Sunday, February 14, 2010

History and forgiveness

Once again Brad DeLong points me in the right direction, which in this case is to a column by Ta-nehisi Coates at the Atlantic site:

It's been twenty years since Nelson Mandela got out. This was like the defining political event of my youth. I was either a freshman or sophomore in high school, can't remember which. What I think is pretty cliche: Whatever South Africa's problems, the fact that the country (and its leaders) did not descend into mass revenge mode is an enduring tribute to compassion and empathy.

It's a great object lesson on how to handle being wronged. It's one of the things I've struggled to accept as an African-American. There is no Rosewood. Often you are wronged, and by your hand, or even in your lifetime, your persecutors will never be brought to account. There are limits to our justice. It doesn't mean you shrink in the face of injustice (South Africa did no such thing) but that you recognize that it's not really in your power to even the odds.

I've been thinking about this a lot in my study of the crimes of slavery, the Civil War and Jim Crow. I don't think the scales will ever be evened. I don't even know how you would begin to do that in any kind of moral way. That said, I want to differentiate between recognizing your limits, and sweeping a wrong under the rug. Our greatest problem, in regards to the legacy of white supremacy, is not it's effects, it's that we don't understand the rudiments of what happened.

There is a long and interesting comment section for this post, much of it about the Confederate general Longstreet, but on the main topic this response is sterling:
You know, I think part of what you're getting at here is revelatory. Most people believe forgiveness is conceptually similar to absolution, in that it is a transaction between people, given from one to another for wrongs against them, and that it wipes the slate clean.

In fact, forgiveness is a far sweeter and more complex thing. It has little to do with the person or thing being forgiven; they are incidental. Instead, it is a letting go within yourself; a surrendering of the right to feel victimized and hurt. You use the example of slavery and systematic dehumanization and oppression of blacks and the longing to have some "evening of the odds". Who is most affected by gripping the hurt of that injustice so strongly, so closely for so long? Who does it weight down and fill with anger and tip over and spill onto the ground? Not the people who perpetrate the injustice; just the people who suffer it.

The revelatory aspect of your post comes in your distinction between recognizing and calling out injustice, and allowing it to take hold in your heart like a cancer: "It doesn't mean you shrink in the face of injustice..." to "That said, I want to differentiate between recognizing your limits, and sweeping a wrong under the rug."

To reiterate: forgiving a wrong is not absolving a wrongdoer. 99% of people conflate these two very, very different concepts. Forgiveness is something you do for yourself; absolution is something you do to someone else.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti's "national debt"

Haiti is still financially crippled by paying for the freedom of their slave ancestors. Foreign Policy's Annie Lowrey explains this appalling historical injustice, citing the long and detailed Alex von Tunzelmann article in the Times of London:
Haiti, as a nation, has suffered violence, unrest, juntas, and natural disasters. One thing it need not suffer anymore, given the earthquake? Its debt obligations. This Times of London article explains how Haiti became so indebted in the first place.
The appalling state of the country is a direct result of having offended a quite different celestial authority -- the French. France gained the western third of the island of Hispaniola -- the territory that is now Haiti -- in 1697. It planted sugar and coffee, supported by an unprecedented increase in the importation of African slaves. Economically, the result was a success, but life as a slave was intolerable. Living conditions were squalid, disease was rife, and beatings and abuses were universal. The slaves’ life expectancy was 21 years. After a dramatic slave uprising that shook the western world, and 12 years of war, Haiti finally defeated Napoleon’s forces in 1804 and declared independence. But France demanded reparations: 150m francs, in gold.

For Haiti, this debt did not signify the beginning of freedom, but the end of hope. Even after it was reduced to 60m francs in the 1830s, it was still far more than the war-ravaged country could afford. Haiti was the only country in which the ex-slaves themselves were expected to pay a foreign government for their liberty. By 1900, it was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments. In order to manage the original reparations, further loans were taken out -- mostly from the United States, Germany and France. Instead of developing its potential, this deformed state produced a parade of nefarious leaders, most of whom gave up the insurmountable task of trying to fix the country and looted it instead. In 1947, Haiti finally paid off the original reparations, plus interest. Doing so left it destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile. Haiti was trapped in a downward spiral, from which it is still impossible to escape. It remains hopelessly in debt to this day.

