for all people is evident, a church service where they happen to get married in front of those people who they most love and rely upon for support—all of you.
Instead of going hard for all things traditional, we leaned heavily on the wedding elements we really cared about. In particular, music. We both love organ music, and my church has a lovely organ and a great organist, so we asked him to play a bunch of our favorite organ tunes. We also selected some hymn tunes from each of our musical traditions to be played as preludes; I particularly enjoyed friends' reactions when they realized "Joy in the Salvation Army" was coming out of the pipes in a Lutheran space! Together we chose several hymns to sing that we felt fit the occasion ("Gather Us In," "What Is This Place," and "Borning Cry"). These were not about marriage specifically so much as the process of coming together for celebration and fellowship, and the presence of God in all the stages of human life. I cried a little during "Borning Cry," but I think a lot of people did.

We also had scripture readings. Anna's chosen reading was from Proverbs. Most translations render it as being about "the wife of your youth," but Anna decided to use the Inclusive Bible translation—I gave her an Inclusive Bible for Christmas when I found out she wanted a translation that referred to God in gender-neutral terms—so the reading talked about "spouse" rather than wife, and could nicely be taken to apply to both of us rather than just me. I chose a reading from Jeremiah that spoke of celebration after a time of trouble—hope for the future. I asked that this be read in the Geneva Bible translation, which I love both for its beautiful language (the KJV translators drew heavily on it for their own translation a few decades later) and for its politically subversive footnotes (the translators had fled religious and political persecution in England, and they tended to note anti-monarchic sentiments when they showed up in scripture). Inadvertently, we both chose passages heavy in fertility imagery, which the pastor helpfully pointed out to the congregation in her homily. We do want kids, though, so whatever! 

As a result of cutting some traditional elements, the ceremony was pretty short; about 20 minutes. Afterward, Anna and I escaped to go be by ourselves for a few minutes and cool down from all the excitement and stress. 

We then proceeded to the reception, which was a blast. There was music from my friends in Families, a keg of root beer, and a pair of lovely toasts from two of our best friends. We walked around a greeted and sat with our friends, to catch up and celebrate together. I kept my bowtie on throughout, because it was a beautiful, 70-degree spring day. We'd worried a little over whether people would bring enough food, but folks brought so much that we had to ask them to take their leftovers home, since the church had far too little fridge space to store any of it. 

In other words, it was a good, good, day, blessed by God and celebrated by many. We came away pleased, honored, thankful, and 100% married!