Reparations [6]: Global Accountability – Part 1

“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” George Washington famously wrote in his farewell address. The phrase has long been used to justify “unilateralism” or “isolationism” in US foreign policy[1] — a position which is not justifed by its historical context.

“To announce his decision not to seek a third term as President, George Washington presented his Farewell Address in a newspaper article September 17, 1796.

“Frustrated by French meddling in US politics, Washington warned the nation to avoid permanent alliances with foreign nations and to rely instead on temporary alliances for emergencies. Washington’s efforts to protect the fragile young republic by steering a neutral course between England and France during the French Revolutionary Wars was made extremely difficult by the intense rhetoric flowing from the pro-English Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the pro-French, personified by Thomas Jefferson.

“In his farewell address, Washington exhorted Americans to set aside their violent likes and dislikes of foreign nations, lest they be controlled by their passions: ‘The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.’

“Washington’s remarks have served as an inspiration for American isolationism.”[2]

The US was a young nation barely twenty years old, isolated from Europe by a vast ocean. Why import the struggles we had left on the other side?

“Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns.

“Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

“Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”

Nations can and do build relationships with each other. So should we, but even-handedly.

“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements.

“Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.

“Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing (with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them) conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary, and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view that it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that, by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more.

“There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.”

Unilateralism/Isolationism Today

Current American policy makes no such effort at even-handedness. Once considered the world’s “moral leader,” [3] we have withdrawn into moral isolation, abiding by a code of belief and behavior fashioned around populist nationalism. America puts America first and makes American great again – both initiatives driven by a notion of “freedom” founded on Social Darwinism applied both globally and domestically.

Globally, the US positions itself uncompromisingly at the apex of the food chain. Yes, we participated in the formation of the United Nations and other international s initiatives following WWII, but have also stand aside from them, tolerating more than participating.

Domestically, both economic and social policy are driven by the principles of free market capitalism. “Working for a living” displays good moral character and patriotism; needing a hand up signals depravity and dereliction of duty. Rugged individualism is strong and good; community-building is weak and insidious. Government is not in business to promote the public good. Life cycle needs such as education, healthcare, upward mobility, and retirement security are left to individual initiative and private enterprise.

A contrary approach of “floating all boats” powered post-WWII recovery and culture into the 1970’s. Since the 1980’s, that approach has been supplanted with hyper-competitive, hyper-privatized free market economics and social policy. The working middle class was the main beneficiary of the first thirty years, it has been the main casualty of the past four decades. Free-market evangelists promised a “trickle down” of wealth from the top to the bottom socio-economic classes. That promise has long since been exposed as bogus, but remains patterned into American culture and consciousness. As a result, American economic inequality is fast eclipsing its most extreme historical precedents — internationally, just prior to the French Revolution; domestically, in the heyday of the 19th Century “Robber Barons,” and again in the 20th Century’s Roaring 20’s.

The European social democracies were created during roughly the same time frame (1860-1930), but then reinvented themselves post-WWII to reject the Communist model, instead promoting both private enterprise and the public welfare.[4] Now, those nations are perennially the world’s happiest.[5]

Meanwhile, after four decades of free market Social Darwinism, the American electorate and its politicians now routinely demean the democratic socialists as weak and dangerous. Free market capitalism has become a form of secular fundamentalism, which now openly acts to deny citizens the most basic right of democracy – the right to vote – while brutalizing dissent with jackbooted law and order.

 “In God We Trust”

“We the People of the United States,” begins the Preamble to the US Constitution. Nowadays, the “we the People” currently supporting the reigning ideology have made it into a cult[6] of patriotism. To be “free” to believe and act as we will, without regard to global context, is our greatest national good – the fulfillment of the American founding myth of God-ordained superiority. To true believers, the USA is the shining city upon a hill,[7] one nation under God, our manifest destiny[8] to sit at the head of the table of peoples, tribes, and nations – and from there, to subjugate the rest. God’s predilection for holy war consecrates our militarism as we follow a “leader” God is “using” to bring about global dominion.

It is not a stretch to suggest that the Constitution’s Preamble had something else in mind. After “We the People of the United States,” it continues, “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

These days, promoting “the general Welfare” has been banned from national economic and social policy-making, leaving “our Posterity” in deep despair[9] over its future. America in 2020 — two and a quarter centuries after Washington’s farewell address –revels in its “splendid isolation.”[10] Our global consciousness has shrunk to the size of Washington’s day.

It has not always been this way.

