All posts by Fenna

Reflection on Schwartz and Anderson

Through my reading of Schwartz’s “Resistance ad Accommodation in Eighteenth-Century Brazil” and Anderson’s “The Quilombo of Palamares,” I learned about an Ilheus slave revolt in which escaped slaves attempted to bargain for better work and living conditions, and about the remarkable Palamarinos. Although these two works were very interesting–the first giving insight into the specifics of a plantation slave’s life and the second outlining the history and legacy of a fascinating maroon community–neither significantly augmented or altered my knowledge of slave rebellion in Brazil. These two specific events give me little insight into the generality of slave rebellion at the time, especially considering one, if not both of them, seems to be an anomaly. In short, I still have a lot of questions about slave rebellion in Brazil: how common was it? What was the success rate? How many maroon communities existed? How did rebellion fluctuate over the years? What caused the greatest spikes in it? What caused the greatest drops? I’m also especially interested in how slave rebellion in Brazil differed from that in the United States, and would love to explore literature on that subject. I have the general perception that slaves did not escape nearly as frequently in the United States, but I don’t really know and I could be completely wrong.

This has made me consider some of the issues faced by a historian, or even a casual reader of history. It is simply impossible to learn about every single event that occurred in relation to a subject of study. Besides that documentation doesn’t exist for everything, even if it did it would take too long to read it all to be feasibly learnable. But then, how can we possibly understand the whole without understanding the many pieces? It seems like the best option we have is to each study a single piece thoroughly, and then bring it all together as a society to create a patchwork ‘big picture’. However, then we run into the issue of individual historical works being remarkably incomplete or inaccurate in some way, for how can we possibly understand the piece without first understanding the context of the whole? In conclusion, history gives me a headache.

Reflection on Sweet

In his “The Subject of the Slave Trade,” John Wood Sweet provided an extremely insightful and informative overview of recent and notable works regarding the slave trade. Personally, I found his exploration of the differing focal points most interesting, and greatly respected his ability to present and examine so many points of view instead of getting entrenched in a single narrative. Before reading, I knew very little about the slave trade, and I found continual satisfaction in uncovering all the ways in which my vague notions were one-sided and recklessly incomplete.

One thing that stood out to me was his discussion of the slave trade as a moral versus economic issue. He mentions the tendency of many historians to focus “largely on issues of politics and morality and only to a lesser extent on the economic consequences of the slave trade and colonial slavery” (p. 1). This is interesting in two ways: first, it raises the question ‘Was slavery economically or morally motivated?’, and second, it makes me consider the implications of moralizing history. Racism is often, and rightly, seen as a great moral evil. However, just like many other sins, it was more often economically motivated than not. In fact, Sweet mentions, the British anti-slavery movement only really became popular when abolition was made “not merely principled but practical” (p. 21)–that is, when economic motivation aligned with moral motivation. To understand the slave trade, it seems crucial to study the economic situation of the involved parties.

The fact that this has been focused on “only to a lesser extent” makes me wonder to what extent recent politics are affecting how history is being told. Of course, each historical account is inevitably subject to the writer’s biases and societal upbringing–this is easy to see when reading accounts from previous eras. It seems much more difficult, though, to recognize the influences upon a writer of our own era, especially if a majority of writers have the same bias. A topic like slavery seems impossible to demoralize–even wrong, perhaps, to demoralize. Yet at the same time, it seems like this topic, if any, speaks well enough for itself to not require moralization. I’m rather split on the issue thus far and look forward to developing more of an opinion as I learn more.

Just as many seem to focus on moral instead of economic issues relating to slavery, so too do many focus on African Americans rather than Africans. I was embarrassed to realize that I had never even considered the impact of slavery on the numerous Africans who evaded capture. Through Sweet, I have discovered that this impact was truly enormous. According to him, many believe the slave trade “had a negative effect large enough to stunt the growth of Western Africa’s population for several centuries”(p. 33). That’s centuries, as in hundreds of years. It is remarkable to think about. Along with the effects on population size, the slave trade also caused, if not single-handedly then at least in large part, “increases in warfare, more centralized states…, more hierarchical social structures…, social polarization, militarization, and conflict between previously symbiotic groups” (p. 32). Those who evaded capture–excluding the few African elites who profited from the slave trade–really didn’t have it much better than those who were captured. The effects of slavery on Africa were, to say the very least, devastating.