This September, Haiti qualified for the cancellation of $1.2 billion of its $1.9 billion in external debt. To ensure the recovery of the nation and the livelihoods of its 9 million citizens, the IDB and any other lenders should fully cancel any remaining debt obligations.

If current debts are written off, it will be a remarkable and maybe unique manifestation of morality in international finance.

Maybe the big bankers can dip into their bonus fund?

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dixie down

I feel compelled to post most of the material following from Brad DeLong's blog, because "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is the only depiction of the Civil War, historical or fictional, that has ever made me feel any sympathy for those who fought for the Confederacy:

Thus Robbie Robertson [member of "The Band" who wrote the song in 1969] incites the ire of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who believes that we have very different memories of the Winter of '65, and don't need to invent Robertson's particular one:

Ta-Nehisi Coates: What you see above is the train of Rebels fleeing the city, as the Union troops enter from the other side. I was thinking about the Richmond yesterday, and The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."... I'm told that it's a great song, and I don't so much doubt this, as I doubt my own magnanimity. I'm reminded of one of my father's favorite quotes, "The African's right to be wrong is sacred." Or Aaron McGruder's line, "I reserve the right to be a nigger." I can no more marvel at The Band then a Sioux can marvel at the cinematography of "The Died With Their Boots On." I wouldn't fault the man who could, but it's not me My empathy is a resource to be rationed like all others. My right to be wrong is sacred. My right to be a nigger is reserved. I started to play the song yesterday, and stopped myself. Again, I was angry. Again, another story about the blues of Pharaoh, and the people are invisible. The people are always invisible....

The expectation that someone else will tell your story for you, will write your ballads for you, will reconcile your history for you, is foolish and vain.... I'm no Robbie Robertson, but I do carry the words of my old, magical people:

I have just returned from the city of Richmond; my regiment was among the first that entered that city. I marched at the head of the column, and soon I found myself called upon by the officers and men of my regiment to make a speech, with which, of course, I readily complied. A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind. After which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe, as they termed him. In this mighty consternation I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart. I rested to gain strength, so I lost many important topics worthy of note.

Among the densely crowded concourse there were parents looking for children who had been sold south of this state in tribes, and husbands came for the same purpose; here and there one was singled out in the ranks, and an effort was made to approach the gallant and marching soldiers, who were too obedient to orders to break ranks.We continued our march as far as Camp Lee, at the extreme end of Broad Street, running westwards. In camp the multitude followed, and everybody could participate in shaking the friendly but hard hands of the poor slaves.

Among the many broken-hearted mothers looking for their children who had been sold to Georgia and elsewhere, was an aged woman, passing through the vast crowd of colored, inquiring for one by the name of Garland H. White, who had been sold from her when a small boy, and was bought by a lawyer named Robert Toombs, who lived in Georgia. Since the war has been going on she has seen Mr. Toombs in Richmond with troops from his state, and upon her asking him where his body-servant Garland was, he replied: "He ran off from me at Washington, and went to 'Canada. I have since learned that he is living somewhere in the State of Ohio." Some of the boys knowing that I lived in Ohio, soon found me and said, "Chaplain, here is a lady that wishes to see you." I quickly turned, following the soldier until coming to a group of colored ladies. I was questioned as follows:

"What is your name, sir?" "My name is Garland H. White." "What was your mother's name?" "Nancy." "Where was you born?" "In Hanover County, in this State." "Where was you sold from?" "From this city." "What was the name of the man who bought you?" "Robert Toombs." "Where did he live?" "In the State of Georgia." "Where did you leave him?" "At Washington." "Where did you go then?" "To Canada." "Where do you live now?" "In Ohio." "This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son."

I cannot express the joy I felt at this happy meeting of my mother and other friends. But suffice it to say that God is on the side of the righteous, and will in due time reward them. I have witnessed several such scenes among the other colored regiments.

