Wednesday, March 2, 2016


[Part 1 is the previous post, the one for February 2016. I usually post once a month at the end of the month. I am posting earlier this time, so it will follow soon after Part 1.]

Sometimes the news throws up reports on the most diverse subjects, which can lead us to make the oddest connections. Along with a debate about reparations, recent news items have told us about the detection of gravitational waves, confirming part of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. It has produced a lot of excitement. For one thing, there is a hope that new technological devices will ensue. Whenever we discover anything in the west, the first thing scientists start thinking about is how this will give us more domination and control over nature.

But there is more. In response to one person’s query as to what good is this, one scientist, or perhaps it was a journalist who writes on science, responded that one might as well ask what good is Beethoven or Bach. There is a beauty to scientific theories about the universe that is worth pursuing for its own sake. Yes, there is. I agree. But I wonder why we never say that about humanitarian ideas.

There is an incredible beauty in the idea that an attack on humanity anywhere is an attack on humanity everywhere. But how many people really believe that? We consider it deeply problematic, a very big pain in the ass, to defend human rights everywhere. There is the danger, the economic costs, diplomatic considerations. Too much of an emphasis on human rights will interfere with material progress which always comes first. Human rights are something that can be put on the backburner. Humanitarian ideals are nothing like Beethoven or Bach. Great music doesn’t make us feel guilty the way our failures in humanitarianism do. We don’t celebrate humanitarians of the past the way we celebrate Bach or Einstein. We would rather forget.

(In what follows, all emphases in quotations from old authors are original to these authors.)

In the late 17th century, John Locke wrote that when an “Aggressor … unjustly invades another Man’s Right, [he] cannever come to have a Right over the Conquered …” He compares such unjust rulers to robbers and pirates. An unjust conqueror is like a robber who gains title to a man’s estate by holding a dagger to his throat. “The Injury and the Crime is equal, whether committed by the wearer of a Crown, or some petty Villain. The Title of the Offender, and the Number of his Followers, make no difference in the Offence, unless it be to aggravate it.” Think of what Locke is saying: Not only does might or status not make right, but it makes for less right and magnifies the crime.

(How Locke was rewritten by scholars to make him into a supporter of colonialism and the dispossession of native peoples is too long a story to go into here. For the moment, it is enough to say that their chief method has been to erase all that he said in defense of the native rights of all peoples.)

Locke went further. He argued that even in a just war, when a nation has all the justice on its side you can imagine, such justice does not give the conqueror the right to take away all the land from the conquered nation. The vanquished, especially the women and children, have a right to live and a right to inherit their fathers’ possessions. “But the Conquered, or their Children, have no Court, no Arbitrator on Earth to appeal to. Then they may appeal [to heaven] … and repeat their Appeal, till they recovered the native Right of their Ancestors … If it be objected, this would cause endless trouble; I answer, No more than Justice does, where she lies open to all that appeal to her.” For Locke, this is absolutely true in an unjust war, but even just wars cannot undo the right to inherit and have enough land for survival.

Saxe Bannister, Attorney General in New South Wales in the mid-1820s and later active in the Aborigines’ Protection Society, put it most succinctly: “rights are never forgotten.” There is the right to reparations in a nutshell. It is as beautiful a humanitarian insight as the idea that an attack on humanity anywhere is an attack on humanity everywhere.

Granville Sharp was one of the earliest British abolitionists. He defended many a slave in England in the late 18th century and was finally successful in getting a judge to decide that slavery in England was illegal (the exact interpretation of the judge’s decision was in dispute, but he was popularly understood to have banned slavery on English home soil). Sharp was deeply aware that the rights of Englishmen were entwined with rights for all humans: “the spirit and equity,” for example, of trial by jury (denied to slaves) would be “entirely lost, if we partially confine that justice to ourselves alone, when we have it in our power to extend it to others” (this point was framed in a rhetorical question). “The natural right of all mankind must principally justify our insisting upon this necessary privilege in favour of ourselves in particular … we certainly undermine the equitable force and reason of those laws, by which we ourselves are protected …” if we do not extend them to all men.