I greatly appreciated the numerous perspectives Sweet offered on the slave trade, and found his account by far the most informative and insightful that I’ve read. The fact that his paper was over forty pages long despite including very little repetition or unnecessary exposition speaks to this topic’s enormity.

1619 Project

The New York Times’ 1619 Project seeks to reframe the United States’ history from the African American point of view. The project, as noted by Sean Wilentz in his “A Matter of Facts,” can be most apparently compared to W. E. B. Du Bois’ “Black Reconstruction in America” which mounted a  “commanding counter-interpretation” (Wilentz, 2020) against the Dunning School’s racist mischaracterizations of the Reconstruction era. The 1916 Project has no such specific enemy, but rather seeks to remedy a general absence of ‘black perspective’ in American historical teaching. It claims, among other things, that the often lauded ‘abolitionist’ Abraham Lincoln believed that “black people are the obstacle to national unity”; that the Declaration of Independence was “primarily” motivated by a wish to “protect the institution of slavery”; that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA” of the United States; and that “for the most part, black Americans fought back alone” against racism (Hannah-Jones, 2019).

The 1916 Project is one sided. Likely the writers of it themselves would not contend this claim. The overarching narrative portrayed is one of an African American peoples fighting tirelessly against their white oppressors to shape America into the democracy it originally promised to be. At every available opportunity, the project points out the tyranny of white Americans, citing “unthinkable violence against the formerly enslaved, wide-scale voter suppression, electoral fraud,” “slavocracy,” and “hypocrisy,” among other things, in its “America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One” (Hannah-Jones, 2019). This accomplishes the admirable and much-needed goal of pointing out the thoroughly evidenced immorality with which so many acted during America’s inception and well into its activity as a nation. However, there arises an issue when such a lengthy project so completely antagonizes an entire race and so utterly neglects any mention of a single positively impactful white actor or a single negatively impactful black one.

One could feasibly remark, ‘Is this absolute viewpoint not an exact parallel to those taken on by so many white historians and journalists of the past, and even present?’ The answer is yes, that is precisely what this is. One could extend, ‘Should we not then welcome it, as a balance to the scales?’ This is where I must firmly disagree. The solution to a white-led narrative is not, and has never been, a black-led narrative. The problem is that two extremes rarely converge to form moderation; rather, they goad one another further and further into extremity. As Wilentz (2020) writes, such narrative-driven, exclusory retellings of history only serve to “make it easier for critics hostile to the [project’s] overarching mission to malign it for their own ideological and partisan purposes.” Then, if not ‘balance the scales,’ what do we do? Adam Serwer (2019) commented, quite correctly, that “given the state of American education on slavery, some kind of adjustment is sorely needed.” Slavery and segregation are vitally important parts of American history, and should never be neglected out of embarrassment on the part of white people. We should aggressively endorse the astonishing perseverance of African Americans– celebrate their victories, regret their losses, and honour their greatest. We should shun our ancestors for their abhorrent, immoral behavior. Simultaneously, we should learn about those few African Americans who fought against civil rights and for slavery– learn why they held those viewpoints, and how they contributed to the American story. We should learn about those white Americans who fought alongside the African Americans, and about those who remained neutral. We should seek to understand the societal circumstances which perpetuated racism among even the non-malicious. Limiting ourselves to a generalization like ‘black good, white bad’ (or conversely, ‘white good, black bad’), whether in history or in modern day, is never a benefit.

Serwer (2019) summed up the argument between Hannah-Jones and Wilentz as such:

Where Wilentz and his colleagues see the rising anti-slavery movement in the colonies and its influence on the Revolution as a  radical break from millennia in which human slavery was accepted around the world, Hannah-Jones’ essay outlines how the ideology of white supremacy that sustained slavery still endures today.

