Christopher Hitches Makes the Case for Paying Reparations for Slavery in the United States

There may be no more hereti­cal fig­ure from the last sev­er­al decades for both the cur­rent main­stream polit­i­cal left and right than the late Christo­pher Hitchens. He has main­tained con­trar­i­an posi­tions that range from vex­ing to enrag­ing for near­ly every ortho­doxy. Con­trar­i­an­ism can seem his one sin­gu­lar con­sis­ten­cy in a slide from “social­ist to neo­con” and some very impe­ri­al­ist views on war, race, cul­ture, and reli­gion. But his one true alle­giance, he would say, was to “the prin­ci­ples of free inquiry” and Enlight­en­ment thought.

Hitchens inquired freely and often, and he was a supreme­ly pol­ished rhetori­cian who had mas­tered the art of mak­ing argu­ments, regard­less of whether he was per­suad­ed by them him­self. It may seem sur­pris­ing that a cru­sad­er against “the race card in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics” and “the per­ils of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics,” would make the case for repa­ra­tions for slav­ery. But he does so in a 2001 Oxford-style debate at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty, a forum that requires no per­son­al alle­giance to the posi­tion.

This con­text aside, Hitchens’ argu­ment is com­pelling on its own mer­its. “It mat­ters not what you think,” he says in a clas­si­cal­ly lib­er­al for­mu­la in his intro­duc­to­ry remarks above, “it mat­ters how you think.” He starts with an argu­ment from anal­o­gy: with the repa­tri­a­tion of the Elgin Mar­bles, sec­tions of the Parthenon tak­en from Greece in the 18th cen­tu­ry. The acqui­si­tion of these arti­facts was “an orig­i­nal crime,” says Hitchens, “a des­e­cra­tion of a great his­toric cul­ture…. It was a theft, a rape, a tak­ing, per­pe­trat­ed by the strong upon the weak.”

This was, he says, “by the way… all done at the same time as the British fleet… was also the mil­i­tary guar­an­tor of the slave trade.” Not every crime com­mit­ted by the British Empire could be made good, but “this one could. Resti­tu­tion could be made.” Upon pub­lish­ing a book mak­ing this case for return­ing the Greek stones, Hitchens says he was “imme­di­ate­ly impressed by the tor­rent of bad faith argu­ments in which I was doused… the irrel­e­vant, the non-sequitur, the gen­er­al­iza­tion.” Like­wise, when the sub­ject of repa­ra­tions comes up, Hitch­es says he hears “a con­stant whine and drone” of bad faith.

To laughs from the audi­ence, he cheek­i­ly calls coun­ter­ar­gu­ments a “white whine.” On the sub­ject of repa­ra­tions, white Amer­i­cans dis­play “a rather nasty com­bi­na­tion of self pity and self hatred,” he says, the work­ings of a “bad con­science.” He weaves his scorn for self-inter­est and flim­sy rea­son­ing into an extend­ed anal­o­gy with loot­ed arti­facts in the British muse­um. Curi­ous­ly, he does not seem to argue that Britain make resti­tu­tion to the descen­dants of loot­ed peo­ple, an obvi­ous con­clu­sion of his argu­ments for the U.S. But per­haps it comes up in the full debate from which these remarks come, just below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Christo­pher Hitchens Dis­miss­es the Cult of Ayn Rand: There’s No “Need to Have Essays Advo­cat­ing Self­ish­ness Among Human Beings; It Requires No Rein­force­ment”

The Atlantic Slave Trade Visu­al­ized in Two Min­utes: 10 Mil­lion Lives, 20,000 Voy­ages, Over 315 Years

W.E.B. Du Bois Cre­ates Rev­o­lu­tion­ary, Artis­tic Data Visu­al­iza­tions Show­ing the Eco­nom­ic Plight of African-Amer­i­cans (1900)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Me says:

    Ok, sure. Let’s write a check to all African Amer­i­cans of slave decent. Prob­lem solved! Cough…cough…um the Native Amer­i­cans would now like to have a word with Con­gress.

  • Indy says:

    I’m curi­ous, Ray, what’s the statute of lim­i­ta­tions, in years, in your opin­ion, on such mat­ters?
    and where, in recent times, might they begin?
    Is it the mind bog­gling­ly huge num­ber of peo­ple involved that con­vinces you this is a bad idea? Would you feel and respond dif­fer­ent­ly if Hitch was dis­cussing one per­son or one fam­i­ly who, let’s say were, or are, treat­ed bad­ly by their gov­ern­ment?

  • Jonathan Collins says:

    As an Irish Amer­i­can, I demand repa­ra­tions from the British gov­ern­ment for the pota­to famine of 1847 that forced my descen­dants off their land. I’ll start hold­ing my breath wait­ing for my repa­ra­tions!

  • Indy says:

    It’s Collins Night!

    Anoth­er put down based on the “What hap­pened is too ancient or affect­ed too many to con­tem­plate” angle. Ok.
    Does any­one, ever, deserve com­pen­sa­tion for his­tor­i­cal racist deeds?

    Collins say no, so far, any way.

  • True lies says:

    The con­sti­tu­tion was writ­ten a long time ago by peo­ple who are dead so … does it mat­ter today??

  • Connor says:

    You all are exhibit­ing the “white whine” he talks about. You are beyond imbe­cil­ic. The amount of hypocrisy makes me cringe for you. White whin­ers.

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