Last week, after my row with abortion and slavery, I received a number of missives from people quick to note their alleged lack of sympathy for the likes of Rick Santorum, but quicker still to insist that one of the most prodigious slave societies in human history really was a lot like the termination of fetal life. To wit:
Your main logical flaw seems to be here: you fail to recognise that there is
more wrapped up in the statement "the right to exist" than its most literal
reading. Your argument is correct if the most literal reading of the
statement -- that "the right to exist" means simply "the right to be alive" --
is the one that Mr. Klein meant. You make it quite clear that slaveholders
wanted their slaves to remain alive. This reading, however, cannot be what
Mr. Klein meant. I would suggest that what he meant was something more like "the right to exist as a full human person, with the right to exercise the
same freedoms (or more accurately, the right to eventually exercise the same
freedoms) and dignity that any other person has."
It's an interested reading--one that changes the argument by broadening it out to the outermost limits of analogical absurdity. Denial of the right "to exercise the same freedoms and dignity that any other person has" is not what makes slavery distinctive, nor is it particular to slaves. The vast majority of people in this country belong to a class that, at some point, was denied "the same freedoms and dignity that any other person has." Indeed, I fear pro-lifers have been much too modest. By their logic, zygotes are analogous not just with slaves, but with Native Americans, freedmen, women, gays, immigrants, children and property-less white men. Perhaps this is the point, in which case I await the latest fetal rights rallying cry---"Abortion is just like America"--with all the requisite enthusiasm.
Absurdities aside, it must be said then that logical consistency isn't the goal here, nor is a particularly thorough understanding of American slavery. The point is an attack rendered through sensational association. It is tactic meant to provoke, not to cohere. But that said, the more penetrating case against this is not the sort that can be marshaled through basic reasoning skills and, as a commenter once put it, a cliff-notes version of history. That case relies on a kind of imagination.
One way of understanding the Antebellum South is through objective facts and statistics--the majority of people in South Carolina were enslaved, or slaves represented more wealth than any other asset in America at the onset of the Civil War. I employed that sort of evidence in my original case. But what gives the thing its texture, its weight, what brings it all alive are the words of Laura Spicer's lost husband
, or Jourdan Anderson
Sir: I got your letter and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Col. Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable.
Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this.
There's a specific mixture of hatred and affection here, an understatement and irony undergirding the great irony (slavery in the self-styled land of the free), an intimacy that is virtually, if not surely, familial. You read enough primary documents of the era (I've now been doing this for two years) and you start to see a line in how people related, something that can't be summed up by simply saying, "Slavery was a denial of rights" or "Slavery was a denial of personhood."
These are the quick, easy, and glancing statements made to put the thing in a utilitarian context. It is history flattened and then weaponized, an arsenal of debating points that can called upon in the war against homophobic uncles, racist Facebook friends, radical feminists, Tea Partiers, profligate meat-eaters and other people whom we do not like.
This is not so much about how we discuss slavery and abortion, as it is about how we try--with so many things--to fit the world into our political context. It is about a narrow debate-club approach that, as Neitzsche says, attacks "the individuality of the past...for the sake of correspondence." To the extent that I have taken the narrow words of an ex-senator and drawn them out more than some would like, I am fueled by a worry of what we do in the name of correspondence. I don't believe it ends here with my chosen endeavors. One can see how this sort of thinking, the notion that this time is like the preferred last time, could be extended out until you find yourself under heavy fire wondering how it could be that you were not welcomed with rose petals and greeted as liberators.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power