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Jim Campbell

"Why Are We Talking About This Now?": Professor James Campbell on the Politics of Historical Reconciliation in Contemporary America

by Scott Spillman
17 March 2015

Why now? That was the question American historian James Campbell posed to the Mind, Body, and Culture Workshop when he spoke to the group on 26 January 2015. Why have truth commissions and other efforts to deal with collective trauma become so prevalent over the past quarter century, both in America and across the globe? Or in other words, What is the history of historical reconciliation?

South Africa

By way of introduction, Campbell offered something of his own history in the field of retrospective justice. Campbell came to Stanford in 2008 as Edgar E. Robinson Professor in US History, but he also attended the university as a graduate student in the 1980s, when he became interested in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Africa. This became the subject of his dissertation and first book, Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa (1995). He spent time in South Africa in the late 1980s doing research on the project, and he returned again for several years in the late 1990s, when he taught at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Campbell saw what South Africa was like during apartheid, and he also saw the efforts at healing that occurred after apartheid ended in 1994. In 1995 the South African government set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which held two years of public hearings and came to a close in 1998. In contrast to the Nuremberg Trials that took place after World War II, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission focused on social reconciliation rather than punitive justice.

Campbell acknowledged the shortcomings of the commission and tried to explain the constraints within which it had worked. “I had a friend on the commission,” he said. He and his friend had a conversation early in the process, with Campbell arguing that the commission was “setting a really dangerous precedent” by granting amnesty to people who had committed crimes under the old regime. “No authoritarian regime would ever hand over power again,” he worried at the time, “unless they could put in a guarantee that they would be exonerated.” His friend just kept saying over and over, “Look, this is not our choice; this is a condition of the deal. Or we can continue to live with the regime.”

Perhaps the most compelling critique of truth commissions like the one in South Africa is that they need, for a variety of political and practical reasons, to wrap up their work quickly. The commissions cannot talk to everybody. You end up, Campbell said, with “window cases,” and the whole process becomes very theatrical. “Commissioners pick cases that will be broadcast to the nation,” he explained. “Their desire for drama, luridness, for some possibility of redemption, directs them to certain types of cases.” In addition, the amnesty law in South Africa stated that amnesty would be granted only for actions “that had been taken with political motive to overthrow or defend apartheid and that involved gross violations of human rights.”

Members of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Image via Wikipedia Commons.

As a result, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ended up hearing the most heinous and horrible cases, things that even under apartheid were grossly illegal. “What was lost and naturalized,” Campbell noted, “was the daily violence and criminality of apartheid, which the commission was going to do nothing to redress. Living without access to water or sewers, education, etcetera, became background noise.” Because the commission gave no voice to those everyday indignities and impositions, it could offer no way to think about meaningful alternatives.

Campbell acknowledged how easy it was to be skeptical of commissions and other reconciliation processes that seemed incapable of ever really getting to the root of the problem. But he also cautioned against being too critical. Once he and another scholar gave a paper about the problems with naturalizing the daily violence that occurred under apartheid. In the audience that day happened to be a man named Donald Shriver, a theologian and a former student of Reinhold Niebuhr’s. Shriver quoted a verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans about the sinful nature of all humans and added, “It doesn’t surprise me that these efforts are flawed. These efforts are flawed because humans are flawed. What surprises me is that they happen at all.”

Campbell said that statement came as a kind of revelation to him. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was messy and flawed,” he said, “but people learned things they didn’t know, people had their pain acknowledged publicly, which was meaningful, and there will be no possibility in South Africa of people waxing nostalgic about the good old days of apartheid like people did here about the good old days of slavery.”


Campbell returned to the United States at the end of the 1990s to join the faculty at Brown University. Soon Brown appointed Ruth Simmons as its new president, making her the first black president of an Ivy League college (and the first female president of Brown), and in 2003, in response to some student protests, Simmons launched a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to investigate the university’s historical ties to slavery and the slave trade.

Slavery had existed in Rhode Island for nearly two hundred years, from the middle of the 1600s until the early 1830s, and the state’s merchants had been responsible for some 60 percent of all slave-trading voyages that originated in North America. Those merchants included members of the Brown family, early and important benefactors of the university that now bears their name.

