By James Terminiello , a marketing manager who works in New York City,
Perhaps we’re in the sunshine-and-roses season of the presidential campaign where reason and practicality are asked to just look the other way.
Payment of reparations for past wrongs is currently an idea in full blossom on national and state levels. People long dead, governing bodies no longer functioning as they once did, and societal attitudes long since discarded and disgraced, are being resurrected.
The strongest argument for reparations is that the residue of the past is still with us, and still resonates. That is probably so. We are the sum total of all that has gone before. We progress by learning from the past and trying to be better. We best achieve that progress through forward thinking, not by recalling that which cannot be changed.
There is really no rational mechanism for determining who was wronged and who was not. To that extent, it makes the concept of reparations unwieldy. Dare I say that this is practically impossible?
Why? Because if you look back into anyone’s past, you’ll always find “wrongs.”
Take my family.
My father, the child of Italian parents, could not find work in certain sectors in his hometown of Hoboken of the 1930s. The Irish shut him out of the police force. Various occupations were the monopoly of certain ethnic groups. No debate. Those were the times.
When my father was drafted into the Army during World War II, he was stationed in South Carolina. Curly haired and with an olive complexion, he was not only ethnically unacceptable to his commanders, he was also considered a hated Northerner: The memories of the Civil War were still green 75 years later.
Amusingly, he encountered prejudice of a different kind when he went into town for relaxation. Many stores posted prominent signs that read “No soldiers.” Your ethnic composition did not matter if you were in the uniform of Uncle Sam.
Take me. I recently had my ethnic heritage examined and found a gift box of reasons to find wrongs.
Part of my heritage places my ancestors in the heart of the Roman Empire. That empire persecuted Christians for centuries. Since I am descended of Roman Catholics, does the present-day Italian government — a direct lineal successor of the empire — owe me reparations?
I also found that I have Romani blood. A common term for such people, now somewhat frowned upon, is “gypsies.” There is probably not a single government in Europe that has not, at one time or other, persecuted this group. OK, guys. Make me whole.
Another part of my makeup has a Middle Eastern component. Recent history informs us that people of Middle Eastern heritage are regarded with suspicion in some parts of this nation and in Europe. It is not possible for me to fully register the psychic damage that fact has caused. You owe me.
As a footnote, I have a slight percentage of Jewish ancestry. I need not go into the veritable torrent of anti-Semitic acts that have plagued this group of people no matter where they lived on the globe.
While I’m at it, I’m slightly shorter than the average man – and Mother Nature has a lot to answer for.
What does all this mean? The short answer is: “Nothing.”
I’m sure any one of us could find wrongs, great or small, in our personal family histories. The entire concept of reparations merely creates an us-vs.-them attitude. You cannot make the past whole. You cannot un-genocide an accomplished genocide. You cannot un-bigot a dead bigot. You cannot undo the damage of a bad law that is no longer in effect.
The fact that you are descended from people who were wronged is part of your heritage. The whole concept of reparations seems to me to turn on digging up the corpse of what cannot be changed, smacking it around a few more times and finding some loose change. Nothing to gain there but the smug self-satisfaction that you pointed out the obvious. Worse, you create envy. If you got something, well, why not me?
If the wrongs of the past are still lurking in our present, point them out. Root them out. Act to end them. You cannot repair the past. You cannot compensate those for whom compensation no longer matters, since they have left the earthly plane. You can, and should, improve the future of their descendants. You cannot go forward by constantly dredging up the past.