Friday, March 02, 2007

Never, Never Shall Be Slaves

Or more of the same as the last post. BB has ably attacked the intention of Dave's metaphor - Iraq; I've been troubled by the assumptions in the metaphor itself.

First, I am a moral relativist, and my reasons for being one come down pretty much to a sort of Cartesian doubt. I don't know for certain whether I'm morally right about say Iraq, but I do know for certain that I've been wrong morally in the past; I also know that a lot of other people see things differently. I'm really not convinced by the idea of moral absolutes: as the man said, 'For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so'. And if you were to say to me, "But slavery really is bad", I'd probably reply, "It depends what you mean by slavery." (I suspect that Dave would not agree with the usage of slaves here (in the phrase "General, would you rather command an army of slaves?" - he might prefer "patriotic draftees").

I don't know if DA reads Terry Pratchett, but I'm sure there is a joke in Pratchett very similar to his ironic dig at his pretence at John Humphreys' position.

And what is bloody wrong with slavery anyway? Three meals a day. Basic security. The Western idea of freedom isn’t everything.

I'm not sure there is a 'Western idea of freedom' - I think 'freedom' is a concept most people get into an awful mess trying to put into words. Kris Kristofferson defined it as "another word for having nothing left to lose". Anatole France was on to something with "The law in its infinite majesty, forbids rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges." (This is true in Blair's Britain, yet Dave would argue that we are free - just not to sleep under bridges.) By the 'Western idea of freedom' I think Dave means that, though he and Milton Friedman might argue over the particulars, they would agree that 'freedom' is a good thing. The 'non-Western' ('Eastern'?) idea is presumably more fatalist. Is a choice of "This Starbucks or that one?" really a choice at all? Is choice good? Is a ballot paper with eight candidates one of whom is BNP really better than one with just the other seven (suppose the deposit was far higher)?

Now, I don't think slavery is a good thing, or ever was a good thing. (And the thing I mean, I suppose, is the relationship between slave and slave owner - a thing which has at least two ways of being seen.) Slave owners maintained the right to whip slaves for instance. (I'm a fairly extreme libertarian: I don't think anyone has the right to touch anyone else without prior permission - which may be tacit of course: I'm not saying that you have to say to your partner "I'm home! Would you mind most awfully if I kissed you?" - only that it's a right they grant, not one you automatically enjoy.) This right was enjoyed by sea captains long after the abolition of slavery. But 'three squares a day and security' is not a bad deal. There are worse. I'm quite taken with Milton Friedman's idea of slavery, but I don't think my dad was ever happier than when he was in the army, which he hadn't joined voluntarily. And they had a legal right to shoot him.

But I started getting annoyed with DA when he wrote this:

Years after the American Civil War - in which 655,000 people died - leading Southerners could be found who would describe the Lincoln Emancipation as an act of "cultural genocide".

Many Southerners did - and still do - regard the Civil War as a disaster and the triumph of utter bastards; but a) I'd like a reference for "cultural genocide" (which seems empty rhetoric to me) and b) I need the phrase "Lincoln Emancipation" explained. If Lincoln emancipated people, why do the characters in books such as Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" (about Chicago) or John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" seem such pawns of fate? It's more than a century (and that's more than most people live) since the end of the slave trade; so why are most prisoners on death row black? Why are a disproporionate number of prisoners in the US black? Are they naturally evil? Bigger in original sin?

Britain, as Dave says opposed other countries taking slaves:

Navy captains built an illegal antislavery base on Spanish colonial soil on Fernando Po, and browbeat local African kings into allowing them to destroy slaving outposts.

Oddly enough, even the locals didn't get the point until we 'browbeat' them.

Back to my moral relativism. This is why I believe in democracy. I may be wrong, but the more people have a look, the more right they're likely to be. (I think 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire' has a good idea with 'Ask The Audience' - if you ask 100 people if the sun rises in the east on in the west you'll get the right answer if you go with the majority.) And this is what we have: there is a body called the United Nations - it bases its decisions on votes by members, who are in turn, the representatives of governments. Dave praises Britain's unilateral intervention in the slave trade; there have been several recent examples of multilateral intervention in the world. Not all have been successful; not all have been right with hindsight. I don't think the UN is perfect. But its collective decisions are closer to being 'objective' than a self-selecting minority cabal of fanatics (or US arse-licking Decents) would have been.

However, I shall remember Dave's hatred of slavery (and hence slave owners) the next time he praises Thomas Jefferson.

20 Comments:

Blogger ejh said...

as the man said, 'For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so'.

He was pretending to be mad at the time. Although of course there was method in it.

3/02/2007 09:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

"I may be wrong, but the more people have a look, the more right they're likely to be."

It depends entirely on the question.

In any case, in our version of democracy, the most motivated minority generally prevails.

3/03/2007 08:27:00 AM  
Blogger Captain Cabernet said...

Oh dear oh dear .....

