Saturday, January 17, 2015

Slavery: Abolished and Still Ongoing

Making something people tend to do all on their own illegal usually makes it worse. If you make liquor illegal, then you bring on gangsterism. If you make drugs illegal, you create international drug cartels. If you make slavery illegal, then you drive it underground where no one can see and where the rules of common decency may not apply.

Slaves in America used to cost the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars in today's money and were regarded as a valuable investment. Owners took care not to break them, in the same way that today we try not to wreck our cars, burn down our homes,  or crack the screens on our tablets and iphones.  Today, in Port au Prince, according to Benjamin Skinner in an interview with Terrence McNally, you can buy a slave for fifty dollars -- the price of less than a full week's groceries where I live. This makes the person bought entirely disposable.  A slave in Haiti today is worth less than an iphone. Siri, your electronic personal assistant,  is worth more than a girl bought and sold on the streets of the city where Jean Laffite grew up. This is not progress.

Here is the full interview:

According to McNally, real slavery never ended, just the legalities have changed.

What exactly is slavery, then? Is it legal ownership of another human being? If this were so, than abolishing the legality would abolish the phenomenon by definition. But most of us understand in our gut that slavery is something that precedes any legal system -- that it is an ongoing relationship that gets regulated after it arises, just like marriage or the parent-child pairing. You cannot abolish it by passing a law, because the relationship precedes any legal definition. Slavery is not a legal fiction. Slavery is real.

Yet, in the interview I link above, Skinner says: "...we assume that once you abolish something, it no longer exists." Who but an idiot would assume that? This is exactly what is wrong with the progressive agenda, and this misunderstanding of how reality works predates the twentieth century. It was the nineteenth century abolitionists who are famous for this kind of magical thinking.

You might as well say: "Let's abolish human nature, and then all our vices will go away." Cultural attitudes shift. The words we use lose their meaning and new words come to take their place. But the basic facts of human nature do not change. The image below is of  a master (right) and his slave (left) from 350-340 BC in Sicily.

: "Phlyax scene Louvre CA7249"
 by English: Lentini-Manfria Group - Jastrow, own work, 2008-03-07.
 Licensed under CC BY 3.0 viaWikimedia Commons -
Slavery is something that humans practiced since the earliest recorded history. It was present during pre-Biblical times; it was practiced in ancient Greece, and it continued throughout the Middle Ages and through the Enlightenment and on into modern times. The words and terms and concepts used to describe it have changed, but the thing itself has not.

One of the reasons we think we have made so much progress and have overcome our basic nature is that we tend to wear out the words we use to describe servitude and slavery, and when we use different words, we think we have solved the problem.

Over twenty years ago, I published a linguistics article entitled "Semantic Shift and the Concept of Servitude." In it I examined slavery, servitude and employment from both a linguistic and a legal point of view.

What is interesting is that sometimes the very same word that is used to describe abject slavery also serves  to describe public service of the most prestigious sort. Take this Biblical  quote:

כב  וּמִבְּנֵי, יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא-נָתַן שְׁלֹמֹה, עָבֶד:  כִּי-הֵם אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה, וַעֲבָדָיו וְשָׂרָיו וְשָׁלִישָׁיו, וְשָׂרֵי רִכְבּוֹ, וּפָרָשָׁיו.  {ס}

22 But of the children of Israel did Solomon make no bondservants; but they were the men of war, and his servants, and his princes, and his captains, and rulers of his chariots and of his horsemen. 
In this excerpt from Kings I Chapter 9, verse 22, in the original Hebrew version, the word for what is translated in the English as bondservants and afterwards as just servants is the same: עבד.   (I have marked both instances  in bold above. They look different because one is singular and the other is plural with a possessive suffix, but it's the same lexeme.)

In today's English, servitude has been so degraded as an undesirable thing, that in the article below by a man who learned to be a better servant to his wife, he uses servanthood, rather than servitude.

