I listened to a commentary this week, presented by Bill Maher, the U.S. satirist, and it prompted me to write this blog on slavery. In particular, I wanted to write about the unwritten, and often unspoken, myth that the U.S. invented slavery and, consequently, should feel perennially guilty for having done so.
Bill was, as usual, blunt, and to the point. I believe his commentary is on You Tube and I would definitely recommend you take a few minutes to listen. He has a well-earned reputation for addressing topics that most public figures won’t touch with a ten-foot pole, and this is definitely one of them.
Almost every civilization has employed slaves; the English word comes from Slav, the ethnic origin of most slaves in Europe.
The Sumerians had thousands of slaves, and that was approximately five thousand years BC. The Egyptians had thousands of slaves (the pyramids could not have been built without them). The Roman Empire ran on slavery and the Spanish, Portuguese and British continued the tradition into the nineteenth century.
Many countries in the world continue the practice today, particularly in the Middle East and India. One might say, politically incorrectly, that our current abhorrence of slavery is an anomaly in the history of the human race. As long as some people subjugate others, there will be slavery of some sort. It’s almost human nature or, maybe, it is human nature. If you are conquered, you must expect to become a slave of your conquerors in one way or another, and that includes economic conquests.
The United States did not invent slavery, nor was it uniquely evil in adopting a slave culture. It was quite normal at the time the U.S. was founded, and for quite a long time afterwards. The U.S. was a little slow in abolishing the practice, compared to some other slave-owning countries, but it did eventually join the group.
One of the interesting, and true, comments Bill Maher made in his presentation was that; “Anyone who could afford a slave, had one. Slave owners were not just white men. All nations, all colors, including Blacks, all cultures and all women who could afford slaves owned at least one”.
I realize it’s difficult for current Black society in the U.S. to think that some of their ancestors were slave owners, but reality is reality. As Bill said, again correctly, who do you think in Africa sold the slaves to the “slavers” who shipped them across the Atlantic? Black Africans of course.
I am in no way suggesting that we should forget about slavery, or brush it under the table. However, I am saying that being forced by current “correct” society, and Black activists, to feel perennially guilty for inventing, and condoning slavery, is nonsense. Yes, I definitely think we should address the issue in schools; factually, as part of history. I also think we should work hard to correct imbalances in society that have resulted from that history. However, the current climate that is demanding compensation for past actions is, to put it frankly, ridiculous. No-one alive today in the U.S. is, or was, a slave and no one alive today was subject to the genocidic massacres that the U.S. Government perpetrated on Native American tribes.
In addition, to have the arrogance to believe that we, if we were transported back several hundred, or several thousand, years would not have condoned slavery is also nonsense. Bill Maher called this “Presentism”. Meaning, imposing today’s ideas and biases on previous generations and cultures. It is logically stupid, and arrogant, to believe, as “Presentism” does, that “those previous civilizations should somehow have known better”, to again quote Bill.
Another point about the idea of compensation. Can you imagine the corruption involved in any sort of monetary compensation? Virtually none of it would get to the people who deserve it, and who decides who deserves it anyway? The whole idea is impossible, and a total waste of effort, money and time, however well intentioned.
Should we help those who are less fortunate to join mainstream America, obviously yes, but through education, opportunities and support? It is far more relevant to acknowledge the past and live the future rather than the other way around.
One final disconcerting thought. Who knows, maybe, in two-hundred-years-time, slavery will be the norm again. We’d all like to think not, but human beings are human beings, and it can’t be ruled out.