Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics

By Wilke, Christiane | Ethics & International Affairs, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics


Wilke, Christiane, Ethics & International Affairs


Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics, John C. Torpey (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 224 pp., $35 cloth.

Why should we care about past injustices? In his new book, John Torpey identifies the concern about "making whole what has been smashed" as a recent phenomenon. In fact, he argues in his insightful and provocative conceptual account of reparations that "the defining aspect of our contemporary historical context is its 'post'-ness" (p. 8), its location after the Holocaust, the Cold War, and September 11, but without a clear vision of the future: "When the future collapses, the past rushes in" (p. 24). The past-oriented politics of the present hold, Torpey argues, significantly fewer ambitions for the future than the utopian projects of the past did. The grand political projects of the twentieth century have, it seems, "left little but brutality and dashed dreams in their wake" (p. 15). Like Benjamin's angel of history, we are looking back at the twentieth century and see only piled-up atrocities.

Unlike many contemporary human rights practitioners, Torpey finds past-oriented politics not redeeming but lacking in political ambition and imagination. One could argue in response that the reparations politics' aim of repair and closure is in fact profoundly utopian. One could also respond that, given many twentieth-century intellectuals' disregard for human suffering implied in their grand projects, the decline of forward-looking utopia might be welcomed as an opportunity for less violent politics. While the reader might not share Torpey's dissatisfaction with past-oriented politics, his analytical insights into the rise of the past as an object of politics are flesh and perceptive.

The book combines two conceptual chapters on reparations politics with three case studies. The theoretical framework places reparations politics in the context of the decline of utopian politics and the nation-state and provides a typology of reparations politics. Reparations are understood as monetary transfers (p. 45). The case studies examine reparations claims by Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians for internment and dispossession during the Second World War, the movement for U.S. slavery reparations, and various reparations claims in Namibia and South Africa. These case studies skillfully pair better-known examples of reparations claims with equally fascinating but less frequently researched cases. For the case studies, the author relies on a variety of sources, including reports, museum installations, news coverage, and interviews with leading reparations advocates. The interviews add texture and nuance about the meaning of reparations to the case studies. Yet the conscious limitation of the interviews to the leaders of the respective reparations movements also raises questions: in interviewing those who have a professional or personal stake in the pursuit of reparations claims, Torpey is most likely to find reparations politics practiced as the self-centered identity politics that he cautions against. Yet he does not venture beyond the NGO leadership to interview, for example, individual claimants in the South African apartheid reparations lawsuits.

Torpey's case studies raise fascinating questions about the viability and purpose of reparations politics. For example, what does the money ostensibly demanded in reparations claims mean? Torpey skillfully points to the performance that is necessary for successful reparations: the material components need to be combined with a sincere and authorized apology. But even then, money can have different meanings, ranging from symbolic to economic (p. 56). Torpey places the internment redress claims at the symbolic end of the spectrum and the slavery and colonialism claims near the economic end. …

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