Tuesday, October 27, 2015

I Actually Spent The Day Arguing With A Conservative About Whether Slavery Was Bad

I hate-read The Federalist, which is a website for the right wing in America. And every few days over at that publication, they put out a piece whose only purpose is to make white people feel good about themselves. They rail against people who want to attack the Confederate flag. They say Ta-Nehisi Coates is overrated. The point of these articles is to soothe the kind of people who see the culture slipping away from them.

I pointed this out on a comment thread. Sometimes I just have to pick a fight with these folks. I'm not proud of it. Anyway, a fellow mammal known as "An Observer" responded. His argument was that white liberals are all just playing at having a conscience. We're moral posers.

I've seen the way you people act. You get points for one-upping each other on how much crap you can talk about white people. Do you think we believe that you really believe that?

It's not a completely crazy observation, right? How serious, really, are we liberals about making things fair in America? Is our guilt an act?

I told AO that he was missing something (I'm assuming he's a he. Also, I'm also assuming he's straight, white, and has a couple of blue blazers in his closet). I told AO that liberals admit to the ugly side of American history - white American history - because we want to fix things.

First he rattled off a list of the achievements of white American culture that make them awesome:

We gave loads of other people running water, electricity, modern medicine, literacy and a life expectancy beyond thirty-five years. We are the best thing that ever happened to them. We gave them buses to ride, toilets to use, and a water fountains to drink from. Nobody ever thanks us, but that's fine.

I responded that you couldn't just call the advancements of modern western culture something "we" gave "other people." (Including people of color in this country too, remember. We were talking about white folks.) The Enlightenment and everything after, particularly in the Americas, was founded on slave labor and on the suffering of Native American population. That's not a politically correct platitude; it's a fact of history. Here's what I wrote:

[S]lavery in America came with colonial exploitation of Africa. And it occurred at the same time the native population of America was almost completely wiped out by disease epidemics upon first encountering Europeans. So, you have this event that injects a massive amount of capital into European society at the same time that it completely disrupts and degrades African and American societies. Also, there were armies of cheap labor to do things like create the agricultural system.

And now you think your part of the human family got ahead, because you're just so much smarter and more hard-working than everyone else.

You claim to celebrate your history, but you haven't thought very deeply about it.

No, I didn't think any of this would go over very well. But honestly, I didn't think the conversation would reach the level of insanity it did. Because then AO started arguing that African Americans owe white people a debt for stealing their ancestors away and putting them in chains:

And if we hadn't enslaved them, then they wouldn't be here to enjoy all this nice stuff. No matter how you look at it, no serious person can deny that black people today are a lot better off because we enslaved their ancestors. So they're welcome.

And then eventually he actually started writing that slavery was not only a benefit for descendants of the slaves... but for the slaves themselves:

They got houses or cabins with food, and someone to draw water for them. Most of them were healthier than Africans at the time, and economically, they were better compensated than white workers.

AO had more to say:

We gave them an all-expenses-paid trip to America. If we hadn't, they'd still be hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers.

An all-expenses-paid trip. The Middle Passage.

It went on like this for some time. And at some point I wrote that what he was arguing - that white people did a favor to black people by coercing them with lethal force, and that it was good for white people to have dominated the world - that this made him a textbook white supremacist. He didn't care what terms I used, he replied. It didn't make him less correct.

He didn't care whether I called him a white supremacist.

The argument broke up as I was pointing out that the history of slave rebellions and revolts seemed to indicate that the actual enslaved Africans disagreed with his theory. He didn't think those rebellions and revolts were very numerous or significant. And I still didn't get any solid evidence that slaves got better medical care and food than free people back in their homeland.

I learned a few things:

I need some new hobbies. That's probably the big lesson here.

But the second lesson is important for all of us. And it is this: People like to justify their actions and the actions of their tribe, their folk. They will go to great lengths to do this and to defend their right to do it. Political movements, particularly the American conservative movement, count on it. And it leads to some pretty dark places.

I'm okay with white liberal guilt. I've seen what you can become without it.


  1. That was really fun until about half way down. And then I remembered that I've had this same conversation before. It usually takes the form of, "Slaves were incredibly valuable property! Do you really think the slave owners would mistreat them?!" I still find it shocking. And really upsetting. I try to avoid interacting with people like that. It would be one thing if you could turn someone around. But I'm afraid people like "An Observer" are lost to the humane world. And note: The Federalist is for the "thinking" conservative.

    These claims about the 35 year life expectancies are at birth because infant mortality was so high. That and sanitation are the main reason that life expectancy has increased. In fact, life expectancy in America was about 35 in 1850. It was lower in Africa: 26. But here's an interesting factoid: the life expectancy of slaves in America was... 22 years. But what is that compared to all the "cabins" and "food" they were "given"?! Because we all know that in Africa they didn't have homes and food.

