As Victor Hugo said, “nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.” Further, when its time has come, it does not matter who says it or how. “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an example of an idea that has taken over the powers of American academia and its politically correct intelligentsia if not yet the economic powers despite its fifth grade level logic and historical knowledge. Do not be certain that it never will come to dominate those economic powers and become reality — look at gay marriage and its rapid becoming of a cultural fad among those powers. There are many criticisms of his Reparations article out there that I need not repeat here. It is illogical, grossly inaccurate both historically and in terms of present reality, and badly written. Despite such, instead of being thrown in the trash never to see the light of day, thanks to white guilt that is apparently dominant among our academia and intelligentsia, it shows up as a cover article on what claims to be intelligent journalism — the Atlantic — with its author Mr. Coates receiving a “genius” award for it from a bunch of rich white folks.
I want to elucidate here what this reparations article, this idea, and its reception shows of how the powers-that-be think about life. This new concept of reparations is radically different from any previous idea or award of reparations such as those granted to World War II Japanese-American internees. Those reparations were paid to live people who were actually interned (for the usual political reasons, the Italian and German Americans interned were not included in the reparations). This new concept of reparations for slavery is essentially a secular form of original sin that is passed down through generations. The powers lead such sheltered lives of power and control in the present, oblivious to the evil around them and in their own souls, that the powers need to go out and look for evil in the past. Having found it (no surprise there), they have nothing better to do but to arbitrarily and randomly make ethical and moral judgments on the dead; then, they use these judgments as a basis to force upon present humanity their ethical judgments on how others ought to be and act — pretty much the same mentality that created the evil they discovered in the past.
There is no need to look into the past for evil. Right now, in the present, one child dies every four seconds from poverty, hunger, or easily preventable diseases and illnesses. You can close your eyes, reach out there and stick your finger on any newspaper, internet news page, television news channel, or whatever you use for news and find an evil that needs to be worked on. All the evils of which Mr. Coates complains as having been forced upon “black bodies” of the past are still present and are being forced upon a portion of humanity, black and white, now in the present. Though chattel slavery is no longer officially legal, it still exists unofficially in parts of Africa, the Mideast, and in Southeast Asia. Wage slavery is everywhere. Predatory lending? Millions of white and black “bodies” lost their life savings in the predatory lending crashes of the last couple of decades and more will do so in the next one. These are just the tip of the ice berg. There are plenty of problems out there requiring the application of scientific and technological technique for resolution and the associated political, social, and ethical normative structure to allow that technique to work.
By “work” I mean the ability to make learned scientific predictions and test them to see if they work. This “work” presents difficult ethical and moral questions in the present, in the now! There is a present need to attack and deal with these questions to provide a normative framework for science and technical work. For every supposedly frivolous claim of injustice out there of which the powers complain there are a thousand injustices that have no remedies either legal or illegal. Ethical and moral decisions are acts of cultural or individual will stating how the world “ought” to be, they are not acts of reason describing how it is. As the philosopher David Hume established centuries ago, there is no rational or logical way to go from an “is” statement to an “ought” statement. Modern philosophy has been trying to find a way around this problem for centuries but has failed. Slavery, for example, is unethical and immoral now because we want it to be so now. Will it be so in the future? Hopefully but not necessarily. If at some point in the future, humanity either through social structure or individual acts decides as it did for millennia that it “ought” to have slavery, we will. It is a constant battle in the present to make sure that such is not our future.
When studying or viewing history, for anyone with any familiarity with history, it is for all practical purposes not only impossible but illogical and irrational to put blame or to put labels of good, evil, moral, immoral, ethical, or unethical on any particular person, race, sex, or any group of humanity. It exhibits supreme and ultimate arrogance — and I would say an evil nature — for a present, living individual to look back into the infinite amount of variables that affected the billions of lives that have lived in the past to conclude any one or group of them was immoral or unethical. They are all dead. One cannot say they “ought” to be doing anything. All they every did is done. I get into greater detail and analysis in my book “Between the World and Us” on this question. As philosophers of science, knowledge, and language have shown, it is not even possible for scientists to made such conclusions. Statements such as “F=ma” are true because they are the simplest versions of an explanation for certain events that can be tested and by failing the test can be proven false now, in the present. If they cannot be tested nor proven false by such tests, they are meaningless. It is not even possible to state that scientific statements will be true in the future as exemplified by relativity physics invalidating of this “F=ma” that is the soul of classical physics. Furthermore, it would make no sense to say that in the past a physicist such as Aristotle “ought” to have known this truth nor even that any given scientific statement was true in Aristotle’s time, since it may not be true in the future there is no reason to make it true in the past.
Yet, this is exactly what the powers including Mr. Coates do: they somehow believe that they have the universe’s authority to put ethical and moral blame on dead people who most likely acted in the same way that the powers including Mr. Coates would have acted if they were in the past situations and cultures that they condemn as immoral or unethical. They do not stop there. Having made their god-like “ought” judgments of dead people, they go on to use those arbitrary and random judgments to make “ought” judgments of what everyone else in the present should be doing. Thus repeating the same mentality that led to the evils of the past. The powers do not look into the past and see what at this point was billions of lives that have struggled and fought with life’s hardships to give us the modern world of today that is at least quantitatively better than their world but only see a class of people whom they can blame for failing to create the world they want.
Looking into the past, we can look at the use of words and make judgments as to the pragmatic effects of words as good or evil relative to what we want now. We want a world without slavery. As I discuss in detail in my book, because we achieved such a world through the “slave morality” of Christianity, we can say relative to this goal that Christianity is a good and we should help it spread and prosper — until it stops helping us achieve this goal. We can say, relative to our desire to avoid chattel slavery, that because slavery caused slavery in the past, it is an evil now that must constantly be stopped and punished. Making the jump from arguing present moral and ethical “ought” judgments to make “ought” judgments of dead people then to make “ought” judgments of what present “live” people “ought” to do exhibits the supreme god-like arrogance of the powers-that-be.
In fact, that is the definition of the powers-that-be: those that have the power to made the world in their own image, that have the time and resources to sit around and decide what others both alive and dead people “ought” to do or to have done and then to enforce their view of “ought” upon the rest of society. The working person usually only has two choices in life: work or go to jail. If they achieve the first with any stability, then their main goal is simply to be left alone to try to achieve some happiness or joy in life with whatever the powers let them have. The vast majority of slaves up until very recent history in the Western World were white slaves owed by white masters. Initially, racism probably resulted from upper class whites seeing their white wage slaves and black chattel slaves getting along with each other in their misery and thus seeing a need to create discord among them to avoid a threat to their power.
Reparations based on a concept of secular original sin creating white guilt is a new type of racism created by modern powers with the aid of such writers as Mr. Coates as a way to maintain the discord among the working class and to continue it into the future. In the present, where there is much potential for technology to solve so many problems in life and a great need for a normative structure to focus that potential, the fact that any powers are taking this reparations argument seriously shows how removed they are from reality. The idea that they can pass god-like ethical and moral judgment on the dead is bad enough, but this new concept that they can create original sin for generations of humans shows they are trying to go from being god-like to actual demigods in the same manner as the emperor-gods of the ancients. Just as the richest 1% of the world are getting richer and further removed from everyone else, with such new concepts of ruling class reality, it is only a matter of time before they completely separate from the rest of us to become Orwell’s Inner Party.