SLAVERY REPARATIONS: THE BILL HAS BEEN PAID, IN BLOOD

In yesterday’s Times, the estimable scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. had an odd op-ed article entitled “Ending the Slavery Blame Game. ” What made it odd was its construction. At the heart of the piece was Gates’ very interesting summary of recent scholarship about the complicity of African tribes in capturing African people and selling them to European and American slave traders. Sandwiching this summary, however, was Gates’ bid for op-ed relevance, which was his assertion that this fuller understanding of a broader criminal enterprise would give President Obama “a unique opportunity to reshape the debate over one of the most contentious issues of America’s racial legacy: reparations, the idea that the descendants of American slaves should receive compensation for their ancestors’ unpaid labor and bondage.”

Is the idea of reparations still contentious? I guess it is–if somebody brings it up. But reparations seems to be an idea that had a heyday of argument a decade ago, and was then shelved in favor of ideas more vital. But even at the time of its greatest urgency, it seemed to be one of those self-evidently good ideas that became less good once you got into the practicalities. For one thing, there was the question of where the money should come from. No doubt some of the great slave trade fortunes of the 17th and 18th and 19th have been carefully cultivated and survive, but many have been used up, or, more significantly, destroyed during the Civil War. Moreover, it seems hardly equitable to charge the people whose ancestors arrived on these shores after the Civil War with the cost of paying for slavery. It’s very hard to think how my Malanowski forebears, for example,  who arrived here in 1905, profited by the institution of slavery. On top of this is the fact that a great many people struggled against slavery and died fighting it. It may seem logical to argue that the descendants of slaves should be compensated by those who supported the institution, but if that is so, is it not just as logical to argue that the descendants of slaves and others should pay compensation to the descendants of the Union troops who died fighting for their liberation? I wonder how Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan would feel about that.

But what really rankles about the idea of reparations is that is turns slavery into a civil tort–an argument over back pay. Of course it was something much worse, something profoundly more evil, a society-wide, systematic criminal conspiracy. And in his second Inaugural, Abraham Lincoln specified precisely the price that terminating the conspiracy would exact.  Speaking a little more than a month before Robert E. Lee‘s confederate forces would surrender, Lincoln said “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

I don’t know where you’d like to turn for justice, but if Lincoln and the Lord settle on the terms of resolution, I’m not going to call for the view of Judge Judy. Or, for that matter, John Roberts.

Was all the wealth sunk? Well, Richmond was burned, and Atlanta was burned, and the Shenandoah Valley was torched, and the tremendous value embodied by two and a half million slaves was struck from the books. Was every drop of blood drawn by the lash paid for another drawn by the sword? At least 620,000 soldiers were killed during the Civil War; with the limitations on record-keeping, this figure could easily be as high as 700,000. That was out of a population of 30 million. This does not include the physically or psychologically wounded, or civilian deaths caused by combat, or civilian deaths caused by a lack of food or medicine. And it in no way includes the incredible economic devastation wreaked upon the south, destruction so complete that for a century the south was poorer and more backward than the rest of the country (and let’s face it, Mississippi and Alabama still are.) The destruction fell on north and south alike: sons of southern slaveholders and sons of northern slave ship owners both died, as did the sons of families north and south who did not engage in the slave trade but who acquiesced in its existence. It may no be literally true, but it is no exaggeration to say that no ome in America was unaffected.

And of course, some of the last blood shed belonged to Lincoln, in a futile effort to achieve the long-lost war aims of the south. Lincoln saw that the evil was not civil but moral, that the evil perpetrated was Biblical in its proportions, and that the price that had to be paid was stupendous. Those who seek reparations should visit the Union cemetery at Gettysburg or Hollywood cemetery in Richmond or any of dozens of other battlefield graveyards: there is your treasure.

THE PARTICULAR IGNORANCE OF BOB MCDONNELL

Sorry to be so late to the party, but I was reading something the other day that placed Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell‘s discussion of slavery and Virginia and the Civil War of a couple of weeks ago in particularly sharp relief. You’ll recall that as a sop to the Sons of Confederate War Veterans, McDonnell proclaimed April Confederate History Month, seizing an opportunity to appease some lost-in-the-past cavaliers that his two immediate predecessors had let go unavailing. In fairness, McConnell’s actual proclamation was fairly innocuous pap, calling upon “all Virginians”   to “reflect upon our Commonwealth’s shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present.” Says the proclamation, “this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live.”

McDonnell must have thought that he had pulled off quite a fast one: the Lost Causers got their proclamation, and all McDonnell had to say was that he urged people to study and reflect. No tributes to famous traitors like Lee and Jackson, no exaltations about the confederate army’s talent for carnage, no gee whizzy moments about how close they came to victory: just study and reflection. But those who resent the pernicious nostalgia of the whole Sons of the Confederate Veterans thing were shrewd enough to give him his study and reflection, and instead asked him “Okay, Bob, what about slavery?”

And here, Bob stumbled. Instead of saying “Look, it would have been massively self-defeating if not simply impolite to bring up the great moral evil of slavery in the midst of my self-serving sop to these dead-enders, but if you, in the course of your reflection and study, wish to draw a connection between these fighting men and the corrupt institutions they served, well, be my guest,” McDonnell said  “There were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.”