The slavery committee Simmons launched was the first of its kind at an Ivy League school. Campbell became its chair. He soon found himself sucked into a maelstrom of media activity: on conservative talk radio during drive time; talking to producers at the Today Show, which came to campus and cherry-picked a few white students who would say that their families had worked hard for their money and a few black students who would say that they wanted reparations.

“When we were at Brown,” Campbell said, “we realized that if you do stuff like this, people write you e-mails.” The most common was the “statue of limitations” e-mail: time has passed, get over it. Campbell bristles at this—it seems clear to him that the consequences of slavery are still all around us—but he thinks it does tap into a basic intuition we have that somehow time matters. “Maybe it is ok to get over it,” he said. “I’m not sure what to make of that point, or if it’s the same in each case. When you have living victims and living perpetrators, it’s easier for us to think about it as important and meaningful than if they’ve passed, even if the legacy is still with us.”

The process made Campbell realize that there was a politics of memory after all. People remain deeply invested in issues of memory and history, which are also issues of personal and national identity. Some people just want to forget, or they want to choose what they get to remember.

Slavery Memorial by Martin Puryear at Brown University, dedicated September 2014. Photo by Beth Comery.

Why Now?

Campbell’s role as chair of the Steering Committee at Brown introduced him to the field of retrospective justice and to the people who think about issues of collective trauma and historical reconciliation. During the two and a half years before the Steering Committee issued its final report in 2006, it invited about one hundred speakers to campus to try to encourage students to think about the questions that Brown’s history with slavery and the slave trade might raise: What are the wages of the past on the present, and what special struggles do societies that inherit violent pasts have to deal with?

Now that Campbell has a reputation in the field, it has taken over his life. His current research deals with the politics of memory in the civil rights movement. He gets appointed to various boards, and he regularly gets invited to speak at meetings and conferences and workshops. He has witnessed a rapid rise in the number of nongovernmental organizations and other groups working on transitional justice and consulting for communities, institutions, and nations to develop ways to deal with their histories. He thinks we are seeing “the emergence of a global politics of memory,” full of public memorials, days of remembrance, and truth commissions. “Historical events in previous generations that might have been ignored are increasingly becoming subject to the type of discussions and conversations you’ve been having here,” he told the workshop.

Yet one thing Campbell has not seen in this field, which is based on a belief in the profound importance of history, is much discussion about the conditions of its own historical emergence. Why have people become more interested in the politics of memory, and why have truth commissions and issues like retrospective justice and historical reconciliation become such an important part of the international political landscape over the past twenty-five years? These are basic historical questions, but they seem to have been largely ignored in a field full of people interested in history.

Campbell offered a few thoughts on how to approach the problem. The biggest and most obvious factor, he said, was the collapse of the Cold War order. Plenty of atrocities were committed by both sides during the Cold War, but no one could really speak out against them because of the stalemate between East and West. The example of the Nuremberg Trials and the various international institutions set up after World War II to deal with crimes against humanity languished for more than four decades.

The end of the Cold War opened the political space internationally for those postwar examples and institutions to be put to work. And there was plenty of work to do, since the fall of the USSR and its various satellite states meant the end of many totalitarian regimes around the world. Those kinds of regimes usually leave behind what Campbell called “unfinished business,” which is precisely what truth and reconciliation commissions are designed to address.

Campbell brought up John Torpey’s book Making Whole What Has Been Smashed (2006), which deals with the relationship between the end of the Cold War and the rise of retrospective justice from a more philosophical point of view. Torrey suggests that the rise of reparations and historical reconciliation are actually a symptom of the paralysis of progressive politics in the wake of the bankruptcy of communism.

“Once societies lose the ability to imagine pathways forward,” Campbell explained, “when they lose the future and the hope for a future, the past rushes back in.” This can and has resulted in genuine engagement with issues that had previously been neglected, but it has also created openings for opportunists who use issues of retrospective justice for their own gain. “This touches a deep problem with the type of work we are doing here,” Campbell said. “If we are talking about ways to make amends now for the past, there are real questions of who has standing to make that apology, who has standing to accept it, and what we do when we arrogate to ourselves the suffering of some other group.”

A second and related factor in the rise of retrospective justice has been the proliferation of nongovernmental organizations since the end of the Cold War. There is a lot of funding available for the people and organizations that do historical-reconciliation work, and there now exist institutions that do this kind of work for a living. Some are genuine and some are opportunists, but perhaps the most striking thing about them is the power they wield. Some organizations have compelled countries such as Mozambique to develop a reconciliatory apparatus even when the societies in question have not really supported the initiative.

