October 01, 2007

A Slave to the Grind(ing Axes)

So, kids! Want to know why American Slavery wasn’t all that bad? Michael Medved is here to tell you!

No, I’m not kidding.

If you want to read the entire article for yourself, follow the links through Mahablog for another analysis.

Before reading further, you may want to get you immunization shots: this is some filthy stuff to wade through, and there’s a LOT of it. I have his entire piece here, so nothing can be claimed to be taken out of context.

Ready? Gas mask on? Here we go:

Those who want to discredit the United States and to deny our role as history’s most powerful and pre-eminent force for freedom, goodness and human dignity

[Got to break here for a second. This is a big flag to let you know what direction the writer is not only headed in, but also where he’s coming from: for the inept whom make this claim, there was no “freedom, goodness and human dignity” in the world until the United States existed. Good writers can make this claim, too; but they are far less certain about it, and know it will take a lot of work to provide proof.

Let’s see which Medved is, shall we?]

invariably focus on America’s bloody past as a slave-holding nation. Along with the displacement and mistreatment of Native Americans, the enslavement of literally millions of Africans counts as one of our two founding crimes—and an obvious rebuttal to any claims that this Republic truly represents “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” According to America-bashers at home and abroad, open-minded students of our history ought to feel more guilt than pride, and strive for “reparations” or other restitution to overcome the nation’s uniquely cruel, racist and rapacious legacy.

[Reparations or not, it is a horrifying passage in North American history. In Canada, we’re still trying to deal with our treatment of the native population, but at least it’s an open and discussed question. Embarrassing to share a continent with other nations who grew up with your own, nu, bubbe?]

Unfortunately, the current mania for exaggerating America’s culpability for the horrors of slavery bears no more connection to reality than the old, discredited tendency to deny that the U.S. bore any blame at all. No, it’s not true that the “peculiar institution” featured kind-hearted, paternalistic masters and happy, dancing field-hands,

[But… but… what about Mel Gibson’s documentary?]

any more than it’s true that America displayed unparalleled barbarity or enjoyed disproportionate benefit from kidnapping and exploiting innocent Africans.

[“Disproportionate benefit”? Disproportionate? Compared to what, exactly? America gained a hell of a lot more than Africa did! Hell, anyone who didn’t own slaves was also at a disadvantage compared to those who “benefited” from slavery… To use the word ‘disproportionate’, you have to give a sense of proportion, Mike.]

An honest and balanced understanding of the position of slavery in the American experience requires a serious attempt to place the institution in historical context and to clear-away some of the common myths and distortions.

[Ah: good old “historical context”! Is there anything you can’t justify? Historical context is important, of course, and vital for any serious historical work; but so is keeping in mind the times we live in right now. One hopes we compare favourably; but in reading this, I’m not so certain…]

1. SLAVERY WAS AN ANCIENT AND UNIVERSAL INSTITUTION, NOT A DISTINCTIVELY AMERICAN INNOVATION. At the time of the founding of the Republic in 1776, slavery existed literally everywhere on earth and had been an accepted aspect of human history from the very beginning of organized societies. Current thinking suggests that human beings took a crucial leap toward civilization about 10,000 years ago with the submission, training and domestication of important animal species (cows, sheep, swine, goats, chickens, horses and so forth) and, at the same time, began the “domestication,” bestialization and ownership of fellow human beings captured as prisoners in primitive wars. In ancient Greece, the great philosopher Aristotle described the ox as “the poor man’s slave” while Xenophon likened the teaching of slaves “to the training of wild animals.” Aristotle further opined that “it is clear that there are certain people who are free and certain who are slaves by nature, and it is both to their advantage, and just, for them to be slaves.” The Romans seized so many captives from Eastern Europe that the terms “Slav” and “slave” bore the same origins. All the great cultures of the ancient world, from Egypt to Babylonia, Athens to Rome, Persia to India to China, depended upon the brutal enslavement of the masses – often representing heavy majorities of the population.

[Where to start, where to start… Well, let’s start with where Medved is right, as that will take the least amount of time: slavery has been around for as long as human history, it is true.


