Thursday, January 27, 2011

On Slavery

The following is an excerpt from the conclusion of an essay I wrote approximately three years ago titled "The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade: The Origins and Characteristics of an Islamic Institution." It is pertinent because I intend to submit the essay as part of my African Studies minor and have been revising it slightly. I have also been having a lot of discussions lately with friends and housemates about depressing subjects, so the topic of slavery is on the mental radar. There are many bad things going on all around me, in this country and abroad, and I have been thinking about them a lot. I must say that I tend to initiate these conversations on depressing subjects.

I know precisely why this is; I can trace it to a certain book I am most of the way through. It is called The Culture of Make Believe by a fellow named Derrick Jensen. Though I don't agree with all of his ideas, I can say with a high degree of certainty that I have never encountered a book that has made me question as many things in my life as this one. His work is stunning in its breadth and ambition. His quest is to understand the roots of hatred and violence in our Western civilization and culture. In the process, he confronts the buried assumptions and established pillars that prop up our culture. Connections previously unconsidered, unrecognized, Jensen throws into sharp relief. In the process he makes many blanket statements and sweeping indictments, but his courage is admirable, his focus unrelenting, and his attention to excruciating detail painfully accurate, researched, exposed. In short, he is working towards a conclusion that I will likely find impossible to support in the context of my current life. If I were to fully agree with him, which part of me wants to, I would have to reconsider and reject much of what I have learned in my 22 years on this earth.

What is the difference between the United States' economic sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s, which killed thousands of people each day, and the murderers behind bars all over this country? What are the connections between the Ku Klux Klan burning and lynching black men in the Southern US and an industrial disaster like the one caused by Union Carbide in Bhopal, India, in 1984? Why does our definition of murder depend on the victimizer? Why is institutionalized violence perpetrated by governments and corporations acceptable, encouraged, or profitable?

I do not see the full effects of the life I live, I do not feel its impact; I am not forced to touch and feel and live with the cumulative effects of my consumption. I feel on one side the pressure to conform, to get a job and make lots of money so I can live a life like everyone else, to consume and vote and settle and save enough and retire and feel secure. On the other side I feel the need to work against progress and production, to actively resist the advances of society and technology, to help move beyond the destruction consumption-and-endless-growth paradigm, to localize, to not fall in line and get a job. Even as I sit at my computer I am scared of spending the majority of my life in front of a screen. I am scared of feeling disconnected, lost, lonely, of settling for objectivity and illusion, of being one more netizen of Jensen's culture of make believe.

Jensen takes McKibben's thesis to the next level, beyond the factual, to the realm of feeling and spirituality. He is digging down below the fabric and pulling apart each thread of Western culture. History shows how our actions repeat and perpetuate perpetual atrocities again and again. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."


Atrocities are being committed right now, all over the world, some of them in the name of the United States of America. In the context of my comfortable life in Boston, it is difficult to imagine war, extreme poverty, rape, murder, or poisoning from toxic waste. It is also difficult to talk about these horrible things. It is easier to go about my life and not think about these things, to not talk about them, to pretend they do not exist. Not in my backyard, not in my perception, not in my reality, not in my name.


"Abolitionist sentiments and efforts became widespread in the nineteenth century and were largely successful by the turn of the twentieth century, yet for all of recorded human history (and probably before that as well) slavery was normal and accepted. It is only within the last 200 years that abolitionists and others seriously challenged the institution of slavery and wrought a change in the practice. One is therefore compelled to wonder about why slavery persisted for so long and why it was only relatively recently abolished, despite the institution’s widely known atrocities and largely terrible practices.

Part of the answer stems from the institution’s significance in an economic and, more importantly, social sense, a significance that the examples above from Morocco and elsewhere in North Africa show. This paper is an attempt at analyzing the trans-Saharan slave trade and some of its important characteristics in order to place this specific trade in the larger context of slavery worldwide. The institution of slavery is a self-propagating, never-ending cycle of violence and submission that keeps the powerful on top and the down-trodden weak at the bottom of the pile. Indeed, the never-ending circle is still spinning today, just in different ways. The answer to the above question can probably also be found in some aspect of human nature, for there seems to be a natural inclination to take advantage of those that are inferior. Perhaps this aspect of our behavior stems from our basic evolutionary instincts, the residual effects of natural selection and intraspecific competition for resources. This natural inclination can be observed throughout history, both with slavery and in many other examples.

Even today, many years after the abolition of slavery, countless reported instances exist of forced labor, child labor, human trafficking, sharecropping, forced prostitution, and more, all of which fit the definition of slavery. Consider also the circumstances of capitalist societies in which the lower classes, especially minority and immigrant populations, are exploited as cheap expendable sources of labor and used to fill the most undesirable but necessary positions. These unfortunate souls are usually overworked and underpaid, bound to live in perpetual uncertainty from one paycheck to the next in what amounts to essentially an acceptable, or rather, encouraged, form of slavery. It seems that human nature dictates a perpetual cycle of the strong dominating and utilizing the weak for personal gains. Though we have progressed away from the infamy of slavery as a legally sanctioned institution, its legacy lives on in societal and racial inequalities and in the unequal distribution of wealth that still plagues modern societies. True equality is perhaps an unattainable Utopian ideal, for it seems that man will always find a way to take advantage of his fellows. Will the cycle of violence ever come to an end? Only the passage of time can answer that question, but in the meantime we can always look to history and past mistakes as a way to guide our future."

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