gall and gumption

Monday, December 13, 2004

Do you think if we put it on a baseball cap...?

You know, normally I am not the sort of person to get exercised about these lower life forms. But I honestly think that they have arrived at their bizarre position with the assistance of an error that occurs in the teaching of history and, indeed, throughout the humanities as they are currently "taught." Too, too often, slavery is represented in popular culture dramatizations as something that was bad because it made the slaves feel bad.

Therefore, you see, if someone can prove that the enslavement of black people in America didn't make the slaves feel bad, then slavery was -- well, maybe not so bad. No harm no foul, right?

My dear and brilliant friends, I know that you do not need to be told what I am about to say. You teach, you have students, you stand in line at the supermarket and hear people say stupid things. I am only wanting to arm you for the moment when you hear this argument too.

OK. So here we go.

Slavery was a crime. It was fundamentally immoral. There is absolutely no discussion to be had with anyone who proposes to discuss how "nice slaveowners were to their slaves." Do not allow anyone to think for a millisecond that this proves anything. Slavery was a crime. Period. It was immoral, it was a huge, blatant prolonged immorality not because of the suffering it caused -- though that was part of it too -- but because it was kidnapping, detention of people against their will, it was forced, unpaid labor at gunpoint, it was signing of contracts respecting the rights of other persons when those persons were not at liberty to agree or disagree. It was being punished for violating a contract that you didn't voluntarily enter and that you could neither read nor sign. Ask them: did the slave have the right to pack up and move somewhere else if he didn't like the place where he was, for whatever reason?

The answer, of course, is no. No amount of nice, not even daily foot massages and champagne with breakfast every morning will satisfy that and it is not a point that is up for discussion until that first, larger moral point is settled.

Cheap bastards. There you have this three hundred years of guilt and this Christian sleazebag proposes that the victims of it didn't mind because what -- they got to play the banjo and eat watermelon? This is supposed to compensate for the crime?

You know, when I went to Sardinia a few years ago we were traveling on a highway one night and stopped at a truck stop. The person I was traveling with and I both needed to use the restroom. He went to the men's I went to the women's. I'd never seen anything quite like it. It was simply a hole in the cement floor with two foot-shaped imprints, one on either side of it. You squatted with your feet in these imprints and tried not to think about what was below.

It was amusing. My traveling companion came out of his and said, "It was Orrible." Which it was, I guess, but mostly it was amusing.

I mention this because it illustrates, for me, an important point that has to be made about slavery and Jim Crow, about this aspect of American history. The suffering was bad, the nasty restrooms, the back of the bus were bad, all of that was quite bad enough. The denial of hope, the denial of a future, was bad.

Read James Baldwin, again. What made people sick was the immorality of it. It was like every day someone was calling you asshole and hosing you down with sewage for no reason, and you were not allowed to complain or even to acknowledge consciousness of injustice. To claim so much humanity for yourself was to invite another insult, another humiliation. To feel that you have no protection against immorality, no recourse, no justice to appeal to, is sickening. And that was the condition of American blacks from slavery until well into the first half of the 20th century. And it was a crime, it was a disgrace. There is no other word for it. Anyone who tries to suggest, today, that anything about it was "nice" is a liar. It is like a person who burns down your house and rapes your wife thinking you ought to be grateful if he gives you a dollar. What does such a person take you for? I say, surprise him wherever you find him by calling him by his proper name. He's a coward a fraud and cheap, cheap cheap. He wants even the credit for the resilience of the human spirit at surving for so long. Because, you know, people can live under all sorts of conditions. But that doesn't mean it's all right to inflict injustice, or to give your soul's consent to injustice to others.

That person wants to unload the whole burden of his bad conscience on the victim of -- in this instance, it's not even his crime, it's someone else's crime the guilt of which he is too stupid and corrupt to acknowledge. Ideally, like a member of the Snopes family, he would like to commandeer some of the moral capital of the victim because why should he not have it if he wants it?

Everybody is a victim of something. Victimhood is slightly higher moral standing than perpetratorhood, but when the Left based political attacks on the moral status of victimhood (Bob, what's that wonderful thing Marvin said, in the sixties, in The Man in the Machine, about people "trying to outdo each other in showing off the bloodiest scars on the tenderest psyches",) then it opened the door for these people.

Well, you see, that's how quickly you exhaust the moral capital of victimhood. I think it has failed the left terribly to take that tack. It would have been better to have the law on your side and the principles of justice on your side. The self-pity and the feeling of entitlement to being understood or even being happy, these really didn't help at the point of leverage. It would have been better to be telling dirty jokes and having better command of the facts of history, than to be equating fat girls' self-esteem with civil rights and protection from violence. We wouldn't be sitting around today having to give headroom to the Snopes family. (Please someone find me a nice essay on the Hamlet.)

I believe that the left pissed its moral capital away, walked away from crucial fights in the 1980s, intellectual fights. They didn't teach history, they didn't teach humanism, they were simply selfish and greedy and ambitious for status at the expense of everything else, especially their students. They were as Reaganite when it came to their own personal comfort as anyone else. Certainly the campus liberals were, and they were all liberals in those days. They didn't do the job they had to do of protecting the principles of political liberty, of the life of the imagination, all those concepts that sustain, for example, an empirical approach to claims of fact, that underpin things like intellectual honesty, by teaching them to their students. I know I am generalizing. It's the middle of the night and I can give specific instances of what I'm talking about, I can find the texts, I can cite incidents, things people said and did that revealed a state of culture in the academy at the time. Just not right this minute when I should have gone to bed an hour ago.

You had victim literature, fervid and overdone like boarding school broccoli, with victims in the color of your choice, where, tediously, the idea of being a victim was presented as a literary idea. It isn't, OK? It just isn't. Now please leave it alone.

Or you had French theory. For the highbrows. Such highbrows. Bullies, mostly.

Well I'll stop here for now. It is past me bedtime.