This man is ready to humble himself before his wife, but he stops short of using the ordinary word "servitude". He re-derives the word, rather than admit to what it is.

So what is it, really, that we mean by slavery? How is it different from another, less abject form of servitude to another human being? Slavery, first and foremost, is involuntary servitude. It means that you can't get out of it, even if you want to. It's not about the work you do -- it isn't necessarily drudgery and you aren't necessarily abused -- but you don't get to choose whether to accept employment or not. You can't leave when you don't like it, anymore, and you have no right to tender your resignation. If you want to quit, people with guns and whips will keep you from leaving.

Slavery is a very serious condition. Let's not be two-faced about it. It is not something we would want for ourselves or our children, not because it is abusive, but because it is an affront to our dignity, just like rape. And in fact, when this unwanted servitude happens in the sex industry, it is rape.

Which is not to say that I agree with Mr. Skinner in regard to what we should do about it. I believe we need fewer laws in order to help people enter into voluntary arrangements of working for and with one another. It is the law that tends to force people into involuntary service. The more we are provided for by the government (free health care), and the more we are required to pay for the right to exist (mandatory health insurance), the less free we are to turn down an offer of employment. So government intervention is the surest road to slavery for us all.

But that's not what's happening today in Haiti, is it? Haiti used to be a French colony full of slaves. It was called Saint Domingue, and those of us who have read the Journal of Jean Laffite know all about what Haiti was like before and after the slave rebellion that led to its independence.

You would think that a country that came into being as a result of a slave rebellion would remain vigilant against the re-emergence of slavery. You would think that the people would reject any such institution for themselves and utterly abhor such an arrangement for their children. But even though slavery is illegal in Haiti,  according to Skinner, it still happens very regularly there that children are sold into slavery. Sometimes it happens because parents believe their children will be better off as slaves than starving. In other words, slavery is a way for a child to earn a living, and another, better way is not always available.

According to UNICEF, there are 300,000 child slaves in Haiti.
That's not Haitian children sold to strangers outside the borders of Haiti. That's within Haiti's borders. Haitians themselves own 300,000 child slaves from among their people. In the interview, Terrence McNally was a little surprised that people in Haiti could afford that many slaves.

TM: So with all the poverty in Haiti, there are still people who can afford 300,000 slaves?
BS: Well if they're paying $50 ...
From this it follows that having slaves cost so little is part of the problem. When human life is held cheap, it is easy to sacrifice. So you would think that if a humanitarian wanted to help solve this problem and free the slaves, one option would  be to buy their freedom.

But Skinner is against this solution! Just like the abolitionist that I depicted in Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain. 

What is a better way: to pass a law that all the slaves are free, and assume that as soon as slavery is abolished legally, then there will be no slavery? Or to free the slaves one at a time, taking the trouble to teach them a trade, so that they can be self-supporting and choose their own way through life?

Here is what Skinner has to say about this:

I want to make clear, I never paid for human life; I never would pay for human life. I talked to too many individuals who run trafficking shelters and help slaves become survivors. They implored me, "Do not pay for human life. You will be giving rise to a trade in human misery, and as a journalist, you'll be projecting to the world that this is the way that you own the problem." If you were to buy all 300,000 child slaves in Haiti, next year, you'd have 600,000.
Here is the paradox: there are so many slaves in Haiti, because the slaves only cost fifty dollars a piece, so that the local people in Haiti can afford to buy them. But... if we were to offer to buy them in order to set them free, then there would be twice as many slaves, because the money value of each slave will have risen, tempting parents to sell more children into slavery. So we want to keep the value of slaves artificially low?!!!

Remember the original argument about why we try not to crack the screen of our iphone? Because it would be so expensive to replace. If slaves are cheap, then slaves are plentiful, then slaves are expendable --- then slaves will be mistreated.

So what does Skinner suggest we do instead?

Barack Obama is still setting his foreign policy agenda. He needs to hear from all of us that the true abolition of slavery needs to be a part of his legacy.
Remember what we learned at the beginning of the interview, that just because something has been abolished does not mean that it no longer exists?

