2016-06-30
Recently Brown University students made off with all 4,000 copies of the campus newspaper, the Herald, because it contained an inflammatory paid advertisement attacking the snowballing idea that reparations be paid to the descendants of America's slaves. In their defense, the students invoked America's hallowed tradition of civil disobedience. When campus turmoil continued after the student confiscation, Brown held a forum on free speech that was closed to the media (including the campus's own) and restricted to Brown students. Not even alumni could attend.

Since David Horowitz, a former Black Panther supporter and civil rights activist turned firebrand conservative, submitted his ad to campus papers nationwide (timed to coincide with Black History Month), America's chattering classes haven't known a peaceful moment. That's too bad, not because debate is to be feared, but because this particular debate is more schoolyard taunting than a serious civic exercise intended to confront and judiciously settle a matter of national importance. To follow the reparations debate is to be subjected to more anti-intellectualism, pretzel logic, and bare racism than anyone should ever have the misfortune to endure.

Every new article makes me a little more ashamed to be an American. The debacle at Brown, spurred by Horowitz's ad, proves the point. So far, according to Horowitz, 18 college papers have rejected the ad, including those at Harvard, Columbia, Minnesota, and Virginia. Only four ran it and managed to avoid controversy. Enraged protesters descended on the editorial offices of some, and several offered abject apologies for having run the ad. So let's get straight what the college kids believe: Censorship is wrong when it silences liberals and minorities, but right when it silences Horowitz?

Intellectual and moral coherence aside, is this strategy even bright? God help us all, but the arguments on both sides are so complicated and flawed, there isn't enough space here to lay them all out. I'll focus on the two that are the most pernicious, in which both sides are equally complicit.

The word "reparations" means to repair, to compensate, to atone. Yet the most often repeated, self-serving, and unexamined tenet in the anti-reparations arsenal is that reparations are mere revenge and graft. "Reparations advocates," wrote Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby in his two-part indictment, "usually start the bidding at around $1.5 trillion."

Let's start with Jacoby's figure of $1.5 trillion. By focusing on this inflammatorily distracting price tag, Jacoby reduces reparations demands to money lust, while invoking a racist stereotype that blacks are thieves looking for 'handouts' like welfare and affirmative action. It cynically manipulates his audience to feel either revulsion or embarrassment, so they'll stop thinking clearly and just go politically Pavlovian.

I took Logic 101: Either reparations are justified or they're not. If they're justified, then they will cost what they cost. If they're unjustified, there's no reason to be sidetracked by dollar signs, which only taint and derail the entire discussion. (So far, reparationists are only demanding studies.) Only by tacitly assuming that reparations are unjustified can Jacoby and his fellow travelers focus their corrosive, derisive analysis on how much they will cost. Anti-reparationists refuse to see the debate as a heartfelt one, but rather as a conscious scam.

Writing in Horowitz's FrontPage magazine, anti-reparations commentator Richard Poe said, "...after decades of welfare, affirmative action, frivolous race-discrimination suits and Jesse-Jackson-style corporate blackmail schemes, Americans are beginning to grasp that "reparations"--in all their various forms--are nothing but an elaborate con. "The more we give, the more they want," says Poe.

Having gotten the choir all riled up, Poe goes on to his real point. "Money is not really the issue. Americans are a generous people. Ask us for charity and we'll gladly give it. But reparations are not charity. Reparations are an act of vengeance, a punishment imposed on a defeated enemy when he is too weak to say no."

This type of anti-intellectual double whammy dangerously weakens our nation and makes a lie of America. First, Poe says, sans argument or explanation, that reparations are nothing more than blackmail. Second, and much more important, America's wealth, from infrastructure to the gold reserves at Ft. Knox, belongs to white people, or, at least, to non-blacks. Read: Whites are America; blacks are not. The "we" who angelically give defines who the Americans are. The "they" who just take and take and take are not. Ask "us Americans" for charity? Who's "us"?

Horowitz takes part in this psychological disenfranchisement. "The claim for reparations is premised on the false assumption that only whites have benefited from slavery," he writes in his infamous ad. But "[o]nly a tiny minority of white Americans ever owned slaves, and others gave their lives to free them."

But reparations are not being demanded of whites. They are being demanded of America, the nation of which blacks are citizens, based on the nation's violation of their human rights and the social contract. They are demanded of the nation which, for money, was complicit in extracting and benefiting from blacks' kidnapping, their stolen lives, and their stolen labor. There is no explanation for Poe and Horowitz's line of reasoning except that it is the truth: Some whites believe that they, and they alone, are America. All others at here at their sufferance and had better watch their step. This white-supremacist linchpin undergirds not just anti-reparationism, but white racism--period.

Don't wait, however, for reparationists to drive home this pivotal point--that whites must give over their stranglehold on the American identity. Or for them to point out that blacks are not designating whites for retribution, but that America, which designated blacks for maltreatment, must now make them whole if the nation is to move toward an unlimited, unified future. When will reparationists find the bravery to look America in the eye and argue that reparations are what's best for America? Otherwise, their movement looks like just a clever ploy in a contest between competing interest groups?

Part of the problem is that knee-jerk reparationists tacitly agree with the white supremacists. They don't have the courage to claim their American-ness. Their quest, an outsider's, takes no stake in what its demands do to the nation. If it's not what's best for the country, you can't argue for a policy with costs (both psychic and monetary) of this magnitude and be a patriot.

Instead, reparations advocates tacitly provide support for this most racist, most divisive, unexamined, unacknowledged, mischief-making hatred. Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam writes, "Somebody took advantage of you and sent you to fight [wars] for your enemy. We helped you win, but you offered us nothing." Of course, Farrakhan does believe blacks ought not to see themselves as Americans. But what about reparations leaders? Chicago Alderman Dorothy Tillman says, "Blacks have inherited poverty, and they must pay."

Shame on all of them, pro and con. Shame on the "cons" for defining blacks out of America when they become troublesome and dare petition their government for redress of grievances; the "pros" for willingly jettisoning their place in the American family because they're petulant cowards, whose belief in themselves is too wobbly to think through their own demands. They're mad and they're lashing out, and all they really believe in is making whites eat crow. Over this vindictive howl of children hanging on the coattails of the reparations movement, clearheaded reparationists can't be heard.

Shame on us all for making this contest over America's soul a mere pissing contest.

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