I have zero admiration for Ben Carson, but even Ben Carson deserves better than the criticisms that have been made of his first speech as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Ben Carson’s first full week as secretary of Housing and Urban Development got off to a rough start on Monday after he described African slaves as “immigrants” during his first speech to hundreds of assembled department employees. The remark, which came as part of a 40-minute address on the theme of America as “a land of dreams and opportunity,” was met with swift outrage online.
Mr. Carson turned his attention to slavery after describing photographs of poor immigrants displayed at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. These new arrivals worked long hours, six or seven days a week, with little pay, he said. And before them, there were slaves.
“That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity,’’ he said. “There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters, might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”
Carson’s remarks elicited widespread “outrage” for his supposed failure to observe the fact that immigrants migrate by choice to a country of their choice, whereas slaves are seized by force, transported by force, and sold involuntarily into forced labor. The implication of the criticism would appear to be either that Carson was unaware of the distinction between voluntary migration and the forced nature of slavery, or that he was aware of it, but minimized the distinction so as to make slavery seem less bad than it really is. Unfortunately, both criticisms are absurd, as is the outrage itself.
First of all, as Carson himself correctly noted, dictionary definitions of “immigrant” do not distinguish between voluntary and involuntary means of migration to a foreign country, but subsume both. The first definition of “immigrant” that comes up in a Google search defines an immigrant as “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.” There is no reference in the definition, whether implicit or explicit, to voluntariness or involuntariness. As far as the definition is concerned, slaves can be immigrants. It may be unusual to refer to slaves as immigrants, but an unusual use is not wrong simply because it’s unusual, not if it falls squarely within a dictionary definition for the term. “Immigrant” contrasts with “traveler” and “native-born person,” not with “slave.”
In any case, some of Carson’s most prominent critics managed to concede this very point in the act of criticizing him–treating him like an idiot while sounding, themselves, a lot like idiots. Here is Whoopi Goldberg, via Twitter:
Ben Carson..please read or watch Roots, most immigrants come here VOLUNTARILY,cant’t really say the same about the slaves..they were stolen.
Goldberg’s assertion that “most immigrants come here VOLUNTARILY” is consistent with the claim that some came/come involuntarily. But the claim that some immigrants came/come involuntarily is consistent with Carson’s claim that slaves were immigrants who came involuntarily. Goldberg’s “criticism” therefore makes no sense: there’s no such thing as a criticism that asserts a claim that’s perfectly consistent with the claim being criticized.
Goldberg’s snarky prescription to Carson “to read or watch Roots” implies that Carson is literally ignorant of the fact that African slaves were brought to North America involuntarily. But his explicit reference to “slave ships” makes that presupposition extremely unlikely. It seems much more likely that Goldberg (and many others like her) saw an opportunity to take a cheap pot shot at Carson, unquestionably an easy target, and found a cheap way to do it. Alas, it’s bad enough to take a cheap shot at an easy target, but worse when the cheap shot misses.
While we’re on the subject of history, however, it’s worth pointing out that Roots is a work of fiction. So not only does Goldberg’s criticism make no logical sense, it makes no historical sense, either. If a person is genuinely ignorant of history, or in the grip of myths about it, it makes no historical sense to encourage him to read or watch a work of fiction, even historical fiction. Fiction lays out the imaginative workings of the author’s imagination, not the facts of history. It doesn’t tell us what really happened, and doesn’t remedy the ignorance of someone unaware of what happened.
It makes far more sense to encourage a historically-ignorant person to read a work of historiography on the relevant subject. Why, then, did Goldberg not suggest a work of historiography to read? One possibility is that she hasn’t read one. But a person who hasn’t read any historiography on slavery probably shouldn’t be getting on her high horse when it comes to historical knowledge of slavery. Another possibility is that she has read one. But in that case, she should have suggested that Carson read the historiography on slavery that she herself has read–in other words, the historiography that proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the slave trade involved a series of involuntary transactions. Either way, her labored attempt at cleverness ends up looking kind of stupid.