I question, why not both? These two things are not contradictory. The anti-slavery and civil rights eras were enormous steps towards equality AND there is still lots of work to be done. African Americans fought long and hard, bravely and remarkably, against their white oppressors AND a not-insignificant number of white people fought with them. Abraham Lincoln acted at times in the interest of black people AND at times against their interests. White slave-holders are responsible for their blatantly immoral racism AND many of them were not actively malicious people. In an era of ideological echo chambers, aggressive partisan division, and rampant political extremism, we need ‘and’ more than ever. Unfortunately, the New York Times squandered the opportunity to fill in the other side of ‘and’, opting instead to circulate yet another exclusory one-sided story in the form of the 1916 Project.

Constitution: Articles I and II

The first two articles of the American constitution, very broadly, divide official power into two main sections: law creators and law enforcers. The legislature, made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate, has the power to “propose or concur with amendments [to] Bills” (p. 7), as well as propose new bills relating to  taxation, national and international trade, immigration, finance, public services, courts of law, etc. (pp. 7-10). The presidency, on the other hand, has the duty of enforcing those laws passed by the legislature. The president’s true role is as “Commander in Chief of Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States” (p. 19).

This divide surprised me greatly. The president seems like, from an onlooker, the one with all the power– it’s they who appear in the media as the almighty leader of the nation. I could name at least ten U. S. presidents, whereas not a single congressman or senator. However, when reading the constitution, I get the distinct impression that the president isn’t really supposed to have that much power at all. In the annotations on the document,  it is written that “Presidents have also cited [the] power [to command the American Army] as extending to their control of national and foreign policy in war and peacetime” (p. 19), but even so, any treaty proposed by the president requires that “two thirds of the Senators present concur” with the treaty for it to be passed (p. 20). His only large role, outside of militia commandment, is appointing other government officials (which is, admittedly, quite a big power). In essence though, it seems like the president barely does anything after all his officials are chosen (a choice that I rather suspect is made by other members of the president’s party, though I don’t know nearly enough about it to say for certain).

Basically, reading these articles has made me come to think of the president as little more than a public figure; a face to rally behind. Which makes sense– the Americans were specifically trying to escape the governance of a single, all-powerful person. I realize now how skewed my perception had been. The U. S. voting system is still very confusing to me (what voting system isn’t), but I think that people vote separately for congressmen and presidents. I would be curious to know what the difference in voting turnout is for those two things. My suspicious, based solely on the way I previously perceived the importance of the president, is that more people vote in the federal elections than in state ones. I would also bet that very few Americans actually know how their government functions, and that even fewer have read the Constitution. It’s interesting how much politics has transformed into entertainment, and honestly both shocking and worrying how many people’s political views can be boiled down to “democrats bad republicans good” or vice versa.

To conclude, I feel the most important thing I’ve come more and more to realize throughout reading the first two articles of the American constitution is that understanding how your government works is really important. Also, though, on a very tangential but very critical note, not all of your opinions have to conform to one group. Research, analyze, consider– form your own opinions, and if you end up agreeing with some conservative policies and some democratic ones, that’s fantastic. I’d caution everyone to think a little harder if they end up one hundred percent agreeing with any one ideology, and one hundred percent disagreeing with another. To bring things back around, my message is: don’t vote for a guy, vote for policies, and look into who actually has the power. The constitution makes it pretty clear that it isn’t really the president.

Declaration of Independence

When reading the Declaration of Independence, it is important to recognize why it was written. As Prof. Randy Barnett said in his “The Declaration of Independence Annotated,” the Declaration  “constituted high treason against the Crown,” (p. 1) and anyone who signed it would be executed as a traitor. As such, the content of the Declaration was meant to justify the Americans’ supposed “treason,” and explain why it was not, in fact, treason at all.

A complete throwing-off of the British government, however, could not simply be justified with “the Crown has made some mistakes, done some bad things.” The Americans themselves stated this in the beginning of the Declaration, saying that “mankind are more disposed to suffer… than to right themselves,” and only when subjected to a “long train of abuses and usurpations” does it become necessary to take action against the government. In summary, extreme grievances were required to justify the Americans’ extreme actions.

