Saturday, January 14, 2006

Ghana Is Not "Home"

Ghana, a nation in west Africa, wants to be the homeland for people of African descent living in the Americas. The nation's minister of tourism, J. Otanka Obetsebi-Lamptey, told reporters that "We want Africans everywhere, no matter where they live or how they got there, to see Ghana as their gateway home." Ghana's Uneasy Embrace of Slavery's Diaspora This is no doubt good business, but it is more than ironic. The descendants of those who sold millions into slavery, want the descendants of those who were sold to feel at home in the land that sold their ancestors?

The territory of Ghana is defined by the treaty boundaries of a former British colony. Unlike many modern African nations, it has a compact history pre-dating colonial intrusion. It was not cobbled together from parts of several mutually hostile ethnic groups, to suit European mercantile convenience. The land that today is called Ghana was, more or less, the heart of the Asante Union, sometimes also spelled Ashanti. The Asante cobbled together an empire from several mutually hostile ethnic groups, before the British ever arrived, and made those who were not sold as slaves into Asante.

No kingdom in Africa was more astute at dealing in slaves than the Asante. Troops of highly disciplined soldiers collected ground rent for all the slave forts on their coast. Sale of slaves was sometimes halted by decree, to extract higher prices from European merchants. In fact, when the British navy and diplomatic service began trying to suppress the slave trade, the reigning Asantehene, Osei Bonsu, complained that this left him no market to sell his prisoners. He asked that the trade be restored.

Africans sold into slavery were either prisoners of war, or the cast-off rejects of their own people. They could be either high-ranking enemies, or criminals of the same community from which they were sold. Sale of prisoners as slaves was deeply imbedded in African culture long before European ships found their way south of the Sahara desert. Human sacrifice of slaves on ritual occasions was common among the Asante, Cameroon, and Dahomey. Arab merchants developed a sophisticated long-distance network for marketing slaves – which makes the whole idea that Islam is the religion for people of African descent quite ridiculous. Merchants who professed Islam were just as involved in slavery as merchants who professed Christianity. Both were rightly suspected of violating their faith in the name of profit.

It is common for natives of Ghana to refer to African-American tourists by the same word used for Europeans and pale-skinned Americans, "obruni." This could be loosely translated "white foreigner," but Africans do not traditionally refer to Europeans as "white" – except when their words are translated by Europeans or Americans who have defined themselves as "white." An obruni is an obruni, whatever their color. (People with pale skin are often referred to as "ugly," but that is a description, not an identity.) Nor do most Africans think of themselves as "black." That too is a European and colonial innovation. Africans define themselves as Senegalese, or Ugandan, or as Herrero, Ovimbundu, Bakongo...

After all, at least one third of the people in Ghana live on less than a dollar a day. What do they have in common with Americans who have the discretionary income to afford round trip international air fare and hotel accommodations? People who live without electricity and running water might recognize as long lost brothers and sisters someone who came to install both in an impoverished village at affordable rates, or free of charge. But tourists?

During the last few decades before the Civil War, and during the decades afterward, Americans of known African descent were ruthlessly taught that they had no history, that they were descended from "jungle bunnies" and ignorant savages. This was patently false, and earlier generations in America knew better. The thousands of Charleston, South Carolina slaves enlisted by Denmark Vesey included a large number who knew their Ibo heritage, and at least 10% who retained the Islamic faith of their ancestors. Benjamin Banneker's Dogon grandfather had been a prince, and the family knew it. Banneker's grandmother, an English dairy maid from Kent, called her husband "the Prince" throughout their married life. Anthony Johnson, the owner of a 250 acre plantation in Virginia, was well aware of his Angolan roots. But once lies had been told, and for a time somewhat believed, it was a natural response to claim, with pride, a renewed African heritage.

Yes, Africa did have kingdoms and empires as glorious as any in Europe. That isn't much to be proud of. Our ancestors, European or African, were mostly either cruel, petty tyrants, or illiterate, ignorant, superstitious peasants. There were always a few exceptions, that is why we have all made a little progress, sort of. During the 1600s, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade became established as big international business, Europeans were burning witches at the stake, while Africans were pounding stakes into witches – both painful deaths. Europeans during that period lacked the military and economic capacity to kidnap the millions of men and women who were taken to America. They were sold, by the "motherland." European merchants came in large numbers because Africa had slaves for sale. Slave traders paid for the privilege, humbly requested on their knees before the local king.