Slaves aside, there are at least two significant classes of involuntary immigrants who aren’t slaves. By definition, a child under the age of consent cannot consent to his or her parents’ decision to immigrate. But when parents decide to immigrate from one country to another, they typically take their children with them–with or without the childrens’ permission or consent. A child taken in this fashion from one country to another may not be a slave, but is still taken involuntarily and is still an immigrant. So that’s one species of “involuntary immigrant who’s not a slave.” Another example: a refugee who is literally forced from one country to another without having a choice about leaving his home country or fleeing to the next country. A forced migrant or refugee has by definition been transferred to the second country in an involuntary fashion, but is still an immigrant without being a slave. So that’s another species of “involuntary immigrant who’s not a slave.”
If you add the number of unconsenting child-immigrants to the number of involuntary migrant/refugees forced from one country to another (subtracting the children counted twice because they fall under both headings), you get a pretty large figure, probably one in the millions or tens of millions. So it can’t be claimed that non-slave involuntary immigration is a minor or trivial phenomenon. Huge numbers of immigrants are immigrants by subjection to someone else’s decision (e.g., children) or by force majeure (e.g., refugees), rather than by free choice. There are, in short, lots and lots of involuntary immigrants in the world who are not slaves. It’s kind of hard to miss them. And both are counter-examples to the idea that immigration is by definition a voluntary phenomenon.
Incidentally, if you happen to think that my first counter-example–child-immigrants–is somehow morally insignificant (because childrens’ wishes don’t count for much), consider the case of the somewhat older child who is rooted in one country, then torn from those familiar surroundings by her parents and more or less dragged to an entirely new country, whether for good reasons or bad.
We tend to feel some empathy for the American child who has to move from one town to the next, or one state to the next, on the grounds that she’s torn from relatively familiar surroundings and required to face entirely new ones disruptive of normal childhood development–a new neighborhood, new school, new friends, etc. Kids who move a lot suffer for it, psychologically speaking, at least as a matter of statistically significant correlation. And it’s not hard to see why. Anyone who’s had to move a lot, even in adulthood, knows how disruptive it is.
If that situation elicits empathy, you’d think that the situation of child-immigrants would elicit more empathy, since such children face not just a new neighborhood, school, and friends, but all of that plus a new country, customs, and language (along with the travails of the move itself). Evidently, however, the Empathy Police doesn’t regard any of this as worth taking seriously: much more important to score rhetorical points against Ben Carson than to consider what it’s like to be a child-immigrant. My point, of course, is not that child-immigration is a phenomenon morally on par with slavery. My point is simply that child-immigration is a morally and psychologically significant phenomenon, a fact that seems lost on people eager to signal to us that slavery was really, really wrong, and equally eager to “prove” that their political opponents would deny that.
I guess it would be both caviling and piling on to note that indentured servants weren’t precisely slaves, but were both immigrants and brought involuntarily to these shores. But it would still be true and still count against Carson’s critics.
The truth is, it’s Carson’s critics who have been insensitive to the plight of immigrants, not Carson who’s been insensitive to the plight of slaves. It’s absurdly implausible to suppose that Carson (even Carson) is ignorant of the involuntary nature of the slave trade. Nor is there any evidence out there to suggest that he was. It’s not at all implausible to suppose that Carson’s critics are ignorant of the nature of involuntary immigration. The evidence consists of their outraged insistence that immigration is, by definition, a matter of choice. It isn’t.
Yes, the Trump Administration sucks. Yes, his cabinet choices suck. Yes, Ben Carson sucks, too. The problem is, the criticisms being made of Carson’s speech suck even more than Trump and Carson themselves do. It takes a grotesque sort of effort and skill to get me to sympathize with members of the Trump Administration, but sometimes Trump’s liberal critics manage to achieve the near-impossible.
