Righting Old Wrongs*
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned
toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees
one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon
wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like
to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been
smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got
caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no
longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the
future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris
before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
—WALTER BENJAMIN (1940): 257–58
An urge to reform the past seems to be in the air. I cannot claim to have a representative sample of such undertakings, but my unsystematic canvass reveals a rising tide of interest in reforming the past. Indeed, it is a characteristic feature of our times.
In 1972, 167 black soldiers who had been dishonorably discharged in the 1906 Brownsville Affair were exonerated; only one of the discharged soldiers was alive at the time of the exoneration.1 In 1974, a class action lawsuit compensated the participants in the infamous 1930s Tuskegee syphilis study in which black subjects were not informed that they were
* This essay descends from a paper presented to the Conference on Memory and Morals:
Sephardim and the Quincentenary, held at the University of Miami, October 3–5, 1991.
Along the way it benefited from the able and imaginative assistance of Jesse Wing (J.D.,
University of Wisconsin, 1991) and from the stimulating responses of Upendra Baxi, Marvin
Frankel, Maivan Clech Lam, Judith Lichtenberg, David Luban, Beverly Moran, Boaventura
DeSousa Santos, and members of faculty seminars at Osgoode Hall, Berkeley, Harvard, and