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Though we live in grim times for the wider media industry, we seem to be experiencing a new golden age of intellectually ambitious little magazines; since Jewish Currents was relaunched in 2018, friends and colleagues have founded vital publications focused on socialist feminism, Black politics and culture, psychoanalytic thought, and more. At the end of last year, Jewish Currents contributors Madeleine Schwartz and Linda Kinstler launched an exciting new outlet, The Dial, which they’re calling “the world’s little magazine.” Their goal is to enrich a global dialogue by publishing writers working outside the anglosphere.
This month, The Dial put out its third digital issue, on the theme of reparations. Its contents offer new ways of thinking about many of the questions we’ve been turning over at Currents, especially as we’ve worked these past few months on several stories about European memory culture that will appear in our upcoming Spring issue. We were so struck by the resonances between our projects that we wanted to make sure Currents readers were aware of The Dial.
I talked to Linda and Madeleine about the reparations efforts covered in their new issue and the need for a concept of repair that weighs the present as heavily as the past.
Nora Caplan-Bricker: For readers who haven’t yet encountered it, what is The Dial? Can you talk a little bit about how you decided to found the magazine?
Madeleine Schwartz: We are living in a time when political and social questions—whether it’s the rise of the far right or climate change—have to be understood internationally. Yet there wasn’t a magazine that brought together journalists and writers to share what they’re seeing on the ground. Our little team has been working on how best to address that issue for a while—The Dial is only a few months old, but we’d previously started a publication called The Ballot to cover as many elections as possible in 2020 other than the American election. Through that, we were able to gather an amazing group of writers from about 40 different countries, and to see that there is an appetite for international journalism and writing.
Linda Kinstler: We wanted The Dial to be a place for journalists who are based in the places they are covering, whose writing can speak to events happening elsewhere. Ultimately, our goal is to expose similarities and patterns—and that’s why each of our issues has a theme that brings together stories from many different places.
NCB: This issue, your third, is themed around reparations. What made you want to focus on that idea early in the life of the magazine?
MS: One of the animating questions of our time is: How much weight should we give to history in our political decisions? The topic of reparations gets to the heart of that question. Our writers deal with the issue in very different ways. On the one hand, we have a speech that we reprinted from Sir Hilary Beckles—head of the CARICOM Reparations Committee, the organization of Caribbean states calling for reparations there—that makes a very persuasive case for why reparations are necessary. On the other hand, we have a reported piece from South Africa by the journalist Eve Fairbanks about the aftermath of a reparations process that is widely viewed as having failed to bring about justice.
LK: I’m really interested in the question of what it means to repair. In our editors’ note, we mention the case that gives us the modern definition of reparations, which was heard by the Permanent Court of International Justice in 1928. It states that reparation “must as far as possible wipe out all the consequences of the illegal act and re-establish the situation which would, in all probability, have existed if that act had not been committed.” That “as far as possible” in the definition admits that you can never undo past damage, but with every attempt at reparations we can, perhaps, try to be more just about how we live with that damage. I think all of the pieces in this issue are interested in that possibility, even as they’re also hyper-aware of the limitations.
NCB: I want to talk about this question of where the idea of reparations comes from. You published a fascinating essay by the scholar Lorena De Vita about the 1952 negotiations at Wassenaar Castle in the Netherlands between Germany, Israel, and a conference of Jewish groups that resulted in reparations being made for the Holocaust. How does the precedent of Holocaust reparations continue to define—and perhaps limit—the thinking about reparations today?
LK: Lorena’s piece brings out the way that those negotiations set a precedent of thinking about reparations in terms of dollars and cents—in terms of a check that is written to you if you can prove that such and such happened to you. Of course, survivors had to go through many bureaucratic hoops to prove exactly what happened to them, which was one of the immense drawbacks of the program. As we know, in the case of war crimes and genocide, that kind of proof is never straightforward. But we see the legacy of that view of reparations in, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” his essay on the need for reparations for slavery in the US. In that piece, he calculates what is owed based on the Wassennaar precedent.
Since Coates wrote that essay, we have seen the idea of reparations expanding and people pushing back against a vision of repair as something calculable or monetary. You have the titular essay in Jesse McCarthy’s collection Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?, which emphasizes that, of course, some things can never be repaid. In his book Reconsidering Reparations, the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò points out that if you think of reparations as an exchange of money, there are still going to be structural inequalities that remain—like the devastation of the climate wrought by the crimes of colonialism.
NCB: So many of the pieces in this issue point toward that question of inequality, and toward the uneven distribution of reparations. The Wassenaar example is instructive here: De Vita’s essay delves into Germany’s refusal to make reparations for colonial violence in Namibia. Instead, it offered a comparatively paltry 1.1 billion euros to finance “reconstruction and development projects,” she writes, while “carefully avoiding using the word ‘reparations.’” Unlike the Jewish groups and the State of Israel, representatives of the Namibian communities that were targeted for genocide by German colonizers were not included in negotiations to determine what they were owed. Working on this issue, what did you learn about who gets reparations, and why?
MS: I think Eve Fairbanks articulates this well in her piece, which looks at a neighborhood in Cape Town called District Six that became a focal point for the discussion of reparations after apartheid. She describes how “the people who could prove they lost something had once had something to lose, and the process threatened to leave out the most vulnerable, who never had any homes at all.” Today, some people in that district have received government-funded homes through a program of reparations—while others are currently homeless, because their families had nothing in the first place. That divide illustrates a tension central to the question of reparations: If we seek to restore something as it was, will we be restricted by the inequalities of the past, even as we’re trying to create a more just future?
NCB: That question of what it means for reparations to look toward the future as well as the past feels central to the issue as a whole. In the piece about the Caribbean that you mentioned earlier, Sir Hilary Beckles contends that “the reparations movement necessitates looking not just at how much is required to compensate labor, but what is required to promote the development of democratic society and economy today out of the rubble of an abandoned colony.” Where else has that idea—about the need for a form of reparations that not only pays a debt but creates conditions for a better world—come up in your work?
LK: The theme for our next issue is shipwrecks—but after that issue, we have a debt issue, in which a lot of these questions are revisited. Táíwò uses the term “liability” rather than responsibility to talk about reparations, because it captures the way that people may be benefiting from the world that resulted from certain events, whether or not they want to excuse themselves by saying, “Well, my ancestors didn’t do this or that.” In that issue, we have several pieces that speak to these questions about world-making—about lawsuits that are trying to push back against climate change and claim the right to a future as a human right, about citizenship programs as a form of reparation. I do think there are avenues to creative forms of reparations, and we’re looking for stories that can help us think through them.