You’d think by now that American liberals might have learned that Twitter is the wrong medium for political debate, that grandstanding is a waste of time and political capital, and that “gotcha” approaches to political discourse are self-defeating–but no: the learning curve has proven as steep after the election as before. Every day brings the latest liberal attempt to beat Trump’s deplorables at the Clever Derby, to show how stupid they are, to catch them out in obvious mistakes that any idiot could avoid–and every day brings ignominious failure followed by half-chastened bewilderment. “How could such idiots have taken hold of the presidency and of the government?” people wonder. Answer: Possibly because they aren’t idiots, and because the attempt to prove that they are is foredoomed to failure. If only our news media (and social media) outlets had focused more on Trump’s intelligent supporters, and less on his stupid ones, we might have learned this lesson by now.
A suggestion for our liberals: it could be that the only road out of the Trump Presidency is the high road of moral principle–not a matter of showing how clever we are, or how stupid they are, but of identifying the principles that distinguish liberalism from Trumpism, and out-doing Trump’s supporters in our adherence to those principles. As a start, we might want to consider the possibility that liberalism involves an ethics of discourse. We might also want to consider the possibility that this ethics implies that it isn’t possible to conduct rational political discourse 140 ungrammatical and unpunctuated characters at a time. It could even be that the first step toward overthrowing the political tyranny of Trump is to overthrow the discursive tyranny of Twitter. And it might be that the second and closely-related step is to recover a form of political discourse that exhibits more respect for logic, grammar, and conceptual precision than most of our discourse currently exhibits. Even more amazingly still: it could be that we have to take both steps at once. Just a thought.
Postscript. Well, I got Whoopi Goldberg and Ava DuVernay in there, so why balk at Samuel L. Jackson’s idiot contribution to this discussion? I find it frankly amazing that people can applaud this shit, take it seriously, or even regard it as superior to Carson’s speech. This is just outright idiocy masquerading as bien pensant liberalism.
Whoopi Goldberg is not very smart. But we’ve known that for a long time. The more bothersome thing is how few of Carson’s critics rise above her level. But this is just point scoring politics as usual, isn’t it? Not that its regularity is a reason not to criticize it, but in a perverse way it’s almost comforting because it’s the kind of bullshit I’ve been hearing my whole adult life instead of the new variety of super bullshit that we’ve been getting from the new administration. Give me bad reasoning over lies and baseless accusations any day.
I know, I’m a cynical bastard.
I don’t dispute any of that. My point is simply that when you’re facing Super Duper Bullshit of the Trump variety, the old habits of deploying garden variety liberal bullshit against it won’t do. I won’t belabor my opposition to Trump here, or my adherence to liberalism. I’ll just say that in some ways, the Trump phenomenon gives liberals an opportunity to re-consider what we’ve been doing wrong, and to re-fashion a new approach to politics that remedies the defects of the old one (while preserving the best of the liberal tradition in the process). It’s not just that Whoopi Goldberg isn’t smart. It’s that she exemplifies a tendency among liberals that has to die if we’re to make it out of the mess we’re in. The tendency is partly responsible for our being in the mess we’re in.
Put in simplest and most reductive form: we need to demand that the Trump Administration start issuing policy statements in English rather than in tweets. But to do that, we have to get the fuck off of Twitter ourselves. Once we do, we’ll be in a better place, but it’ll take some doing to get there.
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You plainly need to watch Roots, Irfan.
I plainly do.
It’s good to know, by the way, that David Riesbeck, Whoopi Goldberg, and Ayn Rand are of one mind on Roots and the need to read/see it.
Of course, Rand also managed to publish an essay (transparently ghost-written by her but with her husband’s byline) that was neutral about the racism of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. But draw your own conclusion as to the meaning of that fact. (Review of Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me, “reviewed by Frank O’Connor as told to Ayn Rand,” in The Objectivist vol. 8, Nov. 1969, pp. 743-52).
Roots really is genuinely very good as television. The novel is a bit more of a mixed bag, with some things that have aged well literarily speaking and other things that have not. I’m a little pleasantly surprised to see that Ayn Rand liked it.
