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.


  1. I agree with what you are saying with slavery becoming more prevalent in today's society. Look at the sex industry in Asia. However, what I do not exactly agree with is the sentiment all abolitionists want bloodshed. Many abolitionists were pacifists like Louisa Mae Alcott and Emerson. There were also many Mennonite and Quaker abolitionists who would provide shelter to slaves fleeing captivating. Quakers through out US history have often been jailed for failing to enlist in the army during times of war.

    1. Julia, it is true that some were Quakers and some were pacifists who opposed slavery, but the abolitionist cause, rather than the cause of helping individual slaves go free, is one that seeks a violent, law-based solution.

      Not everyone who helps a slave go free is an abolitionist. An abolitionist is someone who believes the abolition of the laws concerning slavery should be forced at gun point, and the problem is the law, and not the relationship of master and slave that predates any law, and which springs up again and again in every society, lawful or not.

    2. Historically speaking abolistionists in the antebellum era have been considered people who spoke out against slavery. Emerson, Thoreau, an Alcott being a few. This is the historical term that historians use when talking about such individuals. Do not be upset with me for using a term they use. Anyway, I would not get caught up on the terms so much, but on the other hand I do believe we need laws in place to some extend. Law prohibiting slavery have done some good. No these laws will not ameliorate slavery, but turning by the clock is not the answer either. However, I am not for the all and all out making of sparse laws. Not saying we should have so many laws we are a police state, but there needs to be some balance. I do believe if you want to be a theater open to the public, then you need to open your doors to everyone and not charge certain people from ethnic groups you do not like more money. That happened in my city in the not so recent past, and I will never defend the right of anyone to do something like that.

    3. I am actually aware that there is a problem that many people are labeled abolitionists today who historically simply stood against slavery, but did not want to force their view on others. So I understand your point, Julia, and I value your comments.

      I do think the terms we use are important, because the concepts behind the terms are extremely important. If you asked me twenty years ago if I was on the abolitionist side, I myself might have said yes, as I certainly am not a big fan of slavery. But now that I realize abolishing something does not make it go away, I do have a problem with the term "abolitionist", since it's a very misleading term, both in its etymology and its historical usage and retroactive application to people who may have opposed slavery, but were not for abolition.

      Now the other issue, that slavery is also confused with racism is even a step further removed. There were in fact white slaves, too, and we don't hear much about that today. I think it is important to tease these separate issues apart -- racism, slavery, and laws about racism and slavery. Otherwise, we end up with knee-jerk reactions to social issues that are complex and require a lot of thought.

    4. I agree with you there were white slaves. Indentured servitude of white children was often another form of slavery. The character in the book Johnny Termaine was definitely a slave. He ended up injuring his hand because the woman in charge of him made him do metal work when his master was away. I do not deny white slavery, but I do not want to detract from what happened to non-whites either.

    5. Of course! Being forced into slavery is a bad thing, no matter who it happens to.