What Went Wrong in the 21st Century? Part Two

Thank you for having me here today. The topic here of most importance if we want to create a future that adheres to our most cherished values. My opponent makes many good points that diagnose the heart of the 21st century. However, she also makes fundamental errors in interpretation that undermine her argument and proposed solutions. Admittedly, I express the minority view in this debate. I argue that is because our society still has not properly grappled with the reckonings that began in that fateful century.

My opponent is correct that the actions of the hegemon and the backlash to them underpin the upheavals back then. I will give a slightly different interpretation of history. We were moving out of an age of empires. The two empires in the latter half of the 20th century put us on a path towards stagnation. The rise of the single empire, which grew rich from mass exploitation, ensured it. We needed a change, and many brave individuals rose up to fight for it. My opponent makes the mistake of blaming those individuals for the crises that followed. She gives them the epithet “tribalists,” as if long-suffering people were primitives selfishly stealing from civilized urbanites. Let us be clear: those fighting for justice were not the instigators. No, those were the ones still in power, who held all the key political, economic, and cultural positions in society. They refused to give up that power, even though they knew it was undeserved. Their refusal was the direct cause of the suicide waves, the violence, and the despair. And I am not afraid to name them: the rich, white elites of North America, Europe, and Australia.

What my opponent fails to understand is that this group, primarily male, was responsible for the failures of the 21st century. At last in that time, the oppressed peoples of color throughout the world threw off their shackles and peacefully demanded a better future for themselves and their children. The elites failed to do the right thing in this golden moment. Rather, they selfishly clung to their riches, their baubles and their jewels, while civilization crashed all around them. They used their organs in the media, the government, and popular culture to cynically deflect any reckonings for their sins. This vaunted popular uprising that my opponent mentions was merely manipulation by the elites of their poorer and less educated compatriots to diminish the rising voices of the oppressed. Even today, their manipulation is still around us. Look at this discussion. We follow rules of debate and decorum set forth by them to even talk about this. This is the root of the 21st century’s problems: too much dependence on the norms and customs of the white power elite. The problem was not people of color clamoring for justice, but that they did so under the constraints of people who deemed us their inferiors.

My opponent argues that we punished the children for the sins of their parents. Not so. We merely wanted them to take responsibility. If they can take ownership of the accomplishments of their ancestors, then they can take ownership of their depredations. The fact that they refused to do so is a clear example of hypocrisy and makes any accusation that we wanted revenge moot. Ironically, because they refused to take responsibility for their sins, that they refused to even share a portion of their power, that they automatically rejected even any notion of reparations, they created the seeds of their own downfall. In their hearts, they knew they were wrong, but they did not have the courage to admit it. Someone once asked me how much they needed to apologize and for how long. I told them that they should apologize until they didn’t need to and as long as was necessary. It is not up to you to determine when you will be forgiven.

What about the policies of affirmative action? Of diversity initiative? Of increased calls for representation? Mere band-aids. A simple salve for the soul. Look at the statistics for marginalized groups in the 21st century. All measures of well-being were already low or falling. These policies were not enough. People like my grandmother fought for more fairness in the courts, in government policy, and in simple respect. These elites talked a good game about supporting members of the community, but when the threatened members of this so-called community needed help, they balked. So don’t give me this talk about building some sort of “community of communities”! A community requires each member to do their fair share. Time and time again, the white members of this community refused to do their fair share. Because they didn’t do so, my opponent’s talk about shared responsibility is a mockery of a solution. My point is this: any of that group who wants to make amends must stand aside and let us lead the way. We are the ones with the solution.

Even today, people of color are still marginalized. Let me go into a topic that my opponent carefully avoided: economics. I mentioned before that the power elites refused to give up their power. For centuries, white imperialists plundered the world, took innocent people as slaves, bombed their children, and drained their communities of their intellectual capital. With these resources, they built the most advanced societies in history. What about the non-white societies, you may ask? Don’t they have a responsibility, too? Yes, but only a small portion. By the time of the 21st century, their exploitation was only a fraction of the prime oppressor’s. When I observe the so-called prosperity around us, I can’t help but notice that its foundations are built upon mountains of human skulls. So when the elite developed some shred of decency and admitted their mistakes, it was not enough. They made small steps with the policies I mentioned before. But what they really needed to do was to give back the resources they stole. Reparations, even modest ones, were needed to address the inequalities created by these same people. I know that it is hard to give up your possessions. But that’s the problem. These aren’t your possessions in the first place. And what they didn’t understand was that this jealous hoarding contributed to the downfall of their children. The inequality grew so much that even future generations of that group suffered. In the end, only the most powerful had anything.

Resentment you may call this. But that term is incorrect. Resentment implies that this is unjustified anger, that we are envious of what we don’t have. Not so. The clearly injurious actions of the past must be corrected. You cannot seriously expect us to forget the encroachment of exploiters and marginalization by racists. The onus is for those who have unfairly hoarded their power to relinquish it. All responsibility is upon them. There is no nuance to this, no way for the guilty to wriggle out of their obligations. Those obligations are clear and direct. Let them know what it is like to not be on the top. Let them develop empathy for the people they have wronged. If you think this is punishment, then you are mistaken. The first step is reparations, a fairer distribution of resources. Then, the next step is to let the formerly disenfranchised into leadership positions. We know what happens when this does not happen. We are left with generations of the despondent among everyone. Let us determine what is needed for forgiveness. Let us determine what is needed for fairness. The failure to do so will repeat the tragedy of the 21st century.

-Ludwig Foster, Social Activist, University of Leeds, 2231

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