It’s not surprising to me that, having perceived the romantic (in Rand’s sense) aspirational American story that’s at the emotional core of the intergenerational epic, that she would find that appealing. But she is not always good at perceiving that sort of thing in a story when the story does not have the subcultural affinities that she likes it to have or the right sort of overt relationship to the grand frontier/Hollywood epic of America or whatever.
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This comment spent a week in my spam filter; I just happened to see it and liberate it.
I’m amused at the quaintness of some of the things I said in 2017. “We need to demand that the Trump Administration start issuing policy statements…” LOL
The fact that Carson’s use of the term “immigrant” as inclusive of slaves complies with the correct dictionary definition of the word doesn’t make the totality of Carson’s statement – or Carson himself – any less batshit crazy than people are saying he is. Some of those people are better off working on their own literacy issues than airing self-defeating word salad retorts on social media. Nevertheless, the fact is that even though it’s become common and expected for Carson to say things that make people seriously wonder if he is an extraterrestrial, he’s in a profession where effective public communication is part of the core job description (along with a bunch of other skills Ben Carson doesn’t possess). Using the word “immigrant” without any real qualification in the context he did may be technically accurate, but so is going to a wake and referring to the deceased as “the corpse” to the grieving widow.
I think it also bears mentioning that his usage of “immigrants” to include slaves, when used in conjunction with the characterization of immigrants to the US as those seeking “a land of dreams and opportunity” highlights precisely why the speech is rightly critiqued as an oratorical dumpster fire. African slaves imported to the US differed from all other types of immigrants I know of in our country’s history in that not only was their displacement involuntary, but it was enacted through forcible capture and kidnapping. It is true that Syrian refugees, Jews fleeing the Holocaust (what few we let in), and Cubans defecting on makeshift rafts all left their home countries for the US fearing a strong likelihood of death. But even those acts of flight are conscious and volitional for the agent undertaking them in a way that being physically overpowered, bound, and shackled isn’t. It’s also notable that for the most part, refugees may not have the choice of staying in their home country, but can and do make choices about the direction of their flight, and those choices revolve around their self-interest and desire for a better life than they’re leaving behind. So “dreams and opportunity” may be an overly flowery way of putting that, but in the case of refugees, it’s at least logically applicable. In the case of an abducted West African tribesman who wasn’t considering relocation before the chains went on, not so much.
That said, the crux of your message about the behavioral patterns and priorities of an alarming proportion of American liberals is absolutely on target, and reveals a lot of very disturbing truths that not enough people want to talk about in any great depth. When people this outraged so consistently reveal they aren’t well enough informed to justify in a cogent, fact-based way the thing they’re outraged about as differentiated from things they say they’re fighting for, you have to ask why they’re choosing to participate in the whole endeavor in the first place. Overwhelmingly, I find that the underlying motive behind political commentary – especially that aired on social media – is not discourse, and is not the pursuit of better government, but is rather a craving for a sense of personal belonging to a particular in-group or movement. I can’t imagine any other reason why broadcasting 140-character blasts of gibberish would be such a popular form of commentary.
The sad truth is that most liberals are not different in a foundational sense from their right wing counterparts in being totally uneducated in the real sense of the word (i.e., knowing hard facts from the level of primary sources, employing logic). They hold views on issues, and follow stories, but more often than not when asked to justify their views, the justification is superficial and derivative, e.g.:
– “Well, [name of TV personality] said _____.”
– “Well, [name of opinionated personal friend] told me ______.”
– Citation of an op-ed
– Blatant ad hominem attack
– Describing any position they oppose as “just not right,” “not OK,” or something they’re “not comfortable with”
The glimmer of hope is that at least the left still mostly professes to value intellect, science, ethical conduct, and rationality, whereas the Trumpist right is avowedly anti-intellectual, anti-science, and fixated on unprincipled tribal dominance. Meaning one camp is merely uneducated, whereas the other is literally uneducable. The notion of a political order based on robust discourse is a dim light glowing from a long distance, and there’s no sign that we’re even moving in its direction.