Third, Campbell said, we are living through what the philosopher Charles Taylor has called the “politics of recognition.” Rights claims, instead of being made in terms of individuals, are articulated increasingly in terms of groups. Groups of people want their rights formally acknowledged, and they want their history of victimization memorialized. And once one group gets its claims recognized, other groups can use that precedent to make a stronger argument for their own apologies and memorials and days of remembrance.

Individual and Collective Trauma

Finally, Campbell thinks the rise of retrospective justice has “everything to do with therapeutic culture.” He told a brief history of posttraumatic stress disorder to make the point that PTSD has been recognized only recently—the diagnosis did not appear in the DSM until 1980. The therapies involve creating a space in which people could feel comfortable recounting what had happened to them.

“I do not doubt that people have experienced combat, sexual violence, a number of other traumatic episodes,” Campbell said. “But what is amazing to me is to watch the way this diagnosis, which is still relatively new, has become a kind of controlling metaphor that has infiltrated every corner of the way in which people routinely reference traumatic experiences and exhibit assumptions about what the appropriate forms of therapy are. And they always involve some process of disclosure.”

Not only that, but a diagnosis originally meant to apply to individuals has been stretched to describe the experiences of whole groups or nations of people. By now, Campbell said, we just assume that societies that have experienced trauma need to come to terms with it. But this extension of PTSD from individuals to groups has been done almost unquestioningly. “It is possible and even plausible that the same kind of mechanisms that operate in the psyche could operate in groups,” he said. “But it is a pretty big assumption to make. What are the implications of that?”

This final point, about therapeutic culture and the way traumatic disorders have been projected uncritically from individuals to groups, generated the most discussion. “I do think there is a relationship between PTSD and larger social problems,” History Professor Laura Stokes said, “especially when trauma is connected to a shared story in a way that retraumatizes a particular group. I do think narrative plays an important role, but I don’t assume the role is the same as it is for an individual.” She explained that she sees the individual-group problem as ultimately a problem of ethics. “How one behaves as an individual when deciding ethical questions is different from how a collectivity or society should act, for many reasons,” she said. “An individual has responsibilities to himself which a collective has to abrogate to some degree.”

Jill Rosenthal, Acting Assistant Professor of History, said she thought the imperfect relationship between individual and collective trauma could help create space for political opportunists who use memory and trauma for their own ends. “There’s a feeling of guilt in the West but no willingness to take a look at widespread underlying economic issues,” she said. Meanwhile, she added, there are “really charismatic leaders who are willing to seize upon these narratives to promote themselves, which then becomes part of a new problem.”

Campbell agreed. “On the individual level,” he said, “we are very conscious of the damage. That’s not quite the case with the collective. The endless rehashing of grievances is in fact fodder for new violence.”

Someone asked whether Campbell could envision a scenario or process that would make real healing possible. The perfect scenario, he said, was Nazi Germany. “You want the old regime having no legitimacy. In that moment, you can try to build on the wreckage.” And in the case of the Nazis, he pointed out, there were two countries that emerged from the wreckage and two ways of dealing with that inheritance. In his book Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (1997), Jeffrey Herf shows how East Germany ignored the problem, saying that fascism was a manifestation of capitalism and that communists were victims of the Nazis, while West Germany grappled with its past—ambivalently and awkwardly and sometimes grudgingly, to be sure, but ultimately more successfully than not.

Campbell said the German case was a good one because it could “keep you from getting cynical. One side tried to deal with it, and one didn’t. And it really did matter.” In the long run, West Germany developed a healthier political culture because it had gone through a process of reconciliation, and today that leaves the whole country in a better position to deal with new issues like immigration.

“I’m trying to push a variety of skeptical critiques here,” Campbell said, “but I don’t think I would be here or any of us would be here if we didn’t think this was a good thing to do.”

Scott Spillman is a PhD Candidate in History at Stanford University. His dissertation, called "The Slavery Society: Slavery Studies before Civil Rights," examines the study of slavery in America from roughly the rise of abolitionism in the 1830s to the start of the civil rights movement after World War II. His writing has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Point, n+1 Book Review, History of Education Quarterly, and North Carolina Historical Review.