Who Owes What in a Racist World?

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If ... The United Nation's big World Conference Against Racism opens in a week in South Africa. It has been dogged by what amount to charges against itself of racism, mostly from the U.S. and Israel. The first charge concerns efforts by some participants to equate Zionism with racism, as has happened in the past at the UN. The other charge comes in response to calls for reparations to be paid by the U.S. and Europe for the savage and continuing effects of the transatlantic slave trade on Africans and African-Americans. The U.S. and some European countries are simply refusing to talk about the issue.

What strikes me as peculiar is that reparations can be viewed as acceptable and morally unquestionable in one case - German reparations to Jews arising from the Nazi era - yet unacceptable in the case of the slave trade. There ought to be at least some common ground between these cases, yet they are treated as if there is none. I don't have an answer on this; I'm pointing at it in amazement.

It's an odd topic in other ways. My experience with many Canadians is that they immediately make a dramatic leap to Native land claims: Those Indians want all of British Columbia. Or Vancouver. Or Sarnia - though these aren't even about reparations, they have to do with unsettled treaties and relations between nations. There's a subtext of guilt or its denial and a panicky fear of: Where will it all end? They may lay out some arguments but you sense that, no matter what, they aren't gonna move. There's a comparable edginess for many on the claiming sides, since their position locks them into ongoing victim status, which sits uncomfortably with many folks. So let me suggest an alternate solution. It may strike you as sheer blue-skying.

If the world we live in made a serious attempt to correct social injustice and increase equality, then the angry claims of the poorest groups would likely diminish. Compare, for instance, the decades after the Second World War, with their Keynesian policies, the welfare state, redistribution of wealth through taxes. A lot of it may have been illusion, but the good intent was widely believed. In the past twenty years, since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, that has not been so. The policies and rhetoric have been reversed. All the stats show a universal rise in inequality, plus a decline in touchstone standards such as mortality and literacy. (Literacy in the United Kingdom is now lower than a hundred years ago.) When you lose hope, you go on the offensive: Gimme your money, you stole it from me! I don't mean claims would cease - there will always be voices raging against perceived injustice - but they might resonate less.

I say this because these sorts of demands for collective restitution have multiplied in the past twenty years, along with another sign of the times: lotteries and gambling. They, too, are a symptom of despair over ever improving your lot in life's normal course. The gambling instinct may be eternal, but we're seeing its spread as a way of life - and hope.

The perfect wedding of these despondent impulses comes in Native-run casinos, such as Ontario's Casino Rama, as if to say: The desperation of everyone in this ever more desperate society will help us, most desperate of all, to overcome our centuries of despair.

Good cops, bad cops? Canadian police who dealt with protests in Quebec City last April look fairly good compared to Italian cops last month in Genoa. There were nasty moments in Quebec - plastic bullets, a raid on an alternate media centre, hundreds of arrests - but the police tactic of choice was lobbing canisters of tear gas - meant to keep protesters at a distance - rather than wading in and beating them, in order to punish and intimidate. What is it that is so disturbing about the oft-played video of Royal Canadian Mounted Police Staff Sergeant Hugh Stewart pepper-spraying protesters in Vancouver in 1997? I'd say it's the apparent signs of excitement in his voice and body as he tersely warns, then immediately turns his weapon on people directly in front of him.

The real Canadian analogue for Genoa isn't Quebec; it's Ipperwash, the Ontario park at which provincial police shot and killed Native protester Dudley George in 1995. In both cases, there was a recently elected right-wing government, with a leader determined - based on a reasonable interpretation of Silvio Berlusconi's or Mike Harris's own words - to show how tough he was. In each case, a young man may have paid the price.

Apologies to Doug Gibson of McClelland & Stewart. I wrote last week about a panel at the Couchiching conference, during which grad student Cheryl Stewart asked a question, but was largely ignored and humiliated by the male panelists there to discuss globalization and culture. Maybe I was so intrigued by the image I got of five teenage boys smoking under a street light when they're suddenly interrupted by somebody's kid sister that I somehow edited out of memory the fact that Doug Gibson did step forward to deal with the gutsy question.

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