Dismantling Globalization

Not long ago, the US-based corporate nation-states exploited globalization to achieve international dominance, evangelizing the nations with free market economics and American culture. Flush with dizzying success and newly freed to invest in the electoral process[11], they underwrote the public castigation of big government even as it sponsored monopolies, skewed taxation, and relaxed regulation to unchain predatory capitalism and release it on the world. American workers denied themselves a living wage to enable the use of cheap off-shore labor, tolerated decades of flat purchasing power and the evaporation of healthcare benefits and retirement security, until now we marvel at free market capitalism’s crowning achievement:  a labor market of short-term, temporary jobs with no benefits, augmented by the side hustle. And now, business doesn’t even need to pay payroll taxes, Social Security’s primary funding mechanism.

Having achieved ubiquitous commercial and cultural colonization, America opted out of globalization. We hyped up the privatization of what used to be the public good and we slandered social democracies by stamping them with the Communism label and conspiracy theories and allegations of one world government. Global economic opportunism? Yes, of course. Global military dominance? Yes, of course — because we can. Global community and accountability? No. No way. No effing way. We’ll go it alone. We’ll do it our way. That’s what Americans do.

And then, as we settled into the delusional security of walls literal and figurative, a new international force gave globalization a completely new, unforeseeable meaning.

Globalization and COVID-19

2020 has been called the second worst year in history. (The first was 536.[12]) A new strain of Coronavirus went global, fast. But the USA was too far along in its America First retrenchment. There was no place for a pandemic in our political and social consciousness. The virus was someone else’s fault  and someone else’s problem. We doubled down on our commitment to Social Darwinism. We cut funding for an already depleted healthcare system.[13] We quit the UN-sponsored World Health Organization.[14] Patriots rose up in armed rebellion against lockdowns and Christian fundamentalists declared that masks were “the mark of the Beast.” Both groups preferred death by virus over their perceived loss of freedom.

As a result, the USA became the world’s uncontested plague victims leader. Our populist champions of freedom are unmoved that our death toll — 178,000 as I write this — already matches nearly half the number of US military deaths of WWII[15] — a number which in turn matches all the deaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. (The latter brought about by bombs we cheerfully christened “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” as we sent them on their missions of mass civilian slaughter. [16])

A New Civil Rights Movement

Into the USA’s pandemic debacle came yet one more instance of murderous police racism, and a fresh anti-racism uprising was born – supported, ironically enough, throughout the world we defiantly rejected. Protestors took to the streets, risking the thuggery of newly-mobilized SS troops, while the pandemic disproportionately affected racial and ethnic communities.

“Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. The term “racial and ethnic minority groups” includes people of color with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. But some experiences are common to many people within these groups, and social determinants of health have historically prevented them from having fair opportunities for economic, physical, and emotional health. [1]

“There is increasing evidence that some racial and ethnic minority groups are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19.Inequities in the social determinants of health, such as poverty and healthcare access, affecting these groups are interrelated and influence a wide range of health and quality-of-life outcomes and risks. To achieve health equity, barriers must be removed so that everyone has a fair opportunity to be as healthy as possible.”[17]

Slavery reparations enjoyed a brief resurgence in the early days of the new civil rights movement. But then…

Nothing Changed

Reparations require America to humble itself to the position of one nation accountable to the many. That we will not do. Abraham Lincoln assembled his “team of rivals”[18] to advise him on slavery. We will not do likewise re: reparations for the slavery that was officially ended by the Civil War but continued in de facto form for another century until officially ended again by the 1960’s civil right movement, but still continues in American systemic racism. But America doesn’t want to hear that. To American arrogance, the nation of “truth spoken to power” is the delusion of the powerless. American sovereignty denies any duty to other sovereign nations, let alone its own citizens, nor does it acknowledge any transnational duty to the human race.

As we saw last time, it was not always this way. The USA was once considered the world’s moral leader, but has now abrogated the role.

“We have had a system of international governance since World War II that reflects the ascendance of a set of commitments to individual rights and protections rooted in the UN system, emerging over time because the United States—full of its imperfections—has been a more benevolent power internationally than most empires historically,” says [Jeremy Weinstein, a political science professor and director of the Stanford global studies division], who served as deputy to the US ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2015.

“A world without US leadership and without an international architecture that’s rooted in things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a very different universe, and not one I’m sure most people would want to live in.”[19]

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Criminal Court

The “international architecture” referred to above includes an ideological statement – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[20] — which is backed up by criminal enforcement – the international Criminal Court[21]. These together mean that if a country’s moral compass is askew, the international community is entitled to intervene as a matter of law. This architecture emanates from the UN, created in 1945, which issued the Declaration in 1948, and convened the international conclave that produced the Rome Statute in 1998 – a treaty which created the ICC, effective in 2002.

