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Misrepresenting Reparations: How the Straw Man Stifles Debate

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

Reparations is a discussion that combines a number of sensitive issues in the UK and is almost always met with the same overwhelming responses; ‘how could the UK pay it?’, ‘How do we figure out who is owed?’, ‘It’s all ancient history’, ‘You can’t apologise for every misdeed’, ‘Greedy states would not distribute the money’ and so on. Questioning how we should approach reparations is productive but most lines of questioning fit within a very specific discourse that seeks to dampen the question of reparations by misrepresenting the case for it.

Constructing a ‘straw man’ is a childish analytical tool that you’re taught in GCSE history and one which some people fail to grow out of. The straw man is unhelpful because it is exactly that; straw, lacking in substance, depth and intricacy that makes it an easy target to tear apart like an infant standing triumphant atop a pile of toppled lego bricks with a drooling smile across their face. Opponents of reparations do exactly this. They stifle any sort of debate by ridiculing an imagined position that is more caricature than reality. This is fundamentally different from satire. Satire punches up, or at least, it is supposed to ‘punch upwards’ in the sense that the targets of comedy are usually those in positions of privilege and power. There is nothing funny about the question of reparations. It is a serious conversation that needs to be had about Britain’s recent colonial past and the impact it has had on today’s geo-politics.

To help discuss how Britain’s elite, white supremacists and others have attempted to silence the debate of reparations, I am using the Spectator’s recent article on the debate to illustrate the straw man theory. In short, the article is a pseudo-satire piece with little to no research that seeks to ridicule the pro-reparations argument by using the example of Celtic-Roman/Celtic-Anglo Saxon reparations as a historical extreme. The ‘satirical’ argument of the author is that modern day Italians benefit financially from the tourist attractions of Roman ruins built by Celtic slaves and Anglo Saxons financially benefitted from Empire therefore contemporary Welsh, Scottish and Cornish people should receive compensation. The article even goes as far as to suggest a parallel between the ‘wal’ root in Anglo Saxon with the wealth of negative language surrounding colonised peoples in Africa and Asia. Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds but not for the reasons the article wants us to believe. It is not the concept of historical reparations that is laughable here, it’s the concept that any of the ideas presented here are indicative of the serious effort to bring about reparations. The author has created the classic straw man to illustrate their argument; their targets are virtually fictional thus making it easy for them to poke at reparations with a toy bayonet. Contained in this ill-though out parable are all the facile arguments against reparations.

‘It has the air of a ghost-story’

Many will remember David Cameron’s visit to Jamaica last decade where he told the Jamaican people to ‘move on’ from slavery and colonialism when asked about the possibility of reparations. District Commissioner Cameron even had the gall (I emphasise, IN JAMAICA) to boldly state that Britain’s role in wiping slavery ‘off the face of our planet’ should be celebrated. There are two arguments at play here- one is about historical relevance, which the Spectator article touches on, while the other relates to a national retelling of history. Often, opponents of reparations, like Cameron, point to the historical existence of slavery and colonialism as a defence, claiming that these past actions should not be judged by ‘the standards of today’ (whatever that means) and that people should ‘move on’. In the Spectator article, the author describes this dynamic as having the ‘air of a ghost story’. By burying our recent history of slavery and colonialism to the realm of antiquity, the author and DC Cameron and other such figures devalue the argument for reparations as one that has passed its 'sell by date'. The reality is that slavery and colonialism are not ancient history, they are fresh in living memory and our institutions, geo politics, economics and international relations are played in their shadow. The existence of the Commonwealth, the structures and practices of many post-colonial African and Asian states, even the moniker of ‘Great Britain’ is a living, breathing relic of our recent past. Those whose cattle were dispossessed or killed by British authorities, whose families were decimated by colonial expansionists, who’s education was manipulated by British authorities, they do not exist in an ahistorical vacuum. The reverberations of these actions are intergenerational.