As it happened, not long after McDonnell uttered these maladroit comments, I was reading The Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson‘s brilliant history of the war. As he reports, Virginia seceded when a convention adopted a resolution supporting secession by a vote of in April 1861 by a vote of 88 to 55. As it turns out, the median number of slaves owned by delegates supporting secession was 11.5; the median number owned by delegates opposing secession was 4. Fifty-three of the delegates supporting secession came from counties where the number of slaves was greater than 25% of the population–big slave-holding regions, in other words. In a popular vote that ratified the convention’s recommendation, in the 35 counties where the slave population was less than 2.5%, voters rejected secession–from the United States, that is. In fact, these counties ended up seceding from Virginia. They formed their own state, and joined the Union as West Virginia.

So it seems slavery was a pretty significant issue for Virginians–more than the Governor argued. Or pretended to argue. After some study and reflection, McDonnell apologized for his omission and amended the proclamation so that it now reads “The abomination of slavery divided our nation, deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and led to the Civil War. Slavery was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation.”

True that. But one wonders what will happen when McDonnell proclaims “Let’s Reflect On and Study Slavery Month.” Perhaps he will pause for a moment and give us a chorus of Dixie.

MEMOIRS ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON

Last Sunday, the Briarcliff Committee for the Arts had its second in a series of authors’ readings. My friends Joe Queenan and Giulia Melucci participated, and I was very pleased to be able to introduce them. Joe from his excellent memoir Closing Time, an often hilarious, more frequently harrowing account of his upbringing in a housing project dominated by an alcoholic, abusive father. Giulia read from her very entertaining I Loved, I Laughed, I Made Spaghetti, her very funny memoir of her romantic entanglements and the food that accompanied them. For a musical interlude, Steve Santiago,also known as Opera Steve, accompanied by Uly Milan on guitar, performed Besame Mucho. We had a capacity crowd of 60, and my friends at Brica did another great job in pulling it off. A very nice event indeed. Thanks to Phyllis Neider for the photos.

NEIGHBORHOOD ACCIDENT

At about 2:30 this afternoon, an out-of-control panel truck full of bottles of juice rear-ended a Briarcliff school bus at the intersection of Route 100 and Chappaqua Road, about a mile from the house. Thankfully, it seems no one was badly hurt. I took these pictures. Later I sent the to The Gazette. We’ll see if a photojournalist has been born.

GET READY FOR ANOTHER PREP WALK

Congratulations to Lisa Birnbach, a colleague from Spy and a collaborator from Loose Lips, whose resurrection of her mega-successful The Official Preppie Handbook in the eighties earned her a front page article in The New York Times on Saturday. That’s Lisa in the center, talking to the famous designer and Batman buff Chip Kidd, and some nameless drone of photographer, who is probably famous and talented but who didn’t get caption credit. Oh well. Way to go, Lisa–back to the future!

WHY AREN’T WE TAXING THE SNOT OUT THE HEDGE FUND MANAGERS?

Just in time for tax season comes the report in yesterday’s New York Times that the top 25 hedge fund investors earned a collective $25.3 billion (with a B) in 2009. This includes seven who earned more than $1 billion, one of whom, David Tepper of Pittsburgh (pictured), earned a record $4 billion. “We bet on the country’s revival,” Tepper told the Times, “Those who keep their heads while others are panicking usually do well.”A perfect blend of patriotic and self-satisfied.

Let’s see if I’ve got this sequence straight: Government deregulates the financial industry, allowing banks to take on more and more debt until the the pile collapses of its own weight. Hedge fund operators, notably John Paulson, fourth on the list, earner of $2.3 billion (up from $2 billion the year before), who made a lot of money shorting the stock of the weak banks, but exacerbating the liquidity problems of the entire system. Then with the entire system verging on collapse, the government comes in, and using public money through the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) and especially PPIP, the Public Private Investment Program in which the government set up risk-free opportunities for investors, and rescues the banks and saves the economy. In other words, the government used its money to rescue the system, to the enormous profit of a small group of hedge fund managers.

It’s a funny old world: government laxity allows one group of pirates to make fabulous fortunes slicing and dicing debt in an outrageous form of financial alchemy, and when that group of pirates gets too greedy for its own good, the government steps in a saves the big casino for another group of pirates, hedge fund operators who make their money, not by investing, not by building, not by sustaining the economy, but by gambling on short term market movements and playing bookie for the highest of high rollers.

So here’s a question for President Obama and our representatives in Congress: why does a man who makes $4 billion get taxed at 35%, the same rate as that same person who makes $373,650? There was a time when the highest tax rate was set at 90%. On the face of it, 90% sounds outrageous, but it applied to a mere handful of people, Rockefellers and so on, who earned massive amounts of money. Why can’t the government, which helped create the mess and which then created the conditions for this fantastical profits, claw the money back, and set a 90% tax on everything earned above, say $250 million?

A little more than a year ago, the country got up in arms because some executives at AIG were paid bonuses that they legally and properly owned. They had the bad luck to get caught up in a rising tide of emotion. Where is the outrage over these windfall billionaires? There was a time, centuries ago, when governments sent troops against the scavengers who made off with the goods that came ashore when ships ran aground in storms. This time, the government helped create the storm, and has helped deliver the goods to the scavengers. Where is the outrage?