“This is not who we are.” Americans are saying this about the forced separation of children from their migrant parents at the border with Mexico. They said it about torture. Yet we keep doing these horrible things over and over again. So it isn’t really true. These horrible acts are exactly who we are.
In the latest of periodic revivals of the argument that the United States ought to issue reparations to African-Americans as compensation for slavery, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic: “Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”
That discrimination, poverty and genocide are at the heart of the black American experience is not in doubt — at least not in the minds of people of moderate intelligence and good will. That tens of millions of blacks continue, “even” after the election of the first black president, to suffer systemic racism along with its attendant symptoms — schools starved of funding, grinding poverty, police brutality, a viciously skewed judiciary, bigotry in every aspect of life from the workplace to housing to romance — is obvious to all who care to open their eyes the slightest bit.
Reparations are obviously justified. Moreover, they are normative; in the United States, aggrieved parties routinely seek and receive compensation for their injuries and economic losses via class-action lawsuits and the occasional U.S. Treasury payout. During the 1990s, for example, Congress issued $20,000 reparations checks to 82,210 Japanese-Americans and their heirs in order to compensate them for shipping them to concentration camps during World War II (and, in many cases, stealing their homes and businesses).
Better ridiculously late than never; better insultingly small than nothing.
Other U.S. reparations precedents include North Carolina residents forcibly sterilized during the mid 20th century as part of a nationwide eugenics program targeted at minorities and the mentally disabled (they are receiving $50,000 each), victims of the infamous Tuskegee untreated-syphilis experiment ($24,000 to $178,000), and blacks killed in the 1923 mass lynching at Rosewood, Florida ($800,000 for those forced to flee).
Coates admits that complications arise from his proposal: “Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay?”
Should blacks who are not descendants of American slaves, like President Obama, receive reparations? What about wealthy blacks — should a wealthy black person receive a payout while members of other races go hungry? Should poor blacks get more than rich blacks? What about “mixed race” people — if your father was black and your mother was white, should you get half a check?
These are good questions, but as a white man (not descended from Americans who lived in the United States during slavery), I don’t enjoy the political standing to ponder them, much less answer them.
Whatever the details of a theoretical reparation scheme, my only objection to the idea overall would be that no amount of money would or could be enough. Reading through Coates’ survey of centuries of savage rape, abuse and degradation, one can’t help but ask, how could $100,000 make up for a single ancestor turned away from restaurants or rejected for promotions or unable to attend college due to the color of her skin? $1 million? $10 million?
Not that doing the right thing is going to happen any time soon. “For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for ‘appropriate remedies,’ Coates writes.
The bill “has never—under either Democrats or Republicans—made it to the House floor,” he says, because “we are not interested.”
Well, I’m interested. And I’d be paying, not getting.
Coates is, if anything, too polite. Congress’ disinterest in trying to atone for America’s original sin of slavery, he says, “suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential.”
That existential something, of course, is that the United States and its economic infrastructure are the products of so much brutality, stealing, lying and exploitation, of so many hundreds of millions of people not only within “our” borders but — as the center of a vast economic and military empire — that it would not only be impossible to compensate all of its victims without going broke many times over, reparations would force American political leaders to concede that we are indeed an exceptional nation, if only in our violence and perfidy.
One place to start compiling lists of victims and heirs to consider for reparations would be Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.” All 49 states (except Hawaii) belonged to Native Americans; any fair assessment of compensation would give the total real estate value back to them, plus four centuries of interest and penalties for pain, suffering, and opportunity cost. Hawaii was stolen from native Hawaiians by an invasion force of U.S. Marines.
Chinese railroad workers were abused, discriminated against and in some cases murdered; America’s freight travels the rails they laid down. Except for slavery, Latinos too have suffered many of the same horrors, and still do, as Coates enumerates. There are the victims of America’s countless wars of colonial conquest in North America and around the world: Filipino patriots tortured to death in the early 20th century, two million Vietnamese, Koreans, Afghans, Iraqis and Yemenis — honestly, this is like one of those Oscar speeches where there isn’t enough time to thank everyone who made this “wonderful” exceptional country possible.
