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gimme gimme gimme

Some American descendents of African slaves are claiming damages from companies which profited from slavery. Now, while I obviously am not pro-slavery, I really don't think they have a right to billions of dollars for this, and I think most retrospective compensations are kind of ridiculous. While accepting responsibility for something in living memory (the various Christian churches - not just the Catholic one - really needed to do a lot of soul searching about what they didn't object to in the '30s and '40s) and acknowledging a long history of mistaken belief (like the Catholic Church and anti-semitism) is one thing, apologising and financially compensating for something that happened over 100 years ago is another. And I feel this on a personal level. Every so often, some stupid anti-British people here try and get an apology from the British government for the Famine (they don't even bother with the 800 years of colonisation). Now, I'm pretty sure that my ancestors didn't exactly have fun during the Famine, but do I care about an apology? No, I don't. It's meaningless.

It's meaningless on an economic level too - I could claim that if the penal laws hadn't been enforced and Ireland hadn't been intentionally kept as an agricultural rather than an industrial economy, my family might have been richer (and at least entitled to own land and vote). But I don't hold the British government - or you, my British chums - responsible for this. I certainly don't think I have the right to say "my ancestors were repressed and forcibly kept poor and ignorant! Give ME money for this!"

Maybe it's just because compensation culture really bothers me. I'm a socialist, I believe the state has a duty to the people, and I don't believe in some sort of Darwinian social order in which the weak fall by the wayside. But I don't believe that everyone deserves money for everything that happens to them, which isn't a particular person or institution's fault. I don't believe that if a kid falls in the playground they have a right to sue the school (and I know of lots of schools, including the one where my mother teaches, where children are no longer allowed run in the playground because selfish parents have sued the school for tens of thousands). And while I do believe people are entitled to compensation for something bad that has been done to them, I don't think I or anyone else deserves to be compensated for anything, no matter how horrific, that happened to our great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents.

Comments

( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
cangetmad
Mar. 30th, 2004 02:38 am (UTC)
I totally agree with you. But I do find it hard to find the boundaries between my total belief in compensation for workers who suffer industrial injury - the stories I heard from my trade unionist grandad about the difference that holding employers to account has made to safety are damn persuasive - and my hatred for the effects of overwhelming compensation culture.

Suing when your child falls over in the playground is clearly stupid - what happens when they fall over on your own drive? And the ground does, generally, have to be made of something hard, otherwise we'd just sink. But it's less stupid if the child falls over and their scrapes aren't bandaged up swiftly and hygeinically. And less so if the child has been repeatedly bullied and they've been pushed over for the tenth time that week and nobody helped them.

I suppose the problem is with the way that the only (well, the main) lever we have for making people take proper care of each other is a monetary one. And it's a really crude lever, so you end up with stupid lawsuits, driven by people's want (and sometimes need) for money, rather than by the need to hold people to account for real negligence.
snowballjane
Mar. 30th, 2004 02:49 am (UTC)
I think a large part of the problem is in the path to court. 99% of the time the court will eventually dismiss silly cases like children falling over or being 'emotionally traumatised' because a teacher told them off (no, really, someone tried that on).

The problem is the amount of money spent before the silly case gets to court, on lawyers etc, which even if the school is awarded costs, they're never, ever likely to see again. Thus schools and other organisations end up having to act to prevent even the silly cases to protect their budgets.
cangetmad
Mar. 30th, 2004 03:09 am (UTC)
It does seem like having money as the "punishment" is the problem - if you're looking for justice for an injured child, then you'll look anyway, but if you're just seeing a chance to profit, then maybe a lot of the trivial cases would go away. I mean, yes, some people, particularly people who are disabled by the event, do need money, but that should be because they're in need, not because they've proved that the need is someone else's fault. And it's society's job to look after the vulnerable, anyway.

Before legal aid was available to children, a lot of the kids with cerebral palsy that my mum worked with used to take cases for birth injury as soon as they reached 18. Some of the compensation they got (they were all profoundly disabled) was absolutely huge, and probably contributed to the risk-averse culture of maternity units now. But for 18 years, their parents had often been struggling to carry their kids upstairs to bed because they couldn't afford a bungalow or even a stair lift, they'd given up work to care for them - and they should never have been in that position, no matter what the cause of the child's disability. Now, those kids get their compensation a lot earlier, and their parents often get the help they need as a result. But what about the parents of a child whose disability is genetic, but just as profound? Why is their effort, and their child's suffering, less worthy of relief? It's stupid.

