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Making Whole What Has Been Smashed

Making Whole What Has Been Smashed

On Reparations Politics

John Torpey

ISBN 9780674019430

Publication date: 01/30/2006

This book explores the spread in recent years of political efforts to rectify injustices handed down from the past. Although it recognizes that campaigns for reparations may lead to an improvement in the well-being of victims of mistreatment by states and to reconciliation among former antagonists, it examines the extent to which the concern with the past may represent a departure from the traditionally future-oriented stance of progressive politics. Viewing the search for "coming to terms with the past" as a form of politics, it argues that there are major differences between reparations for the living victims of past wrongdoing and reparations for the descendants of such victims. More fundamentally, it argues that claims for reparations comprise a relatively novel kind of politics that involves a quest for symbolic recognition and material compensation for those seeking them--through the idiom of the past rather than the present. The prominent role of lawyers in such politics speaks to a larger trend toward the "juridification of politics" that often has problematic consequences for these campaigns. Concerns to right the wrongs of the past, the book concludes, may distract from the fight to overcome contemporary injustices.


  • The Age of Apology came to a head with 1990s contrition chic… History is written by the winners, it is commonly said. But heritage—history shaped to present purposes—is increasingly fashioned by the losers. Ex-colonial peoples, minorities, tribal indigenes everywhere demand reparations—atonement for the suffering of those deprived of autonomy and agency, repatriation of treasures purloined or pillaged or purchased, compensation for past injustices… Among millions maltreated by history, John Torpey notes, an unseemly contest for the status of worst-victimized often ensues. Torpey’s short and scintillating book, Making Whole What Has Been Smashed, explores reparation demands ranging from official apologies and admissions of wrongdoing to memorials, cash payments, health and welfare aid, and property return to groups and individuals. Chapters on post-apartheid Namibia and South Africa, on Japanese-American and Japanese-Canadian Second World War internees, and on legacies of slavery that still disable African Americans suggest his topical scope. But the book’s greatest merit is its profound and lucid critique of the causes and political, legal, economic, and symbolic implications of reparation claims. Compassionate erudition, deft demolition of holier-than-thou posturing, and clarity of expression make this a minor classic reminiscent of Paul Bator’s 1983 The International Trade in Art. Torpey rightly links current campaigns to redress wrongs with the broader trend, consequent on widespread public pessimism, refocusing attention from the future to the past.

    —David Lowenthal, Times Literary Supplement


  • John Torpey is Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Book Details

  • 224 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press