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Posts Tagged ‘slavery

“The future, said Herzen, was the offspring of accident and willfulness. There was no libretto or destination, and there was always as much in front as behind”*…

 

Herzen

 

Over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in, and admiring of, plurality. Plurality—a condition of society in which people who hold widely different beliefs and are committed to quite different values nevertheless find some way to live in relative peace with one another—is to be distinguished from pluralism, which may be described as a conviction that a society in which people pursue a great diversity of ends is intrinsically superior to a more unified society. That I don’t believe. I think that our society would be better off if we were all united by a deeply shared set of convictions—my convictions, as it happens. (Imagine that!) But I would want such singleness of vision to be freely chosen, which will obviously never happen. So in default of my ideal, I say: Better plurality than tyranny, and better a tyranny presided over by others than a tyranny presided over by me.

From this point of view, the most zealous on the contemporary American left and the contemporary American right have something fundamental in common: They never ask the question, Am I fit to rule others?” I see this self-blindness not only in electoral politics but also in intra-religious and academic disputes. They take it for granted that the rightness of their convictions makes them fit: that the justice of a cause can make a perfectly straight thing out of the crooked timber of their humanity. To be sure, I continue to say, better a tyranny presided over by others than a tyranny presided over by me; but I also say, better that none of those zealots ever achieve the power they lust for—because their very confidence in their right to rule is the most absolute disqualification for rule that I can imagine. This Alexander Herzen understood.

The central figure in Tom Stoppard’s great dramatic trilogy The Coast of Utopia (2002) is Herzen (1812–70), the first Russian socialist. From exile in England, Herzen published The Bell, which the great American critic Dwight Macdonald, the editor of an English-language edition of Herzen’s memoirs, called perhaps the most effective muckraking magazine in radical history.”…

What distinguishes Stoppard’s Herzen—which I think is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the real Herzen— from Marx and Chernyshevsky is simply that his thought is more historical than theirs. Both of them believed themselves to be deeply historical thinkers, but they had, in their different ways, settled on a complete and wholly enclosed understanding of the point that history is coming to, the point at which it will effectively conclude. They shared a sense of the telos, the goal, or end, of history...

Herzen… didn’t know where history was going or how it would get there. He understands himself to be in the midst of a great procession, one of many both before and after him to take up the cause of justice and freedom. History is plurality, even among those who share a commitment, a cause. 

This is Stoppard’s image of the true scholar and the true activist alike. In Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia, Septimus Hodge consoles his pupil Lady Thomasina Coverly when she cries out in grief for all the lost plays of the Athenians”: We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short.” And Stoppard’s Herzen, near the end of this magnificent trilogy, finds the same consolation and expresses it with some of the same words, but even more concisely and beautifully: The idea will not perish. What we let fall will be picked up by those behind. I can hear their childish voices on the hill.”…

Why the great Russian thinker refused to pick up the axe to advance his cause: “Alexander Herzen and the Plural World.”  From Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of humanities in the honors program at Baylor University, a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, and proprietor of a consistently-interesting newsletter, Snakes and Ladders.

* Tom Stoppard, in an essay on Alexander Herzen

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As we ponder plurality, we might recall that it was on this date in 1834 that slavery was abolished in the British Empire, as the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 came into force (though it remained legal in the possessions of the East India Company until the passage of the Indian Slavery Act, 1843).

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“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”, 1787 medallion designed by Josiah Wedgwood for the British anti-slavery campaign

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Written by LW

August 1, 2020 at 1:01 am

“He got his fat dreams, he got his slaves / He got his profits, he owns our cage”*…

 

slave ship

Plan, profile and layout of the slave ship The Séraphique Marie

 

For a generation, the relationship between slavery and capitalism has preoccupied historians. The publication of several major pieces of scholarship on the matter has won attention from the media. Scholars demonstrate that the Industrial Revolution, centred on the mass production of cotton textiles in the factories of England and New England, depended on raw cotton grown by slaves on plantations in the American South. Capitalists often touted the superiority of the industrial economies and their supposedly ‘free labour’. ‘Free labour’ means the system in which workers are not enslaved but free to contract with any manufacturer they chose, free to sell their labour. It means that there is a labour market, not a slave market.

