As I noted before, sometimes the hardest things to explain are the ones that are self-evident to you. So it seems to be with Michael Medved's apologia for slavery. Denis Bider, who usually strikes me as a clear-thinking individual, rose to Medved's defense when I obliquely accused Medved of trying to roll the clock back to 1950. It seemed obvious to me that Medved's position was thinly disguised bigotry of the basest sort, but apparently this is not evident to everyone. So herewith a detailed critique of Medved's piece:
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 invariably focus on America’s bloody past as a slave-holding nation.
Note that Medved starts out by tacitly assuming that the only possible motive someone might have for focusing on America's bloody past as a slave-holding nation is that they "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" as if this is the most likely reason for anyone to be paying attention to this little historical incident.
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.
What "mania" and what "exaggerations" exactly? He doesn't cite any examples of who he considers manic, or what he considers current. But the idea of reparations if fairly contemporary, and later context seems to indicate that that's what he's talking about, so we'll go with that as a working assumption.
No, it’s not true that the “peculiar institution” featured kind-hearted, paternalistic masters and happy, dancing field-hands, any more than it’s true that America displayed unparalleled barbarity or enjoyed disproportionate benefit from kidnapping and exploiting innocent Africans.
Ah. So just because America's barbarity was not "unparalleled" or the benefits gained were not "disproportionate" that makes it OK?
SLAVERY WAS AN ANCIENT AND UNIVERSAL INSTITUTION, NOT A DISTINCTIVELY AMERICAN INNOVATION.
Granted, but so what? Since when did "but everyone else was doing it too" become a valid excuse according to conservative morality?
[Lengthy accounting of other slaveholding nations snipped.]
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.
On this reasoning a murderer should be able to argue: "Hitler, Stalin, etc. have killed countless millions. I only killed one person. Therefore I do not bear primary or even prominent guilt for my actions." How well do you think that would fly in a Texas courtroom?
SLAVERY EXISTED ONLY BRIEFLY, AND IN LIMITED LOCALES, IN THE HISTORY OF THE REPUBLIC – INVOLVING ONLY A TINY PERCENTAGE OF THE ANCESTORS OF TODAY’S AMERICANS.
The same argument applies: "It took only a second for me to pull the trigger, your honor. So I was only a murder for a tiny fraction of my life." To say nothing of the fact that the claim isn't even true:
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution put a formal end to the institution of slavery 89 years after the birth of the Republic; 142 years have passed since this welcome emancipation.
Why start counting from "the birth of the Republic"? The slaves surely didn't. And to draw the analogy back to to the individual case, this is analogous to a murderer claiming that all the people he killed before he turned 18 ought not to count. Or even to accept Medved's accounting, it's analogous to a serial killer who goes on a 9-year-long murder spree followed by a 14-year retirement and saying that everything is now square.
Moreover, the importation of slaves came to an end in 1808 (as provided by the Constitution), a mere 32 years after independence
Ah, so because at that point we were only enslaving people born here that somehow makes it better? That seems like some might odd balancing of the moral scales to me.
Slavery had been outlawed in most states decades before the Civil War.
That is simply false. There were brief windows during which free states outnumber the slave states, but great pains were taken to try to keep the number of slave and free states the same. The ultimate failure of this effort is one of the things that the civil war was fought over.
Even in the South, more than 80% of the white population never owned slaves.
So because only one in five people decides to murder people that makes it OK to make murder legal?
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.
Perhaps as few? Is there any basis for this number, or did Medved just pull it out of his ass?
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.
They do? Why? Note that I have elided nothing here. That is Medved's sole mention of Jim Crow in the entire piece. No elaboration on why "those harsh realities raise different issues." It seems to me that those harsh realities raise exactly the same issues: an entire class of people was systematically denied basic human rights and equal treatment under the law. The difference between slavery and Jim Crow is a difference of degree, not of kind.
THOUGH BRUTAL, SLAVERY WASN’T GENOCIDAL: LIVE SLAVES WERE VALUABLE BUT DEAD CAPTIVES BROUGHT NO PROFIT.
So just because it wasn't your intent to kill people that somehow makes it less heinous that they died as a result of your reprehensible actions? How exactly do you square that with the case of Kenneth Foster who narrowly escaped being put to death by the state of Texas not for killing someone but merely for driving someone else after they had killed someone?
[Details of slavery atrocities snipped]
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. 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. 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.
At this point my ability to remain calm breaks down. Anyone who cannot see the absurdity in this is beyond help. Just because you intended to treat people like animals and end up killing a lot of them only inadvertantly does not mean that your actions were "the very opposite of genocide." Whether or not it was genocide is perhaps debatable. That it was every bit as morally reprehensible and unforgivable as genocide is not.
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.”
Ye gods, can Medved not hear himself? This is what he cites to make the case that "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 invariably focus on America’s bloody past as a slave-holding nation"? Medved is essentially, saying, "We didn't intend to kill the slaves, we just intended to breed them like cattle. What you bleeding-hearts getting so worked up about?"
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.
At the risk of getting tiresome (because I want to be absolutely clear that NONE of Medved's arguments are even remotely valid): because they didn't make money that makes it OK?
[Details of the negative ecnomic consequences of slavery snipped.]
WHILE AMERICA DESERVES NO UNIQUE BLAME FOR THE EXISTENCE OF SLAVERY, THE UNITED STATES MERITS SPECIAL CREDIT FOR ITS RAPID ABOLITION. 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.
The United States was the last Western nation to abolish slavery, and the only one that had to fight a civil war to do it. I predict that if the United States ever switches to the metric system Medved will write an essay about how we deserve special credit for that too.
THERE IS NO REASON TO BELIEVE THAT TODAY’S AFRICAN-AMERICANS WOULD BE BETTER OFF IF THEIR ANCESTORS HAD REMAINED BEHIND IN AFRICA.
It is hard to imagine a more condescending claim. Even if it were true, so what? Isn't it supposed to be a conservative tenet that people should be free to choose their own course in life even if it results in undesirable consequences? If I kidnap a child of poor parents, should it be a defense that I was able to give that child a better life than his parents would have been able to?
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. 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.
Imagine that I kidnap a child of poor parents, an academic underachiever with no prospects, and hack off all their limbs. Imagine further that they manage to escape, sell their life story to Hollywood, and make more money than they ever would have been able to make had I not kidnapped them. Imagine further that because of my power and influence I am able to escape prosecution for my crime. (I know that kind of thing never happens, but bear with me here.) Suppose that the kid brings a civil suit against me for pain and suffering. Should I be able to use as an argument in my defense that the kid is better off because of what I did to him?
No honest observer can deny or dismiss this nation’s long record of racism and injustice
And yet that is exactly what Medved is doing. Well, if the shoe fits...
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.
That assumes that no Africans would have emigrated to this country if it had not been for slavery, a dubious assumption at best. The rest of this argumnt thus becomes a non-sequitur, and I have elided it.
In short, politically correct assumptions about America’s entanglement with slavery lack any sense of depth, perspective or context.
No, it is Medved's straw-man that lacks any sense of depth, perspective, or context. The not-so-thinly veiled subtext of Medved's position is simply this: everything is fine, except for blacks being a little too uppity, along with the white liberals who support them, a class of people which in the 1950's were referred to as "nigger lovers."
If the shoe fits.