Um, and I'm sure that related to the topic at some point.
stellanova
Mar. 30th, 2004 03:42 am (UTC)
I suppose the problem is with the way that the only (well, the main) lever we have for making people take proper care of each other is a monetary one. And it's a really crude lever, so you end up with stupid lawsuits, driven by people's want (and sometimes need) for money, rather than by the need to hold people to account for real negligence.

That's very true. Alas. I wish there was another way of forcing responsibility on people.
socmot
Mar. 30th, 2004 02:44 am (UTC)
It's scary how out of control compensation has gotten.

When I was an infant, I got an infection while in hospital. The doctors refused to diagnose the illness, which meant it went out of control and nearly killed me. The end result is that I was left crippled for life. The moaning I've been making about my leg recently is a direct result of what happened all those years ago.

It took 8 years in the high court to sue the doctors and the hospital. In the late 1980's the case was won and I got what was barely a six figure sum. Today it would be at least 6 million, when I don't deserve near that amount. It's not going to cost six million euro to pay my medical bills, or to buy my shoes that help me to walk that little bit better.

What happened to me has affected my life, but not enough that I require millions to make it better. The sad part is that at the time of the case, the award was seen as a huge amount, it was unprecedented and was page 3 (with a leader from page one) news all in the newspapers. And now, it would be no news at all.

When six figure compensation sums from high court cases are seen to be no big deal, something is wrong somewhere.

Anyway, eough babbling.
biascut
Mar. 30th, 2004 02:48 am (UTC)
What confused me when I heard that report was that in order to make a claim, you have to prove that you descended from someone brought across on a specific ship insured by Lloyds of London, but that that was relatively easy with DNA technology. OK, getting the DNA samples from the living is easy, but what on earth are they going to compare it with? Where are you going to find DNA samples from those originally brought across as slaves?
alltheleaves
Mar. 30th, 2004 03:08 am (UTC)
The people who are making claims have been able to trace their roots through DNA analysis and show that they can only have originated from one area. The article I read in The Guardian about this said that one woman can prove that she is a descendant of Sierra Leonians through DNA analysis, and then through analysis of slave shipping routes can prove that they would have been carried from that area to the US which is where they are today. She is also able to trace her roots to show that her ancestors are slaves.
biascut
Mar. 30th, 2004 03:22 am (UTC)
Ah, I see, that makes sense. So you don't actually have to prove that you're descended from a specific individual, just from a certain area. I thought there had to be some sort of reasonable explanation, but Radio 4 didn't give it to me!
snowballjane
Mar. 30th, 2004 03:03 am (UTC)
IIRC, we can blame Daimler Chrysler for the sixnine-figure damages. There was a case in the mid-90s where someone died as a result of a seatbelt fault which the company had known about but not product-recalled. I think the $250million was later reduced on appeal, but still - it affected compensation culture all over the world.

Punitive damages are needed to stop companies thinking that they would actually be better off paying out compensation on a couple of deaths/injures rather than fix the problem.

However, I doubt that punitive damages are needed to prevent the slave trade. Other kinds of human trafficking and slavery which are still going on are not going to be affected by this.
yiskah
Mar. 30th, 2004 03:06 am (UTC)
This is a really interesting issue. I agree with you that financial compensation is largely pointless, and would be a logistical nightmare - I mean, if you just look at the rows that have blown up over compensation to the families of people killed in the September 11 attacks, and then imagine what it would be like to try and compensate the descendents of people for something that happened in the past... *head explodes* I'm also uncomfortable with the compensation culture, the idea that money is the only way that past (or current) wrongs can be addressed.

On the other hand, I do think apologies can be useful and helpful. This is probably because of the Australian issue - I'm not sure how much anyone heard about it outside Australia, but a few years back the Australian PM, John Howard, publicly refused to apologise to Aboriginal Australians for the atrocities that had been committed against them in the past. One of the reasons he cited was that there had been so many new immigrants to Australia in the past 30 or so years that why should they have to be party to an apology for something that happened years before they ever came to the country. However, I think that's such a limited idea of whan an apology can mean - there's the aspect of 'I am responsible for this bad thing that happened to you, and I regret my part in causing it', but there's also 'I wish this hadn't happened, and I am going to do my part to make it up to you' - which is certainly what I felt in the Aboriginal situation. I mean, I was born in 1978, by which time most of the active, state-sanctioned discrimination against Aboriginal Australians had ended, but I only had to look around me to see that the results of those policies persisted, and led to profound inequality to the present day - and I, as a white Australian, was benefiting from that equality. Lots of other non-Aboriginal Australians (not just ones with European ancestry) felt the same way, and the result was a grass-roots movement as individuals chose to apologise to the Aboriginal community.

