Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics

Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics

Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics

Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics

Synopsis

This book explores the spread in recent years of political efforts to rectify injustices handed down from the past. Although it recognizes that campaigns for reparations may lead to an improvement in the well-being of victims of mistreatment by states and to reconciliation among former antagonists, it examines the extent to which the concern with the past may represent a departure from the traditionally future-oriented stance of progressive politics. Viewing the search for "coming to terms with the past" as a form of politics, it argues that there are major differences between reparations for the living victims of past wrongdoing and reparations for the descendants of such victims. More fundamentally, it argues that claims for reparations comprise a relatively novel kind of politics that involves a quest for symbolic recognition and material compensation for those seeking them--through the idiom of the past rather than the present. The prominent role of lawyers in such politics speaks to a larger trend toward the "juridification of politics" that often has problematic consequences for these campaigns. Concerns to right the wrongs of the past, the book concludes, may distract from the fight to overcome contemporary injustices.

Excerpt

In a New Yorker cartoon from late 2001, two men are depicted on either side of a desk, one seated and one standing. The man seated appears to be white, whereas the man standing (and speaking) appears to be dark-skinned, though of ambiguous ethnicity. The man standing, presumably the subordinate of the pair, says to the other man, presumably his boss, “Well, if there’s not going to be any bonus, how about some reparations?” Soon thereafter, the brilliantly irreverent weekly The Onion ran a piece entitled “Four Generations of Americans Demand Sitcom Reparations,” poking fun at the notion of payments for past wrongs by suggesting that the major networks should compensate people for having wasted their time with decades of televisual pap.

The cartoon and the satirical item tell us two things: first, that the notion of “reparations” has become sufficiently mainstream that it is assumed to be familiar to the diverse (if rather hip) audiences of The New Yorker and The Onion; and, second, that the idea of “reparations,” usually connected to efforts to redress some past injustice, is sufficiently dubious—sullied, perhaps, by its association with the pursuit of mere lucre—that it may be flippantly compared to a year-end bonus or skewered in satire. In all events, what is worth noting is that the concept of reparations has come to assume a large enough place in the culture that it came to be the subject of such treatments at all.

Writing at the height of what the Nigerian author and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka has called “a fin de millénaire fever of atonement,” the historian Elazar Barkan argued that the spread of reparations politics is a “neoEnlightenment” phenomenon reflecting the fact that “liberal Enlightenment principles have become the predominant global ideology at the end of the twentieth century.” This enthusiastic embrace of the spread of rep-

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