The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This was adopted in 1865, seventy-four years after the first ten amendments—a full lifetime–and at the cost of far more than the 620,00 lives recently lost in the Civil War.
Slavery, the forcible enslavement of one human being for the purpose of another, is variously defined as bondage, servitude, and thralldom–all aspects of ownership, subjection, control, and captivity.
Now the question arises: what part of this idea, if any, do you not understand today?
Let’s make this personal. Speaking at the safe remove of the third person is a waste of breath and ink or ether. I am personally interested in the answer. What is your difficulty with this Constitutional prohibition on slavery or the definition given here? Do you disagree with it? A part of it? What part is that?
The questions are not rhetorical, nor is the issue. For instance, in my youth I first encountered the vague idea that slavery was having to do anything one does not wish to do. The irrational link between the necessity of supporting oneself by whatever means was legally and morally available, and the forcible enslavement of another human being to do your work for you, was just one of many incoherent ideas being bandied about by self-appointed intellectuals at the time. The simple fact that it was the work of others that supported them while they toyed with such foolishness seemed to escape their awareness.
The fellow who once said, “Government big enough to supply everything you need is big enough to take everything you have. The course of history shows us that as a government grows, liberty decreases,” knew a great deal about this. He was the author of a Declaration of Independence from the forced authority of British rule. And he was a slaveholder. He looked into the eyes of slaves. He spoke to them and heard their complaints.
Unreasonable and emotional prejudices shape most political beliefs. Few people take the time to examine the consequences of their wishes. There are literally thousands of bad concepts for the government of society and only a few that seem remotely promising. And each and every one of the dozens that I have studied have essential flaws. The problems almost always arise in the application of philosophy to the realities of life. Human beings can be irrational and thus undependable. The sum total of human knowledge is vastly overwhelmed by the magnitude of human ignorance, but we must act on what we know or die.
The Greeks (together a veritable cornucopia of bright ideas) had the interesting concept of assigning their governance to a body of wise elders. The idea came apart in less than a generation because the sympathies of one elder conflicted with another and the oligarchy quickly gave up benevolence for self-aggrandizement. People tend to look out for their own welfare first. It’s a fact. It’s essentially a good fact. Otherwise more people would get run over in the street.
Once, just about the time the Thirteenth Amendment became law in the United States, a couple of Germans tried to codify another political philosophy. The idea of the Germans was that everyone would be equal by force. One person could not work harder and thus gain an advantage. Another person could not speculate on the intelligence or ignorance of their fellows and thus attain riches. When attempted afterward, as would predictably happen in such a structured concept of society, some people were quickly more equal than others and these showed no more wisdom than the wise oligarchs of ancient Greece.
Despite the repeated failure in practice of the political ideals designed by those German geniuses, there are many who suppose that the idea of forced equality still has merit–that we should all be slaves to each other. It is just a matter of correct application. A few million more lives (more or less) and they will get it right after all. The use of force and the absolute corruption of such power does not disturb their thinking.
A couple hundred years ago a small gathering of Americans, including Mr. Jefferson, had the bright idea of maximizing human nature. Let people be people. Use the law not to restrict human beings but to restrict government. It seemed to them that whatever human beings did, the one thing that always went really awry was their government. One nasty fellow might kill another for his crop, but this infraction could be dealt with by the community. However, no one community could set itself against the power of a nation-state that wanted everyone’s crop. Dealing with individual wrong was easier than dealing with the evil of entire armies. Let government be the restriction of authority, not the governed. This was a stroke of true genius. It hadn’t been done before.
After thousands of years and tens of thousands of political experiments, it had never occurred to anyone that the best thing laws could do effectively was to limit government. Many practical applications had been tried–in England for instance–to restrict those tendencies which might result in the dictatorship of the many by the few, but now the better of those laws could be used within a larger framework which offered a wholly new concept of liberty and of human freedom.