It was this concern for human rights that carried over to the movement to help Aborigines who were losing their land without compensation. Saxe Bannister pointed out that the Parliamentary leaders pushing for the emancipation of slaves had always had colonial Aborigines, or free coloreds, in their minds as well. Sharp himself had made a connection between the causes of slaves and Aborigines. To make Aborigines out to be savages was, like enslavement, to divest them of their humanity, an expression used by Sharp. Sharp had argued that slavery turned human beings into property and that this was a divestment of their humanity. He insisted that no human being can ever be divested of his fundamental human nature and the rights that go with it.

The most important thing to remember about Sharp’s brand of humanitarianism is that he did not just want to free the slaves—he wanted to free them for the right reasons and that included the idea of universal human rights. His ideas, like those of Bannister and Locke, were as beautiful as anything in physics and mathematics.

Twice Sharp tells us that slavery is “destructive of the human species.” (Darwin would say almost the exact opposite when it came to exterminating Aborigines; he believed their disappearance would improve the human race; see below.) Sharp’s statement seems to be based on his belief that the oppression of one part of society, if unchecked, will spread to other parts, particularly to the common people. He notes that the free Negroes, Mulattoes, and Indians in the colonies suffer oppressive measures as a result of the way slaves are treated. There is implied in this a holistic view of human society. The whole binds all the parts together so that injustice cannot be confined to one part; whatever wrongs are done to one will spread to other parts of the whole. Sharp saw connections where racists and slaveholders saw disconnections.

Darwin was more apt to see disconnections. He affirmed connections between humans in the ancient past, but he also believed evolution had created such diversity of character that the end result in our time was that the human races were markedly different in moral and intellectual nature. To one correspondent, Darwin wrote, “It is very true what you say about the higher races of men, when high enough, replacing & clearing off the lower races. In 500 years how the Anglo-saxon race will have spread & exterminated whole nations; & in consequence how much the Human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank.” Rank was what counted for Darwin, which is why he depicted lower races as pulling down the human race as a whole. Getting rid of certain human races, not reparations, was what Darwin envisioned for the future.

Sharp saw it differently. Injustice is what pulled humanity down and giving justice to a despised group could only pull humanity up. As Locke had said, there is no time limit on calling for injustice to be rectified. All human beings are entitled to rights (which never go away, as Bannister had emphasized), so much so that, in Sharp’s view, the denial of rights to any one group would have devastating consequences on all other human beings. He was a holistic thinker. Would he have approved of reparations? I think so. He would have understood that lifting up a people as a counter-measure to the injustices they had suffered would have beneficial results for everyone else. Reparations fit his general way of thinking.

There is a beauty in all this that we would do well to remember. Rights are never forgotten and can never be abandoned. As long as there are descendants to remember these things. That is as beautiful as a gravitational wave, isn’t it? To the ones I have mentioned here, many other forgotten names could be added, like Charles Napier, J. Langfield Ward, and Georg Gerland. Napier had argued how destructive an obsession with national wealth is and Gerland asked us to remember that indigenous people had not rejected civilization, rather civilization had rejected the indigenous.

They all asked us to remember that the line between civilized and savage runs through every human society, and should never be used as a marker to distinguish between cultures. Every society has the capacity to sink back into savagery, as Gerland said, and the so-called savage cultures give us high examples of humanity.

Unfortunately, we have chosen not to remember the humanitarians who taught us these lessons. We do not honor their names the way we honor the names of scientists who enhanced the power of western civilization. We’ve brushed them aside. We’ve dis-remembered them. We don’t value what they stood for. Reparations here would mean remembering what they thought was important and remembering that we have rejected their offerings. It’s that double memory that twists us up inside. We don’t know how to face what our neglect has done to them.

Whatever the merit and benefits of financial reparations, the ultimate reparations are memories. The reparations of remembering history accurately is what we need more than anything else. Whether the future holds promise or gives us an abyss depends on how we remember the past. It is the most dangerous kind of reparation because part of this is remembering how bad we have been at the task of memorializing humanitarians who tried so hard to give us something better. We have erased them from history. If we have any heart at all, we should do our utmost to reverse that.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer