Wednesday, May 08, 2013

There is no such thing as a free brunch

Kenyan Mau Mau victims in talks with UK over atrocity settlements

I was forwarded this story because a (distant) friend of the family knew someone who'd been involved in these atrocities, as a mercenary in the Congo and in Kenya.  (There's an American angle: the President's grandfather, who likely wasn't a Mau Mau (or a terrorist) was picked up and tortured during the "rebellion.")  As much as I despair about the state of the world in its various forms, here's progress: People who were mistreated by out-of-control governments have been able to find, through countries with a long-standing and stable rule of law, a means for redress.   

The New York Times did a hatchet job last week on a similar redress, related to the historically unfair treatment of African-American, women and Hispanic farmers when it came to loans from the Department of Agriculture.  The story could have been inspired by a Townhall column; clearly the government is settling with these people because the President is, y'know, black.  Sadly for those mustering outrage at this immense counter-injustice the fraud rate, as a subsequent letter to the editor notes, is 0.3%.  You'd find more fraud just checking photocopier paper use at your average office.

If you read through the comments on both pieces - or really anything similar - you get the usual array of opinion, which tends to skew hard right.  There are a few people saying "I was there, I saw the damage, things are being put to right" or "let's be real about the scale of the damage here," and a huge number of people arguing:
  1. We didn't do it, it was our fathers that did it
  2. Even if we did do it, everyone else was doing it
  3. Even if what everyone else was also doing was wrong, the victims were still better off with our atrocities than in their original state.  
I like to think of the last point as the "dead but well-fed" defense.

(Just as a side-note: Go to Amazon, pick a book - any book will do, but political or otherwise controversial books are the best - and read the lowest-rated and least-helpful reviews.  Quite entertaining.)

(Another side note: How is it that so many hard-right people find the time to comment?  Is it perhaps that they're not working hard enough, or perhaps on some form of government assistance that allows them to fight the good fight against government assistance?)

Herewith a prediction: The recent Supreme Court decision on the Alien Tort Statute is an attempt to build a body of law enshrining defense (1), above, as a mechanism for denying historical grievance in general.  While it may appear that disallowing Nigerians the ability to sue a Dutch oil company in an American court for hiring people to commit atrocities on Nigerian soil is the kind of "sadly none of our business" isolationism many of us could get actually behind, if it also correlated with less passionate intensity to visit violent justice down on foreigners, its not.  (To paraphrase Atrios: health care for five-year-olds is too expensive, but air conditioned tents in the desert while killing foreigners are free.)  The point, I predict, is to create a kind of Theseus' Ship problem for corporate identity, including governments.

There's mounting evidence that various people (many of them long-dead) acting in their capacities as corporate or government officers knew that their directions were harmful to the public, or immoral and wrong.  The widespread dumping of Chromium 6, for example, or Asbestos or Perchlorate or the use of Bromine or Lead or eventually Fluoride or ... pick a substance that was known or discovered, historically, to be dangerous, that was the cornerstone of someone's business model, that was then defended vociferously for decades because it was cheaper to drop $20 million a year into legal and marketing than it was to rethink the business model.  Or companies that engage in the time-honored tradition of hiring the local militaries as strike-breakers, which brings us back to Shell's behavior in Nigeria.  In the calculation those of us gullible to believe in good will make about whether a corporate or government entity knew about the negative consequences of its decisions, its become pretty obvious that yes, they probably did know.  As in, 80-20 they knew.  Maybe Apple didn't know about its Foxconn problems (and I'm no fan of Apple), but did Shell know that hiring mercenaries with "ran a death squad" on their resumes would result in the brutal and sudden disappearances of local activists?  For that matter, when the US asked the Special Forces colonel who organized the death squads in El Salvador to come out of retirement and "help out" in Iraq, were they surprised by what happened?  When GM smeared scientists who demonstrated vaporized lead was harmful, again, and spent millions trying to persuade people that you could put lead into anything safely, were they acting in good faith?

Well, no, not when you think of it that way.  We tend to think of the tobacco settlement as the exception, not the rule.  But it appears it is the rule.

On the other hand, the corporation and the government are not normal entities.  While they may exist as legal entities with the rights of citizens, they are not, in fact, citizens.  So how do you hold them accountable?  One way would be to just say, look, this entity is accountable.  It has assets that can be forfeited.

But if you were somehow able to make the case that while the corporation or the government's assets belong to those legally responsible for the corporation - the stockholders, the voters - the entity's decisions are the result of individuals who no longer have authority, that those decisions are in fact not the responsibility of the corporate entity, then you'd have something really useful.  Throw in a little voodoo about companies having to act rationally by virtue of their constitutions, and you make it clear that you can't blame the company for the decisions of individuals attached, peripherally, to that company.  "Useful" because you'd have detached consequences from actions.  Its hard to make the case that the decisions I made at 22 are not mine because, hey, all the cells in my body, including in the decision-making center called my brain, have sloughed off.  But for a corporation or a government?  I think that's what we're seeing.

Causation for thee, but not for me: The modern foundational principal of conservatism.

1 comment:

Joanne said...

i think your suggestion is accurate: we can see progress in human civilization when people finally have recourse against governments that were out of control. it is a long time coming but it is finally possible.