But because ‘free labour’ was working with and dependent on raw materials produced by slaves, the simple distinction between an industrial economy of free labour on the one hand and a slave-based plantation system on the other falls apart. So too does the boundary between the southern ‘slave states’ and northern ‘free states’ in America. While the South grew rich from plantation agriculture that depended on slave labour, New England also grew rich off the slave trade, investing in the shipping and maritime insurance that made the transport of slaves from Africa to the United States possible and profitable. The sale of enslaved Africans brought together agriculture and industry, north and south, forming a global commercial network from which the modern world emerged.

It is only in the past few decades that scholars have come to grips with how slavery and capitalism intertwined. But for the 18th-century French thinkers who laid the foundations of laissez-faire capitalism, it made perfect sense to associate the slave trade with free enterprise. Their writings, which inspired the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), aimed to convince the French monarchy to deregulate key businesses such as the sale of grain and trade with Asia. Only a few specialists read them today. Yet these pamphlets, letters and manuscripts clearly proclaim a powerful message: the birth of modern capitalism depended not only on the labour of enslaved people and the profits of the slave trade, but also on the example of slavery as a deregulated global enterprise…

[Adam] Smith became far more influential than his teacher. As his own version of laissez-faire ideas came to seem like common sense in the following century, the pioneering Gournay Circle was largely forgotten. Their sense that the slave trade was a prime example of free trade in action disappeared. Yet the writings of Gournay and Morellet reveal that modern capitalism is entangled with slavery in multiple, profound ways. Slave labour supplied the cotton, sugar and other vital commodities. The profits from the sale of slaves created fortunes on both sides of the Atlantic. And, in a disturbing paradox, the founding fathers of laissez-faire saw the slave trade as a showcase of liberty.

The chilling tale of a “secret ingredient” in capitalism-as-we-know-it and of the 18th-century thinkers behind the laissez-faire economics that power it: “Slavery as Free Trade.”

* Richie Havens, “Fate”

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As we face history, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that partisans of the Third Estate, impatient for social and legal reforms (and economic relief) in France, attacked and took control of the Bastille.  A fortress in Paris, the Bastille was a medieval armory and political prison; while it held only 8 inmates at the time, it resonated with the crowd as a symbol of the monarchy’s abuse of power.  Its fall ignited the French Revolution.  This date is now observed annually as France’s National Day.

See the estimable Robert Darnton’s “What Was Revolutionary about the French Revolution?

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Storming of The Bastile, Jean-Pierre Houël

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“The Net is the new underlying infrastructure for civilization itself”*…

 

infrastructure

 

Most governments have traditionally argued that there are certain critical societal assets that should be built, managed, and controlled by public entities — think streets, airports, fire fighting, parks, policing, tunnels, an army. (And in just about every rich country except this one, access to and/or the provision of health care.) The choice to have, say, a city-owned park reflects two key facts: first, a civic judgment that having green outdoor spaces is important to the city; and second, that free parks open to all are unlikely to be produced by private companies driven by a motive for profit.

When it comes to the Internet we all live on, huge swaths of it are owned, controlled, and operated by private companies — companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Twitter. In many cases, those companies’ public impacts aren’t in any significant conflict with their private motivations for profit. But in some cases… they are. Is there room for a public infrastructure that can offer an alternative to (or reduce the harm done by) those tech giants?

A diagnosis of the issue with a set of proposed remedies: “Public infrastructure isn’t just bridges and water mains: Here’s an argument for extending the concept to digital spaces.”

This article is based on a piece by Ethan Zuckerman, written for the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia, in which he lays out what he calls the case for digital public infrastructure. (He also published a summary of it here.)

Pair with this consideration of another piece of our political/social/economic “infrastructure,” corporate law, and its effects– contract, property, collateral, trust, corporate, and bankruptcy law, an “empire of law”: “How ‘Big Law’ Makes Big Money.”

* Doc Searles

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As we contemplate the commons, we might recall that it was on this date in 1865 that the U.S. government dismantled a monstrous piece of “infrastructure” when Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and submitted it to the states for ratification.

The amendment abolished slavery with the declaration: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Thomas Nast’s engraving, “Emancipation,” 1865

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Written by LW

January 31, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures”*…

 

stranger_than_nonfiction_1050x700

 

Helen Hunt Jackson is best remembered for her novel Ramona, originally published in 1884. The story of a half Irish, half Native American orphan and her lover, Ramona was a blockbuster success. The book remains in print. At least five movie versions have been made. There have been staged Ramona plays in the Ramonabowl in Hemet, California, since 1923, with hundreds of costumed volunteers. Many credit the novel with giving birth to California tourism.