“The ICC is not part of the UN. The Court was established by the Rome Statute. This treaty was negotiated within the UN; however, it created an independent judicial body distinct from the UN. The Rome Statute was the outcome of a long process of consideration of the question of international criminal law within the UN.”[22]

The ink was barely dry on the Rome Statute when the United States announced its withdrawal from the treaty and its rejection of the ICC.

“One month after the International Criminal Court (ICC) officially came into existence on July 1, 2002, the President signed the American Servicemembers’ Protection Act (ASPA), which limits US government support and assistance to the ICC; curtails certain military assistance to many countries that have ratified the Rome Statute establishing the ICC; regulates US participation in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions commenced after July 1, 2003; and, most controversially among European allies, authorizes the President to use ‘all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release’ of certain US and allied persons who may be detained or tried by the ICC.”[23]

“As of January 2019, 123 states are members of the Court. Other states that have not become parties to the Rome Statute include India, Indonesia, and China. On May 6th, 2002, the United States, in a position shared with Israel and Sudan, having previously signed the Rome Statute formally withdrew its signature and indicated that it did not intend to ratify the agreement.”[24]

Reparations Under International Law

In 2005, the same “international architecture” issued guidelines for reparations for victims of “Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law” and “Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.”[25] The Guidelines contemplate consistency across national and international jurisdiction:

“(a) Treaties to which a State is a party;

(b) Customary international law;

(c) The domestic law of each State.”

Accordingly, the Guidelines impose a duty to

“(a) Take appropriate legislative and administrative and other appropriate measures to prevent violations;

(b) Investigate violations effectively, promptly, thoroughly and impartially and, where appropriate, take action against those allegedly responsible in accordance with domestic and international law;

(c) Provide those who claim to be victims of a human rights or humanitarian law violation with equal and effective access to justice, as described below, irrespective of who may ultimately be the bearer of responsibility for the violation; and

(d) Provide effective remedies to victims, including reparation….”

In 2016, in furtherance of these Guidelines, the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent issued a “Statement to the Media” after an official visit to the United States.[26]

“During the visit, the Working Group assessed the situation of African Americans and people of African descent and gathered information on the forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afrophobia and related intolerance that they face. We studied the official measures and mechanisms taken to prevent structural racial discrimination and protect victims of racism and hate crimes as well as responses to multiple forms of discrimination. The visit focused on both good practices and challenges faced in realising their human rights.”

The Statement begins with a careful recitation of the Working Group’s mission, requests, affirmations and denials, acknowledgments, recognitions, etc., then summarizes its observations as follows:

“Despite the positive measures referred to above, the Working Group is extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans.

“The colonial history, the legacy of enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality in the US remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent. Despite substantial changes since the end of the enforcement of Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights, ideology ensuring the domination of one group over another, continues to negatively impact the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African Americans today. The dangerous ideology of white supremacy inhibits social cohesion amongst the US population. Lynching was a form of racial terrorism that has contributed to a legacy of racial inequality that the US must address. Thousands of people of African descent were killed in violent public acts of racial control and domination and the perpetrators were never held accountable.

“Contemporary police killings and the trauma it creates are reminiscent of the racial terror lynching of the past. Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

“Racial bias and disparities in the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, and the tough on crime policies has disproportionately impacted African Americans. Mandatory minimum sentencing, disproportionate punishment of African Americans including the death penalty are of grave concern.

“During this country visit, the experts observed the excessive control and supervision targeting all levels of their life. This control since September 2001, has been reinforced by the introduction of the Patriot Act.”

Specifically on the topic of reparations for American slavery, the Statement observes that:

“There is a profound need to acknowledge that the transatlantic slave trade was a crime against humanity and among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and that Africans and people of African descent were victims of these acts and continue to be victims of their consequences. Past injustices and crimes against African Americans need to be addressed with reparatory justice.”

The Statement advocates the enactment and ratification of domestic legislation and international treaties to carry out reparations:

“We encourage congress to pass the H.R. 40 -Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act – Establishes the Commission to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.

“We encourage the US government to elaborate a National Action Plan for Racial Justice to fully implement the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and comprehensively address racism affecting African Americans.

“In addition to the above, the Working Group urges the Government of the United States to consider the ratification of the core international human rights treaties to which the United States is still not a party, with a view to remove any gaps in the protection and full enjoyment of rights therein. It also encourages the USA to ratify regional human rights treaties as well as review reservations related to the treaties it has signed or ratified.”

