Toward Freedom, Burlington, VT, Summer, 2004:

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         Travis Charbeneau  3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221
      Phone: 804 358 0417

                          "I Didn't Own No Slaves"
                             Travis Charbeneau
                               slug "who-me"
                                 839 words
     PULL QUOTE: "Collective guilt is just the way history seems to work."
     Collective punishment is a war crime. But punishing a whole group for
the actions of a few is often applauded by conservative Americans as a
reasonable response to terrorism. This is peculiar, since collective
punishment implies collective guilt, and conservative Americans don't
accept collective guilt.
     William F. Buckley, (2/1/04) writes, "... only those who engage in
regrettable activity need to apologize for it. If it were otherwise, who
amongst us could be free of either ethnic or racial or religious taint from
one or more historical abominations?"
     Who amongst us gets an exemption from history? We all share collective
guilt for the sins of our fathers, which, the Bible assures us, are visited
upon the sons. Buckley was writing about the "Passion of Christ" debate
over collective Jewish guilt for killing Jesus, a crime clearly of God's
doing, making us _all_ guilty as _His_ children.
     Nearly all Americans hate 9/11 most for being unwarranted; its victims
innocent of any guilt. I say "nearly all," since some, while thoroughly
disgusted, feared that chickens were coming home to roost. A few said so,
spurring much complaint about their patriotism. But the historical record
is ruthlessly specific about the mischief the West generally and America in
particular has wrought in the Middle East. The bad guys see collective
guilt warranting collective punishment.
     It is undeniable that we have regularly bamboozled the Third World and
Middle East in particular ever since we beat them to the draw on the
Industrial Revolution. That achievement itself was due in extraordinary
measure to algebra and other goodies Islamic culture invented or preserved
whilst the West slumbered in medieval indifference. So long as we pay a
penny of tax, American citizens and those studying or merely visiting,
including Muslims, are guilty of buying the policy makers and the bullets
that work all that mischief. A single example may suffice:
     By 1953 Iranians had deposed the hated Shah and elected their own
government. But their Prime Minister Mossadegh complained about British
Petroleum's oil rip-offs; even mentioned confiscation. BP called in
American petroleum interests and, presto, the CIA labeled Mr. Mossadegh a
communist, arranged a coup, and returned the Shah to power. Iran lived the
better part of 30 years under this vicious tyrant and American stalwart,
its people seething with humiliation and resentment until 1979, when they
got some dubious revenge by capturing the American embassy and enslaving
themselves to a theocracy. (People probably have the right to enslave
themselves, but it would be helpful if they weren't driven crazy first by
meddling superpowers.)
     The Iranian Hostage Crisis looks quaint now, but it's all cut from the
same cloth, woven in the main by an American Cold War foreign policy
distorted by greed and an exaggerated fear of communism. (The two are
intimately related.) This made for a lot of bad history everywhere, but
especially in the Middle East. "We" made the history. "We" get the guilt.
     Naturally not. On slavery reparations, for instance, America is rich,
and there is no denying that much of our original capitalization was ripped
off the backs of African kidnap victims. We paid reparations to the
Japanese for a few years of racist oppression during WW2. Hundreds of years
of abject slavery don't count? Compared to _genuine_ reparations, which may
simply be impractical, affirmative action is peanuts, yet we kvetch
endlessly about that.
     "I didn't own no slaves," is the Buckley-style argument; often
followed by the revealing, "and my Daddy didn't own no slaves." OK. How
'bout your Daddy's Daddy? America's Daddy George Washington owned slaves,
as did Jefferson, who cared more for his library than the high principles
it contained, even though he was very noisy about high principles.
Americans are still very noisy, and often deadly, about high principles,
even as money so transparently drives so much of our conduct. Not
surprisingly, the world loves our talk; hates the walk.
     So the Cold War made our fathers irrational. Do we and our children
really have to make good on their mistakes? Can't the world forgive and
forget? After all, as in personal life, one must sooner or later recover
from hurt and just get on with it. Unfortunately, this assumes a maturity
in international affairs that, as is so often the case in personal life,
simply isn't there. Worse, the mischief continues, as per Iraq, et al.
     They say politics is the art of the possible. Any honest reading of
any decent history book ought to provoke us to possibilities that, while we
pursue terrorists, would also address some of the pain in the world that
creates them, especially that portion for which "we" are responsible. At
the very least, we should be cutting back on the mischief before this cycle
ends in a nuclear detonation. Use your imagination. Unless we act, that
horror is just a matter of time. It will make 9/11 look quaint in its turn.
     Collective guilt is just the way history seems to work. No one, not
even Americans, are exempt.