Thursday, April 7, 2016

Just Fair

So a post about reparations for slavery came up in my Google+ Stream today. It quickly became an echo chamber of self-congratulatory mockery of the idea, which I'm okay with. I'm not on the side of reparations myself, and when people stop mocking one another on the Internet, I'll be really worried. But one point came up, that you hear a lot of in these sorts of discussions. "If there was a living person now that went through this in those days, he would deserve recompense, but there isn't."

This is, in my mind, bad logic, because if you follow it for a while, it leads to all sorts of bad things. And that, I think is why modern law doesn't work that way. Here in Washington State, if you register a vehicle, they run a check on the VIN. If it comes back as stolen, the car is confiscated, and provisions are made to return it to the owner, or to their estate, no matter if you can prove you bought it in good faith. By the same token, if you find yourself in possession of artwork that was stolen by German troops in the timeframe of the Second World War, the facts that the legitimate owner(s) from whom it was stolen are now dead and that you purchased it legally are not going to protect you from having to return it, and it will go back to the heirs of those owners.

Unfair? Yes. That poor sod who had the nice vintage car he'd paid a pretty penny for yanked out from under him to have returned the the family of a dead man was screwed through no fault of his own. Plain and simple. The same for someone who pays a phat stack for a nice painting only to find out some yahoo with a swastika armband ganked it from someone back before their parents were born.

But we tolerate a certain level of what strikes us as obvious unfairness out of a sense of justice and the realization that a lot of the time, there's just no way to untangle everything that's gone before and set everything "right" again. And this is when we're talking about physical objects. When you start trying to put a price on things like slavery, Jim Crow, redlining and even simple fraud, especially when it happened a generation and more ago, it just becomes insane.

And, germane to this particular discussion, let's not forget the fact that it's a lot easier to overlook historical (or even current) injustice, intentionally or not, when it works out in your favor. I don't expect people to run around looking for ways to serve justice at their own expense any more than I spend my time looking for ways to serve justice at my own expense. I have a pretty decent life. And I'm kind of suspicious that there are people out there who unwillingly paid a price for that, so that I didn't have to. I could spend my time tracking these people down and making them whole again, but playing old video games is more fun, so I blow it off. But I own that about myself. I get that sometimes, life's unfairness works in my favor and I'm fully willing to take advantage of that. (Of course, I deal with it when life's unfairness works against me. And I suspect that I'm a bit too ready to avoid thinking about which side of the ledger I actually belong on.)

I'm one of those people who believes that fair is where pigs go to get prizes. I don't believe that the world is a fundamentally just place, that humanity is basically "good" at heart, that people give two shits about equality or that the long arc of history bends towards justice. My world has no deities to ensure that "people get what they deserve" and there are no cosmic forces that reward the just and punish the wicked.

For me, it's worth simply owning the fact that life's not fair. And it's better than making excuses for it that are really simply sullen protestations of my own innocence. Because being innocent has protected precious few other people before now, and being guilty has often gone unpunished. Luckily for me.

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