Tuesday, October 28, 2008


In some ways, I'd like to see Barack Obama win the election next week. There's a symbolism about the prospect of a black President, and it is the product of America's history of slaving. The first black President wouldn't signify that racism, the peculiar pseudo-scientific racism that developed in the wake of Darwin's theory*, is at an end, but it would mark a welcome watershed, a time when that could no longer determine the prospects of a candidate for political office. There will be those who vote for him because he is black, just as the reverse remains true. The former impulse will not determine the result of this election, but if he wins it will mean that the latter cannot do so either, something that could not have been said with confidence even in the recent past. That would be welcome.

As the son of a Kenyan, Obama isn't directly connected to that specific history, but the history of slavery is not specifically American and it touches most of us in one way or another. As the son of a Kenyan, the Democratic Party candidate is linked to it too. Kenya's first, millennia-long, period of slaving ended, under pressure from the British, in 1847. But a new period has begun and now:

Kenya has become a key operation base for cartels that are turning 17,500 Kenyans (according to estimates by Randy Fleitman, until recently the US Labour Attache, in Nairobi) into bondage abroad -- about one in 40 people trafficked worldwide.
Nothing could be more repulsive then the thought of people being treated like cattle. It's hard to imagine how any defence could have been offered for this revolting institution, yet that's exactly what happened. The arguments of Caroline Lee Whiting Hentz are less well remembered than those of her contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. In one of the stranger-than-fiction twists of history, these two women knew each other. At one time, they both moved to the same town in Ohio and became friends. But their ideas could not have been further apart.

Hentz published, in 1854, a novel called The Planter's Northern Bride. By then, she was an established and important novelist. Her earlier works had met with significant critical approval. "It is pleasant," suggested to the New York Commercial Advertiser, after reading "MARCUS WARLAND; or, THE LONG MOSS SPRING. A Tale of the South" "to meet now and then with a tale like this, which seems rather like a narrative of real events than a creature of the imagination." The American Courier was no less enthusiastic: "We venture to assert that there is not one reader who has not been made wiser and better by its perusal -- who has not been enabled to treasure up golden precepts of morality, virtue, and experience, as guiding principles of their own commerce with the world."

The Planter's Northern Bride was a defence of slavery. In the preface, Hentz wrote:
we have been touched and gratified by the exhibition of affectionate kindness and care on one side, and loyal and devoted attachment on the other. We have been especially struck with the cheerfulness and contentment of the slaves, and their usually elastic and buoyant spirits. From the abundant opportunities we have had of judging, we give it as our honest belief, that the negroes of the South are the happiest labouring class on the face of the globe; even subtracting from their portion of enjoyment all that can truly be said of their trials and sufferings. The fugitives who fly to the Northern States are no proof against the truth of this statement. They have most of them been made disaffected by the influence of others-- tempted by promises which are seldom fulfilled[.] Even in the garden of Eden, the seeds of discontent and rebellion were sown; surely we need not wonder that they sometimes take root in the beautiful groves of the South.(her italics)
In her preface, Hentz quoted the words of Thomas Jefferson's daughter, describing the return to his slaves of her father after an absence of five years. The emphasis this time is added by me:
The negroes discovered the approach of the carriage as soon as it reached Shadwell, and such a scene I never witnessed in my life. They collected in crowds around it, and almost drew it up the mountain by hand. The shouting, &c., had been sufficiently obstreperous before, but the moment the carriage arrived on the top it reached the climax. When the door of the carriage was opened, they received him in their arms and bore him into the house, crowding around, kissing his hands and feet, some blubbering and crying, others laughing. It appeared impossible to satisfy their eyes, or their anxiety to touch, and even to kiss the very earth that bore him. These were the first ebullitions of joy for his return, after a long absence, which they would of course feel; but it is perhaps not out of place to add here, that they were at all times very devoted in their attachment to their master. They believed him to be one of the greatest, and they knew him to be one of the best of men, and kindest of masters. They spoke to him freely, and applied confidingly to him in all their difficulties and distresses; and he watched over them in sickness and health; interested himself in all their concerns; advising them, and showing esteem and confidence in the good, and indulgence to all.
That emboldened passage has a contemporary feel to it; it is equally applicable to paternalistic conservatism and to socialism. And both these political traditions demand a price in return. It's a surprisingly similar price in each case, and it is surprisingly similar to its antecedent institution.

I described slaves as cattle earlier: human cattle. The defence of slavery put forward by Heintz was common enough at the time. It suggested that slaves were looked after from the cradle to the grave, that their conditions were better than those of the labouring class in the northern States of America. The price exacted for this cradle to grave security was a lack of freedom, and the acceptance that there would be a class above them, wealthier, free but burdened with the task of caring for their dependant slaves.

In a year when the two candidates for political office in the USA can joke with each other about how many houses each owns, and at a time when a semi-hereditary class of privileged and wealthy career politicians and bureaucrats has evolved in Europe, that doesn't seem a very alien world to our own.

This is where the symbolism of this election takes a strange and unpleasant twist. The comforts of paternalism, of socialism, are hay and a barn for human cattle. They demand a surrender of freedom from the citizens, or more properly the subjects, of such States. The distinction between taxation for common expenditure - policing, defence, roads - and taxation for redistribution is not often enough remarked upon. The former commands almost unanimous consent, even if there are differences in the details of how people think such common endeavours should be undertaken. But the latter is deeply contentious and demands that money be confiscated from significant numbers of people who disagree with the very idea of such spreading around of wealth.

Hay and a barn for human cattle: that is what Obama is promising. The man who might by his victory prove that the legacy of slavery is at an end is promising to institute a modern form of slavery if he is elected. It's a nice, benign form of slavery, the sort of slavery depicted by Caroline Heinz in her novel, but it's still a form of slavery.

Freedom is a wild, uncertain, even perilous condition. But it's the condition men and women fought to achieve, in America, a hundred and fifty years ago. It's the condition men and women fled to America to find, during the past four centuries.

I hope their descendants do not abandon it now.

*Darwin has been described as a racist, not least by creationists seeking intellectual respectability by disassociation. This is a good summary of why that is a false analysis.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did that happen at the point in Jefferson's life when many of his slaves were his own children?