But I 100% agree that anyone who can communicate cogent thoughts in complete, grammatically correct (or close) sentences has an obligation to do so, to get the fuck off Twitter, and to encourage others to join that movement. Furthermore, legitimate journalism has no place reporting on tweets – starting with Trump’s. Journalism consists of reporting things that happen based on the evidence that those things happened. Not regurgitating nonsense someone tweeted. And really, not isolated lascivious quotes or sound bites either. The news media continue to make the conscious choice to devote scarce time and resources to covering (e.g.) Trump’s Twitter allegations against Obama, and people continue to make themselves a market for this. If I had any interest in knowing what Donald Trump were tweeting, two things I might do are:
1. Have a Twitter account.
2. Follow Donald Trump on Twitter.
I’m not doing either of those things.
I don’t need bullshit tweet stories occupying 30% of NPR’s drive time programming if I’m working a 12-hour day before coming home to get vomited and pooped on by my children. The free market has shown it’s plenty good at catering to people who want to devolve into lower primates and hurl their feces at each other in cyberspace. Surely there should be a media niche for people who are into literacy and facts and who don’t really care if they’re abreast of “breaking news” and the 24-hour news cycle.
This isn’t a trivial point. Most of us want to be informed but aren’t in a position to take a sabbatical from our lives. The news we consume should bring us closer to those primary sources of foundational information. So shedding the vices (Twitter) is only half the solution. We have to acquire the virtues too (first admitting to the problem that not enough of us have them in the first place).
Finally, as much as I myself would like to immigrate to some utopia where highly informed rational discourse is the only political norm, that place doesn’t exist in reality. If anything, the past few months have painfully reinforced the point that we are a highly intellectually heterogeneous nation that struggles with decisions between distasteful alternatives. Fighting back oppression and fascism requires mass engagement and an acceptance of the fact that the high ground of moral principle, as you call it, isn’t attainable in any meaningful way if intellectual credentialing of some sort is a prerequisite to engagement in the dialogue, or if the dialogue is dominated by what you call the Clever Derby. I think if anything that’s another reason why there needs to be a mass movement to abandon the practice of political sparring on social media threads, in favor of more constructive and informative forums.
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Since I agree with the latter part of your comment, let me just respond to first few paragraphs. The bottom line is that I find Carson’s comment essentially unobjectionable.
I don’t accept the analogy. Referring to the deceased as a corpse is insensitive, but there’s nothing insensitive about referring to slaves as immigrants–unless you assume that Carson was relying on the assumption that “immigration” is a voluntary phenomenon to minimize the badness of slavery. That’s now become the accepted interpretation of what he was doing, but I really don’t see it. He wasn’t denying the slavery was brutal. He was focusing on the fact that slaves and immigrants ordinarily understood have something in common–as they do. They both came here from abroad and both bought into the American Dream.
I can see someone’s disputing that if they think that the American Dream is a bullshit ideal. But it’s overwrought and ridiculous to object to it on the grounds that it implies that Carson regards slavery as voluntary, or has “lumped” slavery in with voluntary immigration.
Here is Ava DuVernay, on Twitter:
Fucking come on. That’s just grandstanding at its most opportunistic. No one–including Carson–is denying that slaves were kidnapped, tortured, etc. Nothing that Carson said can fairly be interpreted to make slavery seem better than it was. All he was doing was highlighting the similarity between slaves and immigrants (in the usual sense). I don’t see the problem.
For convenience, let me reproduce your entire second paragraph:
I really don’t buy that. In other words, I don’t see the oratorical dumpster fire here. Is anyone–Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel L Jackson, Ava DuVernay–prepared to deny that slaves had dreams? If not, what exactly are they protesting in Carson’s speech (that I haven’t already covered)? In fact, what are they doing, but deploying their blackness as a kind of public bludgeon against Carson the Pseudo Black Man, as if to say “We’re the Real Deal and You’re Not”?
