Summary of "Politics and the Past: On Repairing Historical Injustices"

Summary of

Politics and the Past: On Repairing Historical Injustices

By John Torpey, ed

Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Politics and the Past: On Repairing Historical Injustices. John Torpey, ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003.

This volume provides a range of theoretical and historical analyses, philosophical reflections, and case studies exploring the growing debates surrounding reparations for historical injustices. In the introduction, Torpey situates reparations politics in relation to transitional justice, apologies, and communicative history. He also provides a useful grid to map different examples of reparations along an X-axis continuum of symbolic-economic forms and a Y-axis continuum of cultural-legal forms. In their chapter, Olick and Coughlin explain their frustration with existing literature. Displeased with philosophical approaches that are often a-historical and unscientific, and comparative studies that are overeager to find universal patterns, they outline what they term developmental socio-historical framework that views regret as central to modernity. They conclude that "the appropriate frame for explaining the recent rise of regret is a historical-sociological one that sees regret as part of the transformation of temporality and historicity that is tied up with the decline, rather than the triumph, of the nation-state." (56) Using four examples, Alan Cairns illustrates how the academic's intellectual enterprise assists in the reparations movement in "democratizing the past". Elazar Barkan examines the changing nature of international morality that results in perpetrators' willingness to accept responsibility for the past. In many instances, one can view this development as a cooperative effort of victim and perpetrator to overcome the bounds of history. Roy L. Brooks wrestles with three issues related to reparations: are some societies more prone to evil than others? Is a theory of redress possible? Are there other forms of redress aside from reparations? To the first question, his answer is a firm no. On the second point, Brooks outlines four points of successful redress: organized by a legislature, political pressure, strong internal support, and a meritorious claim of harm. Finally, he expands on different forms of redress. In the concluding chapter, Charles S. Maier explores the challenges of reconstructing the past, particularly at the intersection of history and the law. He analogizes the role of the historian to that of the judge in analyzing events.

Case studies provide a richer picture of a range of contemporary reparations debates. Dalton Conley provides an overview of the fight for reparations for slavery in America. Similarly, Laura Hein examines efforts to gain redress for Japanese actions in WWII, paying particular attention to legal efforts. Ongoing efforts to redefine the relationship between Canadian museums and the cultural property of First Nations is the subject of the chapter by Ruth B. Phillips and Elizabeth Johnson. Sharon E. Lean makes the case that reparations are crucial but less-well examined complement to truth-seeking in pursuing reconciliation in Latin America. Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann outlines what a case for reparations for racial discrimination against African states might look like. Ratner, Carroll, and Woolford discuss the current status of treaty negotiations between First Nations peoples and the British Columbia government. International and domestic financial and nonfinancial reparations mechanisms for victims of the Rwandan genocide are explored by Stef Vandeginste. She outlines a range of options out there, but notes also that no payment has yet been disbursed and this is compounded by the tricky issue of competing and discriminating amongst victims. Henry Rousso discusses the Papon trial in France, reflecting on practical and ethical issues raised by the heavy reliance on historians for testimony.