As we saw above, the USA has exempted itself from international accountability, and it is obvious from the full text of the Working Group’s Statement that its visit was barely tolerated. Thus neither the Guidelines nor the Statement have had any effect on US policy.

Despite its “voluntary” nature, international law has at times been imposed on the perpetrators of egregious violations of human rights. Recently, an iconic figure from the Nuremberg Nazi trials accused the US of crimes against humanity under international law. We’ll look at that next time.


[1] Wikipedia – Unilateralism.

[2] The Office of the Historian of the U.S, Department of State – Wathington’s Farewell Adddress. “The Office of the Historian is staffed by professional historians who are experts in the history of US foreign policy and the Department of State and possess unparalleled research experience in classified and unclassified government records. The Office’s historians work closely with other federal government history offices, the academic historical community, and specialists across the globe. The Office is directed by The Historian of the US Department of State.”

[3] Patton, Jill, An Existential Moment for Democracy? As American leadership falters, scholars say, autocrats are on the rise, Stanford Magazine (December 2019)

[4] Wikipedia- Social Democracy.

[5] See the annual World Happiness Report.

[6] Hassan, Steven, The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control (2019)

[7] Wikipedia – The City Upon a Hill.

[8] History.com – Manifest Destiny.

[9] The Millennial Mental-Health Crisis, The Atlantic (June 11, 2020); More Millennials Are Dying ‘Deaths of Despair,’ as Overdose and Suicide Rates Climb, Time Magazine (June 13, 2019),

[10] Encyclopedia.com – Splendid Isolation. See also Warren Zevon’s take on it.

[11] Wikipedia — Citizens United v. FEC, . McConnell v. FEC, 2003 (in part). Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010)

[12] 536 AD – The Worst Year in History, Medium (July 7, 2020). Why 536 Was ‘The Worst Year To Be Alive, Science Magazine (Nov. 15, 2018)

[13] Hollowed-Out Public Health System Faces More Cuts Amid Virus, Kaiser Health News (Aug. 24, 2020)

[14] STAT News, July 7, 2020. According to its website, “STAT delivers fast, deep, and tough-minded journalism about health, medicine, life sciences and the fast-moving business of making medicines.”

[15]  The National WWII Museum.

[16] Wikipedia – Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. See also History.com – Hiroshima, and History.com – Nagasaki.

[17] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 24, 2020.

[18] Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2006).

[19] Patton, op cit.

[20] The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – Universal Declaration of Human Rights.   This is the text.

[21] The United Nations Office of the High Commissionr for Human Rights — Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

[22] Dag Hammarskjöld Library, Jan 8, 2020. See also Wikipedia – Rome Statute International Criminal Court.

[23] US Policy Regarding the International Criminal Court (ICC), Congressional Research Service (July 9, 2002 – August 29, 2006).

[24] Wikipedia –the United States and the International Criminal Court.

[25] Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law. adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 60/147 of 16 December 2005.

[26] Statement to the media by the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, on the conclusion of its official visit to USA, 19-29 January 2016

Reparations [5]: Moral Compulsion

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.”

T.S. Eliot

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.

[1] Patton, Jill, An Existential Moment for Democracy? As American leadership falters, scholars say, autocrats are on the rise, Stanford Magazine (December 2019)

[2] Ibid.

The Lost Joy of Working (It’s Worse Than I Thought)

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.
Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to
answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Albert Camus, An Absurd Reasoning (1955)

The last few posts had a lot in them about suicide. I really didn’t plan to write about suicide. I meant instead to talk about happiness and meaning in our work, particularly for lawyers and the legal profession — nice, safe topics. I mean, who can argue with enjoying our work?

Trouble is, as I did my research, suicide kept coming up, along with other topics I didn’t plan to write about. Some were predictable, like globalization, technology, and disruptive innovation. I’ve written about those before, although they came up in new ways that merit re-examination. But then a whole lot of uninvited, touchier subjects jumped onboard. such as income and wealth inequality, poverty and the welfare system, nationalism and immigration, and more.

Uh oh. If last year’s election taught me anything, it’s that public discourse has been largely displaced by what this Aeon Magazine article calls “moral grandstanding.” As a result, if you write something, it’s likely to be slapped with an assumption that you’re on mission to convert other people to a point of view. and thus the fight begins. I learned that the hard way when a Facebook “friend” pounced one of my shares, and before I knew it our other “friends” were cheering us on like students making a circle around us in the high school cafeteria after I accidentally stepped on his potato chips.

How about we don’t do that? At least not here.

