Reparations for American slavery require a sense of moral compulsion. Moral compulsion requires humility. Are we capable of it?
There is no hope for reparations if the topic is left to business and politics as usual – to the customary manner in which decisions are made, national affairs are conducted, pundits and media outlets clamor for sensationalism, social media serves up clickbait, religion and social science and academia offer their apologetics to an unappreciative public, and the elected and electorate alike close their minds to any opinion other than the one they already hold.
Reparations have no place in a culture given over to polarization, rage, and post-truth subjectivity.
The case for reparations cannot be heard by a society deafened with the noise of the daily outrage and distracted with the madness du jour.
The case for reparations cannot reach a national identity hijacked by endless competing and ever-shapeshifting agendas, histrionic accusations, and the exigencies of life ever more difficult and dystopian.
Reparations have no place where populists fan the fires of rage, and the enraged populace persists in voting against its own self-interest.
Reparations have no chance to gain the support of people long-starved of commitment to their communal welfare, unaware that their own beliefs and truths have done this to them, have dumbed them down with despair and chained them to the incessant grinding of life with no cushion against their misfortunes or safety net to catch them when they fall.
Reparations cannot capture the imagination of a nation that denies its people leisure time for renewal and reflection, that accepts as logical, normal, and virtuous that they should be compelled to labor in a state of total work without respite or gain or opportunity for improvement.
Reparations will not find a way in a nominally democratic country where the practice of democracy languishes under polarized ideologies, where systemic inequalities and social Darwinism are not merely accepted but revered as true and right and just and godly proof of their nation’s superiority.
That, and more, is why reparations don’t have a chance in contemporary America. Is there any countervailing force strong enough to pave the way for them?
Yes there is: it is moral compulsion.
Moral compulsion is an urgency to set things to right, an overweening determination to be cleansed of an enduring ugliness, to be freed from the burden of national shame, a commitment to individual, cultural, and national transformation, an uncompromising will to transcend the mistakes of the past and meet the unprecedented challenges of today.
Moral compulsion would provide an irrepressible energy to displace the inevitable failure of reparations with robust action to ensure their implementation.
But what place does moral compulsion have in American policy-making at this time? Moral compulsion does not make the agenda of an administration devoted to consolidating its power by fomenting division and perverting the rule of law into a “law and order presidency.” Moral compulsion is also missing from the agenda of an opposition party incapable of anything other than the pathetic hope that if they stay still they will not be seen, if they remain silent they will not be singled out. Reparations have no chance when moral compulsion is unknown on one side of the aisle and a terror on the other. No conversation and compromise will ever be reached when even the least of moral consensus – common decency – cannot find common ground.
America’s current moral vacuum was not always the case.
“In the past, America has played a critical role on the global stage as a model for developing democracies, a crusader for human rights and a bulwark against the spread of authoritarian regimes. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright once called America “the indispensable nation” for its moral leadership. But unlike ever before, scholars say, America’s commitment to democracy is flagging…. The risk, [Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond] says, is a century defined by the rise of the autocrat.”
That was then.
What is now?
If the 2016 election taught us anything, it was that America had grown tired of its role as the world’s “moral leader.”
Moral leadership had become tiresome, our efforts not worth the return. The catastrophes of recent decades of international policy and a lost taste for globalization suggested we were not as suited to the job of worldwide betterment as we once thought. We could pick a fight anywhere in the world and win it, therefore our strategy for bringing freedom and democracy to the world had been to impose our moral will by military force, covertly supported with the covert support of right-wing strongmen through corruption, bribery, torture, and other forms of governmental criminality. Our moral duplicitously was exposed when a raft of domestic and international whistleblowers and secret-leakers disgorged our tactics into public awareness, turning our times and technologies into apocalyptic revelation. They pulled back the facades of our imperial pridefulness, revealed the behind and beneath, ushered in a Great Revealing of ourselves to ourselves. Our secret vaults were opened, our private and vulnerable selves made known, all motives revealed, alliances betrayed, files ransacked, classified access breeched, proprietary information violated, everything hacked and made Open Source, seals all broken, all safes cracked, all containers emptied and their contents strewn across a million conference tables and chronicled in the tabloids.