What is perhaps more misleading is the related idea that reparations are not justified because Britain was the force that wiped out the evils of slavery in the first place. It is undeniable that the West Africa Squadron deserves immense praise for the work it did between 1808 and 1860 in returning approximately 150 000 African men and women from slavery back to the West African coast but it does not erase the original sin of being the largest slave trading country right up until the point of abolition. Shouting loud and proud about the West Africa squadron also drowns out the fact that until 2015 British taxpayers were paying compensation to the families of slave owners as well as the countless slave rebellions that really put pressure on the British Parliament to abolish the practice. Yes, Britain were the first European state to outlaw slavery on their shores and in their colonies but slavery soon gave way to the equally destructive ‘scramble’ for the African continent where thousands died in the name of British Victorian white supremacy and avarice. In the same breath as the British proudly declared the freedom of slaves they were paying their masters for their loss in property, placing the newly freed into five year apprenticeships where landowners became more violent than they had ever been, all while imperialists in London began their vision for tightening the yoke around the African continent. People like District Commissioner Johnson will argue that those who toppled Edward Colston’s statue were erasing history, the truth is that it is people such as DC Cameron and Johnson are the ones who are rewriting the past. Britain was not the champion of freedom nor the pioneer of racial equality. Through its colonial program it was a central part of the European project that created pseudo-scientific ways to explain white supremacy and the inferiority of people of colour around the world. In the 19th century the British may have accepted that Africans had ‘souls’, in a Christian sense, but they were far from recognising racial equality. In 1807 as in 1833, the British were rapidly developing both a language and a political machinery that exercised white supremacy.

‘I would hesitate to do anything that might amplify their sense of self-importance’

The article goes onto illustrate that the concept of reparations reinforces colonial power dynamics and simply emphasises the position of the colonised as one of subordination. No one is begging, as the author might have you believe, or perhaps what the author might want to imagine. I’m sure if you asked those who recently sought legal reparations for British abuses during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya they would not have described themselves as 'beggars'. It is a ridiculous assertion to claim that reparations, in whatever form they take, would ‘undoubtedly’ aggrandise the self importance of the former colonial powers and further subjugate those who seek justice. We do not describe victims of crimes as 'beggars' or perpetrators as 'conquerors' and such a framework says more about the author of those ideas than the reality of reparations. This is simply a projection and one which many former colonial states propagate in the ways they talk about aid.

‘bogus cultural events’

Perhaps the greatest miseducation propagated by opponents of reparations is their characterisation of what it would look like. The Spectator article is an exemplary case of such a misrepresentation. It claims that the losers of this exchange would be ‘the working poor in Britain’ who will be ‘taxed more heavily, while the governing classes overseas will be pampered more lavishly.’ For some reason the author can’t imagine that reparations might benefit the black working classes of Britain nor can they imagine that overseas governments are capable of anything more than corruption. Furthermore, the article goes on to assert that funds would be ‘soaked up by officials in bogus cultural events, festivals of art, fireworks displays… and days of remembrance accompanied by free Prosecco for the ruling elite. The budget would probably stretch to educational bursaries for a new breed of lecturers to instil students with a life-long sense of bitterness.’ I think it is very clear who the bitter one here is.

These fictions are exactly are as imaginative as they are problematic. Reparations is not a handout; it can come in many forms that range from court settlements, public displays of apology to restorative measures to promote education, repatriation and alleviate trauma. A survey of CARICOM’s Ten Point Program reveals that the call for reparations for Caribbean states transcends a simple one of payment to the treasuries and is instead a comprehensive plan for the rehabilitation of a peoples politically, economically, culturally and psychologically disadvantaged from the legacies of slavery and colonialism. No one is seriously calling for the transfer of assets from the UK treasury to their bank accounts. Reparations is more than a financial endeavour just as slavery and colonialism was more than financially destructive. Sufficient education would not perpetuate bitterness but instead alleviate it. Any ‘bitterness’ comes from a glaring lack of closure and justice and would not arise from education on the redacted history of British imperialism.

The article in the Spectator is little more than a Twitter thread of baseless opinions with as much historical understanding as a ten-year-old who’s pleased with themselves because they think they’re the first person to discover that there were white indentured servants. There is no attempt to grapple with the complex issue of reparations, there is no effort to understand the complexities of restorative justice, the continuities of colonial injustice or the difference between the Trans-Atlantic slavery, colonial slavery and other iterations in history. This article is just another crass polemic, just another wasted piece of paper used to construct the deceptive straw man of the reparations debate. It would be clever if it wasn’t so transparent, sinister if it wasn’t so fragile and insecure but sadly this line of argument has successfully neutered any real discussion of reparations in the UK.

The truth is that politicians will soon have to grapple with the realities of reparations because there is a renewed demand from a youthful and energetic generation to engage in the debate. No longer will policy-makers and policy-influencers be able to keep taking cheap shots at figments of their prejudiced imaginations.

Bibliography/ Further Reading


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