With all of the nations and empires he has mentioned, there were very distinct rules for treatment of slaves, especially in the Western nations. That second Aristotle quote? He was discussing all of humanity, not a specific race or peoples. In the Roman, Greek, Persian, and Egyptian empires (I don’t know enough about the others to debate them) slaves were given wages and could be freed through their own labours, either with time or with payment, the slaves literally buying themselves free. That happen in America?]

Contrary to the glamorization of aboriginal New World cultures, the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas counted among the most brutal slave-masters of them all --- not only turning the members of other tribes into harshly abused beasts of burden but also using these conquered enemies to feed a limitless lust for human sacrifice. The Tupinamba, a powerful tribe on the coast of Brazil south of the Amazon, took huge numbers of captives, then humiliated them for months or years, before engaging in mass slaughter of their victims in ritualized cannibalistic feasts.

[You know, “Hey! At least we didn’t eat them!” has got to be the weakest defense of slavery I’ve ever heard.]

In Africa, slavery also represented a timeless norm long before any intrusion by Europeans. Moreover, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch or British slave traders rarely penetrated far beyond the coasts: the actual capture and kidnapping of the millions of victims always occurred at the hands of neighboring tribes.

[Also true: for the most part, slave traders were purchasers rather than kidnappers. And this makes it fine… how, exactly?]

As the great African-American

[Note from Medved to conservatives: never call people “black” when being racially insensitive! It makes those kinds of people annoyed. We think.]

historian Nathan Huggins pointed out, “virtually all of the enslavement of Africans was carried out by other Africans” but the concept of an African “race” was the invention of Western colonists, and most African traders “saw themselves as selling people other than their own.”

[That’s because then, as now, the Western colonists didn’t bother making the distinction. Black was black, after all; what else did you need to know? The Africans saw themselves as tribes, but the Europeans were smarter than that, and saw colours instead. I mean, it’s not like Slavs were white or anything, right? Er… wait…]

In the final analysis, Yale historian David Brion Davis in his definitive 2006 history “Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World” notes that “colonial North America…surprisingly received only 5 to 6 percent of the African slaves shipped across the Atlantic.” Meanwhile, the Arab slave trade (primarily from East Africa) lasted longer and enslaved more human beings than the European slavers working the other side of the continent. According to the best estimates, Islamic societies shipped between 12 and 17 million African slaves out of their homes in the course of a thousand years; the best estimate for the number of Africans enslaved by Europeans amounts to 11 million. In other words, when taking the prodigious and unspeakably cruel Islamic enslavements into the equation, at least 97% of all African men, women and children who were kidnapped, sold, and taken from their homes, were sent somewhere other than the British colonies of North America. In this context there is no historical basis to claim that the United States bears primary, or even prominent guilt for the depredations of centuries of African slavery.

[Shall we go over this section again? Never mind comparing one thousand years of one culture who has massive a land link to Africa with a couple hundred years of the far more difficult transition across water; never mind that the older culture was actually a massive empire before any of the tribal mob in Europe got over punching each other in the nose; never mind that Europe was separated from Africa for much of its history by the very Islamic nation he’s comparing it to; never mind the First Crusades happened because Europe was so disorganized that Pope Urban II was trying to get the petty warlords to stop raiding each other’s home states and get the troublemakers off the continent where they could be someone else’s problem.

So, other than those little quirks, no problems in this paragraph. So this isa serious attempt to place the institution in historical context”, is it? Excuse me if I’m unconvinced.]


[Who have, of course, never felt the sting of racism. Ever. They haven't, now SHUT UP!]

The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution put a formal end to the institution of slavery 89 years after the birth of the Republic;

[And we know how well that worked.]

142 years have passed since this welcome emancipation.

[And some of them even got to vote! Eventually, they were considered full human beings, too! What else did those people want, dang it?]

Moreover, the importation of slaves came to an end in 1808 (as provided by the Constitution), a mere 32 years after independence, and slavery had been outlawed in most states decades before the Civil War.