The way I see it, an apology is (or should be) as much a statement of future intent as it is a statement of regret about the past; it's a commitment to changing policy and behaviour which goes a great deal further than just chucking a whole load of money at a community and hoping they shut up about how badly they were treated in the past. I don't know a whole lot about the US situation, but it seems to me that the US government would be far better off making policy changes that assist African-Americans reach the position in society that they would be in had slavery and systemic discrimination not existed, than considering compensation claims to individuals.

Of course, this view of what an apology means only applies when the one who is apologising has the power to change things for the ones he or she is apologising to, and perhaps this is why you feel that an apology from the UK government for the famine would be empty - because all we could do to substantiate that apology (to Irish citizens living in Ireland) would be to chuck a lot of money at you. (Of course, things could be done about the discrimination Irish people face in the UK - but I think that's a slightly different issue.)

Apologies for rambling on - and I've just seen that four other people have responded while I've been writing this, so I hope I'm not rehashing what other people have said!
stellanova
Mar. 30th, 2004 03:36 am (UTC)
Of course, this view of what an apology means only applies when the one who is apologising has the power to change things for the ones he or she is apologising to, and perhaps this is why you feel that an apology from the UK government for the famine would be empty - because all we could do to substantiate that apology (to Irish citizens living in Ireland) would be to chuck a lot of money at you. (Of course, things could be done about the discrimination Irish people face in the UK - but I think that's a slightly different issue.)


Yes, that's my problem with the slavery compensation - it doesn't change anything for anyone but the people getting money. It's not dealing with the wider consequences of what happened. But I think you're totally right about the apologies to the Aborignal Australians - rather like the Catholic Church's rebuttal of anti-semitism, it's an acknowledgement of past mistakes on behalf of an entire social group or organisation. I think it's the acknowledgement of injustice that's the most important thing, and a determination to make things better. I definitely think it's a good thing in Australia, for the reasons you listed.

It's hard to apply that to Ireland, though. The famine probably had less of an effect on most modern Irish people's families (we're the descendents of survivors, after all) than the penal laws and other anti-Catholic legislation. They're what left the majority of the population of the island in a state which was not much better than slavery, and their social consquences persist to this day - like all Irish (ethnic) Catholics, I have no idea what my family history would have been like if my not-too-distant ancestors hadn't been forcibly kept in a socially inferior position (although actually, there is some evidence to suggest that part of my mother's family pretended to convert for a few years to hold onto their land. But anyway!) But I really think there's nothing that can be done about that. I don't think an apology from the current Duke of Devonshire will make any difference to descendents of people who lived in the land near Lismore Castle. I don't think Britain at large does accept responsibility for certain aspects of modern Ireland, mostly because the consequences of colonialism and the subjugation of Catholics are so pervasive in Irish society that it's just too huge to pinpoint. Even the fact that we don't have an established middle class (every Irish Catholic is just a few generations away from being poor and ignorant) has a huge effect on Irish society, and that's a result of colonialism and penal law.

And I also think there's a certain ignorance in Britain of even obvious reasons why Ireland is the way it is - when my sister Jenny expressed surprise at Oliver Cromwell's inclusion on the 'Great Britons' list to a co-worker, the co-worker couldn't understand why, and Jenny had to explain that not only had Cromwell tried to ethnically clense our ancestors, but his Northern plantations have essentially caused the ethnic/religious divide in the north of Ireland. I think that some British people (not all, obviously!) think the problems in Ireland are just caused by some sort of religious war, not as a result of colonial policy. And while I do expect people to be a bit more clued in, I don't expect them to...I dunno, atone for it or something.
socmot
Mar. 30th, 2004 03:58 am (UTC)
Cromwell -
English Jews see Cromwell as a liberator - he re-admitted Jews to England.
At the same time, he was taking Ireland from its native people.
I always thought it was interesting how a person could do one thing with one hand (so to speak), and then do the opposite with the other hand.

Famine -
My ancestors in south Armagh had their land for a few hundred years and held onto it through the famine. Not sure how though.
stellanova
Mar. 30th, 2004 04:35 am (UTC)
They could have changed religion! My mother's family were "gentlemen farmers" (rather like the Earnshaws in Wuthering Heights) who owned a sizeable chunk of Co Louth, and the only explanation we can come up with for them still being quite affluent throughout the penal laws is ostensibly becoming Protestants. Apparently that was quite common - people pretended to change while secretly practicing Catholicism, and then when the laws were relaxed, they were all "look! We were Catholics all the time!".

