by Akim Reinhardt
It wasn’t so very long ago that some Americans held people as slaves, other human beings as their own private property, as if that person were a horse or a chair, to do with, to use, abuse, exploit, beat, and rape as they pleased. What’s more, until the late 1840s most Americans thought that slavery was acceptable. The great majority found themselves somewhere along a spectrum that at one end actually exalted slavery as a positive thing, a benefit to black people they deemed radically inferior, and at the other end said, Well, it’s a real shame, and I certainly don’t condone it or want it where I live, but what’s done is done, and I guess it isn’t the worst thing in the world, and anyway there’s nothing we can do about it now, so that’s that. And in between those two ends of the spectrum rested any number of justifications and rationalizations that people used to explain, excuse, praise, rationalize, or simply accept the reality of human bondage in their nation.
Black slaves had been owned and held in every English colony prior to the Revolution and in every U.S. state after it, the practice only ending for good in the North during the early 19th century. Indeed, before the sectional crisis that began to emerge in the 1840s, the acceptance of slavery was so widespread that there was even a small number of black slaveholders, free blacks who themselves had purchased a slave or two.
Yet here we are, in our post-civil rights world, and we find the idea of slavery to be repugnant, horrific, and wretched. How could our ancestors have found this acceptable on any level, much less have engaged in it (Obviously I’m speaking as white person here.)? So it is left to us, as future generations, to try to make sense of it and, inevitably, to judge it. To cast our squinty gaze upon them and say: What the fuck. How on earth could you have been so incredibly fucked up? I just don’t get it. You people were fucking monsters.
Or there’s the whole process of murdering Indians and stealing their lands. Let’s judge that one. Pretty easy from this distance, huh?
What about the Holocaust? Care to take a whack at whether that was really, really wrong? Go ahead. My money says you’ll agree with us.
I study the past. It’s what I do for a living. Like any historian, I strive to understand the past in a historical context and on its own terms. But as a human being, I inevitably use my own presentist sense of morality and ethics when passing judgment on it. And here’s the thing. Slavery and genocides, those are easy for us now. Yeah, super wrong, we get it. But who would you have been back then, in the moment? We all want to believe that we would have been the person working to free slaves through the underground railroad, or living peaceably with Indians, or smuggling Jews out of Europe. But guess what? You wouldn’t have. Or at least, it’s not very likely. No, odds are, you would’ve been some douche bag who justified it with mealy mouthed excuses, or laid low and avoided talking about such unpleasantness. Why? I’ll tell you why.
Because when crazy shit is the norm, the lunatic fringe are the ones who embrace the right choice. If crazy is normal, then the right answer seems crazy. I’ll say it again. If crazy is the norm, then opposing it seems crazy.
You know who the abolitionists were? Not to paint with too broad of a brush here, but a lot of them were religious fanatics. They were the crazies, the radicals, the ones that everyone else pointed to and said: Hey, you’re really nuts. What the hell’s wrong with you? Knock it off already. Abolitionists were the ones who regular people mocked, jeered, and cursed. They were the outsiders of their day, the lunatic fringe of the early 19th century. Slavery was normal, so a society that largely accepted slavery labeled them as crazy.
Of course most of them weren’t actually crazy, they were just the radical fringe. But even when many Northerners began to contest slavery beginning in the late 1840s, it was largely on economic grounds, not as an issue of morality. So as a group, moralistic abolitionists who opposed slavery not out of self-interested concerns but because they believed it was the right thing to do, were only a tiny fraction of the national population and far removed from the cultural mainstream. Mostly comprised of well to do New Englanders, they were a minority even where they lived.
However, it’s not enough to say that early 19th century abolitionists were the radical fringe of their day because they opposed slavery, that they were the righteous ones who were misunderstood and unfairly lumped in with the crazies. No, you have to dig deeper. And when you look hard at them, what you find is that while the abolitionists opposed slavery, and they did so on moral grounds, it’s not as if they believed what you believe exactly: that slavery was a contemptuous manifestation of racism. No, that’s not what most abolitionists thought. Abolitionists thought slavery was wrong because it violated their religious convictions, that it was an offense to Jesus. And the whole racism thing actually didn’t bother them that much.