[Only “most states” because the Northern states, being older, were smaller and more numerous. (DC kept slaves until 1850 – Southern representatives just couldn’t do without, it seems.) And those uppity slaves kept having rebellions, didn’t they? In fact, Nat Turner’s in Virginia resulted in much stricter slave laws. And that was in 1831, a “mere” 23 years after the importation of slaves became illegal. New states added after the Mexican War are allowed to decide for themselves whether they would be abolitionist or not. And that was in 1850, a “mere” 42 years after imports were banned. What the heck was that, anyways? A precursor to anti-dumping laws?]

Even in the South, more than 80% of the white population never owned slaves.

[Not that many could afford them. But the people who couldn’t just accepted it – so no problem, then!]

Given the fact that the majority of today’s non-black Americans descend from immigrants who arrived in this country after the War Between the States, only a tiny percentage of today’s white citizens – perhaps as few as 5% -- bear any authentic sort of generational guilt for the exploitation of slave labor.

[As long as you: 1) accept the concept of “generational guilt”; 2) ignore the repercussions of slavery; and 3) consider the acceptance of slavery, mute or vocal, as no big deal. And until genetic testing is done, who knows? There may be as many of them as there are descendants of Genghis Kahn.]

Of course, a hundred years of Jim Crow laws, economic oppression and indefensible discrimination followed the theoretical emancipation of the slaves, but those harsh realities raise different issues from those connected to the long-ago history of bondage.

[History only matters when we say it does, damn it! Those horrible Jim Crow laws just came out of no where! We were taken totally by surprise! Who could have seen them coming, I ask you?]

3. THOUGH BRUTAL, SLAVERY WASN’T GENOCIDAL: LIVE SLAVES WERE VALUABLE BUT DEAD CAPTIVES BROUGHT NO PROFIT. Historians agree that hundreds of thousands, and probably millions of slaves perished over the course of 300 years during the rigors of the “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic Ocean. Estimates remain inevitably imprecise, but range as high as one third of the slave “cargo” who perished from disease or overcrowding during transport from Africa.

[One reason why the abuse of Native populations WAS genocidal was that they made atrocious slaves: they tended to lay down and die (yes, literally) rather than be slaves of this new, white man variety. So they were killed off and chased from their land instead. If the opportunity were there, then yeah, slavery would have been genocidal.]

Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of these voyages involves the fact that no slave traders wanted to see this level of deadly suffering: they benefited only from delivering (and selling) live slaves, not from tossing corpses into the ocean.

[Um. So the financial losses slave traders suffered was “Perhaps the most horrifying aspect”? Not the cramming in of human cargo to three times the normal capacity; the disease running rampant; the malnutrition and dismay? Am I misreading something here, or did Medved actually say this?]

By definition, the crime of genocide requires the deliberate slaughter of a specific group of people; slavers invariably preferred oppressing and exploiting live Africans rather than murdering them en masse.

[There’s actually another version that can take place too, Mike. The elimination of a culture from the face of the earth is genocide, whether the people of that culture survive or not.]

Here, the popular, facile comparisons between slavery and the Holocaust quickly break down: the Nazis occasionally benefited from the slave labor of their victims, but the ultimate purpose of facilities like Auschwitz involved mass death, not profit or productivity.

[So defending your own bad hypothesis with the straw man of another bad hypothesis is your justification for this dreck? Wow.]

For slave owners and slave dealers in the New World, however, death of your human property cost you money, just as the death of your domestic animals would cause financial damage. And as with their horses and cows, slave owners took pride and care in breeding as many new slaves as possible.

[And that’s why they could ban imports in 1808, as you previously bragged. Lovely! By the way, numbers alone are NOT what cattle and horse breeders were, or are, looking for.]

Rather than eliminating the slave population, profit-oriented masters wanted to produce as many new, young slaves as they could. This hardly represents a compassionate or decent way to treat your fellow human beings, but it does amount to the very opposite of genocide. As David Brion Davis reports, slave holders in North America developed formidable expertise in keeping their “bondsmen” alive and healthy enough to produce abundant offspring. The British colonists took pride in slaves who “developed an almost unique and rapid rate of population growth, freeing the later United States from a need for further African imports.”

