Monday, 26 August 2013

Slavery: seems the Blacks were just fine with it. Like victims of any abuse

A Polish émigré, Julian Niemcewicz, who visited George Washington in 1798, commented ‘Either from habit, or from natural humour disposed to gaiety, I have never seen the blacks sad.’ 

So that was OK, then. The slaves were happy. What was wrong with slavery?

Niemcewicz’s words are a striking example of the capacity we all share to convince ourselves of any belief we find convenient. At the time he expressed that view, the Northern US states were busily abolishing slavery, and yet the South would cling on to the ‘peculiar institution’ for nearly seven more decades, and only give it up after a crushing defeat in a bitter civil war.

Not many miles from Washington’s home lived another major figure of the early United States, Thomas Jefferson. He wrote those stirring words that inspired the revolutionary war: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ Yet he too was an owner of slaves, and even fathered several children on one of them, Sally Hemings.

In fact, those very words were used against African Americans by Chief Justice Roger Taney, when he wrote what must be one of the most shameful documents in US history, the final judgement of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case:

‘The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family [...] But it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration [...] The unhappy black race were separated from the white by indelible marks, and laws long before established, and were never thought of or spoken of except as property, and when the claims of the owner or the profit of the trader were supposed to need protection.’

So a proclamation of the equality of all men was turned on its head, into an argument in favour of the inferiority of the ‘black race’ and a justification for its enslavement.

What makes this kind of self-delusion particularly extraordinary is that, not only was slavery repugnant, it was also known to be economically inefficient, even in Washington’s day, as Dr David Stuart, from his extended family, made clear: ‘[Slaves’] support costs a great deal; their work is worth little if they are not whipped; the [overseer] costs a great deal and steals into the bargain. We would all agree to free these people, but how to do it with such a great number?’

I say nothing for Taney, but Washington and Jefferson were outstanding men who understood the issues. Yet even they felt powerless to act. It’s that ‘how to do it’ in David Stuart’s words that is most striking: he knew what was right and he knew it was expedient but he saw no means to do it.

Curiously the same impotence to overcome entrenched wrong has marked many of the other great abuses in history, whether discrimination against religious minorities, the denial of rights to women, the use of child labour, the refusal of minimal protections to workers. They have been preserved either by a self-delusion worthy of a Taney, or by a failure to act by those who knew that change was needed. ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,’ wrote Edmund Burke. Slavery is a classic case of an evil that was not extirpated because good men did nothing (and a few bad ones did a great deal too much).

Edmund Burke: understood how evil could triumph

Once the abuse has been ended, a new consensus appears which finds it extraordinary that it had ever been tolerated. Slavery? Appalling. The wonder is that it lasted.

But when we look at the Washingtons and the Jeffersons and wonder how they could have lived with that abomination, we should pause a moment and ask ourselves a few questions too. Because right now, in our own advanced, democratic countries we’re tolerating abuses which may in turn come to be regarded as just as incomprehensible as slavery.

In Britain, thirty people a week are dying after having been deemed fit for work by an agency acting for government. This means that terribly ill individuals, often disabled, are being denied benefits, their suffering hugely increased as they go to their deaths. This is presented as tough but intelligent economics.

On both sides of the Atlantic, huge numbers of people are being denied access to healthcare either because it is being sacrificed to shareholder interest in the US, or subject to increasingly draconian restrictions in Europe. People are dying needlessly, and in greater pain, than they would if we were prepared to invest more in their care.

The kind of racist thinking that inflamed Roger Taney continues to poison the debate about immigration or about Islam, and the greatest ‘minority’ of all, women, are still far from attaining equality with men or the full protection of the law, as casual attitudes towards domestic violence or rape constantly attest.

We can look back on those grand old men of the eighteenth century and puzzle at their blindness and wilful self-delusion. If we don’t want future generations to look back at us with the same condescending contempt, we need to take a look at what we’re doing wrong in our time.

And fix it. Fast.

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