I see by the papers in the Yankee Capital that Johnny Cochran, and of course Jesse and Al, are wheezing and blowing like a county-fair calliope with a leaky boiler. They always are. This time it was about the need to pay reparations for the ravages trala of slavery. It got me to thinking.
I hate it when that happens.
Now, I know I’m hard-hearted, and mean-spirited, and no damn good. It’s probably my only virtue. But on consideration, I realized that they might be right. The ravages of slavery do run deep, and cause motingator trouble, with no end in sight. I decided that compensation was only reasonable. Sometimes you don’t like a conclusion, but you have to reach it. All right. I’ll be a man about it.
You can pay me reparations, Johnny.
To start with, I figure you owe me for three bicycles. Maybe it’s a small thing, but I’m tired of losing bicycles. Are we talking market value or replacement? What I really want to be paid for is having to keep my latest two-wheeler in my living room. Do you know how many times I’ve knocked the fool thing over? And, oh, the scratch in my granddad’s antique desk that the brake lever made. What’s that worth?
Call it three grand. OK? Direct deposit would be nice.
But . . . how do we dollarize cultural retrogression? God knows I appreciate your offer of reparations, but I’m having trouble with the arithmetic. Help me.
A few years back, my middle-school daughter brought home a horrendously misspelled science hand-out. Now, Johnny: You and I both know that it’s easy to make a typo, and write “phenylkeetone” instead of “phenylketone.” But “feemelkeebome” is stretching it. The errors were of this sort. An understanding of chemistry clearly had never rippled the serene surface of the woman’s mind.
Without thinking, I asked, “What color is your teacher?” (If I had thought carefully, I would have asked, “What color is your teacher?”) My daughter responded with an anguished, “Da-d-d-d-y!” She had made the connection, but knew she wasn’t supposed to.
I’ve got no problem with black teachers, if they are competent. No problem at all. But a teacher who is too ignorant to spell her subject, and too lazy to use a dictionary, ought to be flipping burgers. Simple burgers, with no moving parts. Thing is, we can’t fire ignorant teachers, Johnny, because of the lingering effects of slavery. I can yell at an ignorant white teacher, but not at a black one. To expect blacks to meet standards is racist. You can send me the price of four years of tuition in a private school outside the country.
What’s the cost of permanent welfare? Subsidized everything? Enormous police departments? What do you figure? Just add it to your tab. Have you thought about setting up an endowment?
But here’s a large ravage of slavery, Johnny: Fear.
What price do we put on looking over our shoulders? On watching to be sure we don’t go one subway stop too far? Warning our girlfriends not to drive on certain streets? Checking the clientele of Seven-Eleven before going in at night?
People in, say, Switzerland can walk their streets after dark. We can’t. Why? What have we got that they don’t, that might cause fear?
Elvis impersonators, Johnny. Yep. Switzerland doesn’t have any Elvis impersonators. Check for yourself.
What’s fear worth? Is it a minimum-wage job? Forty-hour week or twenty-four hours a day? Benefits? Seniority pay as people grow older, weaker, and less able to defend themselves? You see the actuarial difficulty. Accounting is a more difficult trade than you might think.
The white guy beaten to death 100 yards from my door last year ? they never caught the killers, but ? what you reckon, Johnny? Do you figure it was white Presbyterian women from the old-ladies’ home? That’s my guess. That’s who usually does it. Anyway, you can send me $540 for the Sig 9mm pistol I bought after blacks started moving into the neighborhood and crime went up. And ammo, carry permit, Hydra-Shock rounds.
Now, millions of honest blacks might write and say, “Fred, we aren’t criminals. Why should we pay for what other blacks do?” Splendid question. But of course whites say, “We don’t have any slaves. Why should we pay for what some other whites did?” If it is a reasonable question for blacks to ask, as indeed it is, why isn’t it a reasonable question for whites to ask?
But while you are in a mood to pay up, Johnny, let me introduce a useful concept: Civilizational rent. You’ll like this. It’s such a good idea.
A culture is essentially software. No? Sure, there are physical embodiments: positron-emission scanners, high-bypass turbofans, radar with Doppler beam-sharpening. Yet basically a culture is a body of knowledge, like Microsoft Word. (All right, throw in values. But I don’t want to make this too difficult.)
White guys invented these things at considerable cost. We had to. Europe doesn’t have much low-hanging fruit, and it gets cold in the north. So generations of people that I’m sure you’re familiar with ? Newton, Leibniz, Galois, Gauss, Carnot, Dirac ? did work that led to all kinds of useful . . . you know . . stuff.
Western civilization, it’s called.
As a result of slavery, you have been using our civilization without a license. (I know: You’re having trouble with the idea of implied retroactive acceptance of a license I invented five minutes ago. Microsoft would grasp it in a heartbeat. Anyway, I’m writing the column.)
Further, you’ve been using it for a long time, Johnny. Air-conditioning. Roads. Writing. The wheel. Complicated stuff like that. Medicine. Tractors. Shoes. Houses. I’ve spent time in Africa, where people live in stick things that look as if a Cub Scout had built a campfire and forgotten to light it. You’re getting a deal here, Johnny.
I don’t wish stick houses on anyone. I’m glad you have the benefits of electricity, clothes, and daytime TV. I’d love to see blacks study, earn degrees on their merits, prosper. Think of the trouble it would save. But ? as suggested by your manly desire to pay reparations — you owe us licensing fees. Granted, it’s hard to set a price on a culture. But if Microsoft Office goes for $250 at fire-sale prices, I guess a whole civilization is cheap at $100K a copy.
I believe we can do business, Johnny. I hope so. I can use the money.