And actually, my greatX6 grandparents got married just at the start of the penal laws, and as it was a mixed marriage it had to take place in secret in the summerhouse of the family home.
socmot
Mar. 30th, 2004 04:55 am (UTC)
Co. Louth?
Interesting. I wonder if our ancestors were neighbours in terms of the land they owned - my own were the owners of a sizeable chunk of land in south Armagh, bordering with Louth and literally a few miles from Dundalk. When partition occured they found themselves in Northern Ireland by a stones throw. They sold most of the land on in the early decades of the 20th century, apparently there was an illegitmate child involved and when he took the land it passed to the mothers family.

As for the religion thing you may well be right about that, although the land there is so rugged and so wild that I wonder if perhaps the Crown decided to leave well enough alone and not try to take land. I must check that out and ask about the Penal Laws also.

I love family history :-)
stellanova
Mar. 30th, 2004 04:36 am (UTC)
Also, the famine didn't really affect land rights (although obviously it affected land value and livelihood); it was the penal laws that did that.
alltheleaves
Mar. 30th, 2004 03:25 am (UTC)
I read about this here at the weekend.

Although part of the idea of compensation that would go towards educational funds and set up a programme that would ensure this history would always be understood and remembered, I couldn't understand why the claimants were asking to be personally compensated. Although this period of history is to be despised, it is, fortunately, history.

What concerns me is that while these people concern with themselves about compensation for their past they are not looking at what is still happening today. There is still a slave trade, and there is additionally still a horrific culture of immigrant workers trade, which although not slave work is still ridiculously low paid and badly manipulated. The money that will be spent looking for compensation, and the amounts that are being asked by way of compensation would be so much better spent trying to stamp out this kind of culture. I feel that the people that are asking for this are horribly selfish in thinking that they deserve it.

Adding a personal side to this, if we really wanted to my family could sue Germany's government and ask for compensation for everything that we lost during the Holocaust. Or many Muslims could start sueing countries that were involved in the Crusades. Or both Jews and Muslims could start sueing Spain over the Inquisition. The history of oppression is endless, what is important is that we recognise that it was oppression and that we are able to learn from and apologise for these mistakes; ensure that we are able to educate and also make sure it never happens again.

I think asking for apologies (something that yiskah mentioned is a very sensible point; getting a nation to admit to their wrongdoing is the most important step towards building a future without this oppression. But sueing the people involved now is impossible simply because they aren't there to be sued.
stellanova
Mar. 30th, 2004 03:38 am (UTC)
The history of oppression is endless, what is important is that we recognise that it was oppression and that we are able to learn from and apologise for these mistakes; ensure that we are able to educate and also make sure it never happens again.


Yes! That's exactly it.
fromaway
Mar. 30th, 2004 07:59 am (UTC)
I like the idea of general compensation - although it seems beside the point to me to sue the corporations for doing something that is "against U.S. and international law." It was legal when it happened.

It's the personal compensation I can't get behind. Well, that and the rationale behind it. Knowing one's ancestry may not be essential, but a lot of the things many black Americans are going without (and many other Americans as well, but since we're talking about the legacy of slavery/segregation, the focus is on black Americans) are things I would look at as being human rights - decent housing, educational opportunities, health care. Why should you have to file a lawsuit to get those things?
alltheleaves
Mar. 30th, 2004 01:15 pm (UTC)
although it seems beside the point to me to sue the corporations for doing something that is "against U.S. and international law." It was legal when it happened.

This is such a good point, and presumably one of the main problems that they will come up against. I'll be interested to see how they plan to argue round this.
fromaway
Mar. 30th, 2004 05:41 am (UTC)
I'm a bit torn on this. On the one hand, black people in America are still at an obvious disadvantage - if you look at the statistics, they are more likely to be poor, with all the suffering and vulnerability that implies - and there are still people out there whose wealth is at least partially derived from slavery.

The problem is it's so long ago. If they were suing for compensation for something more recent - say, the families of lynching victims - it would make more sense to me. But I wonder if this is partially an attempt to call attention back to the problems black people face in America; the human cost of slavery and segregation is so high that I don't know if you could put a dollar value on it, but it seems to be taboo to talk about it now; it's supposed to be over, when the merest glance at the numbers will tell you it's not over.

I don't think that paying compensation to individual relatives of victims is the answer, and honestly I don't know if the primary problem is one of race rather than class (and indeed it may not be useful to separate the two; it's just less politically explosive to talk about race in America than it is to talk about class). But if this throws attention back on the real problems (as opposed to just providing fuel for Rush Limbaugh rants) then it may be of some use.
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