You must believe that when people get on the tube in the rush hour there are lots of rights-violations going on just in virtue of the fact that people are so close to one another and aren't asking for permission. But then, since you're a moral relativist (not that I've ever understood what that position might coherently amount to), you only kinda sorta believe that ...

3/03/2007 08:38:00 AM  
Blogger Rob Jubb said...

What Captain Cabernet said. A right against other people who believe in that right isn't what is normally thought of as a right.

3/03/2007 11:44:00 AM  
Anonymous matt w said...

Here (via some Wikipedia page) is the League of the South calling the campaign against Confederate flags "cultural genocide." Here's a cite to an article in some presumably white-supremacist publication calling Reconstruction "cultural genocide." Searching for "cultural genocide" + "northern aggression" will get you a lot of relevant hits. Mostly fringe nutters I suppose, I'd like to know who Aaro means by "leading Southerners," but there's a very real strain of ressentiment out there. And Republicans have been known to play footsie with it, as in John Ashcroft's praise of Southern Partisan.

Also, like Cabernet I'm not sure your stated position makes sense as moral relativism. If you're a moral relativist you really shouldn't be able to say that you've been wrong morally in the past, you should only be able to say that in the past you've been wrong morally by your current lights. What I think you want to be is a sort of skeptic about moral epistemology -- you think it's unlikely any individual has particularly clear moral insight, so you think that the best way to some moral truth is by listening to the majority. (Though I think we have ample evidence that the majority has been badly wrong in the past, so I'm not sure this works.)

[Well, looks like word verification shows up in Safari but not Firefox.]

3/04/2007 05:50:00 PM  
Blogger Sonic said...

sNice article as ever, BTW I've given you a mention here so, in the spirit of internet decency, i'm letting you know.

3/04/2007 11:09:00 PM  
Blogger Sonic said...

Now with link!

http://christopherhitchenswatch.blogspot.com/2007/03/watching-watchers.html

3/04/2007 11:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Martin said...

Sonic, we'd rather not be associated with your blog. You have links to BNP members, anti semites, and have taken positions so extreme that we'd rather be in bed with Aaronovitch than yourself.

Take down the mention of this site and do not return to this blog.

3/05/2007 02:04:00 AM  
Blogger Sonic said...

I see you guys have a "Mike" infestation.

Sorry about that.

3/05/2007 02:51:00 AM  
Anonymous martin bruschettaboy said...

Have any staff members taken to calling themselves "Martin"? I am not called Martin, and nor were any of the other editors when they joined. It's not like there's anything wrong with being called Martin, or even changing your name to Martin when it wasn't originally Martin, but if you could keep us all in the loop that would be nice; a simple email saying "oh yeh by the way I'm calling myself Martin these days" would be fine.

3/05/2007 12:39:00 PM  
Anonymous bb said...

by the way Sonic, have you really got links to BNP members and anti-Semites? Or is this just a reference to the antiwar.com link I see on the front page of CHW?

3/05/2007 12:42:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

I think Sonic's suggestion is that "Martin" is a troll whose style can be recognised from previous appearances on another website.

3/05/2007 02:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so"

"I may be wrong, but the more people have a look, the more right they're likely to be."

Ummm, if you deny that there is any right answer, then how can you also say that the majority is more likely to see it?

3/05/2007 03:10:00 PM  
Anonymous engels said...

"For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so"

"I may be wrong, but the more people have a look, the more right they're likely to be."

Ummm, if you deny that there is any right answer, then how can you also say that the majority is more likely to see it?

3/05/2007 03:16:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

"have you really got links to BNP members and anti-Semites"

Where this comes from (and I'm sorry to bore everyone) is that there is a blogger called Ken who comments on Harrys place who once made a comment that had met a member of the BNP called Mike Treacy and that while Ken did not agree with his politics Treacy was nice to Ken's (non-white) son.

In the wild world of Harrys place this of course became proof that Ken, and somehow me by association (ie I'd agreed with Ken on some issues) were in fact BNP members.

The links to anti-semite issue is, I think, due to the fact that I once posted an article by Atzmon on my old blog (in 2004)

3/05/2007 07:47:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

If it wasn't for guilt by association, HP wouldn't have anything to post about.

3/05/2007 08:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Alan said...

Mick Treacy is a BNP bigwig. Ken didn't meet him by chance, as James (probably sonic) implies. He arranged a dinner with him to see if they could form a political alliance.

Sonic claims to know nothing of Ken's racst views despite being very close buddies.

3/06/2007 09:22:00 PM  
Anonymous bruschettaboy said...

this all looks rather like a Byzantine comments section war from elsewhere that I am not inclined to get involved in. Sonic remains welcome here, as do his detractors.

3/07/2007 09:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So what might a black person make of those slave-holding champions of liberty, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington or slave-holding Quakers such as George Fox and William Penn (the Quakers were later to become the leading force in the campaign for abolition)?"
Aaro in September 2001 not quite praising Thomas Jefferson.

3/08/2007 05:39:00 PM  
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