In the past few months, newspapers and television have been filled with articles & shows on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. I have been only mildly interested — I grew up in America and am well acquainted with America's horrible history of slave abuse & segregation that exists to this day — but last night a television show finally crystallized my thinking and made me very, very angry.
There was the age-old confrontation between a descendant of slaves & the rich white plantation owner & once again the question was asked: "Don't you, a rich plantation owner, feel guilty about what your ancestors did & the fact that you now benefit from their sins?" The young girl asking the question was naïve & self-satisfied & so deeply self-righteous. She had just been confronted with the specifics, leg-irons for children, boiling vats & horrific metallic contraptions for the adults. She was horrified.
She wanted a lot of breast-beating from the sincere but unmoved, immaculately groomed young man facing her. He acknowledged he was a beneficiary of the horrific practices his forebears might have joined in, but he was not ready to grovel & divest himself of the privileges he inherited.
Suddenly I was sickened. Everybody was turning to the past & being asked to do something about the past. One side is so self-righteous & demanding, the other side is repentant but largely unmoved. Nobody is focusing on the present because the present contains equally horrific exploitation and no one wants to focus on & try to do something about that — something which can and should be dealt with.
Equally horrific exploitation? "Money is a new form of human slavery, distinguishable from the old simply by the fact that it is impersonal: there is no human relation between master and slave." I am not condoning or downplaying past sins. What some slave owners did was so horrible that I cannot detail it: I am a squeamish man. The description of brutality sickens me. Torture, humiliation, the splitting up of families, daily degradation, bestiality. I cannot, will not, catalogue the brutality. How could one human being do such things to another human being?
But there were also kind people who owned slaves. Yes, they used them, benefited from their labor, their enslavement, but there is much evidence that many treated their slaves humanely. Slaves, in some cases, were members of the family. Perhaps in some cases the treatment was good, kind, for self-serving reasons. You don't want to damage the machinery that you rely on to earn a living. But for whatever reasons, kindness & cruelty, even in such a thing as slavery, lived side by side.
But now, slavery from afar does not allow for acts of kindness. We do not see what happens, we are not in control of what happens. Out of sight, out of mind — and horrible things are happening.
Once again, I do not need to catalogue, all of you know what is happening. Child labor, Africans & diamonds, wages that are so low that employment & starvation sometimes go together. Women who go blind sewing super-fine material. Essentially, we exploit millions of people who live far away in countries we do not want to know anything about, and who are our slaves in every sense of the word. We benefit from their suffering, and some of their suffering is every bit as cruel as the suffering of slaves long ago.
I must stop now & say I am no better than all of you. In fact, I am worse than many of you. I buy cheap because I cannot afford to buy the best. So I buy the best products I can afford at what I know are ridiculously cheap prices. Somebody somewhere must be receiving a horrible salary & working long, long hours if I can buy this terrific television set, or car, for so little money. I am perhaps worse than many of you because I am fully aware that I exploit others — and do nothing about it; in fact, I promote it by buying such "cheap" products.
And I am well aware that the simple solution is in some cases worse. If I do not buy, they have no work at all, the best example being when some country banned child labor which then relegated that child & the whole of his or her family to grinding poverty. Exploitation, horrific though it be, is preferable to starvation, death.
The problem is complex, yields to no easy solution, demands dedication & sacrifice on all sides — sons & daughters of slaves & slave owners — and that is why we won't confront it. We all prefer to accuse or cry crocodile tears: You are to blame... I am so sorry...
Get over it. Face the present. Both of you acknowledge present sins & both of you try to do something about contemporary exploitation and about contemporary inequality of the most horrific kind.
In 1995 I read that: "The richest 225 people on the planet have as much money as the combined wealth of the poorest 47%" and that if we taxed these 225 people 4% — pocket change as far as these billionaires are concerned — we could "achieve and maintain universal access to basic health care for all women, adequate food for all and safe water and sanitation for all."
I can hear all of you saying "but that isn't going to happen. We can't get the money from these rich people. They earned it, have a right to keep it. These 225 people live in so many countries, are ruled by so many different rulers. How can we force them to...?" There are always excuses, explanations why nothing can be done. We prefer to focus on the past: don't you feel guilty? I, of course, am not only not guilty, I deserve compensation...
I have only focused on one possible solution — work on redistributing what is obscene inequality — but my point is that we need to focus on present slavery, present exploitation, present inequality. Regretting or blaming past behavior is silly, sentimental, and it is especially so when current behavior is ignored, goes unacknowledged because solutions are hard and personal sacrifice is necessary if anything concrete is to get done.
Taxing the richest 225 is in its way too easy: "let's get them!" We need to look inside ourselves. Are we not to blame for current working conditions that exist because "money is the new slavery"?
I do realize I am addressing all this to the one nation in the world that has shown itself to be ready to confront its behavior & do something. You, who are responsible for only two per cent of another & more horrific problem (global warming), are willing to set goals that will involve personal sacrifice, hardship, and yet you know that what you will be asked to do will only have a small impact on the overall problem. But you know you should set an example, you know your behaviour may affect the behaviour of others, and you know the essential truth: blaming others, seeking contrition from others, is useless, simple & silly.
Look to your own behavior, modify that. You can do that, you should do that. Others may or may not follow. You cannot control them, you can and should control yourself.