By all means, cut everyone a check, then close up shop.
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COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM
Every time Democrats argue for increasing the minimum wage, Republicans trot out the same old arguments: it will increase unemployment, employers will move overseas, and it will increase the barrier for entry for new workers. Studies repeatedly show that none of these things are true, of course, but yet they persist to be argued and reported.
A Congress of 21st Century Cynics Dodges 19th Century Rules
People are calling the recently adjourned 112th Congress “the most dysfunctional ever” and the least productive since the infamous “do-nothing Congress” of the 1940s. There’s lots of blame to go around, but one cause for congressional gridlock has gone unnoticed and unremarked upon: we no longer have a sense of honor.
Back in the late 18th and 19th centuries, when our bicameral legislature and its rules were conceived of by a bunch of land-owning white males, a gentleman’s word was his most precious asset. Integrity and the lack thereof were literally a matter of life and death; consider the matter of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. As Thomas Jefferson and his de facto wife Sally Hemings could attest, civility was far from guaranteed under this old system. It certainly could have worked better for Charles Sumner, the abolitionist Massachusetts senator who was nearly beaten to death by a proslavery colleague on the floor of the Senate in 1856. (He was avenging what he considered libelous rhetoric against his family.)
Though less-than-perfect, there was a lot to be said for a culture in which a person’s word was his bond, legalistic quibbling was scorned, and a legislator was expected to stake out and defend a principled position, even in the face of political and personal adversity.
It’s hard to imagine the “fiscal cliff” showdown unfolding in the 1800s or even the first half of the 1900s for two simple reasons. First, the general fiscal health of the country would have come ahead of partisanship. Second, and more importantly, members of the two political parties would have stuck to the deal that they struck a decade earlier. When George W. Bush and his Republicans pushed for a set of income tax cuts that primarily benefited the wealthiest Americans in 2001, they argued the standard GOP trickle-down economics talking point that the tax cuts would pay for themselves by stimulating the economy so much that revenues into government coffers would more than make up for the cost. In order to get enough Democratic support for passage, the Republicans agreed to a five-year time period, after which taxes would revert to their Bill Clinton-era levels.
By 2006 there was still no evidence to show that the tax cuts had stimulated the economy. In fact, by many measures, things were worse. The housing bubble was beginning to burst; unemployment and underemployment had increased. If this had been the 19th century, Republican legislators would have acknowledged that their experiment had failed and that would have been that. A gentleman didn’t run away from the facts or his mistakes.
Voters seemed to agree. Unhappy with the invasion of Iraq as well as the state of the economy, Americans returned Democrats to control of Congress in 2006. Republicans had a pretty good idea—the polls were damning—that their unpopular policies were driving them toward a decisive defeat in the midterm elections. For men and women of honor, this would have been a time to reassess and back off.
Nevertheless the GOP jammed through an extension of the 2001 Bush tax cuts for the wealthy months before the midterm election. No honor there.
Here we are nearly 12 years later, and the verdict is in: the Bush tax cuts failed miserably. No doubt about it, it’s absolutely ridiculous that President Obama and the Democrats agreed to extend them for all but the richest one-half of one percent of American income earners. But the debate should never have gotten this far in the first place. Had the Republicans who proposed it in the first place possessed an iota of good old-fashioned 19th-century honor and integrity, this misbegotten legislative abortion would have died in 2006.
Robert’s Rules of Order and other quaint traditions of parliamentary procedure don’t translate to a quibbling little time like ours, when White House lawyers torture widely understood words like “torture” and “soldier” or claim that a US military base in Cuba is in no man’s land, neither in Cuba nor under US control, and that members of both major political parties say anything in order to get their way. Consider, for example, the current push to reform the filibuster, in order to clear the logjam on judicial nominations and other business that used to be considered routine.
The Senate, the only house of Congress that permits a filibuster, draws upon a tradition of principled minority protest that goes back to Cato in ancient Rome. Until the 1970s, filibusters were a rarity, averaging one a year. Senators viewed them as a bit of a nuclear option and only considered deploying a one-man block on debate of a bill a few times during a long political career, to take a stand on an issue where he felt it mattered most. Now the filibuster is not only a daily routine but gets deployed in an automated way so that the Senate has effectively become a body in which nothing gets done without a 60% vote in favor.