By 2016, we had lost the stomach for it. Moral leadership had become a “loser.”
There was a moral lesson in all this that we could have learned, and new national self-awareness we could have gained.
- What we will see, and what we won’t. The lenses we wear. The silos we construct.
- What we block, recoil from. The shadows in our souls. The things we fear. The parts of us that threaten our own being.
- Our biases, assumptions, prejudices, projections and deceptions. The cases we build to advantage ourselves, and the lengths we’ll go to cling to them.
- The order we have imposed on life and the people in it. Rank, pecking order, winners and losers. Who we’ll talk to, friend, like, follow, ally with, and who we won’t. And why.
- What we consider reasonable, viable, proper, possible… and their opposites.
- What we will say, and what we won’t.
- What we will hear, and what we won’t.
- The secrets we carry, that we are confident will never be known by anyone but ourselves.
- The cultivated appearances we can no longer keep up.
- Our selective memories, choices, regrets. And resentments. Alliances betrayed and relationships broken. Forgiveness neither extended nor received.
The new, unflattering self-awareness we might have gained from these revelations could have helped us regain a newly realigned perspective on who we had become. But we didn’t want to hear it, so we didn’t learn it. There were some rare feints at remorse: press conference confessions saying we were sorry while the betrayed stood stoically by. No one was fooled: we weren’t sorry we did it, we were sorry we got caught.
What have you gathered to report to your progenitors?
Are your excuses any better than your senator’s?
He held a conference and his wife was standing by his side
He did her dirty but no-one died
What are you waiting for, a kiss or an apology?
You think by now you’d have an A in toxicology
It’s hard to pack the car when all you do is shame us
It’s even harder when the dirtbag’s famous
The Killers, Run For Cover
Mostly, we stormed and swore vengeance against the prophets of our moral recrimination. We labelled them as traitors and enemies, blew their legal cover, strong-armed foreign governments to give them up to our salivating justice. We were defensive because the truth hurt. American was not as blameless as we wanted to think.
It could have been a moral reckoning, but it wasn’t.
The disorienting truth could have reoriented us as a nation, could have shown us how we had shunned and discarded our ideals to make room for the twin pillars of our foreign policy: capitalism and militarism, We could have become freshly aware of what we had built while no one was looking and we weren’t paying attention. We could have, but we didn’t. We couldn’t separate ourselves from our need to feel good about ourselves, from our national belief — that we breathe in from childhood and begin learning before preschool — that our nation is the apex of civilization — morally, spiritually, militarily, and economically. If we were appalled at all by what we had become, it was not because of what we might have learned about ourselves but because we were terrified to see our shadow selves dredged up from our own hidden vaults, now walking the streets; haunting and pursuing , calling us out. We completed our denial and purposeful self-deception by concluding that surely some enemy had done this, had sown tares in our heartland wheat. They had done it. And now we were on to Them, newly justified in our judgment and pure in our hatred of Them.
We had been called to reckon, but we didn’t. We still haven’t. We denied and fled – away from Them and into ourselves. Globalization became a dirty word. Among its many faults was that it had made the world too small. We had too many neighbors too close, too unlike us. We needed our open spaces back, needed to feel again our rugged individualism, the spirit that tamed the Wild West.
“Globalization may be partly to blame [for America’s flagging commitment to democracy]: In an increasingly interconnected world, governing has gotten trickier. ‘If you have a constant flow of capital, people and trade goods, it’s harder to figure out what to do in your own country,’ says political science professor Anna Grzymala-Busse, who directs the Global Populisms Project at the Freeman Spogli Institute. The increasing interdependence of the world’s economies also limits the impact of any one nation’s policies. As mainstream politicians struggle to solve ‘national’ problems that are, in actuality, intertwined with the actions and economies of other countries, voters can start to view them as inept.
