In the course of researching my books, I've gone back to read over Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom. (I originally wrote about Morgan here.) I rarely reread whole books within five years of each other, but Morgan's work stuck with me in a way that I've never experienced.
The second time around was even better. Morgan's work deserves a much, much wider audience. To wit:
The connection between American slavery and freedom is evident at many levels if we care to see it. Think, for a moment, of the traditional American insistence on freedom of the seas. "Free ships make free goods" was the cardinal doctrine of American foreign policy in the revolutionary era. But the goods for which the United States demanded freedom were produced in very large measure by slave labor.
The irony is more than semantic. American reliance on slave labor must be viewed in the context of the American struggle for a separate and equal station among the nations of the earth. At the time the colonists announced their claim to that station, they had neither the arms nor the ships to make that claim good. They desperately needed the assistance of other countries, especially France, and their single most valuable product with which to purchase assistance was tobacco, produced mainly by slave labor.
So largely did tobacco figure in American foreign relations that one historian has referred to the activities of France in supporting the Americans as "King Tobacco Diplomacy," a reminder that the position of the United States in the world depended not only in 1776 but during the span of a long lifetime thereafter on slave labor. To a large degree it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor.
Morgan's basic contention, one which I increasingly find convincing, is that American slavery made American freedom possible. Thus, it is an understatement--and perhaps even a falsehood--to cast slavery, as Condoleeza Rice has, as the "birth defect" of American freedom. The term "birth defect" conveys the notion of other possibilities and unfortunate accidents. But Morgan would argue slavery didn't just happen as a byproduct, it was the steward. Put differently, slavery is America's midwife, not it's birth defect.
My own formulation for my text aims to push this notion further: America was not only made possible by slavery, it was made possible by prosecuting a perpetual war against its slaves, without which there may never have been an "America."
Even as I say this, questions and problems occur for me. The use of the word "war" carries with it a notion of intention, consciousness, something which I think is present at some moments (in antebellum America) and absent, or diffuse, in others (colonial America.)
More tangibly, can you have a war when the people with guns do not acknowledge it as such? Surely, Thomas Jefferson did not see himself as "making war" on his enslaved populace. And yet when Jefferson died, most of the slaves at Monticello were sold to settle his debts:
"a small-town editor in a Susquehanna River town asked how Jefferson, 'surely the champion of civil liberty to the American people,' left 'so many human beings in fetters to be indiscriminately sold to the highest bidder.' In biting words, the editor wrote: 'Heaven inspired Jefferson with the knowledge 'that all men are created equal.' He was not forgetful--in his last moments he 'commended his soul to God, and his daughter to his country;' but to whom did he commend his wretched slaves?'"
My contention is that Jefferson subjected the slave community at Monticello to existential violence. He doubtlessly destroyed familial bonds--children forever parted mothers, wives forever removed from husbands, brothers forever taken from sisters. It is true the slaves weren't killed, but they were effectively rendered dead to each other. They were subject to a kind of banishment to Limbo, one which--by the approach of the Civil War--some one in three slaves would experience.
There's more to be said--enslaved African women lived basic lived under a regime of legalized mass rape, the effects of which so many of us carry in our very bones. There's the way in which white identity was constructed, and the way the status of indentured servants and white freedman rose in the 17th century, just as the status of black people fell.
We'll talk about all of this more in my follow-up posts. But one notion which I bear little respect for, is the idea that the term "war" should be reserved for countries that can field mass quantities of armed men. I am reminded of the old quote that the difference between a dialect and a language is that the latter enjoys an army.
Moreover, surely if we can take Al Qaeda's actions as a declaration of war, if we can declare war on "terror" on "drugs on "illiteracy," if Gaddafi can be said to have "made war upon his people," then I find little wrong with the claim that a country can declare war upon its own.
More to come. About Morgan. About everything. These are simply my thoughts thus far.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
In Sunday’s referendum, voters firmly rejected Europe’s plan to bail out the country’s economy. What’s next?
Updated on July 5, 2015 4:57 pm
On Sunday, Greek citizens took to the polls in a controversial referendum asking them whether they support a plan calling for continued economic austerity in exchange for debt relief. Their answer—with more than 70 percent of the votes counted—was a resounding “no.”The outcome means that next steps for the nation, which has fallen into arrears with the IMF and imposed capital controls to prevent a run on the banks, is largely uncertain. According to reports from Reuters, the country may next attempt to secure financing by asking for more emergency funding from the European Central Bank.
The referendum—which had asked Greeks to vote “yes” or “no” on a proposal from Eurogroup leaders to extend financing to the deeply indebted country— was called for by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras amid meetings of Eurozone leaders trying to come up with a deal to allow the country to avoid default. The call for the referendum effectively ended those discussions.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
As the world frets over Greece, a separate crisis looms in China.
This summer has not been calm for the global economy. In Europe, a Greek referendum this Sunday may determine whether the country will remain in the eurozone. In North America, meanwhile, the governor of Puerto Rico claimed last week that the island would be unable to pay off its debts, raising unsettling questions about the health of American municipal bonds.
But the season’s biggest economic crisis may be occurring in Asia, where shares in China’s two major stock exchanges have nosedived in the past three weeks. Since June 12, the Shanghai stock exchange has lost 24 percent of its value, while the damage in the southern city of Shenzhen has been even greater at 30 percent. The tumble has already wiped out more than $2.4 trillion in wealth—a figure roughly 10 times the size of Greece’s economy.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
Female athletes have historically received very little attention from activists and advocates for gender equality. Why?
When I told my friends and family I’d be going to Brazil for the World Cup last year, they looked at me like I’d just won the lottery. In a sense, I had; I’d entered a lottery just to be able to purchase tickets. In Recife, I attended games at a brand-new stadium with a bright-green grass pitch, along with 40,000 other soccer fans from around the world. For months leading up to the event I saw news coverage on TV, in newspapers, and in magazines hyping Team USA, even though they had a virtually nonexistent chance of victory. By the time I left for Brazil, friends who I never knew to be soccer fans were telling me who their favorite players were, jealous that I would see “our boys” play against the tournament favorites, Germany.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.