“The whites must pay.”
No this isn’t the latest rap song burning up the charts (but we all know it could be). Rather it’s what Muammar Gaddafi proposed as the solution to the thorny question of who precisely should pay reparations for slavery.
Funnily enough, he offered this Solomonic tidbit while on a trip earlier this month to visit his friend Robert Mugabe, the president-for-eternity of Zimbabwe. It’s funny because Mr. Mugabe is actually a policy trailblazer on making whites pay. He’s declared war against white farmers in his own country as a way to distract the populace from the fact that he’s turning Zimbabwe into a Hieronymus Bosch painting of misery, violence, and corruption.
Anyway, we all know that Gaddafi is nuttier than an orgy at Mr. Peanut’s Malibu condo. But “the whites must pay” is actually a fairly adroit summation of an entire political agenda. Mr. Kah-Daffy’s statement is about as deep as the thinking is going to get at the “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance,” scheduled to begin at the end of the month in Durban, South Africa.
Right now delegates from a host of countries are trying to sort out the agenda for this vital and important effort. Unfortunately, they’re divided over the question of whether Zionism equals racism. You see, some of the paragons of human rights who recently helped push the United States off the U.N. human-rights panel consider Israel to be a racist country. No matter what you think of Zionism, you might at least concede that this is a hard criticism to take at face value from nations like Syria, a country whose defense minister wrote a book arguing that Jews kill Gentiles in order to drink their blood — a practice I missed entirely at my Bar Mitzvah. Fortunately, the president of Syria takes a more moderate position. He recently hectored the Pope about how Jews “try to kill all the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality of betraying Jesus Christ and torturing Him.”
Regardless, Zionism equals racism is an old canard that hasn’t gotten more interesting with time. Besides the conference has so much important work to do, i.e. stick it to Whitey, er, I mean make the whites pay.
My favorite part of the title, “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance,” is that bit about “Related Intolerance.” I just love the idea that at some point someone might stand up and interrupt a speaker declaring, “Sir, what you are talking about is unrelated intolerance, and hence not on our agenda!”
Actually, joking aside, this is a very important distinction. Because the actual meaning of “unrelated intolerance” is all the things that “people of color” do to each other all around the world.
Chattel slavery in the Sudan? Unrelated. Genocide and ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, Burundi, the Congo? Well, that’s certainly unrelated. The caste system in India which relegates some 150 million people to second- or no-class status. That’s unrelated too. China’s rape of Tibet? Interesting question but…probably unrelated. In fact, here’s a rule of thumb for how you can figure out what will be on the agenda: If “the whites must pay” isn’t the answer to the problem, then it’s “unrelated.”
A case in point: The African delegations have already drafted their “Declaration of Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery as a Crime Against Humanity.” I’m sure you noticed the phrase “Trans-Atlantic.” That’s in there so the Arab and African nations don’t have to discuss their own troubled histories with slavery.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t.
What’s exceptional about Europe and America is not that they had slaves, it’s that they ended slavery — almost everywhere. Though it became so in America, slavery is not inherently a racist institution. Orlando Patterson writes in Slavery and Social Death, “Slavery has existed from the dawn of human history right down to the 20th century, in the most primitive societies and in the most civilized…. Probably there is no group of people whose ancestors were not at one time slaves or slaveholders.”
Indeed, if you read Tom Sowell (as everyone should), you would know that the word “slave” comes from “Slav.” Slavs are a very white people who eat a lot of pickled vegetables. But that’s not relevant right now. What is relevant is that they were enslaved far, far longer than blacks in America were. In fact, the Islamic Turks were notorious for enslaving the Slavs.
And speaking of Islam, the Arab nations were the market leaders in black slavery. The Arab nations, Sowell reminds us, took in more slaves than the entire Western Hemisphere and the mortality rate of slaves going across the Sahara desert was greater than for those who went across the Atlantic. Oh, by the way, the United States wasn’t even the leader in this hemisphere; Brazil took six times as many slaves as America did.
And, when the international slave trade came to an end — i.e. when the European powers forced the extremely reluctant Arab and African nations to stop trading in humans — what happened to the black Africans in the Middle East? Well, they went in a different direction than we did. Today, in America, there are tens of millions of citizens who can trace their ancestry to slaves. These people are full American citizens. Hell, one of them is Secretary of State. Meanwhile, in the Middle East you won’t find many descendents of slaves and it’s not because the Arabs sent all of their slaves home with a bagged lunch and some bus fare. Also, it should be pointed out that at least two thirds of Americans didn’t have ancestors in the United States involved in slavery. The Arab countries, needless to say, are not immigrant nations.
And since whenever I write about Jews and slavery I hear from people venting about Jewish slave traders, I feel compelled to make a few other points. So, for the record: Despite the hype we hear about “Jewish slave traders,” the Jews were far more likely to trade in Slavs than blacks (though just so you know, as far as I know my very poor ancestors were in the dirt-farming business near Lithuania at the time). Admittedly, this is not exactly the greatest excuse. It’s sort of like saying you couldn’t possibly have smashed your Dad’s car because you were busy charging a “massage” to his credit card at the local neon-signed “spa.” Still, unfortunately, it’s worth pointing out these days that Jews weren’t the ethnic equivalent of Indians in the convenience-store business when it comes to the selling of slaves.
The relevant point here is that everybody, everywhere has blood on their ancestral hands when it comes to slavery, first and foremost black Africans themselves, very few of whom have ever fought a Civil War to end the practice.
Don’t get me wrong I consider America’s participation in slavery a moral horror. But that horror is largely defined by the standard we set for ourselves. None of the countries participating in this sham conference — or at least very, very few of them — have any right to lecture us about our legacy or behavior.
These people want cash, lots and lots of cash. Never mind the billions in aid we’ve already given them. Never mind that the actual descendents of slaves in America (or Brazil or Canada and pretty much everywhere else) are indisputably better off living here than they would be if their great, great, great grandfathers hadn’t been kidnapped and brought here. All of this doesn’t make what we did any less evil (and I’m on record for doing a lot more to help Africa (see here and here). But it does put the lie to the idea that “the whites must pay.