Sunday, March 25, 2007

Putting the brake on slavery

Canadian Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement today on the bicentenary of the abolition of the african slave trade:

Today we mark an historic victory in the struggle for freedom and human dignity: the abolition of the African slave trade throughout the British Empire."
On March 25, 1807, King George III proclaimed into law the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the culmination of a decades long campaign by courageous abolitionists, led by the great parliamentarian William Wilberforce. With this the full might of the British Empire was directed to ending the barbaric practice of the African slave trade, that saw millions uprooted from their homes and families, transported in deplorable and often deadly conditions, then sold into a life of bondage in the Americas.
On this day we should also recall the important role that Canadians played in the struggle against slavery, most notably the leadership of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe who persuaded the Legislature of Upper Canada to adopt the first meaningful restrictions on slavery within the British Empire in 1793; and those who made Canada the North Star of the Underground Railroad for thousands of escaped slaves.
While we must always be vigilant in combating the vestiges of racial discrimination,
Canadians can take great pride that we have built a society of hope and equality of opportunity. Let us dedicate ourselves to continuing this work by combating contemporary forms of slavery, such as human trafficking.”
It's fitting that Prime Minister Harper ends his statement on this note, because it connects our duties today to the commitments of our predecessors. Western Civilization, enlightened and emboldened by Judeo-Christian principles of liberty, took the unprecedented step to listen to its conscience and abolish the vile practice of slavery. Canada can be proud of our particular contribution to that ennobling act: the forementioned Lt Governor Simcoe's Act Against Slavery was passed in 1793, long before slavery was officially abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833.

Progress requires truth, and truth requires honesty: it is an inescapable fact that the very Book of Instructions that was used as the authority to end slavery in the West, was for too long also enlisted to justify it. That shame was one of the motivating factors that pushed abolitionists to fight all the harder for redemption. Much of the West's progress has come from the incremental revelation of our fallibility, and our determination to progress beyond the shadow of our mistakes.
Our culture's abolition of slavery teaches the immortal lesson that just because something has always been so, is not the reason for it to remain so. Finding the proper balance between respecting tradition and valuing innovation has frustrated humanity's drive for progress, just as learning to drive a car involves a mysterious combination of alternating between the brake and the gas pedal. We're not always right when we guess when to go forward and when to stay in place; where we redeem ourselves, where we raise ourselves above animals and show our civility as human beings, is in the recognition that somehow there is a "forward" to get to. We are not frozen in time and place, as animals seem to be; lions are not soon to become vegetarian, after all, nor are cows prone to turn into man-eaters. As we navigate through this dance called human experience, it demands of us a combination of tradition and innovation, not just one or the other. We, as humans, are capable of change, and the more we value living up to our true potential, the more we should search for what this balance must be, from generation to generation, civilizing ourselves a step at a time along the journey.

Slavery must be one of the greatest of evils that has cursed our existence, and like all evil it comes from a lie: it carries within it the inherent denial of a fellow invidual's humanity. Slavery breaks the covenant that must exist between us, that despite differences in the physical shell we see on the outside, we should still strive to believe that there exists something within the shell, something without physical form or substance, that unites us together as participants in a shared experience. To practice slavery means to deny one person's existence as a human being, composed of a body and a soul, a life lived in the physical world and a life simultaneously experienced in, shall we say, a spiritial side. "Ownership" belongs in the world of the physical; how can one soul "own" another?

As civilized beings, dare I say as a very test of that civility, we must challenge ourselves to ask whether our revulsion towards slavery remains matched with ongoing committed action against it. For slavery is ongoing: slavery still exists, untold millions of our fellow human beings still suffer under its evil shadow... especially in Africa.

The William Wilbeforces and William Lloyd Garrisons of our modern age need more than courage and devotion, they also need honesty; honesty in admitting Where slavery exists, and Who lets this barbaric, uncivilized practice continue. It goes without saying that we need to grow more intolerant of the atheist pimps and the amoral scum who pleasure themselves in sex slave brothels... but we also need to summon the honesty to tackle all forms of slavery, everywhere, no matter how it might upset the multiculturalist left, determined as they are to freeze everyone into their current physical place... seeing human beings as they do, as mere animals, denying too many their access to the modernizing gas pedal that will drive them out of their medieval bondage, allowing their souls to taste the same life experiences that liberty brings to those of us in the modern West.

