Created: 2000-03-05
Last Modified: 2000-03-05
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Historical Complicity

J. Bradford DeLong



>> But only the Chinese were used as human detonators, and it was not
>> because they invented gunpowder.
>yes. and it is an extremely shameful part of u.s. history. henry, it
>shames me.
>Why are you ashamed? You can't possibly be complicit.

My Comment:

There is a sense in which I benefit from it--surplus extraction from Chinese-born workers building the Central Pacific Railroad--every time I use the Stanford Library. If I did not feel ashamed that my present comfort was purchased with such past brutality, would I still be human?

As Charles Maier put it--I think wisely--in a different context, it is:

...difficult to pin down any notions of collective responsibility.
Admittedly the latter notion is one of the most problematic
concepts for ethics or history. It is hard enough to assign
individual responsibility, which is one of the thorniest
issues, say, for judges, biographers, and others who must
confront personal action. Individual responsibility has
emerged as an especially difficult concept to apply to
agents of bureaucracies or military hierarchies. Obviously
it preoccupied Europeans especially as they debated the
appropriateness of postwar judicial sanctions and purges
against collaborators.... But it is still a somewhat
different issue from that of the degree to which West
Germany as a national society accepts responsibility
for the Nazi past, and for how long it must acknowledge
such responsibility. In what sense does collective
responsibility exist?...

The tentative and brief response, I would suggest for
the moment, is that insofar as a collection of people
wishes to claim existence as a society or a nation, it
must thereby accept existence as a community through time,
hence must acknowledge that acts committed by earlier
agents still bind or burden the contemporary community.
This holds for revolutionary regimes as well.

Insofar as past acts were acknowledged as injurious, this
level of responsibility stipulates that whatever reparation
is still possible must be attemped... Nor does this
responsibility have a time limit. Responsibility for a
burdened past can justifiably become less preoccupying as
other experiences are added to the national legacy. The
remoter descendants of those originally victimized have
a more diluted claim to compensation. But like that half-
life of radioactive material, there is no point at which
responsibility simply goes away.

The situation of Chinese-born workers in the U.S. in the nineteenth century is complicated by the fact that for most immigrants, the experience was lived as a liberation and an empowerment. A U.S. that had banned trans-Pacific immigration in 1849 would have seen no Chinese-born workers crushed by rocks in the Sierra Nevada--but would also have been a greater oppression than in fact took place...


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Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax

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