05 December 2012

"The American Crisis"

I'm reading through Thomas Paine's "The American Crisis" and at the outset of the essay (actually a series of pamphlets) Paine invokes the term 'slavery' to explain the American situation at the outset of the war.  He writes:
"Britain...has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but 'to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER,' and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon the earth." (formatting from the original)
What gets me is of course that the idea of slavery for Enlightenment thinkers like Paine was so universal when the actuality of slavery (and indentured servitude, which we might think of as slave temps) was everywhere in the actual world at the time.  Most Western philosophers, prior to Hegel "we" might argue, used the concept of slavery as convenient short hand for any abridgment of liberty.  All this while staring actual examples of horrific and lucrative slavery in the faraway face of The (still) New World.

Source: www.ktersakian.com
Even if normal European citizens weren't faced with daily examples of slavery, the spoils of that trade were part of their daily lives*.  Though I suppose you could make the same argument in our post-enlightenment (HA!) age.  From my iPhone and it's problematic origins to my occasional (and shamefully delicious) Big Macs, it is a common refrain of the modern left that poverty is just the new(est) form of slavery.  Barbara Ehrenreich argues it (in not so few words) in Nickel and Dimed and Aristide's book, Eyes of the Heart, makes the argument directly. Tales of the evils of globalization as creating a slavery of poverty is an old new idea.  At the same time, I can imagine an ill-conceived, Norquistian argument about increased taxation representing a new form of slavery and the looming, largely imagined fiscal cliff a mass ensnarement, an abridgment of liberty.

My attention meanders from these comparisons to slavery to my more recent encounter with (imagined) actual slavery in the form of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.  While there have been several reviewers bemoaning the historical usefulness of the film's central drama regarding the passage of the 13th Amendment, I think it should go without saying that looking to Hollywood for significant historical lessons leaves one wanting.  (Both of these reviews, however, are excellent and well worth a read).  It's a well-worn truism that historical films are more about the time in which they are made than the time they pretend to represent.

But I do think that Lincoln does make some fairly sophisticated historical arguments.  The desire to find a super-hero in the figure of important historical figures is better articulated in Seth Grahame-Smith's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (which I think is actually a better biographical sketch when it comes down to it), but it's definitely present in this movie.  I was struck, though, that when I was thinking of what the film might be saying about contemporary political figures, I wasn't reminded of 'our man from the Land of Lincoln', but more often found myself thinking about W (or perhaps more accurately, Josh Brolin's portrayal of W in W, which has become our historical W).  Lincoln is really funny, because the president constantly wanders off on tangents, tells dirty jokes, and tells stories at odd times.  With Lincoln, though, we are meant to believe these meanderings are acts of secretive genius (his super power is being able to get anyone on his side by telling stories about his suicidal barbers).

I guess all of this is to say that the world is not so big a place, that experiences and history are largely communal (or perhaps even universal), but we act as if each instance, our instants, are unique.  I tell my students that we (and especially they) frequently seem to act as if the world is something that is happening to us, rather than a place that they are actively engaged in.  The catastrophic activities that we take part in every day exist regardless of our recognition (and hopefully thoughtful critique) of them.

*I've been reading lately about the economics of the Age of Revolution (and the age of slavery) and in particular the "triangle trade" as it is known, where slave traders brought captured Africans back to European centers of the slave trade located in secondary port cities like Liverpool and Bordeaux.  Slaves were marketed in these centers and then forwarded on to the Americas, generally.  The result was a booming economy in what were formerly provincial areas.  In fact, Carolyn Fick argues in her excellent book, The Making of Haiti, that it was these growing, outlying economies that directly produced the very middle class nouveau riche who were the main drivers of the French Revolution (and therefore the Haitian Revolution), thus undermining the very system that made them riche in the first place.

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