I did a quick poll yesterday about reparations and had a mixed response. On the question “Should any nation have to pay reparations for acts of war or aggression against another?” The answers I got were:
Yes ► 29%
No ► 29%
Don’t know ► 29%
Depends ► 14%
I believe countries should pay reparations to countries/peoples they’ve aggressed against, and here’s why:
1. It’s about recognition that a wrong has been done. So, when Britain walked into India, took over the country, pillaged it’s wealth, sent it’s food to Britain causing famine in India in which millions died, reinforced a caste system that led to decades of penalising feudalism, and much more, it did huge wrong to that country. Whilst individuals have acknowledged the wrong, Britain as a country has never apologised for that deep wrong. Yet it almost destroyed a country that was civilised long before Britain. Everything built on since then has been built on the ruins of what Britain left. Oh of course it didn’t leave as much rubble and destruction as the invasion of Iraq (for example), but nevertheless, it took the legs out from under a country, simply for profit and self-aggrandisement. That was wrong, and should be acknowledged.
2. It helps the people and country who were set back, to climb up a little to where they would/should have been otherwise (though it will never get them fully there). Let’s take a local example: You and a neighbour are growing vegetables for the county show, you both planted at the same time and all vegetables are coming along nicely. One day you go into his vegetable plot, knock him down, pull all the vegetables up (eating some and replanting the biggest and best ones), despoil his seed beds and take the best of his soil. You leave his plot and continue along your merry way. He gets up and starts again, doing his best to remake his seed beds, with whatever rough soil is left, and replants. In the meantime you’re using the best of his soil and his biggest vegetables to supplement your stock. Come the day of the county show, your vegetables are plump and juicy, and win all the prizes, whilst his are small and under-grown. His vegetables won’t be maturing for a long time to come while you’re enjoying the ‘fruits’ of your labour. That simple analogy demonstrates that the person you hurt, may recover, given enough time, but will take a long long time to reach anything like the level of ‘prosperity’ that you now enjoy. In the example, the vegetables have to start growing from seed again. They may not be actively suffering in terms we talk about suffering, but they’re certainly not enjoying the benefit of the labour of the grower. Well the people of a country are like that. They are not enjoying the wealth, infrastructure and their own civilisation to help them become what they should be.
Reparations are like making the person who attacked and stole the vegetables, give back some fertile soil, give back some nice big vegetables, helping to rebuild the seed beds. It will never make it right, but it can help them get back some semblance of what they might have had.
Reparations are not punishment on the country who did wrong, or their ancestors. They’re not a reward for having been weak enough to have been destroyed by your ancestors either. They’re an attempt to say something along the lines of “we’re sorry for kicking your legs away, here’s a crutch to help you until your legs have healed, and as a way of expressing our regret for the things we did to you”.
It’s also fair to say that reparations will never make right the wrong. Reparations, typically in the form of money, won’t magically ‘fix’ things, and nobody is saying they will. Indeed some people who have had wrong done to them would refuse reparations because they’d see it as demeaning, while some would refuse it on the grounds that nothing can ever “right the wrong”. Reparations will never right the wrong of course, but that’s not an excuse for not paying them either.
It seems there are a lot of people who like to say “but I didn’t do anything, so why should I suffer?” and “It wasn’t me, it was my ancestors, I didn’t benefit”. The point about the analogy of the vegetables is to help demonstrate that you did benefit. Did you grow up in your country? Did you have roads, schools, hospitals? In Britain particularly, many of those things were built on the wealth plundered from other countries. Did I benefit from my parents? Did they benefit from theirs? Did they benefit from having all that infrastructure? Did they benefit from having the institutions and (arguably) civilisation, that grew up on the wealth that was taken from and generated from stolen goods? The answer is, of course, yes. Whether you personally are poor or disadvantaged is irrelevant, and if you’re British and poor, comparing yourself to someone from India who is now rich is fallacious and ridiculous.
Too Long Ago
Ah, that old chestnut. Okay, let’s take this one step at a time. If the country who was pillaged, and the people of the country, no longer exist, it’s almost impossible to actually pay reparations. So the Romans came and conquered Britain and pillaged it’s resources (as they did a lot of countries). Would it be fair to make the Italians (successors to the Romans) pay reparations for that? Well, firstly, the Romans don’t exist any more, and the Italians are not the Romans, and secondly the British (as they existed at the time) do not exist any more. Roman civilisation itself fell. Britain was also then invaded by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, as well as the Vikings and the French of course. Time in this case has been “long enough” for Britain to get “back on it’s feet”.
What about the USA versus the native Americans. Does the civilisation that attacked and destroyed the native American civilisation still exist? Yes, it does. It’s all very well arguing that it was the invading Europeans who did the destruction, but actually quite a few generations had already passed living in America before the destruction got under way. In fact, arguably, those European countries shouldowe reparations, though far more is owed by America itself.
There is no statute of limitations for reparations, just as there’s no world court who can order the payment of reparations. Reasonable guidelines can be made though, and frequently are. Should Britain make reparations to Spain for it’s blatant state sponsored piracy against it’s shipping in the 17th century? Probably not. It can reasonably be argued that the world has changed so radically since the 18th century that anything prior to that is ‘forgiven and forgotten’. However the 19th century onward (1800-present day for those who don’t know how century terminology works), should almost certainly be included. The grey area is probably the whole 18th century (1700-1800). Britain, Spain, Netherlands and Portugal were all particularly aggressive in their exploitation during that period. So I’d say it needs to be looked at on a case by case basis.
I think a good case can be made for our modern world being built on the foundations of the 19th rather than the 18th century, but one would need to look at underpinning technologies for example and that’s beyond my scope here. Suffice to say that trying to equate the Roman invasion of Egypt in 30BC, with the British pillaging of China in the early 19th century is merely an attempt to muddy the waters. Those who do so often use this argument to say that “therefore no reparations should be made” in an attempt to sweep away all the other arguments.
Don’t push guilt on me
You can decry guilt if you want, but guilt, like pain, is a mechanism for telling you something’s wrong, and where it is. If a body doesn’t feel pain, there’s somethingwrong with it, and it can suffer really badly because of it. Guilt tells us we’ve done something wrong. Those who feel no guilt for any wrong they do are called psychopaths or sociopaths (or both). Guilt isn’t (shouldn’t be) something that causes us to curl up in a ball unable to cope. It should make us want to dosomething to fix the wrong. That’s the point.
I’d welcome opinions in the comments, but unless you’re going to make sensible, reasonable or logical arguments, don’t bother. I’m not interested in your abuse, and I’m not interested in the “winners shouldn’t pay” argument (or the “make me” argument). There is no court that can “make you”, and if you firmly believe that ‘might makes right’ (the bullies mantra) then no argument will win you over because you have little to no human empathy.
My conclusion is – pay reparations because it’s the human thing to do. It will never be enough to fix the damage, but even if it’s a token gesture, it’s still the right thing to do.