Sadly, change does not happen overnight. The vested interests of Thomas Jefferson and others in the existence of slavery persisted. It took almost four generations and horrors unimagined by Jefferson on his little mountain to rid us of this most fundamental evil of all. But it was done. When persuasion failed, civil war was necessary. The great Greeks had failed this test, but, at last, this battle was won here and the Thirteenth Amendment was written.
Still it must be asked, ‘How could a man as smart as Jefferson have been a slaveholder.’ The answer is too simple for some to contemplate. His slaves were a large portion of the value of his property. His property represented his inheritance and the security of his family. It was against his short-term self-interest to give them up. Ideals were set aside for expediency. Being smart was not a guarantee of being right or good.
Another slaveholder, Andrew Jackson said, “eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty.” Vested interests grow. Human beings are really no smarter now than they were two hundred years ago or two thousand years ago. The toys may be better now because of an accumulation of technical knowledge (and an established acceptance of the freedom to use that knowledge), but human beings still look out for their own interest first. And the vastness of their own ignorance inevitably means they will often see their interests unwisely.
This truth was noted by our forefathers many times in their writings. Their idea was that the best government would not be the self-interested rule of a single king, or even a small coterie of oligarchs, but of the broadest gathering of the nation as a whole, and thus prejudice would balance itself for all.
For their part, the politicians charged with overseeing the process of this relatively free society look out for their own interests first as well. Power is the soul of politics. Money may be the mother’s milk, but power is the means to the end. Re-election is the first priority. Those who designed this government two hundred years ago discussed these concerns in depth in the Federalist Papers. They knew it would happen. Their answer was to write restrictions on the politicians. The thirteenth amendment was finally one of those restrictions. Yet even then they correctly feared that human nature would find a way to spoil their purpose.
When I was a youth the government had the power to draft me into military service, a leftover authority from a world war that was supposedly won before I was born. They had the legal right to my body and my labor. I objected then, but not conscientiously. At the time a conscripted army was considered the only way for a great nation to secure a military force sufficient to carry out its aims. But it was costly, inefficient, and produced second-rate soldiers who felt like the slaves they were and did their duty grudgingly. For their own part, the military felt emboldened in the power this holding provided and proceeded accordingly. Only after a great failure in Vietnam and national disillusionment was the idea given up before a rising tide of discontent and the all-volunteer army was re-born. Today that army is by far the best and most efficient on Earth. Sadly, the very quality of the force has emboldened politicians again to use it unwisely.
Slavery as an institution was common over most of the earth’s surface, land and sea, when the Thirteenth Amendment was written into the Constitution. Today chattel slavery is still a practice common in many places. Thankfully, in the nation where I had the good fortune to grow up, such slavery was long gone but for the echo of prejudice that made it possible in the first place. However, the belief that some people were inferior to others was still around and about. And out of such remnant ideas, there will always be vested interests busily trying to establish dominion for government which will further institutionalize the enslavement of some for the good of others.
The concept that because some people will not thrive in an unstructured society, or have physical or mental handicaps, others must be forced to support them, is an old one. Plato discussed this in the Republic two thousand years ago. Jefferson even used the idea as an excuse for not giving his own slaves their freedom. Government is necessary to take care of those who are unable to help themselves, as determined by that same government. That the exercise of such power will lead inevitably to that same government securing its own rule with ever greater restrictions, and the assumption of the reins of authority in the hands of a few, is well established. Simply, the dictatorship grows out of fear for the loss of its own power.
We are still an ignorant lot. What we don’t know is far more than what we can imagine. But we have learned some things, and we cannot ignore this knowledge now just to achieve another vaguely supposed ideal. Better that we expend that energy on solving those matters of ignorance that clearly plague us. As ever, people will act in what they believe to be their own self-interest. If the case is made that they should give up some measure of freedom to buy an equal amount of security (say, health insurance) they may accept this bargain as fair, without understanding the larger context and failing to see that such power has a cost far beyond monetary value.