First of all, it’s worth remembering that “slaves” is not co-extensive with “those slaves who were kidnapped in Africa and forced onto ships in the Middle Passage.” The word “slave” refers to all slaves, including first-, second-, and n-th generation slaves. Just as we refer to first-, second-, and n-th generation hyphenated Americans as “immigrants” in an extended sense, so it makes sense to refer to nth generation slaves as “immigrants” in the same sense. (No one makes a big deal when someone defends immigration by proclaiming himself an “immigrant” in an extended sense, even if what he turns out to mean is “My name is O’Reilly, and the O’Reilly’s came here from Ireland in the Potato Famine! We’re all immigrants, after all!”)
Even if you want to quarrel with calling an n-th generation person an immigrant, it’s indisputable that first generation people are (colloquially) described as immigrants in an extended sense. But first-generation slaves weren't kidnapped. They were here through kidnapping. As you go down the generations of slavery, the conditions of slaves improved. Compare an nth generation African American slave working on a plantation in the Carolinas with a Chinese immigrant working on the rail lines in California. It’s hardly obvious that the physical conditions of the immigrants were appreciably better than those of the slaves. Carson’s critics are criticizing him as though that was entirely obvious. Slaves had it hard, they seem to be implying, but immigrants did not have it comparably so. Really? That’s just false.
Second, African American slaves may differ in their manner of reaching these shores from all the immigrants in American history, but they do not differ from all immigrants per se. For one thing, they don’t differ greatly from indentured servants even in America. But think of the Palestinian refugees who fled the Israeli army in 1947-48, or our own family fleeing Amritsar for Lahore in 1947. The Palestinians fled at gunpoint to wherever they could to avoid being killed. Our family fled Amritsar for Pakistan to avoid the same fate. Neither Palestinians nor Muslim-Punjabis-under-threat had any choice about leaving their homes, and neither party had any choice about their destination. The first was dictated by coercive threats, the second by geography. No, they weren’t kidnapped and shackled; it’s just that guns were pointed at their heads and they were told to run for their lives (and hundreds of thousands of them were gunned down).
Details aside, both slavery and forced migration are cases of force in both respects: both slaves and refugees are forced to leave their homes, and both are forced to a specific destination. We could now quibble about who exactly had it worse, but there’s no denying as a conceptual matter that non-slave immigrants are sometimes (often) forced to leave their homes for specific destinations not of their choice, just as slaves were. And an eight year old child taken into slavery from West Africa is not that much different from an eight year old child taken from mid-nineteenth century China or Japan by impoverished parents who wanted to settle in some ghetto on the West Coast.
Now put the two preceding points together. Isn’t it plausible to think that Carson was referring to the dreams that came into existence over time in the slave community–i.e., over generations, as exemplified by the development of African American culture in slave communities? Maybe the original “immigrants” in the strict sense (i.e., slaves) had no time for dreams, but as the generations came into existence, and conditions improved, slaves may well have come to dream dreams in just the way that non-slave immigrants did. And these slaves were “immigrants” not in a strict sense, but in the extended sense that Americans otherwise love to use.
To say this is not to deny the brutalities they suffered, much less to deny that slavery is involuntary. It’s simply to note that even people who suffer brutality come to dream dreams. Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning famously arose out of his experience in the Holocaust. Anne Frank’s diary is famously all about her dreams for the future as well. Well, if you can search for meaning through the Holocaust, why can’t you dream dreams despite slavery?
Here is what strikes me as the infernal irony. I’m in a multicultural counseling class, and we just finished reading a case study, “Clinical Applications with African Americans,” in Sue, Gallardo, & Neville’s Case Studies in Multicultural Counseling and Therapy. This is a passage from a case study involving a 16-year-old African American girl named Nia. Her complaint:
So how is this classroom experience to be processed?
In other words, when Ben Carson says that slaves have dreams, he’s an ignorant quasi-racist Uncle Tom. But when a history teacher tells an African American student that slavery destroyed black culture, the teacher is contributing to the internalization of racism in the student.