Late in the afternoon, we were honored with his Excellency, the President of the United States, Lieutenant-General Grant, and other gentlemen of distinction. We made a grand parade through most of the principal streets of the city, beginning at Jeff Davis's mansion, and it appeared to me that all the colored people in the world had collected in that city for that purpose. I never saw so many colored people in all my life, women and children of all sizes running after Father, or Master Abraham, as they called him. To see the colored people, one would think they had all gone crazy. The excitement at this period was unabated, the tumbling of walls, the bursting of shells, could be heard in all directions, dead bodies being found, rebel prisoners being brought in, starving women and children begging for greenbacks and hard tack, constituted theorder of the day. The Fifth [Massachusetts] Cavalry; colored, were sfill dashing through the streets to protect and preserve the peace, and see that no one suffered violence, they having fought so often over the walls of Richmond, driving the enemy at every point.

Among the first to enter Richmond was the 28th U.S.C.T. better known as the First Indiana Colored Volunteers. . Some people do not seem to believe that the colored troops were the first that entered Richmond. Why, you need not feel at all timid in giving the truthfulness of my assertion to the four winds of the heavens, and let the angels re-echo it back to the earth, that the colored soldiers of the Army of the James were the first to enter the city of Richmond. I was with them, and am still with them, and am willing to stay with them until freedom is proclaimed throughout the world. Yes, we will follow this race of men in search of liberty through the whole Island of Cuba. All the boys are well, and send their love to all the kind ones at home."

Chaplain Garland H. White,
28th USCI, Richmond, Virginia,
April 12, 1865; CR, April 22, 1865

White's letter can be found in the book A Grand Army Of Black Men (p. 175.) For the serious civil war nerd, this book, a massive collection of letters written by black soldiers during the War, is indispensable.

Then again, maybe Robbie Robertson is saying something else. Virgil Cain may say so, but we all know that the real killer of Cain's brother Abel wasn't no Yankee stranger from afar, was he?

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Our savage era

Over at Daily Kos, there is a diary showing excerpts from the Google Earth atlas of North Korea. (The original site is here, but I found it a little impenetrable.) Below are two images that chilled me.

"The image above depicts an area covered with mounds. It's speculated these mounds are actually mass graves for some of the more than 2 million people that starved to death in the famine of the 1990s. "

Then there is this:

"The structures in the picture are just a small portion of a North Korean prison camp called 'Camp 16.' The entire camp measures 18 miles by 16 miles (four times the size of the District of Columbia). No ground level pictures of the prison camp have ever made it out of the country."

Now you know why the pictures and films of liberated concentration camps at the end of World War II are so important.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Phil Paine finds his own memorial to genius and heroism in Toronto

He describes a rare moment:

When I first began to read seriously in history, as a boy, my instincts led me to avoid looking for heroes. Trying to find people in the past to admire and respect can be a trap. One is bound to be disappointed. The sad truth is that scoundrels and monsters routinely find their way into history books, but good people do not. The very fact that one is a decent human being virtually guarantees that one will be forgotten. Historical figures propped up as models or champions of this and that usually turn out to be outright frauds, or at the very least to have genuine accomplishments marred by major flaws. But there was one historical figure that I could not help admiring, and that was Frederick Douglass, whose Autobiography inspired me from childhood. And I did not know until recently that I could walk on the very floor where Douglass walked and spoke, right near my own home.

At the corner of King and Jarvis stands St. Lawrence Hall. This fine structure was built in 1850 to provide a venue for public meetings, concerts, balls, and other cultural events of the little city that was then maturing out of its crude frontier beginnings. Over the next century, the hall would be used to echo the voice of Jenny Lind, display the curios of P.T. Barnum, and be used as a practice dance hall by Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. The structure is well preserved, and an excellent example of the Renaissance Revival style of the mid-nineteenth century. Unlike most such structures, it has maintained its intended function throughout its existence.

