A Seductive Invidious Argument

  Virginia Postrel <virginia@dynamist.org>

Does all of American history belong to all Americans? Can even the most recent immigrant claim a connection to the American founding and all that followed? Or does the nation's history belong only to those with blood ties to its creators?

Should individuals be judged by their own actions? Or do they inherit the guilt or innocence of their ancestors? Is virtue carried in the genes?

David Horowitz's controversial ads opposing reparations to the descendents of American slaves raise these questions. And, perhaps unwittingly, the ads come down on the side of blood guilt and ethnic citizenship.

This charge may seem paradoxical, since the ads conclude with a rousing call for African Americans to reject separatism and embrace the American idea. And I don't believe that David Horowitz set out to endorse the notion that character should be measured not by our own deeds but by our ancestors'. I doubt that he consciously intended to conflate family and national histories.

But there it is, in points three and four of the ad's arguments: "Only A Tiny Minority Of White Americans Ever Owned Slaves, And Others Gave Their Lives To Free Them" and "America Today Is A Multi-Ethnic Nation and Most Americans Have No Connection (Direct Or Indirect) To Slavery."

Elaborating on this point, the ad goes on to absolve most Americans of any ties to the country's troubled racial past: "The two great waves of American immigration occurred after 1880 and then after 1960. What rationale would require Vietnamese boat people, Russian refuseniks, Iranian refugees, and Armenian victims of the Turkish persecution, Jews, Mexicans, Greeks, or Polish, Hungarian, Cambodian and Korean victims of Communism, to pay reparations to American blacks?"

In other words, if your ancestors arrived on these shores after Dred Scott or the Fugitive Slave Act or Plessy v. Ferguson or Woodrow Wilson's segregation of the Post Office, those actions of the U.S. government have nothing to do with you. They are not your history and, thus, not your responsibility.

This is a dangerously seductive argument. If we accept it, we must logically declare that some Americans--the descendants of soldiers in the American Revolution, say, or the descendants of abolitionists--are more American than others. They should have special privileges perhaps, as reward for their ancestors' merit. By this line of reasoning, Vietnamese boat people and Iranian refugees have no right to claim the Declaration of Independence as their own. After all, their people had nothing to do with writing it.

This is a peculiar argument to come from a conservative who supports contemporary immigrants. It adopts the logic of extreme multiculturalists, who deny any connection to the "dead white males" of American history, and of nativists, who define some ethnic groups as more truly American than others. It parcels out American history along blood lines.

Neither the college newspapers that have refused to run the ads nor their critics, neither those who call Horowitz a racial provocateur nor those who defend him as an idealistic supporter of a color-blind society, have noticed the invidious implications of this message. To the contrary, many of the ad's critics have attacked its tone while finding little or no fault with its arguments. "Word for word, the ad makes sense. Something about it, though, is wrong," wrote Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen.

And many of the ad's defenders have embraced the blood-history line. Consider Jonah Goldberg, the editor of National Review Online, who writes, "Most of 'white' America--which includes many Hispanics--does not consist of the descendents of slave owners or even beneficiaries of slavery. The folks from my father's side of the family, for example, didn't arrive in the country until the Civil War--and they showed up poor. My mom's family is from Boston. So I don't feel any particular ancestral guilt. Also, much of white America descends from families that gave their sons' lives to defeating slavery. And remember, 14% of Americans today are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. That's a lot of newcomers to blame for something done by old-timers."

This argument creates two Americas--newcomers and old-timers, the innocent and the guilty, based not on the actions of the living but on the actions of the dead. It completely undermines the idea that American history belongs to all Americans, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, and that individuals should be judged by their own lives, not their ancestral pedigrees.

Horowitz and his defenders embrace the innocent-ancestors argument for understandable reasons. They want to write the evils of slavery, segregation, and racial terror out of American history, to wash the country clean. And they want to absolve themselves.

As Shelby Steele noted in his insightful 1990 book, The Content of Our Character, much of America's racial discussion is a struggle to claim innocence. Whites who oppose reparations naturally want to dissociate themselves from the historical crimes for which those payments are being sought. In pursuit of innocence, they define "their" American history as the history of their family rather than of their country--a definition they would never use in another context, a definition that accepts the very premises they are trying to defeat.

But the "Don't blame me, I'm Jewish [or Irish or Italian or Mexican or Armenian or Vietnamese]" argument is a luxury many Americans don't have. Some of us have no choice but to acknowledge the past and live in the present.

Some of my ancestors fought in the American Revolution. Some fought for the Confederacy. Some owned slaves. Some helped fund the creation of black colleges. Some supported the civil rights movement when doing so was decidedly unpopular in the South. My family's history, like this country's, is morally tangled. And the people who made it are mostly all dead. Their faults and virtues do not belong to the living.

The best argument against reparations is not that America is innocent. It is not. The best argument against reparations is that the past is past. The dead, innocent and guilty, are dead. Payments today will offer neither solace to the victims nor punishment to the perpetrators. Reparations will only offer excuses and victimhood, to living Americans of all races. [Posted 3/29.]