Everyone in the Senate understood what filibusters were for. No one abused them. It was a matter of honor.
But honor is too much to ask when even the most basic of all political considerations—ideology and party affiliation—bend like a reed in the winds of change.
Last week the Republican governor of New Jersey and a Republican congressman from Long Island, New York were so incensed by their party’s refusal to approve disaster relief funds for their states after hurricane Sandy that they went public with disparaging remarks about the Republican leadership in Congress. Fair enough. Standing up for your constituents against rank parochial self-interest is what integrity is all about.
On the other hand, the immediate willingness of some so-called liberal and progressive Democrats to welcome Chris Christie—a Tea Party favorite—and Peter King—a notorious nativist and anti-Muslim bigot—into their party’s ranks indicates a willingness to overlook basic principles that would have startled most self-described gentlemen of a century or two ago, much less those who’d entered public service. Back then, of course, the American political party system wasn’t as settled as it is today, so there were mass changes of party affiliation as parties appeared, metastasized and vanished. Still, it wasn’t acceptable behavior to change parties over a minor spat like the hurricane aid or for a party to accept members who didn’t adhere to its principles.
It’s almost enough to make you wish for a duel.
COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL
The Conspiracy to Abolish Cash
For many years figures on the political fringe, especially on the right, have claimed that the government and its corporate owners want to transform us into a cashless society. Their warnings about the conspiracy against paper money fell on deaf ears, primarily because the digitalization of financial transactions seemed more like the result of organic business trends than the manifestation of some sinister conspiracy.
Now, however, those who want to do away with liquid currency are stepping out of the shadows. They talk about increased efficiency and profit potential, but their real agenda is nothing less than enslavement of the human race.
“Physical currency is a bulky, germ-smeared, carbon-intensive, expensive medium of exchange. Let’s dump it,” argued David Wolman in Wired.
Citing a 2002 study for the Organization for Economic Development that states “money’s destiny is to become digital, ” a Defense Department-affiliated economics professor has authored an Op/Ed for The New York Times that asks: “Why not eliminate the use of physical cash worldwide?” Jonathan Lipow urges President Obama to “push for an international agreement to eliminate the largest-denomination bills” and urges the replacement of bills and coins by “smart cards with biometric security features.”
Lipow’s justification for calling for the most radical change to the fundamental nature of commerce since industrialization is, of all things, fighting terrorism. “In a cashless economy, insurgents’ and terrorists’ electronic payments would generate audit trails that could be screened by data mining software; every payment and transfer would yield a treasure trove of information about their agents, their locations and their intentions,” Lipow writes. “This would pose similar challenges for criminals.”
Terrorism is a mere fig leaf. According to the annual “Patterns of Global Terrorism” report compiled by the U.S. State Department, the highest total death toll attributed to terrorism in the last 20 years occurred in—surprise—2001. Including 9/11, only 3,547 people were killed in 346 acts of violence worldwide. Tragic. Obviously. But, in the overall scheme of things, terrorism is not a big deal.
Measured in terms of loss of life and economic disruption, terrorism is a trivial problem, hardly worth mentioning. According to the UN, 36 million people die annually from hunger and malnutrition. Over half a million die in car wrecks—but you don’t hear people like Lipow demanding that we get rid of cars. A more legitimate concern is the “loss” of taxes upon the underground economy, estimated by the IMF at 15 percent of transactions in developed nations.
What the anti-cash movement really wants is digital totalitarianism: a dystopian nightmare in which the entire human race is enslaved by international corporations and their pet governments. An anti-establishment gadfly like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could be instantly deprived of money—and thus freedom of movement—with a couple of keystrokes. (We saw a preview of this when PayPal and Amazon shut down WikiLeaks donation mechanism and web server, respectively.) The high-tech hell depicted by the film “Enemy of the State” would become reality.