    I can't believe how angry I am right now! And like I said (and as you know), this is nothing new.

    1. Yeah, man. The reason I'm writing about this is I've seen these arguments before. This is what the conservative movement has turned into.

      Thanks for reading/Sorry about the induced rage. I feel it too.

    2. Think about all the people you have worked for. Hopefully a few good intelligent people, probably a great many garden variety assholes, and a few reptiles. And your experience with these people is mediated by all the hard fought for norms of our society. And it still tends to be pretty humiliating and insulting, no? So imagine that your boss now owns you. He can beat you, torture you, rape you, your family, sell them to someone else, or just murder you. Millgram. Stanford Prison. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    3. Not sure if it is still the case, but back in the '90s China and Japan did not have fully normal diplomatic relations. One of the causes of this was that Japan did not teach it's children the truth about the occupation of Manchuria. We are the same. We killed well more than six million before the question of the African slave trade enters the calculus. The Lend Lease Act, and the Marshall Plan, which I offer for consideration as tokens of American good will, were a while ago. Our more recent behavior, less exemplary.

    4. Never thought of slavery as an extreme form of "Office Space." But you're right, Lawrence.

  2. At this point, I try not to talk about any sensitive subjects with people I know have conservative views. I'm always shocked at their opinions and it never ends well in terms of my estimation of them. In the interest of harmony, I avoid these discussions, because if I find out they think like the guy you interacted with, I really can't be around them again.

  3. I am actually surprised they let you stay on there as long as you did. I find that Freepers (and that is what this guy was, an intellectual version of the Free Republic troglodyte) don't like it when you tell them they are wrong, back it up with facts and figures and point out what it means they are. So they try to ban you or block you or otherwise make you go away so their comfortable illusions stay intact.

    1. The Fed doesn't ban people. A lot of liberals arguing with a lot of conservatives. I think trolling is part of their marketing strategy.

      I've been banned from National Review, and RedState has a system that forces you to register with them, so I haven't even tried.

      I have way, WAY too much time on my hands Elizabeth.

    2. It keeps us entertained and your doctor busy with prescriptions for blood pressure meds. Everyone wins except your heart.

  4. I'm okay with white liberal guilt. I've seen what you can become without it.

    Mmm-hmm. I think it sounds more like this is the result of too much liberal guilt being thrown around, leading to spectacular (and bizarre) counterreactions. If someone tells you constantly that you're evil and awful and should be ashamed of yourself, you have two options in the end, don't you? Either you accept it and spend your life beating yourself up. Or you reject it with as much force as you can muster, even if you have to reject all of reality along with it.

    Well, technically there is a third option, the one that you have so successfully taken - to feel obnoxiously proud of yourself because of how ashamed you feel of yourself. But I have no idea how you can pull that off, because it makes no sense. And it seems a lot of other people can't pull it off either. Hence, people like An Observer.

    I am personally attempting to take a fourth option, by which I accept the basic truth that people are mostly shit and that none of us have much of a reason to feel pleased with ourselves, but for that exact reason we could stand to be a little more cautious with how much we shame each other. "Let he who is without sin," etc, etc. As options go, I admit that it has very limited success and is thoroughly unpopular to boot, but I still like it better than the first three.

    1. The "third option" might not make sense due to the pretzel you've tied yourself into by way of persuading yourself that "acknowledging that guilt is okay" is the same as "being proud of being ashamed". Shame is not the point. Acknowledgement of fact is the point.

      Hypothetically, one may not consider it a fact that enslavement is ethically dubious, but no one is interested in "shaming" them for that. We would just like very much for them to develop some morals, acknowledge that slavery isn't ok, and to go forth and enslave no more. This seems like a pretty low bar. Most of these people were never going to enslave anyone anyway so I don't know why it's a struggle to acknowledge that they shouldn't do so.

    2. @baeraad
      Obviously, crimes were committed. Someone is guilty. Conservatives sure as hell aren't going accept any share of the guilt. That's part of what makes them them: They and Theirs never did anything wrong. So if anybody is ever going to get any justice, and I think that's a good thing to want, somebody better feel a little guilt about it. My formulation is that just because I am not individually guilty, that does not absolve me of being responsible.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Yeah, Lawrence - this is an important distinction. There's the personal feeling of guilt, which I don't actually feel. Who has time to feel that crap? But there is the FACT of historical guilt, which creates a responsibility for people within a country. We're not actually guilty - I don't think so. But the guilt creates the responsibility. We inherited all this stolen wealth, and we have descendants of victims of the theft, who are still getting a raw deal. So, I definitely feel a real, personal responsibility as a citizen.

  5. "His argument was that [we] are all just playing at having a conscience. We're moral posers."

    That is the worldview of a sociopath. It is literally exactly that.


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