[About that – since there was interest in “breeding” the slaves, they could never go free, very much unlike the other empires used in comparison. Even if they escaped, where were they going to go? There was no where that offered even the prospect of fitting in. And here again is where the idea of “race” came into play – black was black, not “of a specific tribe”. Slavery here had no hope of escape, no chance of freedom, and was a law for generations. Even Apartheid only lasted 45 years, and I presume very few would try justifying it!]

4. IT’S NOT TRUE THAT THE U.S. BECAME A WEALTHY NATION THROUGH THE ABUSE OF SLAVE LABOR: THE MOST PROSPEROUS STATES IN THE COUNTRY WERE THOSE THAT FIRST FREED THEIR SLAVES. Pennsylvania passed an emancipation law in 1780; Connecticut and Rhode Island followed four years later (all before the Constitution). New York approved emancipation in 1799. These states (with dynamic banking centers in Philadelphia and Manhattan) quickly emerged as robust centers of commerce and manufacturing, greatly enriching themselves while the slave-based economies in the South languished by comparison.

[The oldest states were the richest, and where banking centres based themselves. Anyone here surprised?]

At the time of the Constitution, Virginia constituted the most populous and wealthiest state in the Union, but by the time of the War Between the States the Old Dominion had fallen far behind a half-dozen northern states that had outlawed slavery two generations earlier. All analyses of Northern victory in the great sectional struggle highlights the vast advantages in terms of wealth and productivity in New England, the Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest, compared to the relatively backward and impoverished states of the Confederacy.

[Shall we compare farmers and bankers, or does that strike you as too complex? Sheesh.]

While a few elite families in the Old South undoubtedly based their formidable fortunes on the labor of slaves, the prevailing reality of the planter class involved chronic indebtedness and shaky finances long before the ultimate collapse of the evil system of bondage.

[Okay, fine: the cotton was where, and the textile mills were where? For those unaware of it, the cities produced an entire underclass of people that could be cheaply exploited to work in factories. If the idea hasn’t sunk in yet, answer this: who makes more money: the person who sells a dress, the person who makes the dress, or the person who produces the cotton the dress is made of? Welcome to Economics 098.]

The notion that America based its wealth and development on slave labor hardly comports with the obvious reality that for two hundred years since the founding of the Republic, by far the poorest and least developed section of the nation was precisely that region where slavery once prevailed.

[And is still the poorest regions in the nation. Since nothing has changed since, it must have been the slavery, yup!]


[As I mentioned before, slavery in the Americas was utterly unique in the sheer hopelessness of the slaves’ circumstance. Can’t wait to hear about the “special credit” the U.S. deserves!]

In the course of scarcely more than a century following the emergence of the American Republic, men of conscience, principle and unflagging energy succeeded in abolishing slavery not just in the New World but in all nations of the West.

[Wow. “People did stuff + we were a nation by then = we deserve the accolades!” This view that nothing happened until it happened in America is simply awe inspiring…]

During three eventful generations, one of the most ancient, ubiquitous and unquestioned of all human institutions (considered utterly indispensable by the “enlightened” philosophers of Greece and Rome) became universally discredited and finally illegal – with Brazil at last liberating all its slaves in 1888.

[Let me guess: you’re going to utterly ignore the French intellectuals whose work through the 1700s formed the vary basis of the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, right?]

This worldwide mass movement (spear-headed in Britain and elsewhere by fervent Evangelical Christians) brought about the most rapid and fundamental transformation in all human history. While the United States (and the British colonies that preceded our independence) played no prominent role in creating the institution of slavery, or even in establishing the long-standing African slave trade pioneered by Arab, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and other merchants long before the settlement of English North America,

[Only for changing it. Is there anyone, anyone at all, who thinks America invented slavery? Anyone? Or is this (shock and horror) another straw man Medved is bravely doing battle with? Wait, I think I know.]

Americans did contribute mightily to the spectacularly successful anti-slavery agitation. As early as 1646, the Puritan founders of New England expressed their revulsion at the enslavement of their fellow children of God.

[A movement brought with them from England. Think this will get mentioned?]

