Politics is local. It is also eternal, in that the dynamics that shape one time are invariably mirrored in the next, century after century. We think we've come so far and then, looking back, realize we're still where we started.
Florence in 1300, for instance, was divided between the grandi—the big fish—and the popolo, aka, everybody else, as Prue Shaw neatly puts it in her vastly enjoyable new book, Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity. That passage had already sparked Chicago in mind when Shaw served up this comment about Dante exploring the underworld:
An urgent desire to know what lies in store for his birthplace is one of the driving forces of the narrative in the poem. Dante's anxious questioning of Ciacco, the first Florentine he meets in hell, encompasses ...the city's future: a che verranno/ li cittadin de la citta partita ("what will become of the citizens of the divided city?") ...Exactly. "What will become of the citizens of the divided city?" Can a question evoke Chicago more poignantly? What will become of this most segregated city? Where are we going, separately and together? Do we have any control over where that place may be?
With this rattling about in my brain Monday, I gritted my teeth and finally plunged into Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations" in The Atlantic, which as been getting a lot of attention over the past week. It's quite long -- just as The Divine Comedy is divided into cantos, so the article consists of 10 "chapters." Though you can still polish it off in under an hour and I suggest you do so.
Coates lays out something that is clear to anyone who considers the matter honestly: that the poverty and dysfunction that are the hallmark of many black communities in Chicago and across the country are the direct result of slavery and its aftermath. That said, I used to think the idea of reparations was a futile symbolic hobbyhorse ridden by those horrified at actually addressing our problems concretely. Now, I'm not so sure.
The piece is calm, historical, well-reasoned and—as so often is the case in the push for civil rights—argues for something both very small in practicality and enormous in meaning. There is a bill introduced into Congress every year, Rep. John Conyers' HR 40, which would study the issue of reparations. That's all. Not pay out a dime. Just explore the issue. It has never been passed, and Coates feels that it should be passed, not just out of fairness, but because our nation will never be whole, he argues, will never move beyond a past that still hobbles us, unless we do.
I'll let you form your own conclusion, though I came away thinking this: a) he's completely right and b) he's appealing to the same sort of people who created this system in the first place. I hate to be cynical, but society has been divided, not just since Dante's Florence, but since Cain and Abel. It's hard to appeal to a humanity that isn't there.
But if change is impossible, there's no need to talk at all. Things do change. At least they can.
His argument has a powerful twist that allows the thoughtful person to at least hope it could have traction. Usually, when discussing reparations, writers who bring up German reparations to Jews after World War II do so simplistically—Jews got it so why shouldn't we? Coates is far more subtle and informed—he points out how Germany's paying reparations to Israel not only helped Israel create its economic infrastructure, but helped Germany regain its lost moral standing in the world. Our nation, whose greatness has entered such steady eclipse, could use the idea of reparations, not to repair the wrong of slavery—that is patently impossible—but as a jumping off point to repair itself while salving an old injury. We wouldn't consider reparations for the benefit of blacks—not a strong motivational force in America today—but we might do it for ourselves.
Then again, seeing how global warming—the ultimate self-interest—has been received, hope seems foolish. We haven't the heart to keep wealth from pooling obscenely now, never mind the will to consider the horrendous injustices of the past and the legacy that perpetrates them to this very day. The divided city will stay divided. Rahm will call Chicago "the most American of American cities" without ever considering whether that is praise or damnation.
The past is a bad place, and many suffered there. You can't throw a dart at the globe and find a country that wasn't based on robbery and murder and wrong. And yet. Is there another nation where the past so manifestly deforms the present? Where ideals of equality are so baldly rendered into lies? Perhaps they all do. Coates makes reparations into a code for the notion that we truly are, as I said this morning when I put out the flag and recited the pledge, hand over heart, "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Pretty to think so, as Hemingway might say.
I'm not doing Coates' thoughts justice. The article centers on Chicago, and is well worth the time of anyone who cares anything about the city. You can read it by clicking here.