It is hard to believe that the writers of the Declaration of Independence genuinely believed the Crown’s sole intent in all their actions was to systemically violate the rights of the Americans. However, this was what they had to claim in order to justify themselves. With this context, the very one-sided and almost whiny nature of the Declaration can be better understood. It is meant to be persuasive above all else.

The grievances themselves aren’t very interesting. However, the ideas about government’s role brought up are. The fundamental claims the Declaration makes are that, one, everyone has certain unalienable rights, and that, two, the job of the government is to secure those rights for the people.  This is somewhat different from the idea that the job of government is to act in the best interests of the country, which, from what I can tell, was the more widely-held view at the time. In the ladder view, the people can often fall by the wayside in favour of expansionism or other such ideals. One of the flaws with our current world, in my opinion, is the stark divisions between countries. The mindset of “this is my country, and it’s better than yours” has been very, very common for a long time now.  We seem to forget that all a “country” is is land. The truly important thing is the people. Governments weren’t created to protect countries, they were created to protect the rights of individuals. Now, however, living in times where a single person can be in charge of an entire third of a continent, of course we’ve lost sight of the individual.

Democracy

After reading the first chapter of Bernard Crick’s Democracy: a Very Short Introduction, and watching Astra Taylor’s documentary, “What is Democracy?” the thing that has become most clear to me is democracy’s lack of universally agreed-upon definition. “Democracy” is the kind of loose word that governments can throw around to make everybody trust them without having to provide basis for that trust. The great thing about words without definitions (great for the manipulative, at least) is that each person will assign the definition they like most to the word, and so by using it you can please to everyone. A statement with an equal lack of meaning would be “We, as your governing body, pledge to do what is morally right.” These words that give us nothing but fluffy thoughts of rainbows and unicorns serve only to appeal to our emotions, and stop us from actually considering facts of reality. They put our heads up in the clouds in hopes we’ll be unable to see back down to the truths of the real world.

Dismissing the word itself, there are dozens of things to discuss in the various meanings of “democracy.” The most basic definition, rule of the people, provides us with possibly the vaguest idea of all. Who gets to be a “person”? Historically, women and black people were excluded entirely. Theoretically, an argument could be made to exclude the uneducated. Presently, youth have no voting rights. Realistically, the public majority is ruled by emotion over logic, and only a very small minority have any potential to rule indifferently and justly. So what do we do? Turn to the simplicities of dictatorship? Well, no. Democracy, as a form of government, is a miserable mess with more convolutions than spelling in the English language. However, it still remains the best of the worst. I have no wish to live in a country ruled by a single person– the probability of that person being, in nice terms, vastly unqualified lies around 99.9-100%.  The same goes for a small group of people, or any other variation we’ve tried. Humans simply have no claim to perfection, and thus to the right to rule each other either. In short, every form of government sucks, democracy just sucks a little less because it makes it a little less easy for messed up and delusional people to ruin things for the rest of us.

In terms of democracy as a substitute for freedom, equality, justice, or any other such idealistic word, there are also some interesting things to consider. For instance, when using democracy to mean equality, the argument of equal opportunity versus equal outcome comes up. Does equality mean that every person has the chance to be successful in life (however we define that other abstract term), or does it mean that every person should, in the end, have equal success in life. If we ignore the many privileged people who think that if you’re “only” systemically oppressed instead of openly enslaved then you have “equal opportunity” to those how haven’t been oppressed at all, then this question is actually quite interesting. Obviously a just society would have every person born with an equal capacity to succeed in life, but would that society also be morally obligated to ensure each person did succeed in life? Moving on to freedom, should we have the freedom to murder whomever we please? To rob the local bakery when we get hungry? No, of course not. Freedom defined as anything but access to our human rights doesn’t work so well.

Democracy, like most excessively convoluted ideas, only leads to more questions when we attempt to ascribe it an “answer.” I could go on forever about all the discussions that branch out from it, but I also have better things to do this weekend, so I’ll leave it at that.