The timing of its construction was propitious, for there was an important issue for public discussion: the recently enacted Fugitive Slave Law in the United States. This law allowed agents from the southern slave states to conduct a reign of terror in northern states, kidnapping runaway slaves, and many free blacks, and dragging them back to the slave pens of the south. It effectively unleashed the tentacles of the monstrously evil institution of slavery throughout the United States, canceling out existing abolitionist reforms. This hideous injustice would soon lead the United States into a bloody civil war. The activities of the Underground Railway, the organized resistance movement which smuggled escaped slaves to freedom in Canada, were now much more dangerous. Upper Canada had enacted legislation for the abolition of slavery in 1793. On the issue of slavery, Canadians were consistently and adamantly on the side of the angels. The underground railway terminated in Toronto. Escaped American slaves formed free agricultural communities scattered around rural Ontario, and much of the resistance was organized here.

So it's not surprising that Frederick Douglas came to Toronto, and spoke at the newly-built St. Lawrence Hall to a cheering crowd of 1,200 on April 3, 1851[1]. Yesterday, I entered the building, and walked through the empty hall, which has not much changed in general appearance.

Since I acknowledge so few heroes from the annals of history, I rarely get that special thrill that historians can enjoy... the pleasure of planting one's feet on a spot trod by a paladin. I once stood rapt with pleasure in front of Mozart's house, listening to one of his arias being sung. But Mozart's is an example of a tragic life, transcended by genius, and can hardly serve as an example to follow. I have no transcendent genius of my own, so his example is useless to me, personally.

But the work of Frederick Douglass has long been, for me, a kind of guidebook in the quest for freedom and human dignity. The man was a genius, no doubt about it, but it was a real-world genius.

Read the whole thing.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

The not-so-good-old days

Medievalists are are constantly being put in the position of responding to the modern connotations of the word "medieval." For many modern people the Middle Ages acts as a dumping ground for every nightmare that can be attributed to humanity. The great witchhunt of European history took place after the Middle Ages; the purges and holocausts of the 20th century put most medieval slaughters, ruthless and cruel as they may have been, in the shade. We often find ourselves pointing out such things to people who carelessly use "medieval" to mean "bad." (Indeed, my dictation software heard that last usage of medieval as "and evil" so we are seemingly in the position of fighting the machines, too.)

But we must face the fact that most of history, including the Middle Ages, were not exactly the good old days. Some scholarly blogging posts of the last week or so underline this.

Jonathan Jarrett, I believe, started the ball rolling with a post on Sex slaves in the early Middle Ages: what’s the evidence? over at his blog A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. his point was that he didn't know what the evidence for sex slavery might be and he hoped someone would enlighten him. Soon after, he found himself shocked by reflecting on well-known evidence about the prominent monastery of Cluny in eastern France. As he put it, "slaves are all through the material from Cluny [in the tenth century]." that reflection, and chance meeting with another medievalist blogger, Magistra et Mater, went into this post on trading "ancillae [slave women]."

At the same time Magistra et Mater has been writing about some subjects that might excite prurient interest, but deserve serious thought, too. For instance, how exactly were disobedient monks flogged in the time of the Carolingian kings? And somewhat less grim, were families about the same time somewhat reluctant to write off their daughters as ruined if they indulged in a little premarital sexual activity? Maybe for good practical reasons the Carolingian Franks were a little less likely to condemn such girls than some other cultures. These are all isolated points perhaps, but important for visualizing how things actually worked for individual people, like a monk about to be flogged, or the teenager worried about how dad is going to react to her little adventure.

Finally, the subject of slavery (mostly later than medieval) is discussed by Phil Paine in this post, inspired by a book on 18th century Moroccan slavery (item 16305). Conclusion: there is no "nice slavery," ancient, medieval, early modern, or current

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Robert Heinlein was born on July 7, 1907. His centennial inspired this article in Reason Magazine which does a reasonable job of summing up his career and influence.

As someone who like so many others was deeply influenced in my youth by Heinlein, I have a few things I'd like to add to Brian Doherty's article.

First, it's a little unfortunate, but in the United States perhaps unavoidable, that the whole framework for discussing Heinlein is based on how it fits into American cultural obsessions. I like, however, Doherty's final conclusion that Heinlein was a "full-service iconoclast." Well said: whatever your sacred cow, Heinlein could slaughter it with a few well-chosen words or a long, perhaps excessive rant. Whichever way he managed it, he'd make you think -- if not necessarily agree with him.