The message here seems to be: when it comes to racism, we’ve set the discursive game up so that you can’t win–no matter who you are, or what you say. If you utter p, you’re a racist. But if you utter ~p, you’re a racist. If you utter p, and you’re black, you’re a racist. But if you utter ~p, and mention that your wife is African American…you’re a racist. It’s like a parody of the genetics lesson in “Fear of a Black Planet” (or a secularized version of Original Sin). No matter what you say, you’re guilty.
No matter how reprehensible the Trumpsters are, their views acquired the power they have because there is a denied element of truth in them, which Trump has amplified, distorted, and played to the peanut gallery. The denied grain of truth is that the left is drunk on accusations of racism (as is the right, when it comes to anti-Semitism). It’s not that racism isn’t rampant. It’s not that every accusation is false. It’s that left-wing accusations of racism come in the form of contextless, non-criterial insinuations that exploit white guilt and the herd mentality of collective self-righteousness. There don’t seem to be any fucking limits on what the accusers will say or do in the name of righteous indignation–as witness the shit shows in Berkeley and Middlebury. I agree with you about the right, but I’m less sanguine than you about the left. Some of them really aren’t educable. They’re deplorable.
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Very much ex post facto, but I happened to encounter this passage in a book I was reading, and couldn’t resist quoting it here. The author is a Professor of American History at the University of Edinburgh. Nothing about his scholarship suggests either ideological bias in favor of Ben Carson (or Donald Trump), incompetence at history, or incompetence with the English language. And yet, this passage from his book (a standard college-level text) clearly implies that slaves were a species of “migrants,” where “migrant” is a synonym for “immigrant.”
My inference: either Cogliano is a crypto-Trump/Carson supporter, or the “slavery/immigrant” controversy of this past March was a pointless waste of moral outrage, political capital, time, and effort. And perhaps not the only one since then or before it.
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On reflection, there’s just one thing I’d want to clarify about this post: In mentioning “grandstanding” in the post, I link to Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke’s paper, “Moral Grandstanding,” Philosophy & Public Affairs (June 2016) in a way that might convey approval or agreement with it. I intended neither at the time, and if anything, intend them even less now. I only linked to the article because it happened to be a prominent published discussion of the phenomenon, not because I agreed with what they authors said about it. I don’t.
Interesting, but if immigrants did not come to America as slaves, it would also be factual to say, no slave came here as an immigrant. The premise of the definition is that the individual or group makes a conscious decision to leave one country and to live permanently in another country. The reasons could range from to have a better life or to escape death or imprisonment. However, it was a decision made, but slaves were forced from their home and forced to come to America as free labor. Free labor is another distinction you find among slaves and not among immigrants.
Well, my point is that slaves are a kind of (forced) immigrant, because slavery implies forced immigration. That implies that some immigrants did come to America as slaves, and that almost all slaves came as immigrants. Slavery may not fit our usual picture of “immigration,” but it fits the concept. Our usual picture of immigration is misleading.
I don’t think conscious decision differentiates forced-immigration-from-threat-of-death from forced-immigration-through-slavery. In both cases, someone is coerced into leaving where they live by the threat of death, and in both cases the coerced person has to make a conscious decision which amounts to the same conscious decision: resist or acquiesce? If resistance would lead to death, then acquiescence makes sense. In the forced-immigration-without-slavery case, acquiescence means fleeing death as a refugee, often into unknown circumstances. In the forced-immigration-into-slavery case, acquiescence means surrendering to the superior forces of slave traders rather than being killed by them. The difference is only that where the refugee in question is pushed into the unknown, a slave is pushed into a destination intended by the slave trader (which involves unknowns).