When magistrates in Massachusetts discovered that some of their citizens had raided an African village and violently seized two natives to bring them across the Atlantic for sale in the New World, the General Court condemned “this haynos and crying sinn of man-stealing.” The officials promptly ordered the two blacks returned to their native land. Two years later, Rhode Island passed legislation denouncing the practice of enslaving Africans for life and ordered that any slaves “brought within the liberties of this Collonie” be set free after ten years “as the manner is with the English servants.” A hundred and thirty years later John Adams and Benjamin Franklin both spent most of their lives as committed activists in the abolitionist cause, and Thomas Jefferson included a bitter condemnation of slavery in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence.

[Wait: you quote one incident, then another two years later, then jump 130 years? Miss something, there? Like those folks in the two states you mentioned were from that British sect of Puritans, who were always and consistently opposed to slavery, and didn’t represent the views of “Americans” at large?

Modern comparison: does the fact that Quakers are opposed to war mean Americans are pacifists? Discuss.]

This remarkable passage saw African bondage as “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty” and described “a market where MEN should be bought and sold” as constituting “piratical warfare” and “execrable commerce.” Unfortunately, the Continental Congress removed this prescient, powerful denunciation in order to win approval from Jefferson’s fellow slave-owners, but the impact of the Declaration and the American Revolution remained a powerful factor in energizing and inspiring the international anti-slavery cause.

[Founded by British Protestants, and born of French Idealism, both of which vigorously denounced slavery and promoted personal freedoms. I notice once again that you’re not bothering to mention that, Mike! Can’t imagine why… Oh, wait! It’s because there WAS NO HISTORY until the United States existed, right?]

Nowhere did idealists pay a higher price for liberation than they did in the United States of America. Confederate forces (very few of whom ever owned slaves)

[Soldiers are always drawn from the poorest classes, aren’t they? Funny that! Thankfully, that sort of selectiveness doesn’t happen any more, does it?]

may not have fought consciously to defend the Peculiar Institution, but Union soldiers and sailors (particularly at the end of the war) proudly risked their lives for the emancipation cause.

[Or for a paycheque. After all, today’s soldiers are dying to make sure their sisters don’t have to wear burkhas, right?]

Julia Ward Howe’s powerful and popular “Battle Hymn of the Republic” called on Federal troops to follow Christ’s example: “as he died to make men holy/let us die to make men free.”

[Propaganda: it’s what’s for dinner! Since we're on the subject, ever read Twain's The War Prayer?]

And many of them did die, some 364,000 in four years of combat—or the stunning equivalent of five million deaths as a percentage of today’s United States population.

[People die in war? No way!]

Moreover, the economic cost of liberation remained almost unimaginable. In nearly all other nations, the government paid some form of compensation to slave-owners at the time of emancipation, but Southern slave-owners received no reimbursement of any kind when they lost an estimated $3.5 billion in 1860 dollars (about $70 billion in today’s dollars) of what Davis describes as a “hitherto legally accepted form of property.” The most notable aspect of America’s history with slavery doesn’t involve its tortured and bloody existence, but the unprecedented speed and determination with which abolitionists roused the national conscience and put this age-old evil to an end.

[Spoken again as if other countries, philosophers, and writings had not existed until the United States was created: an astounding achievement, that.]


[Or to quote Barbara Bush regarding the Hurricane Katrina victims: “this is working very well for them.”]

The idea of reparations rests on the notion of making up to the descendants of slaves for the incalculable damage done to their family status and welfare by the enslavement of generations of their ancestors. In theory, reparationists want society to repair the wrongs of the past by putting today’s African-Americans into the sort of situation they would have enjoyed if their forebears hadn’t been kidnapped, sold and transported across the ocean.

[Actually, no. It’s about how those people were treated when they got here. You know: facts rather than hypotheticals.]

Unfortunately, to bring American blacks in line with their cousins who the slave-traders left behind in Africa would require a drastic reduction in their wealth, living standards, and economic and political opportunities.

[But you’d prefer to stick to hypotheticals, I see. Really, this is about what happened, not what the world might have been like if it didn’t.]

