Saturday, November 12, 2005

Pondering Slavery

It’s Saturday morning; I’m reading A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut, again. There is a passage in their that has got me thinking about Derrick Jensen, relationships, slavery and civilization. The passage reads:

“The wonderful writer Albert Murray, who is a jazz historian and a friend of mine among other things, told me that during the era of slavery in this country --an atrocity from which we can never fully recover—the suicide rate per capita among slave owners was much higher than the suicide rage among slaves.

“Murray says he thinks this was because slaves had a way of dealing with depression, which their white owners did not: They could shoo away Old Man Suicide by playing and singing the Blues.”

My knee jerk reaction after reading this was one of surprise. Slave owners become suicidal and suffer from depression? Aren’t we all taught in this culture that we must try to get rich and have a lot of people working for us? Isn’t this what the immortal Henry Ford did? And how about Bill Gates? I Bet you there is a few of us who wouldn’t mind being as well off as Bill Gates is, or as Henry F. once was? But what about the relationships, these cultural demigods we're supposed to envy, share?

When it comes to a voice of sanity regarding relationships, I have to turn to Derrick Jensen. In Walking On Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution he wrote:

“A human being is not simply an ego structure in a sack of skin. Human beings, and this is true for all beings, are the relationships they share. My health—emotional, physical, moral—is inextricably intertwined with the quality of these relationships, whether I acknowledge the relationships or not. If the relationships are impoverished, or if I systematically eradicate those beings with whom I pretend I do not have relationships, I am so much smaller, so much weaker. These statements are as true physically as they are emotionally and spiritually.”

It’s no wonder the suicide rate per capita among white slave owners was higher than that of the slaves they perceived as owning.

This leads me to ask myself, “how do I benefit from slavery?” Of course we all know that slavery didn’t disappear after the Civil War between the North and the South of the United States. Don’t we? What about this thing we call wage slavery? You know, where you go to work for Six Dollars an Hour while the CEO of the corporation your working for makes about 400 times more than you. Funny thing, I didn’t start to understand what wage slavery was until I was in my mid-twenties. I blame part of this on my schooling, but that’s a whole other story.

So…I’m civilized. Which means I depend on civilization to survive. This has got me thinking about how much I depend on slavery to maintain my personal standard of living. This leads me to pg. 59 of Jensen’s “The Culture of Make Believe.” He quotes Fredrich Engels as saying “It was slavery that first made possible the division labour between agriculture and industry on a considerable scale, and along with this, the flower of the ancient world, Hellenism. Without slavery, no Greek state, no Greek art and science; without slavery, no Roman Empire. But without Hellenism and the Roman Empire as the base, also no modern Europe. We should never forget that our whole economic, political and intellectual development has as its presupposition a state of things in which slavery was as necessary as it is universally recognized.”

I bet you anyone reading this has something they can look at right now that was made using slave labor. My sweatshirt is made in Myanmar. I wonder how much the workers that made this were paid? I ask myself why wasn’t it made in the United States? Is it cheaper for the owners of RESERVOIR clothing to have it made in Myanmar? Jensen goes on to say “ ‘Servitude’ Harper noted, ‘ is the condition of civilization.’ It seems pretty clear, then, that if you want civilization, you’ve got to have slavery, or at least servitude. To undo slavery—if this argument holds—would be to undo the civilization we—at least those of us who might be considered slaveholders—all enjoy.”

But do they enjoy it? Do most of us (who are civilized) enjoy the benefits of servitude and slavery? I think I read somewhere that the suicide rate among teenagers in the United States has increased almost 400% in the last fifty years. Wouldn’t life be better if there was no such thing as slavery? Wouldn’t life be better if there was no such thing as civilization? Why aren’t we talking about this more…?

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