Second, Doherty says little, except in connection with conscription, of Heinlein's loathing for slavery, and nothing at all about his hatred for racism. A complete and utter rejection of racism was not so common among Americans of the early 20th century, especially those raised in former slave states. As for slavery itself, no child who ever read A Citizen of the Galaxy (a bit of an homage to Kipling's Kim, but smarter) will doubt for a second that slavery is evil or that slavers' excuses for their attempts to own human beings are contemptible.

Third, and perhaps even more important than the second point, Doherty hardly touches on Heinlein's own great obsession, and the lack says a great deal. Heinlein spent most of his life not just writing about space travel, but promoting the real thing, and his influence on government research into rocketry in the late 40s and early 50s is an untold story. Heinlein believed that space exploration and the expansion of the human race throughout the universe was the obvious road to a great future. His extraordinarily influential juvenile novels were so because they made that future expansion -- with its rewards, costs, challenges and unimaginable discoveries -- look real and attainable. He would be appalled that going to Mars is for most people a fantasy, for the American leadership a cheap talking-point to be trotted out once to distract people from the rolling catastrophe.

He might say now, why can't we have the world of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars -- quite a scary place in some ways -- instead of the futility of the Iraq War and Darfur and heads in the sands about global warming?

Soundtrack: Written while listening to a track called They Came in Peace by Tranquility Bass, cablecast by the Galaxie music network of the CBC.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

William St. Clair, The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British slave trade

The Atlantic slave trade will naturally come up more than once in my fall and winter course, A History of the Modern World. It is one of the key characteristics of the early modern period (which I define as 1400-1800), and its results can be seen on the faces and fates of the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

The complexities of this trade are well-treated in this new (2006) book by William St. Clair, who has a genius for taking one series of sources and illuminating a huge web of relationships. His sources are the documents preserved in London from Cape Coast Castle (now in Ghana), a British fort established and maintained to promote and protect the British slave trade. St. Clair says that there are few places that are potentially so well known over a long period (1660s to the mid 19th century) . His own presentation of this material is quite wonderful. If only more people could write like this. I haven't finished the book yet, but even if it goes steeply downhill after p. 115 it will still have been an enjoyable and illuminating read.

Students who will be in my first-year class in September (if any come across this) might want to ponder this impressive list from p. 4:

Among those who received dividends from the slave trade were the British royal family, the British aristocracy, the English Church, and many institutions, families and individuals. Plantation owners in the West Indies and North America prospered from the sale of commodities produced by slave labour, as did some of their employess and business partners, and profits remitted to Britain skupported others who never left home. A similar reckoning coud be made for the other slaving nations. But it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that every person in the Europeanised world who put sugar in their tea or coffee, spread jam on their bread, who ate sweets, cakes, or ice0cream, who smoked or chewed tobacco, took snuff, drank rum or corn brandy, or wore coloured cotton clothes, also benefited from, and participated in, a globalised economy of tropical plantations worked by slaves forcibly brought from Africa.

The jam connection never occurred to me...

Image: Loango, now in the Republic of the Congo, an early modern African coastal metropolis.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Jarbel Rodriguez's Captives and their Saviors in the Medieval Crown of Aragon

At the Medieval Studies congress in Kalamazoo last month, this book caught my eye and I picked it up. Even paid for it! My interest grows out of my current study of Charny's Questions
on War, which include many on capture and ransom of legitimate combatants ("men at arms") and their rights of the two parties. Rodriguez here talks about something different here: how common it was for Christians and Muslims to enslave each other along the religious frontier in Spain and the Mediterranean, how cruel conditions were, how expensive and unlikely ransom was, yet how important the relief of captives was as a policy for important institutions like town governments, religious institutions, and royal government. Rodriguez talks primarily on the basis of documents from one Christian kingdom, the Aragonese confederacy, but makes it clear that these things worked both ways and capturing and ransoming affected all parts of the society he studied. There is a lot more written on this subject, but this was a good introduction to a big topic.

Both literary works and documents make it clear that in many medieval wars, even when there was no difference of religion to justify enslaving, non-combatants were taken for the purpose of ransoming them back.

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