Saturday, October 26, 2013

Plunder in history: more from Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

In Postwar, Tony Judt evokes the chaos of living under the thumb of Nazi Germany: It is misleading to think of the German occupation of continental Europe as a time of pacification and order under the eye of an omniscient and ubiquitous power. Even in Poland, the most comprehensively policed and repressed of all the occupied territories, society continued to function in defiance of the new rulers: the Poles constituted for themselves a parallel underground world of newspapers, schools, cultural activities, welfare services, economic exchange and even an army—all of them forbidden by the Germans and carried on outside the law and at great personal risk. But that was precisely the point. To live normally in occupied Europe meant breaking the law: in the first place the laws of the occupiers (curfews, travel regulations, race laws, etc) but also conventional laws and norms as well. Most common people who did not have access to farm produce were obliged, for example, to resort to the black market or illegal barter just to feed their families. Theft—whether from the state, from a fellow citizen or from a looted Jewish store—was so widespread that in the eyes of many people it ceased to be a crime. ...

As occupying forces, both Nazis and Soviets precipitated a war of all against all. They discouraged not just allegiance to the defunct authority of the previous regime or state, but any sense of civility or bond between individuals, and on the whole they were successful. If the ruling power behaved brutally and lawlessly to your neighbour—because he was a Jew, or a member of an educated elite or ethnic minority, or had found disfavour in the eyes of the regime or for no obvious reason at all—then why should you show any more respect for him yourself? Judt is, I think, in speculative but interesting territory. There's nothing about a social contract that necessitates equality among shareholders. What happens when some shareholders pay in more, but get out less? What is the message that a Power sends to its subjects when it says to them "Some members of society enjoy the protection of the State, and others are outside of the law?" And what happens when a whole sector of society is effectively branded as the rightful field for plunder?.... 

The ‘right’ of possession was shown to be fragile, often meaningless, resting exclusively on the goodwill, interests or whim of those in power. There were winners as well as losers in this radical series of involuntary property transactions....hundreds of thousands of ordinary Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Dutch, French and others became complicit in the Nazi genocide, if only as its beneficiaries. It is important to remember the ordinary beneficiaries who do not always wear the swastika. It is important to remember that atrocity is not simply insanity, that it is often not insanity at all, but hard interest, that even in the Holocaust there were interests, that there were winners and that they saw themselves as such. 

In our own land, we have long observed this. To better avoid the painful fact that there were "winners" in a slave society, that those winners were not merely great planters, to avoid the fact that ordinary Americans are indicted in all that came from slave society, we discuss the "race problem" as though it were a problem of manners and civility. I am sure the average African-American in 1963 could empathize with the dream of little white boys and little black girls hold hands. But he likely would have settled for a day when white people would no longer see he and his family as a field for plunder. Judt is not wrong to focus on property. Theft is the essence of atrocity--if only the theft of dignity and life. Indeed, where I forced to to offer one word to sum up black people's historical relationship to the American state, "Theft" is the first that would come to mind. Theft of labor and theft of family in slavery. Theft of life through lynching and pogrom. Theft of franchise in half the country. Theft through mortgages for some and contract loans for others. Theft through unemployment insurance for some, and debt-peonage for others. Theft of tax dollars which support "public" libraries that do not want you, "public" pools that will not have you, "public" schools that will not teach you and "public" universities that will riot at the sight of you. 

Should we conclude that theft is the marker of the black human's interaction with his government, that she lives, not under the aegis of the state, but in its cross-hairs, we head into dangerous waters. No. They went that away. These are not the facts you're looking for. Better to move along and go about your own private business. Better to forget this entire ugly everything. Better to focus on civility, your local diversity workshop and the reduction of harsh and intemperate language. Better to forget that indigestible truth--behind every great atrocity, stands some particular winner.

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