We are not so much better today as we sometimes think. Less than twenty years ago, the Inkatha militia in South Africa was engaged in battles with the African National Congress military wing, Umkonto we Sizwe. I remarked to a South African exile in America that a good solution would be to airlift the entire Inkatha militia to Yugoslavia, for United Nations peacekeeping duties. Moses replied "Yes, we have to stop the white-on-white violence." Isn't that the truth? Serbs practice ethnic cleansing on Bosnians, Croats practice ethnic cleansing on Serbs, Hutu practice ethnic cleansing on Tutsi... Yoruba and Hausa ganged up on Ibo a few years ago, resulting in the Biafra war...

A couple of years ago, a weekly paper in the Washington, D.C., area, published primarily for African American readers, ran a headline "Benin apologizes for slavery." That may have been the first time that a modern west African nation openly acknowledged its own historical role in the slave trade. Benin also wanted Americans of African descent to come home. After all, there are a fair number of African Americans who are prosperous today, and immigrants with money are desirable to any impoverished land. The millions of African Americans who are barely getting by? They don't have the money for trans-Atlantic air fare anyway.

Oddly enough, one of the pretexts for Britain establishing colonial administrations in west Africa was that the local rulers practiced slavery. There was a certain amount of hypocrisy in the British government posturing as friend of freedom. True, there was genuine spirit to William Wilberforce's anti-slavery efforts, endorsed by the aging John Wesley. But the British royal family and merchants, Tory and Whig, had been up to their eyeballs in the slave trade. American colonies who tried to prohibit importation of slaves were over-ruled by the King. After wringing immense profits out of the business, Britain turned around and condemned it. By then, certain American colonies, now independent politically, were so dependent on slave labor that they invented some ingenious justifications to keep it going another 70 years or so. The results for their descendants were both bloody and poisonous.

When British ships intercepted slave traders, the human cargo was taken to the nearest African coast and settled in villages. Generally, they were far away from their own kin and cultures. Local people often raided these villages, to obtain slaves to sell to another merchant willing to defy the British blockade. And so British colonialism arrived under the banner of progress and civilization, to bring enlightenment that Britain itself had suppressed for many centuries. Colonial administration of course was in the hands of another set of petty tyrants, who had absorbed the identity of "white man" and viewed all people of darker complexion with contempt. That attitude germinated first in the American colonies, then was brought back to Africa.

The glorious African kings, who financed their mighty empires on the sale of slaves, had no idea of the perverted culture their satisfied customers were digging, for themselves and their "property," on the other side of the world. Humanity will never really get over the poisonous legacy of the past until we recognize that none of us have clean hands, none of us would really want to live the lives of any of our ancestors, and none of us are defined by the past. We reinvent our own warped identity with every new generation. And then we have to recognize, whether our ancestors came from Europe, Africa, or both, the truth of that old saying "You can't go home again."

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Alito Needs a Different Job

Each time the president nominates a new Supreme Court justice, there are shrill voices ready to denounce the nominee. These voices are generally unworthy of serious consideration. Condemnation, as a thoughtless reflex, may emerge from the muddled menagerie that passes for a sort of "left wing" in the modern United States. It may come from the poisonous stew that passes for "right wing." Neither source has distinguished itself for reliance on facts, or careful consideration of evidence. Neither has demonstrated any significant knowledge of constitutional law, or reliance on the fundamental principles which formed our nation. Both amount to little more than "I want what I want, I want it now, and it must be in the Constitution somewhere."

When Samuel Alito, Jr. was nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States, there was no cause to line up for or against confirmation. No member of the United States Senate, few if any of the citizens those senators represent, knew enough about the man. Oh, the senate did confirm him for other federal judicial positions. But that is generally a pretty routine process. To confirm a nominee for a judicial position bound to follow precedents of the Supreme Court is one thing. To confirm the same person for a seat on the court that makes the precedents is quite another. And the rest of us didn't know much more than what hurried news articles slapped together.

Some time has passed, and the man's record has begun to be revealed. It is not his worth as a human being, but whether he is the right choice for a particular job that are at issue. Here is the opinion of one bus driver in a somewhat shrunken midwestern city: Samuel Alito is not qualified to expound the Constitution of the United States. Confirmation of Alito to sit on the Supreme Court would be an insult to our Republic, and a slap in the face to the Framers of our fundamental law.