But that difference doesn’t really affect anything I said. The criticisms of Ben Carson made at the time I wrote the original post implied that slavery and immigration were totally unrelated phenomena, a claim that ignores cases of coerced immigration as though they had zero moral significance. It’s an amazingly callous, obtuse claim. If you’re a South Vietnamese person facing imminent annihilation at the hands of the North Vietnamese in 1975, or an Indian Muslim facing death at the hands of Sikh mobs in 1947, or a Palestinian facing Zionist armies in 1947-48, or a French or Polish Jew facing the SS in the 1940s, or an Afghan facing the Soviet Army in 1979, what you’re facing is not that much different from what a 19th-century African faced when rounded up for the slave trade. As an immigrant refugee, either you leave your home country or you die, and you often have no choice about where to go. You go where you can that will enable you to avoid a death threat that is forced on you. That “decision” is as much and as little a “decision” as the decision to fight a slave trader or save your life by becoming a slave. Granted, immigrants need not be slaves once they reach a free labor destination (if they do), but then, slaves become free once they reach a free labor destination (if they do). The similarities strike me as more salient and obvious than the differences.
Obviously, I’m not talking about the average or typical case of immigration, but I’m still talking about a more-than-merely-possible case. If refugees are immigrants (as I think they obviously are), the difference between immigration and slavery narrows, at least on the question of forcible expulsion from one’s place of origin.
I guess it would be both caviling and piling on to note that indentured servants weren’t precisely slaves, but were both immigrants and brought involuntarily to these shores.
Indentured servants were subjected to a lot of abuse, violent coercion, and fraud once they arrived on American shores. But indentures were legally contracts, and to the best of my knowledge in the literature it seems to be the case that the vast majority of indentures were entered into voluntarily by emigrants deliberately seeking passage to the Americas.
It’s true that indentures could be, and were in many, many cases, actually “contracts” forced on unwilling signers as part of a penal sentence of transportation, or part of the disposition for an infant’s (in America) or child’s (back in Britain) “care” until adulthood. But for whatever it’s worth, my understanding is that in most places and most periods these were a significant minority among a large majority of adults (mostly single adults in their 20s) willingly entering the indenture as part of a deliberate choice to emigrate to more or less the place where they ended up.
There are moments when the balance changed — for example, when a lot of people were forced into the British penal system due to the suppression of rebellions, etc. — but I think that the commercial pattern is more typical for most servants most of the time, at least in the British colonial world. (I can’t speak much to how it worked elsewhere.)
That said, the nature of the “contract” is certainly one that would now be considered legally repugnant, and one which involved a lot of terms that I would argue, philosophically, could not justly be enforced against anyone, i.e., that the putative “contracts” were unjustly coercive even when deliberately entered into by consenting adults and even when enforced scrupulously rather than — as they often in fact were — carelessly and fraudulently to the benefit of chiseling masters. In practice the system depended on a bunch of penal sanctions that allowed colonial authorities to impose frequent, non-consensual extensions of the term of service that never had been agreed to at the start of the indenture; and allowed masters to use all kinds of coercive violence to extract specific performance of the terms, in ways which I think are invalid both on inalienabilist grounds and on grounds of proportionality. But despite the very real problems of penal sentences, binding out of children, and occasional flat-out kidnapping and trafficking under fraudulent “indentures,” the cases that I think most historians would take to be typical and numerically predominant for the system are cases where the coercion was applied within and over the course of the indenture, rather than at the point of entry into it. John Ruston Pagan’s micro-history, Anne Orthwood’s Bastard: Sex and Law in Early Virginia, is a source I found really useful on the legal history and de facto conditions behind all this, at least as applies to tidewater Virginia in the 17th c.
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I don’t disagree with that. Or put another way, I don’t think we’re disagreeing. My point was a conceptual one: even if most indentured servants became indentured servants voluntarily, coercion at the outset (by our standards) was not incompatible with the status of being an indentured servant. In other words, take the cases that you regard as atypical (and as involving coerction-at-the-outset); it’s not as though their atypical features entailed that they weren’t cases of indentured servitude.
Granted, the way I put it in the post makes it sound as though I regard all indentured servants as by definition coerced, but I meant to be making a claim on par with the one I was making about immigrants: even if most immigration is voluntary, involuntary immigrants are still immigrants.