It is true that, in a society where every good and service has to be paid for with a debit or credit card, terrorist groups would find it much harder to operate. Don’t forget, however, that today’s terrorists often become tomorrow’s liberators. Anti-British terrorists George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t have stood a chance if the Brits had been able to intercept wire transfers from France.
Decashification would establish digital totalitarianism, a form of corporo-government control so rigid, thorough and all-encompassing that by comparison it would make Hitler and Stalin look like easygoing surfer dudes. The abolition of unregulated financial transactions would freeze the political configuration of the world, making it impossible for opposition movements—much less revolutionary ones—to challenge the status quo.
A society without dissent has no hope. Even if we lived in a perfect world where everyone was ruled by wildly popular, benevolent, scrupulously honest regimes—ha!—eliminating the slightest possibility of opposition would lead to barbarism.
We’re already more than halfway to a cashless society. In the U.S. few young adults still use checks. In many countries debit and credit card transactions now exceed those made via cash and checks combined. In 2007 the chairman of Visa Europe predicted the abolition of cash by 2012. Obviously he was wrong. But that’s where we’re headed. The U.K. plans to abolish checking accounts by 2018.
Even if you love your government, don’t want it to change, and think political opponents belong in prison, you ought to worry. As things currently stand, we know the big banks can’t be trusted. Remember when they introduced ATM cards? Banks wanted us to use them so they could lay off tellers. Then they instituted “convenience fees.” Which they have raised, and raised, to the point that taking $20 out of an out-of-town ATM could cost you $5 in fees ($2 for their bank, $3 for yours).
Imagine what your life will look like under digital totalitarianism. Your pay is direct-deposited into your bank account. You’ll pay for small purchases with your cellphone; if you owe a few bucks to a friend you’ll be able to bump your phone against your friend’s to settle up. Nowadays, some corporations allow you to control when your bills get deducted; in the future they’ll demand that you authorize them to do it automatically. What if you have a disputed charge? They’ll already have your dollars, or work credits, or whatever they’ll call them. Good luck trying to get it back from the Indian call-center guy.
As corporate ownership becomes increasingly monopolized and intertwined, your overdue phone bill might be owned by the same outfit as your bank, which would simply take what it says you owe.
The law of unintended consequences is getting a serious workout thanks to digitalization. Motorists in New York were thrilled when the EZPass system allowed them to breeze past lines at toll bridges—at a discount, no less. Then divorce lawyers began subpoenaing EZPass records to prove that a spouse was cheating. Next police set up EZPass scanners on the bridges; if you pass two of them too fast, a speeding ticket is automatically generated. The next step is to eliminate cash lanes entirely; non-EZPass tag holders will soon have their license plates scanned and receive a bill by mail—plus a $2 to $3 “handling” fee.
Think there are too many fees now? If you think you can’t trust banks now, imagine how badly they’ll gouge you when they control every single commercial transaction down to the purchase of a pack of gum. Angry about taxes? When tax agencies can take the money out of your account without asking, they will. Unlike cash, that phone bump to pay your friend will be a trackable, data mineable, fully taxable commercial transaction.
As if the post-2008 economic collapse hadn’t proven that no one is looking out for We the People but ourselves—and then barely so—the digivangelists tell us not to worry, that Big Brother, Inc. will smooth out the rough patches on the road to techno-fascist domination. From Wolman in Wired: “Opponents used to argue that killing cash would hurt low-income workers—for instance, by eliminating cash tips. But a modest increase in the minimum wage would offset that loss; government savings from not printing money could go toward lower taxes for employers.” Sure. The same way banks passed on the savings they earned by replacing tellers with ATMs to their customers.
Americans are skipping into the digital inferno wearing a smile and relishing the smell of their own burning flesh. Countless friends and acquaintances pay all their bills online. “I’m all about using my checking account in place of cash and would love to be able to eliminate cash entirely from my life,” gushed PCWorld’s Tony Bradley recently.
“Give me convenience or give me death” was the title of an album by the punk band Dead Kennedys.
We’ll get both.
(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)
COPYRIGHT 2010 TED RALL