No honest observer can deny or dismiss this nation’s long record of racism and injustice,

[I thought you’ve been saying it wasn’t that long a period? Huh.]

but it’s also obvious that Americans of African descent enjoy vastly greater wealth and human rights of every variety than the citizens of any nation of the Mother Continent. If we sought to erase the impact of slavery on specific black families, we would need to obliterate the spectacular economic progress made by those families (and by US citizens in general) over the last 100 years. In view of the last century of history in Nigeria or Ivory Coast or Sierra Leone or Zimbabwe, could any African American say with confidence that he or she would have fared better had some distant ancestor not been enslaved?

[I repeat: this is about what happened, not what didn’t. Understand the difference?]

Of course, those who seek reparations would also cite the devastating impact of Western colonialism in stunting African progress, but the United States played virtually no role in the colonization of the continent. The British, French, Italians, Portuguese, Germans and others all established brutal colonial rule in Africa; tiny Belgium became a particularly oppressive and bloodthirsty colonial power in the Congo.

[Okay, fine: you want to play this game? We’ll play.

If you are going to go back several generations for the blacks, then we’re going to go back that many for whites, too. That means, Mike, that yeah, Americans WERE responsible for the colonization of Africa (and the rest of the world) because White Americans came from England, France, Italy, Germany, Portugal and even “tiny Belgium”… It’s a stupid argument, sure: easily as bad as your own. But I’m not letting you have it both ways, sorry.]

The United States, on the other hand, sponsored only one long-term venture on the African continent: the colony of Liberia, an independent nation set up as a haven for liberated American slaves who wanted to go “home.”

[How tempting – a “home” thousands of miles away, in a country they have never heard of. Can’t imagine why more didn’t go! This wasn’t a case of the Jews and Israel: the American Blacks in the early 1800s had no money, few resources, and little education. What exactly were they going to do when they got there? Liberia was a poorly thought out excuse: for liberals, to make themselves feel better; and for racists to (hopefully) move potential troublemakers out of the country. Not much more than that.]

The fact that so few availed themselves of the opportunity, or heeded the back-to-African exhortations of turn- of-the-century Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, reflects the reality that descendants of slaves understood they were better off remaining in the United States, for all its faults.

[So being treated like shit here was better than potentially dying there. Hobson’s choice, and they’re supposed to be grateful for it?]

In short, politically correct assumptions

[Beware anyone who uses “politically correct” as an excuse not to do something: it means they have no actual argument otherwise.]

about America’s entanglement with slavery lack any sense of depth, perspective or context.

[As compared to this brilliant work?]

As with so many other persistent lies about this fortunate land, the unthinking indictment of the United States as uniquely blameworthy

[Get that straw man, Mike! Beat that sucker up!]

for an evil institution ignores the fact that the record of previous generations provides some basis for pride as well as guilt.

[Pride? Who said anything about not being proud of America’s achievements? But someone who is proud of their achievements doesn’t hide their past: that is a coward’s mark.]

So there we have it – Michael Medved’s supposed proof that slavery wasn’t really that bad. After all, it was (1) traditional; (2) limited; (3) non-genocidal; (4) NOT American; (5) a way to provide America glory by eliminating it; and (6) better than Africa!

Well, I’m convinced! I’m so inspired, in fact, that I’m gonna go light a scarecrow on fire! That’ll teach it! Hell, Yeah!


posted by Thursday at 2:31 pm


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! The stupidity and American exceptionalism are layered about 6” thick on a twig’s worth of argument in Medved’s post.

I just love how he doesn't mention the French or the British ending of slavery (although IIRC the French tried to take back their decision, resulting in years of bloodshed and Hati's independence). Or how he shifts between “the US is the best country ever!” and “Other countries were mean too! Why don’t you go pick on them?” And how he tries to give the Union the credit for fighting the Civil War against slavery, but the Confederacy none of the blame for seceding because they might not be allowed to expand slavery further.

7:11 pm  
Blogger Thursday said...

It's really a grand example of "History with Blinkers", isn't it?

Re: Hati:

The difference between a nation's philosophers and their politicians, eh?

Thanks for the comment.

7:48 pm  

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