In fact, most Abolitionists didn’t have much of a problem at all with the racism that underpinned the institution of slavery. Why? Because they were racist too. Most abolitionists did not doubt the inferiority of the black people they wanted to save. That’s why many of them, when thinking about what to do with all those slaves they wanted to free, advocated repatriation: send all the blacks back to Africa. Someone advocates that now, you think they’re a degenerate racist, and rightly so. Back then, the send `em all back to Africa crowd were actually the good guys. Founded in 1816, the American Colonization Society was an alliance of abolitionist Quakers and slaveholders afraid of free blacks influencing their slaves. From 1821-22, they set up a colony in Africa as a dumping ground for free blacks. They called it Liberia (sounds like “liberty,” get it?), and they named the capital Monrovia, in honor of then-President James Monroe, himself a god damned slave owner. And that’s how you get the West African nation of Liberia today. Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up.
So let me ask you something. You think that if you lived back then you would’ve been the one, the one white person who thought slavery was bad because racism is bad? Yeah?
You’re flattering yourself. At best, you would’ve been half a scumbag, someone who thought slavery was awful, and that those poor monkey-like people, so childlike and inferior, should be shipped off to Africa for their own good. If you were, by the standards of the day, an angel with a penchant for martyrdom, that’s what you probably would have believed. And much more likely, you would have been three-fourths of a scumbag with one excuse or another. And who knows, maybe under the right circumstances, you might have even been a full-on scumbag. You know, the type who defended the institution of slavery and maybe even participated in it some way, perhaps as a slave trader, slave driver, slave catcher, slave overseer, or some such. Actual slave owner? Less likely. They were really expensive.
So here we sit in the early 21st century, judging those who participated in or were otherwise complicit in slavery, and rightly so. What they did was incredibly wrong and unjustifiable by our sensibilities. But if you were a white person living back then, you’d be somewhere along the spectrum of the day. So the question then becomes: Who are you now? What screwed up little spectrum are you sitting along today?
A hundred, two hundred, five hundred years from now they’re gonna be sitting in judgement on your ass. They’re gonna be shocked at some of the shit you do, that you just take for granted, or maybe feel kinda bad about, but you know, that’s life, everyone does it, and it does kinda work for me, I know, I know, but sigh . . .
What’s it gonna be? Can you look around and figure out what they’ll judge you for? What are you doing that will make them call you a savage or a monster?
A few years before I gave up eating meat at age 27, I had a pretty strong feeling that this was one of them. I was still wolfing down burgers when it occurred to me that in a century or two or five, they’re gonna look back at us and think, what a bunch of savages. They’re going to understand that for most of human history eating meat was either a necessity and/or just part of the way things went in pre-modern times, and that even in the early stages of industrial development it was still understandable. And of course there needs to be a transition period for something as culturally intrinsic as eating food. But still? During the 21st goddamn century, when meat was a luxury as opposed to a necessity, and absolutely no one in the developed world had a reason beyond, mmm, that sure tastes good, even then they were still killing animals and eating them? And not just killing animals, but raising them in mass production factory environments that incorporated animal torture techniques to maximize profits, even then they were still eating them because they were yummy? You know, with a mentality similar to the way slave holders beat slaves because it was such a great stress reliever, or raped slaves because, god damn that feels good, or killed Indians because they wanted their land.
I knew this. I would take a bite of a ham sandwich and rather un-self-consciously think to myself: Yup. That’s what they’re gonna think of us. They’re gonna judge us like we judge slaveholders, Indian killers, and Nazis.
Thoughts like that might eventually encourage a person to change. Maybe. And after a few years of thinking these things over, I eventually gave up eating meat.
I don’t eat mammals, I don’t eat poultry, and I don’t purchase leather products. I eat fish, and quite a bit of it. And perhaps more incriminating in some ways, I eat dairy, which means I’m helping to indirectly support things like the raising and slaughtering of veal calves.
I’m like the guy who thinks slavery is bad, and I eventually free my own slaves if I have any, and then join an abolitionist group. I’m in the lunatic fringe. But I don’t completely follow through with a boycott of Southern cotton made from slave labor, even though I know an effective boycott would help cripple the slave economy. And the reason I don’t follow through is because I really love those good shirts and slacks made with Southern cotton. My wardrobe’s full of them, and I wear them all the time. Hell, I walk into a goddamn abolitionist meeting wearing a whole outfit made from Southern cotton, then sit down and talk about how awful slavery is, how we’ve gotta raise money to do something about it. I roll up the sleeves on my Southern cotton shirt and say let’s get down to work. Let’s raise enough money to buy these slaves, set them free, and then get them some one-way tickets to Liberia.
That’s who I am. A fucked up member of the lunatic fringe, a looked down upon minority, who’s doing a really half-assed job of trying to make the world a better place as I understand it.
Who are you?