by Paul Hein
Someone in Congress has introduced a particularly silly bit of legislation: the National Slave Memorial Act, which would serve to erect a National Slave Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC.
It's blackmail, literally. No congressman with more than a handful of black voters in his district would dare vote against it; and once established, it will be taken as some sort of proof that blacks are entitled to slavery reparations. Why, the government itself has recognized the horrors of slavery by building this National Slave Memorial! Pay up!
But in a way, the Memorial might be a good idea. Slavery is something which should be kept in mind. Excepting marriage, there is no more enduring, universal, or accepted social institution on earth than slavery. The Memorial could (but won't) remind us of that. The reason it won't is that it will deal solely with American black slavery of the type that became extinct about the time of the so-called Civil War.
Black's Law Dictionary defines "slave" thusly: "a person who is wholly subject to the will of another; one who has no freedom of action but whose person and services are wholly under the control of another." Webster has a similar definition, adding the concept of ownership. While the ownership of one person by another is odious, to be sure, it was perhaps not what made black slavery so offensive. Rather, it was that idea of total domination of one person by another, "owned" or not. Since childhood, we have associated this arrangement with the slavery of the plantation, the cruel overseer, the smug and pitiless owner, the whips and chains, the noble oppressed savage. OK, but awfully parochial!
What about a soldier? People actually enlist in the army, you know, and what do they get? Total domination by another. The soldier does what he is told, when he's told. He eats where and when and what he's expected to eat, wears what he's assigned to wear, and does what he's told to do. If he attempts to leave without permission, he'll be shot, and if he escapes, he'll be hunted down and put in prison for the offense.
Jail is pretty much the same, lacking only the cachet of patriotism. The prisoners are totally dominated by others. So if we accept the definitions of slavery provided by the dictionary, these people are slaves also, and our country is full of them — especially in prisons.
But what of the rest of us? Well, let's see. My friend, who is actually unashamed to refer to himself as a "liberal," would think me insane if I called him a slave. He drives to his company every morning in a car licensed by the state. He attaches the state's ID plates to the car, even though it runs fine without them, and he gains no perceptible or immediate benefit from attaching them. He pays for these devices yearly, and wouldn't dream of operating "his" automobile without them. OK, but otherwise, he's free as a bird. Well, a bird that needs another license to fly. Having bought and licensed the car, he then licenses himself, and again pays for the license, or official permission, to drive it. (At or below the speed limit, of course!) OK, OK, but he could avoid this by taking the bus, and being really free!
Except that when he gets to his office, he considers job applications, mindful of federal guidelines regarding hiring, which he dare not ignore. He's very careful not to fire any employee in violation of the rules about such things. He periodically checks the plant to be sure it bears the proper notices of federal labor laws, equal employment opportunities, and safety notices required by an agency far away, in Washington.
He hands over a large portion of his compensation to Washington as well, without question. The very assumption of servitude is unquestioned. At home, he may be unable to barbecue when he desires, to avoid worsening the deadly menace of pollution. If it's an even-numbered day, he is permitted to water his lawn for two hours.
Before retiring he may watch a few hours of TV on state-licensed stations, or do some broadcasting of his own as a ham operator — duly licensed, of course, and in accord with all the regulations pertaining thereto. On the weekend, he may cut his own lawn, being careful to transport the gasoline for the mower in an approved container, and maintaining the various safety devices built into his machine pursuant to federal mandates. Or he may hire someone to cut it for him, being careful to obey the laws about withholding and social security. If he ignores his lawn, the city may fine him for allowing the grass to exceed the permitted height.
Should I suggest to my friend that he appears to be dominated by strangers, and is, by definition, a slave, he would become impatient with me. "Nonsense. The various laws and regulations about which you complain are clearly for the good of society, and serve a useful purpose." Well, perhaps, but not so obviously as black slavery being for the good of plantation society, and serving a useful purpose — at least prior to the invention of mechanical cotton picking machinery, at which time slavery would have become so inefficient as to be discarded quite spontaneously.
So I say let's build that Slave Memorial! Only in the interests of diversity and quotas, let's not make the black slaves depicted thereon more than about 11% of the total.
June 21, 2003
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