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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 287-291

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The Abusable Past

R. J. Lambrose

Hemings and Hawings

After much dithering the Monticello Association, an organization of descendants of Thomas Jefferson (through his daughters Maria and Martha), voted last May not to extend membership and burial rights to descendants of Sally Hemings, one of Jefferson's slaves. A DNA study four years earlier had led the Jefferson Foundation to acknowledge that Jefferson had very likely been the father of Hemings's son Eston.

The recorded vote was 74 to 6. The six, we assume, will be buried in a separate corner of the Monticello plantation cemetery.

Down for the Count?

The worldwide effort to subpoena Henry Kissinger to testify about his (and U.S.) complicity in the 1973 violent overthrow of Chile's Salvadore Allende has sprung in part from what Roane Carey, writing in the Nation back in February 2000, called "the Pinochet Principle." According to this principle, "dictators and war criminals" would no longer be shielded from their crimes by the old doctrine of "sovereign immunity." And in the "hopes of inspiring more extradition requests and war crimes trials," Carey provided a "late-twentieth-century bestiary" of those who might similarly be indicted, including ex-Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, Argentine military junta leader Leopoldo Galtieri, El Salvadoran death squad organizer José Guillermo García, Guatemalan butcher Efraín Ríos Montt, Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Kissinger, and many, many more.

The human rights crusader trying to follow the Pinochet Principle is likely to [End Page 287] feel overwhelmed. With so many war criminals out there, how can you keep track? Fortunately, Steven Feuerstein, the author of best-selling computer programming manuals published by O'Reilly (the leading publisher in the industry), has come up with an appropriately modern and high-powered solution to the proliferation of war criminals. In chapter two of his book, Oracle PL/SQL Programming Guide to Oracle8i Features, he offers the following useful example:

Let's look at a simple example. Suppose you are responsible for building a database to keep track of war criminals for the International Court of Justice. You create a package called wcpkg to keep track of alleged war criminals. One of the programs in the package registers a new criminal. You want that register program to always save its changes, even if the calling program hasn't yet issued a COMMIT. These characters are, after all, fairly slippery and you don't want them to get away.

And then he lays out the necessary code:

  . . .
 PROCEDURE register (culprit IN  VARCHAR2, event IN VARCHAR2)
   INSERT INTO war_criminal (name, activity)
     VALUES (culprit, event);
END wcpkg;

There. It's that easy.

It turns out that Feuerstein is a former CISPES organizer-turned-programmer who had grown bored with the same old personnel department examples that fill the pages of most database manuals. Instead, he offers a range of more colorful and more relevant examples, ranging from excessive CEO compensation to destructive layoffs, union busting, the prison industry, gun control, and the environment. Not surprisingly, Feuerstein has received considerable hate mail from programmers who don't share his politics. But, as he points out (at, technical manuals are hardly free of ideology; they just seem that way because "the political slant ... reflects the dominant viewpoint in our society"—celebrating business "efficiency," fostering consumer spending, and viewing "humans as numbered entities." Given Edwin Black's recent and devastating account [End Page 288] of IBM's technical contribution to the Nazi effort to construct a database of Jews (IBM and the Holocaust), it seems altogether fitting that contemporary data programming turn the tables, so to speak, on this past.

All Too True

In February 1915, when Woodrow Wilson screened Birth of a Nation at the White House (the first movie ever shown there), he famously followed the racist film with the statement that "It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so...


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pp. 287-291
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2004
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