One hundred forty-three years after passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and 60 years after Article 4 of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights banned slavery and the slave trade worldwide, there are more slaves than at any time in human history -- 27 million.
If the bloody revolution in Haiti during the life of Jean Laffite, the Civil War in the United States and the UN Declaration of Human Rights have done nothing to stop the relentless march of slavery, because there is a market for human slaves, and parents are willing to sell their own children into slavery, how is putting this on a current presidential agenda going to help? What does this man really want us to do?  I think he wants another war!  As the Battle Hymn of the Republic goes, and children still sing it in the schools: "Let us die to make men free!"

 Benjamin Skinner, when asked how he first got interested in slavery, had this to say:

The fuel began before I was born. The abolitionism in my blood began at least as early as the 18th century, when my Quaker ancestors stood on soapboxes in Connecticut and railed against slavery. I had other relatives that weren’t Quaker, but had the same beliefs. My great-great-great-grandfather fought with the Connecticut artillery, believing that slavery was an abomination that could only be overturned through bloodshed.
Abolitionists, wherever they are found, want bloodshed, and they make very little secret of it. They know that abolishing slavery just creates more slavery, and still they want war!

Slavery goes away when people find something better than slavery. When they stop selling their children and buying other people's children. When they find that it's not necessary to live that way. Or when the slaves themselves arise and refuse to be abused any longer. Slavery does not end when someone passes a law, and it is not worth dying for the theoretical freedom of someone that you are not later willing to support and house and feed and educate and love.

By all means, if you want to free slaves, then go and buy those slaves, and adopt them and make them a part of your life, and nurture them until they are able to stand on their own two feet. But remember, when you save a life, you are responsible for it. What we don't need is do-gooders who will send other people to die for them, to do their dirty work, and who are not willing to pay for the long term consequences of their convictions.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Importance of Context: Self Interest and Good Behavior

Recently, a time capsule buried by Sam Adams and Paul Revere has been opened, containing a number of items, including coins and a silver plaque.

Such tangible messages from the past, however, are fairly meaningless, unless we understand the context. The question is not what do these items mean to us, but rather what did they mean to them.

One of the problems with historical documents and historical events is that people tend to view them from their current perspective, and so whatever changes in morality or outlook or social expectation that have occurred can be entirely obscured for the average person.

Take the ten commandments.  Most people today, religious or not, see them as the basis of modern morality. But why is there an admonition to honor your father and mother and nothing whatever telling you to nurture your children? Because in the times when this list of dos and don'ts was written, nurturing your children was something people did out of self-interest. They did not need to be told. The more children you had, the richer you were. During your prime, your children worked for you. In your old age, they supported you. In many of the Biblical stories, people were tested by being asked to harm their children. Taking care of your children was seen as selfish, and a mark of loyalty to a god was the willingness to sacrifice them. On the other hand, the duty of children to be supportive of their parents was something less natural, that had to be drummed into them. People were told not to strike their parents on fear of death, but they were told that sparing the rod would spoil the child.

All of this has been changed, because having children is no longer seen as profitable, and hence the interest in child welfare and state involvement in child-rearing has become the norm. Nobody is told to honor parents, but children are being encouraged in school to report it if they feel their parents discipline them too harshly. And this change of circumstances is misunderstood by both the right and the left, so that some campaign to protect unborn children from their own parents, while others campaign to protect children who are already born -- again, from their own parents. All these people purport to follow a morality that is based on the ten commandments, completely ignoring the context and the underlying values that are left unspoken in those rules.

The same kind of context blindness is at the root of historical misunderstandings of  the war powers as enumerated in the constitution, and by extension, the importance of privateering to the early American way of life.