Two broad trends can be traced in the construction of Constitutional law for our nation. One relies on the Constitution to protect individual freedom. It limits the jurisdiction of government, restrains government intrusion into private decisions. It endeavors to keep citizen participation in government free from intimidation by power and wealth, concentrated in a small number of private hands. This infuriates anyone in a position of power and authority, who naturally resents limitations on their own exercise of power. But it has been a great thing for the people of the United States.

The other trend grants almost unlimited power to government. In a cruel perversion of constitutional liberty, this trend would allow a small number of influential and well-placed men, as well as self-perpetuating political machines, to control the levers of unrestricted state power. Samuel Alito has placed himself, throughout his life, in this camp. Mark Twain wrote that nobody's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session. With Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court, there would be nobody on watch to restrain the legislature. It would literally be employing the fox to guard the chicken coop.

This has nothing to do with his position on Roe v. Wade. If there is one thing certain about the confirmation process, nobody will ever find out his true intent regarding Roe v. Wade unless and until he sits on the court and a controversy concerning abortion actually comes up on the docket. It is nearly impossible to penetrate the innermost soul of a candidate for any office and discover their true intentions. It is incredibly easy to give bland, deceptive answers to any question, without actually lying.

Besides, how a nominee may vote on some hypothetical future case truly is irrelevant to either a nomination or confirmation which retains any pretense of integrity. No person is qualified to be a justice of the Supreme Court who comes to the confirmation process with an agenda either to overturn, or to preserve a all costs, any existing precedent. Samuel Alito clearly has had such an agenda for his entire life as a law student and practicing attorney. He would make an excellent litigator for his causes. He cannot dispassionately judge them.

In this light, Thurgood Marshall would have been a terrible choice for the Supreme Court in 1952, when he had a record of actively seeking to make new constitutional law and overturn existing Supreme Court precedents. The ruling in Brown v. Board of Education had just barely enough force to actually change our national culture precisely because the most conservative judges joined in a unamimous decision. Putting Marshall on the court, then voting 5-4 for what he had sought as a trial lawyer, would not have had the same impact at all. By the time Marshall was actually nominated and confirmed, older and more dispassionate justices had already accepted most of what he advocated as valid constitutional interpretation. Marshall came on the court not to advance his agenda, but to handle new and unforseeable controversies, after his advocacy had been fully vindicated.

Applying for a position in the Justice Department under then-president Ronald Reagan, Alito wrote that he was attracted to constitutional law "in large part by disagreement with Warren Court decisions, particularly in the areas of criminal procedure, the Establishment Clause, and reapportionment." Most of the case law he profoundly disagrees with remains settled law. It would be wrong to confirm any nominee who said "I will never reconsider those precedents for any reason." It is equally wrong to confirm a nominee whose honest attitude is "just give me a chance to set the clock back."

Reapportionment is not an issue that most people even think about any more. The line of cases Alito referred to began with Baker v. Carr in 1962. At that time, state legislatures were free to draw district lines that had forty times as many voters for one state senator as the number in a neighboring district. Alito, in short, questions whether the Supreme Court, as guardian and arbiter of the federal constitution, should "insure that the democratic process is not rigged to thwart the will of the majority" (Adam Cohen, New York Times, Jan 3, 2006, page A18).

Alexander Hamilton stated in several articles of The Federalist Papers that a constitution is a mere piece of paper, unless the legislature, and the executive, are confined to the exercise of powers granted by constitutional authority. For this purpose, the courts must serve as a restraint on the legislature. In fact, the courts must declare null and void any legislative enactment that violates the constitution. This duty, Samuel Alito is clearly unwilling to fulfill. His concept of constitutional government corresponds closely to that of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who remarked "Law? Who cares about law? Hain't I got the power?" (One wonders what Vanderbilt's genteel descendants would think if they could meet their illustrious ancestor in the flesh).

Alito is not without role models among the founding fathers. Pinckney of South Carolina, and Benjamin Harrison of Virginia come to mind. Hamilton himself, while serving in the cabinet, advocated strong executive government. James Madison's valiant efforts to secure explicit constitutional restraints on state governments, to defend the same liberties guaranteed by the federal Bill of Rights, were unsuccessful. It took a full-fledged Civil War to bring the capacity for tyranny by individual state legislatures under the restraints of the Fourteenth Amendment, largely vindicating Madison.

A constitution, or an amendment, is only as good as the judges who apply it. With the right logic, and a string of legal arguments long enough, any lawyer can affirm that green is red, or night is day. The unfolding of Samuel Alito's record clearly shows that the job of expounding a constitution is not matched by his qualifications. He needs to apply for another job, more suited to his talents and inclinations.