I recently shared some of the economic research I’ve been doing in connection with these posts with a friend who’s a hedge fund manager. He immediately demanded that I define my terms. Whoa! I replied that I wasn’t pretending to be an economist, I’m just trying to figure out how the world of work is changing, and how that affects human beings. (If you’d like a book list of what I’ve been reading, you can check out my Goodreads page. Or email me.) Guess I won’t bring up economics again, I thought. And yet here I am, risking it in this column. Why?

joy of cookingMainly, because my research keeps linking all those touchy subjects to the safe ones I started with, and because all of them — controversial or not — seem to be symptomatic of a worldwide clash of social and economic narratives. And that interests me, very much. Work as a life-giving human activity has been an enduring passion of mine since college, when I cut a headline out of a magazine that was based on the iconic “The Joy of Cooking” cover, except it substituted “Working” for “Cooking.” I pasted it on a bookshelf I lugged around for decades until it got lost in a recent move.

The headline was lost, but not the interest. I plan to keep writing about The Joy of Working because I care about the human beings getting squeezed by the cultural and commercial shifts that are currently revolutionizing the world of work. I care that the legal profession is at Ground Zero for many of these developments, with its endemic high levels of career dissatisfaction and related loss of personal wellbeing. And I care because my research shows that things are worse than I thought:  feelings of a lack of meaning about our work aren’t just a complex and difficult social and economic phenomenon, they’re a plague that too often ends in self-inflicted death.

I also believe that, if anyone is positioned to steer public discourse toward constructive outcomes, it would be those directly engaged with how the law is learned and practiced, created and applied. We’ve already sailed some stormy seas together in this series, and we’re heading for more. I think we’re up for it.

One last that thing:  I have no illusions about my own objectivity; I am as prone to cognitive bias as anyone. (We’ll take more about that, too.) Thus I invite you to remember that I intend this be about conversation, not conversion. Plus, I’ll make the customary disclaimer that I write my own thoughts, not the CBA’s.

I will brave the discourse if you will.

The Future of Law (Part 3): The Globalization of the Law

Follow this link for a collection of my past three years of blog posts. It’s a FREE download!

In his book Between Two Ages:  The 21st Century and the Crisis of Meaning, futurist Van Wishard introduces globalization this way:

“Sir Fred Holye was an eminent British mathematician and astronomer. He made a remark in the 1940’s that was prophetic:  “Once a photograph of Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose. That photograph was taken in 1969 from the moon, and it provided a visual symbol of globalization for humanity. Globalization [is] the long-term effort to integrate the global dimensions of life into each nation’s economics, politics and culture. In my judgment, this is the most ambitious collective experiment in history.”

Thus far, most of the globalization action has been along cultural and economic lines, while the law has remained mostly aloof. That will end:  the law will become increasingly globalized.

Globalization is a megatrend, which one source defines as follows:

“Mega trends are global, sustained and macro economic forces of development that impact business, economy, society, cultures and personal lives thereby defining our future world and its increasing pace of change.”

Megatrends cut a wide swath; lesser trends derive from them and follow in their wake. Legal trends deriving from the megatrend of globalization will realign law beyond the federal and state distinctions we’re used to, adding new regional and supranational lines as in the European Union. Along the way, globalization will substantially reshape several practice areas, beginning with commercial, intellectual property, immigration, environment, natural resources, banking, and tax. In general, international law will step out of its esoteric shadows into mainstream prominence.

The implications of legal globalization are tough to get your head around. It’s useful to keep a few things in mind:

  • A trend is not a destination; it’s a vector, the direction and magnitude of which are rarely known at the time. Trends take us to surprising places, known only after the fact.
  • In the arena of law, globalization will require choice. Pop culture and technology readily cross political and geographic borders; the law will need to be deliberate about how it does so.
  • The law is culturally resistant to change, therefore its participation in globalization will likely be driven by national or international activating incidents or disruptive technologies that make embracing it no longer optional.

Van Wishard sees a big upside to globalization:

“If it succeeds, humanity may enter an epoch of opportunity and prosperity for a greater proportion of the earth’s inhabitants than ever before…. A global civilization will be a human civilization in a far higher sense than any that has ever been before, as it will have overcome the constricting social, ethnic and national limitations of the past.”

But there’s a corresponding downside:

“If [globalization] fails, it could retard progress in some nations for generations…. The birth pangs of such a new consciousness will bring infinite suffering as familiar attitudes and institutions fall away.”

There is no doubt that the globalization of law will see its share of both “opportunity and prosperity,” “birth pangs” and “infinite suffering.” We’re in for it, one way or another.

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