From Article I, Section 8: The Congress shall have the power ...
To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;
 To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water; 
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
To provide and maintain a Navy; 
To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces; to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;

Why did the framers of the constitution lump all these things together: defining and punishing piracy, granting letters of marque and reprisal, raising and supporting armies, but maintaining a single Navy?Why was it raising and supporting armies -- plural ', but maintaining a Navy -- singular and with a capital 'N'? Why was it indefinite Armies? Why was it the Militia? Why was a very formally capitalized Navy indefinite? Inquiring linguistic minds want to know.

In discourse, the little function words are telling. They are the words to look to in order to spell out the unspoken context. They let us in on what is assumed, what is common knowledge and what is new information.

The militia already existed. It was known. It could be raised or not raised, but it was a given. Armies come and armies go, but no standing army was to be tolerated, because that would be too much like the British they had just rebelled against. A Navy was something they planned to build, but not something they currently had.

  And what do piracy and letters of marque have to do with this? Why did they want a standing Navy, if they abhorred the idea of a standing army?

Why was there nothing in Article I, section 8 about preventing citizens from waging war on their own? What's so special about a Navy and not an Army? Why is piracy such a big deal? And why are letters of marque mentioned in the same breath? Why no provision for a Department of Homeland Security?

The context that might be missing for the average modern day  reader of the constitution is this: the framers were not afraid of  home-grown terrorists. They were home grown terrorists. They were not afraid of popular uprising. They were the uprising. There was nothing in the constitution telling people not to go around attacking each other, because that wasn't the issue. The thing the framers feared the most was that the government would get out of hand and attack the citizens. So they wanted nobody at home policing things except for the militia, which consisted of the people themselves.

They did want a Navy, but it was not so much to engage in all out foreign wars: it was to make sure that American vessels were not attacked at sea by foreign powers and out-and-out pirates. For this reason, they saw a small, standing Navy as a kind of police force to make sure that American commerce would remain unmolested, and as an added protection, in times of war, they wanted to grant letters of marque and reprisal to private ship owners so as to deputize them to attack foreign vessels. There was to be no heavy military spending, and the privateer was to finance his war operation at the expense of the enemy.

Now if we understand this, we understand the importance of privateering, and we see it as positive force, both in times of war and in peace time. We also understand that Jean Laffite, acting on behalf of the United States in War of 1812 was the ultimate hero of the American constitution. He was living the life that the founders envisioned.

But historians today writing about Jean Laffite do not know any of this about the context of the constitution, and so they see Jean Laffite as an opportunistic person acting for his own gain -- as if this were somehow unpatriotic!

Take this article by David Head:

Head writes:

"Laffite persisted, not out of patriotism but from his assessment of conditions in the Gulf. Aiding the Americans might win pardons for his men and the return of the valuables seized by the Navy. Plus, with the British out of the way, Laffite could return to his old business, in the old way."
Yes, Jean Laffite expected to be able to go back to his old business of being a privateer and an importer. That he could not is a shameful fact about the way the constitution was subverted in the wake of the War of 1812, as people began to forget the reasons for the specific provisions in Article I, Section 8. Just as the context of the ten commandments has been entirely forgotten, so it goes with the American constitution.

People used to take good care of their children, because it was in their own best interest. People were expected to defend their country for the very same reason. The idea that profit and duty have to clash is something new, something that ignores the historical context of how peoples and nations rise and fall.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Battle of New Orleans Historical Symposium

Are you going to the Battle of New Orleans Historical Symposium? The 200th anniversary is upon us, and a very important symposium is schedule for Jan. 9th and 10th of this year!

The general public is ignoring this important event, but this was a turning point in the history of the United States and the very last time that the private sector, through donations and voluntary service, was able to save the day, outdoing the government-run defense forces of Patterson's navy, and helping the badly equipped army under General Jackson. 
At the symposium, the role of Jean Laffite will be explored in detail by historian William C. Davis, author of The Pirates Laffite. Others there will stand in opposition, claiming that Jean Laffite's contribution was minimal or not real. If you have a chance to attend, I highly recommend this event.