December 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
Yesterday I was absolutely peeved when I found out that Martin Bashir, under the weight of some truly repulsive right wing pressure resigned from MSNBC, for what has been portrayed as off-color remarks about Sarah Palin. Right wing pundits called his ‘attack’ of Sarah Palin “disgusting,” forgetting about the fact that he was commenting on her FAR more offensive comparison of future taxation to slavery. Here is a man that was passionately, perhaps desperately hoping to teach the American public a little bit about our ugly and shameful American history, and how wrong it is to trivialize it. He was trying to teach us how inappropriate it is to use slavery as a metaphor—especially in America, especially today. What was more striking—to me— about Bashir’s commentary was not the suggestion that someone should sh*t in Palin’s mouth, but rather that it got me thinking about some larger philosophical questions…
This whole episode prompted me to re-read one of my favorite recent history texts, Hegel and Haiti by Susan Buck Morss, who makes the exact same point, though her object is historical. She talks about how the great Enlightenment thinkers used “slavery” as a central metaphor. It seems only natural, as slavery is the opposite condition of “freedom.” While this may seem ‘natural’ enough, it is hardly that, considering the limited use of the word “freedom” during the Enlightenment era. When Rousseau wrote “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” it seems that he is stating that no human condition appears more offensive to his heart than slavery—and yet, Morss writes, even he represses from consciousness the millions of really existing European owned slaves. The chains that Rousseau speaks of in The Social Contract are not the chains of actual slavery, but the chains of political oppression. This excludes matters of domestic/economic (oikos) oppression—an oppression that occurs within the private sphere. By private I do not mean to suggest small. The private/domestic/economic sphere, includes corporations and at this point claims far more global territory than the public sphere. These terms get confusing because at this point in history the word “private” is far too capacious, the word domestic carries with it far too many connotations and the economy has been completely conflated with the political sphere. By private I mean that which is not commonly held by the public… which is at this point almost everything (privatization is thus a very classical modification of private). By domestic I mean that which is not governed by the public, and by economic I mean the management of a household, which can include very large estates and corporations. Now, obviously within the private sphere slaves are property, a property that was recognized by the state. The state, however did not inflict punishment or abuse directly upon the slaves. What enabled the abject abuse that Bashir recounts in his (what is in my view a very justified) tirade is the fact that people were property and were protected by the veil of “privacy” —a fact that has dark psychological effects on slave owners, who can do with their property what they please.
What I am trying very circuitously get around to is that America’s “fight for freedom” was not a fight for freedom tout court, but more accurately a fight for sovereignty. The ideal of ‘individual’ freedom was grafted onto a far more limited definition of freedom from taxation—at least in the Revolutionary War. Now, one might argue that the abolition of slavery was the only logical outcome of the ideal of universal freedom, but these shackles did not evaporate without a great deal of bloodshed—and not without infringing upon the ‘rights’ of private entities. In addition to this, slavery was a central part of an economic system—an economic system that was being rivaled by another, soon to be dominant economic system—industrial capitalism and the wage labor that came along with it. New shackles, but I digress.
On another note, Nelson Mandela died today. Obama ended his short but poignant dedication with this,
Nelson Mandela lived. A man who took history in his hand and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice.