Almost thirty years ago I stopped reading The Economist after I encountered a particularly offensive article full of racist stereotypes about the bog-trotting, drunken Irish. At the time the resentful Irishman in me thought that we were the last ethnic group such a prestigious international journal would think it could get away with insulting. I see in this morning’s New York Times that I was wrong and that The Economist is still stuck in its 19th Century British imperialist racism. At least this time there was enough of an outcry to make them retract the offending article. In this case the magazine had published a review dismissing a new study of the role of the exploitation of African slaves in the growth of American capitalism. The review had concluded with the following sentence: “Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.” In its retraction The Economist admitted that: “Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil.” Since we are talking about slavery in the United States, even in its so-called retraction, The Economist uses weasel-words to avoid confronting the facts by saying that only “the great majority of the victims were blacks,” and by limiting “the beneficiaries of that evil” only to “whites involved in slavery.”
That recalcitrance begins to answer my questions about the original review: What was the writer thinking? Where were the editors?
Another answer lies in what Jean Améry calls “natural time” and its “Statute of Limitations” which excuses the “already-being-long-past” just because it is already long past. “A crime causes disquiet in society, but as soon as public consciousness loses the memory of the crime, the disquiet also disappears.” (At the Mind’s Limit 71)
For most of the ten years before I retired, I worked with an African-American man who advocated for the payment of reparations to African-Americans for the years their ancestors had spent in slavery. He was the chair of a township agency for which I served as executive director in my position as township manager. He never raised the question of reparations at agency meetings, but he held my feet to the fire on using minority contractors and helping minority businesses in the area the agency served. Because he was well-known in the community, sometimes African-Americans who felt that they had been mistreated by the township would appeal to him to intervene on issues outside the scope of his agency. What I learned is that for someone whom some white people might perceive as having a chip on his shoulder, he was a stickler for the truth supported by documented evidence, and for the rule of law, as long as it was applied equally. If I had the documentation, he would accept my explanation of the situation. If township staff did not have any evidence to support what they had been doing, I learned that usually meant I needed to address a real grievance.
Unfortunately, as township manager I had to avoid controversial political issues like reparations for slavery so I was never able to discuss this issue with him. But from what I read in the press it seemed that his strong convictions on reparations were also based on historical evidence and on his clear sense of justice.
All this came back to me as I was reading the story about Edward Baptist’s new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. In this case, “the half that’s never been told” is how systematic violence was used to increase the productivity of people who were enslaved and how financiers and planters enriched themselves by trading in bonds that packaged mortgages on individuals who had been bought in the same way mortgages on housing was securitized in the last decade and currently on auto loans. As Baptist wrote,
The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African-Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth.
The title of the English version of Améry’s memoir does not a translate its original German title, Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne, Beyond Guilt and Atonement. As we’ve seen, Améry does not seek revenge or an eye-for-an-eye settlement to atone for the crimes of the German people. The last post ended with what Améry does envision—joining “the overpowered and those who overpowered them … in the desire that time be turned back” and, thereby, make history moral.
If the German people, who have already been “rehabilitated by time,” actually joined in this vision, the weight of this desire to turn time back would in and of itself fulfill the demand. In effect, the “German revolution” against Hitler, that never took place while he was alive and which now no longer seems necessary, would actually be achieved, i.e., “the eradication of the ignominy.”
Améry says that he cannot tell the Germans how to bring this about in practice because he’s not German. The closest he can get to advice is “to imagine vaguely a national community that would reject everything, but absolutely everything, that it accomplished in the days of its own deepest degradation, and what here and there may appear to be as harmless as the Autobahns.” This “negation of the negation” would be “a highly positive, a redeeming act.” But, of course, Améry sees that this daydream will never happen and that the “moral demands of our resentment” will be extinguished by “natural time.” (Recall his metaphor of the wound healing over time to describe “natural time.”) In the end,
Hitler’s Reich … will be purely and simply history, no better and no worse than than dramatic historical epochs just happened to be, bloodstained perhaps, but after all … [it] could have occurred anywhere else under similar circumstances, and no one will insist further on the trifle that it did happen precisely in Germany and not somewhere else. (78-79)
The reason why my chairman’s demand for reparations made me uncomfortable and why books like Baptist’s cause controversy is that they won’t, in Améry’s words, “allow a piece of [our] national history to be neutralized by time.” They do insist “on the trifle” that slavery did happen precisely in the United States and that “an odor of blood and disgrace” clings to our wealth and standard of living.
The usual response to sentences like the last is that the writer is self-hating and hates his own country. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even after being tortured and sent to Auschwitz, nowhere does Améry say that he hates the German people or the nation of Germany. He doesn’t even express hatred for SS-man Wajs. He wants to save himself and them. My chairman who demanded reparations for slavery was one of the most patriotic Americans I have known. He loves his country. That’s why he wants to reverse time and eradicate the ignominy.