Jackson called Ramona the “sugar-coating of the pill” of her polemical mission to get Americans to reconsider their treatment of Native Americans. Jackson’s goal was policy reform. She wanted to expose genocide and land theft, the outrages that made the modern West. She wanted Ramona to have a sociopolitical effect like Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The pill wasn’t swallowed. “Californians preferred the sugar coating, the vibrant costumes of a multiethnic past,” writes the literary scholar Lisa Mullenneaux in Ploughshares, not the actual colonial past with all its culpable horror…

Jackson [had been] a crusading investigative reporter. In 1881, she published a damning indictment of the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans. A Century of Dishonor was the first work published under her name. She sent copies to every member of Congress. It was, as Mullenneaux describes it, “the first serious study of U.S. federal Indian policy.”

Turner calls it “the first pro-Indian book to make a significant impact on the American reading public.” It did cause a stir, but a stir was not nearly enough for Jackson. She said of her newfound social purpose to help the Indians that “a fire has been kindled within me which will never go out.”

She had few allies in this crusade. The 1871 Indian Appropriations Act had made all Native Americans wards of the state. Removals and reservations made way for white settlers and their descendants who were neither introspective nor retrospective. One journalist described Jackson as being without a “genuine sympathizer” among whites in the entire state of Colorado. Teddy Roosevelt included her among the “hysterical sentimentalists.”

What if she tried a more propagandistic approach? Ramona was the result of that tactic, a novel detailing injustice and romance, full of local color and sentiment, as well as the tragic history of the erasure of California’s native populations. The result was a smash hit—but it failed in its mission even as it became a runaway cultural phenomenon. Instead, Ramona birthed a fantasy of Ye Olde Alta California. This was costume drama instead of history. A Century of Dishonor, meanwhile, was long out of print (though not so anymore). As Mullenneaux writes, it continues to inspire those trying to right historic wrongs…

Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona Did What Her Nonfiction Couldn’t“– and vice versa.

See also: “The Story of the Great Japanese-American Novel,” No-No Boy.

* Jessamyn West

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As we muse on methods, we might recall that it was on this date in 1839 that the Liberty Party was announced.  The first anti-slavery political party, it was born from the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) to advocate the view that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document.  William Lloyd Garrison, leader of the AASS, held the contrary view that the Constitution should be condemned as an evil pro-slavery document.

The party, which ran its first slate the following year, included abolitionists who were willing to work within electoral politics.  (By contrast, the radical Garrison opposed voting and working within the system.)  Many Liberty Party members joined the anti-slavery (but not abolitionist) Free Soil Party in 1848 and eventually helped establish the Republican Party in the 1850s.

liberty Party source

 

“We only have what we give”*…

 

Charity

 

Total charitable giving rose 0.7% measured in current dollars over the revised total of $424.74 billion contributed in 2017. Adjusted for inflation, total giving declined 1.7%…

“After reaching record-breaking levels of giving in 2017, American individuals and organizations continued their generous support of charitable institutions in 2018,” said Rick Dunham, chair of Giving USA Foundation and CEO of Dunham + Company. “However, the environment for giving in 2018 was far more complex than most years, with shifts in tax policy and the volatility of the stock market. This is particularly true for the wide range of households that comprise individual giving and provide over two-thirds of all giving.”

A number of competing factors in the economic and public policy environments may have affected donors’ decisions in 2018, shifting some previous giving patterns. Many economic variables that shape giving, such as personal income, had relatively strong growth, while the stock market decline in late 2018 may have had a dampening effect. The policy environment also likely influenced some donors’ behavior. One important shift in the 2018 giving landscape is the drop in the number of individuals and households who itemize various types of deductions on their tax returns. This shift came in response to the federal tax policy change that doubled the standard deduction. More than 45 million households itemized deductions in 2016. Numerous studies suggest that number may have dropped to approximately 16 to 20 million households in 2018, reducing an incentive for charitable giving…

More detail from Giving USA at “Americans gave $427.71 billion to charity in 2018 amid complex year for charitable giving.”

* Isabel Allende

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As we reach more deeply, we might recall that it was on this date in 1862 that President Abraham Lincoln signed the (preliminary) Emancipation Proclamation, announcing that if the rebel states did not end the fighting and rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in those states would be free.  No Confederate state capitulated, and on the first day of 1863, President Lincoln issued the Proclamation declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Despite it’s expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Most important, of course, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.

Still, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war.  After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom.  Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators.  By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.

“First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln,” by Francis Bicknell Carpenter

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Written by LW

September 22, 2019 at 1:01 am

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