One example, from a December Reuters article:

Although banned by law in 1980, slavery in Mauritania has persisted, perpetuated by poverty and rigid customs. Authorities long denied its existence but campaigners estimate there are still hundreds of thousands of slaves among the 3 million population -- the highest ratio in the world. Chattel slavery, where one person is the property of another, has existed in the impoverished West African country for more than 800 years, since Arab-Berber raiders swept across the Sahara to subjugate black African tribes.

Traditionally, members of the haratin slave caste must marry who their masters say and can be given as gifts, bought and sold, or presented to the poor as charity.

Children are often separated from their mothers and sent to work in other homes. Girls frequently suffer sexual abuse.

"Westerners think of slaves as people in chains," said Boubacar Messaoud, head of SOS-Slave. "Slaves here have no need to be chained up because they are educated in submission ... They are chained in their heads."

Just as Christianity was once used to justify the trans-Atlantic slave trade, rights workers say many Muslim teachers, or marabouts, in Mauritania preach subservience.

"Paradise under your master's foot" is a Mauritanian saying.

1 comment:

truepeers said...

Slavery is undoubtedly the evil you discuss, Charles, wherever, whenever it is practised. Yet, intellectual honesty demands that we see slavery as a greater evil when we reflect on its presence in the nineteenth-century West - when we were making slavery an inefficient method of production in comparison to industrialized wage labour - than when we reflect on its presence in classical Athens or Biblical Israel.

Why is this? Because at its origin, and closer to it, slavery could not have been simply seen as a negation of freedom. When slavery first emerged it emerged in societies where every man's and woman's role was well-defined and circumscribed by a ritual or religious order that no one could question very much. In a sense, everyone was told his place and his role by the ritual order. There were some small freedoms, but the degree of freedom in action or thought that was possible was small.

When the first man took a slave, i.e. when a man first took some control of the ritual order and redefined roles so that a man could be either a slave owner or a slave, he was not simply enslaving a man but expanding the degrees of freedom in the ritual order in such a way to increase his tribe's productive potential, a growth in wealth and freedom that would have, at first, been widely distributed among the tribe and even the slaves.

In a world where human beings provide practically the only source of productive energy, other than the sun, a growth in productivity requires a control of human beings, and later domesticated animals. Slavery was thus a necessary evil in the expansion of human society and indeed freedom beyond the most primitive and highly ritually-bound forms of hunter-gatherer society.

But there comes a point at which the necessary evil cannot be justified. This was already anticipated in Biblical times, as the emphasis on human freedom and reciprocity in that book shows, notwithstanding that it was produced in a society that practised slavery and thus the Book inevitably deferred, to some degree, to the actually existing order of that society.

In fact the amazing thing about Christianity is how radical Jesus' revelation and teaching was, so radical that big parts of it could not be put into practise until modern free-market conditions evolved, finally putting an end to slavery.

Today, the "progressive" left may use this kind of logic to allow it not to get in a huff about widespread slavery in societies they view as victims of the West, societies that supposedly have a right to their own historical development on their own terms. And so they ignore the widespread slavery, and oppression of women, in much of the Islamic world.

But none of this is any longer necessary. Modern economic principles can be brought to bear in all societies, if their leaders allow it, and if the rich world's "development" agencies don't favor models that encourage a kind of international welfare state dependency, or "environmental" policies like Kyoto that are designed to keep much of the world pre-industrial, paying off local elites with carbon credits (money) to trade to the West.

Given the possibility to expand modernity, there is no longer any excuse for slavery beyond a person's active preference for slavery and oppression over freedom and human reciprocity and all the existential uncertainty that goes with freedom, an uncertainty, an open-endedness, that many in the West and the rest of the world seem unwilling to face. Those who would defend the preference for slavery out of anti-Western self-hatred are, in my view, more evil than the slaveholders themselves. To have the taste of Judeo-Christian covenantal reciprocity and freedom in one's mouth, and then to reject it as Western hypocrisy or oppression, is more evil than to be trapped in a relatively primitive form of ritually-ordered society like Islam. In any case, it is our duty to keep evangelizing for the truth, whether we do this in the West, Africa, Asia, wherever, so that people become better able to face existential uncertainty through covenantal faiths. Good post.