“Globalization has stoked nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment among citizens who fear not only the economic but also the cultural changes that can accompany such shifts. There again, Grzymala-Busse says, populists have stepped in, defining ‘the people’ of a country narrowly and subjugating minority interests. ‘Populist movements have this very corrosive impact on democracy,’ she says.”
We abandoned the global village and rushed home to ourselves –the people we wanted to believe we had once been and still were. We put those people and their country first. We demonized and expelled outsiders, built walls against Them, withdrew trade, made capital calls, foreclosed on collateral, imposed tariffs. We imprisoned them, banned their travel, rejected them. It was our turn, our time, and we would make the best of it.
And none of that helped assuaged our national conscience, rooted as it was in the lies of lost utopia.
Lashed on by those who stood to gain the most from our disorientation, we stormed the gates of the lost Garden in hyped-up agitation, and the more we ranted, the more we became addicted, drugged with the madness of a mob that promised a return to the unjustified and unaccountable superiority we had granted to our idealized and delusional past. We reconstituted our fictional past into a delirious present, created in the image of every broken promise we had ever made.
We doubled down on a bluff, and when the other worldwide players laughed at our bravado, our national resentment turned spiteful and toxic. We turned our rage not only against Them but against ourselves. We banned the notion of the public welfare and communal good. We forfeited our rights to a living wage, to healthcare and education, to security in retirement, to home ownership, to security against our own human frailty and life cycles. We derided the notion of public welfare as weak and pitiful, and converted all of life and culture, law and economics, government and socio-economic policy over to hyper-competition. We traded moral and societal good for law and order, the triumph of power, and the ascension of socio-economic elitism. We drowned out doomsayers with chanted mythologies that placed humans, and particularly Caucasians, at the apex of Creation, crowned with the divine right to subdue it to our own ruin. We jettisoned science, objective truth, and reasonable discourse in favor of an unbridled right to mangle our own truth until it made us gods, force-feeding our starving souls with “reality” that wasn’t.
And now, into our failed and rejected moral leadership and policies of communal hatred comes the idea of reparations for slavery.
Which is why reparations don’t have a chance under America’s populist overlords and their domestic armies. The moral compulsion reparations require has been crushed in the void of our national implosion.
Reparations offer us a way out – a way to restore ourselves and our nation, to push back the night, to draw ourselves back from the brink of our final self-destruction. Paying the moral debt of slavery offers the salving of our collective conscience through restoring and recreating, repairing and remediating the stain of our beginnings and our stumbling path through our own history. It offers to fill the unfathomable moral trough excavated by the systematic brutalization of an entire class of fellow humans in ways that none, nobody, not one of the rest of us would ever. never, not ever accept for ourselves, not in a million years, but that our ancestors carried out in untroubled allegiance to what for them was normal, legal, and their divine right – an ideological tradition the nation has carried on ever since the ultimately empty “victory” of the Civil War, which officially abolished slavery but left untouched its de facto existence.
In our current moral vacuum, reparations for slavery are not just difficult and troublesome and unlikely, they are impossible – irrevocably not-on-my-watch, over-my-dead-body impossible. They have only one hope:
Reparations will be made only when
they are no longer reparations for slavery.
Not even if they are made for racism.
But when they are made for our lost humanity.
The essence of moral compulsion is humility.
America would need to do as Germany did after the Holocaust — publicly relinquish belief in the superiority of white European ancestry. Germans had to abandon the “Teutonic national myth.” Americans would need to abandon the myth of manifest destiny. Humbling ourselves in that way would be heroic.
If Germany’s example plays out in America, there would be violent opposition. And, as Germany’s example also teaches us, humility is a two-way street: both those making reparations and those benefiting from them must humble themselves to each other and before the eyes of the watching world. Humility will not be easy on either side:
“Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve;
nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of self.”
We will look more at Germany’s example next time, also at the international mechanism created after WWWII that could help us with the difficult task of humbling ourselves – a mechanism that America’s government has rejected.
 Patton, Jill, An Existential Moment for Democracy? As American leadership falters, scholars say, autocrats are on the rise, Stanford Magazine (December 2019)