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April 4, 2002

Abusing the commons Harvard academic Charles Ogletree is spearheading a class-action lawsuit in Federal court, in his words, “on behalf of all African-American descendants of slaves. The lawsuit seeks compensation from a number of defendants for profits earned through slave labor and the slave trade.”

Continues Ogletree, “Bringing the government into litigation will also generate a public debate on slavery and the role its legacy continues to play in our society. The opportunity to use expert witnesses and conduct extensive discovery, to get facts and documentation, makes the courtroom an ideal venue for this debate.”

Liberal blogger “Charles Dodgson” responds:

So Ogletree thinks that just about the entire experience of blacks in America is grist for assessing the damages. I guess he wants to be the first academic ever granted the power of subpoena to further his social research.

Civil courts do not exist to “generate public debate”. They exist to adjudicate disputes on narrowly considered factual situations, according to relevant law. In fact, they have rules of evidence which are designed to exclude facts which are not directly relevant to the legal issues at hand. This is not a process which lends itself to “full and deep conversation”. […] A full and deep conversation on slavery and its legacy might be a good thing, but a civil court is not the right venue.

It has to be said: to a certain kind of academic, everything looks like a lecture hall. And yet actual real-life courts have an actual real-life job to perform, with actual finite resources at their disposal. That job is: sorting out justice and injustice in the present day. Which living individuals will wait in line while Ogletree co-opts court time for his “full and deep conversation”? Who will ask them how they feel about it? Surely the heritage of slavery is one of the great vexed American issues. Just as surely, what Ogletree proposes is an abuse of the commons.

“Dodgson”, whoever he is, is one of the sharper knives in the blogger drawer. Check him out. [05:45 PM]

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Comments on Abusing the commons:

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2002, 07:37 PM:

Sorry I can't remember the blogger who suggested that the perfect forum to begin a systematic laying out of the kind of discussion Ogletree has in mind is Congressional hearings, which Rep. John Conyers has already proposed.aaThe facts, as narrowly defined, aren't much at issue here. What's at issue is a deep political decision of what to do about them.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2002, 07:44 PM:

Well, the idea that slavery was bad, and that we're still living with its effects, isn't at issue. Save for people with the intelligence of dish soap.aaWhether there should be "reparations," and to whom they should be paid, is certainly at issue. (I personally don't have a fixed position on the question.)aaAnd whether the courts are an appropriate venue for adjuticating this is, surely, at greater issue still.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2002, 04:13 PM:

Hm. I'm an American. My ancestors ultimately hail from Africa (as do all of ours), so by the Single Drop of Blood doctrine, I'm an African-American. And there are quite a few people who'd say (based on biblical narratives) that I'm descended from slaves. Do I get free money too?