A commonly heard refrain in my lifetime is some version of ‘They have it, therefore I should have it too.’ This is not a result of some logic or understanding. It is another example of simple self-interest. The reasons for the restrictive clauses of the Constitution are to inhibit government from buying power by dispensing favors to satisfy such urges. Self-interest cannot be done away with, nor even well managed, but it certainly should not be catered to. It is only the amalgam of a nation of self-interested individuals which will amount to the balance of a free and open society first imagined in the Constitution. If we are each free to pursue our own happiness unrestricted by the wishes of others, we may achieve the greatest result.
The most fervent religious beliefs make use of self-interest to establish their power over the natural interests of the individual. Heaven awaits. Others be damned. Yet, what most becomes a free and open society is a Christian ethic of ‘do to others what you would have them do to you.’ And this is self-interest at it utmost.
Over the last few generations, in the name of good (always the ‘common’ good) government has assumed ever greater power to dispense favors to some at the expense of others. What has been achieved in that time is a sort of virtual slavery of the few for the many. If you don’t pay your taxes you will be punished or go to jail. There are immediate benefits to paying your taxes in the form of ‘gifts’ from the government, and fewer benefits for those who delay their gratification for long term goals and work to achieve their own dreams.
As always, some being more equal than others, there are those who pay little or no tax but enjoy the benefits. This is the case with the very poor and the very rich. And the very rich, who commonly exercise the control of government, use the spectre of the suffering poor to moralize for their ever greater reach. It is not accidental that there are as many poor today (percentage wise—there are far more in actual numbers of course) as there were in 1965 at the start of the current regime of our welfare state. Presidents and Congresses come and go but the welfare state always grows, and so grows the number of administrators to carry out the self-interest of that government.
Now, the latest reach of government is not unexpected. It is fifteen years in the making. The government wants further rights to your body. They will tell you how to care for your health and the means you may use to do it. But those in the middle, not employed by that government (but who will be forced to pay for this new authority), have objected. And for this they are reviled by those in power, and by those who think they benefit by that authority. How could anyone object to such a good idea? Don’t they understand? It’s for their own good. No! They are too stupid. They must be made to be good!
And they will be. By any means.
It is a contradiction flavored by irony that those in power who fear the objections are the first to accuse the objectors of violent intent and call for even more restrictions to put them in their place. The power is, as always, in the hands of the masters. This tableau has played out many times over history. Perhaps it is in our short-term interest to lay back and endure it. But the slave does not forget that they are in bondage. And the time will come.
The trend of history, punctuated by revolt and renewal, has been undeniably toward greater human freedom because it inevitably benefits the greatest number. Being naturally short-sighted in our ignorance the majority may succumb again and again to the promises of political sirens, but it is ever more difficult now to pretend our demands for gifts are anything less than the graft and patronage of a democracy gone awry. As Tocqueville warned, voting ourselves gifts has a predictable end. Bankruptcy. National failure. And revolution. It has happened before.
To the consternation of homogenous European nations long used to social engineering and the management of authority, Americans are by nature more independent and diverse. The immigrants who have made us were those who had the courage to come. This is no small matter. We are not smarter, but we are by nature more difficult and more willing to see our self-interest in unusual ways. Though significantly diminished, there is still a continuing ethic of delayed gratification to achieve long-term desires.
Those who now sneer at the ‘tea party’ movement should note that these are the people who are paying the taxes on which the government, its minions, and its gift giving depends. They are the true workers for whom those Germans feigned concern. They are capable. They are resourceful. And each insult delivered by those who govern only weakens the bonds which tie them to their masters.
In my short lifetime I have witnessed the repeated failure of the welfare state and the ‘Detroitization’ of great cities, as well as the demonstrated rejuvenation of others through common free enterprise. The fear of failure keeps many people from trying themselves. The messiness and unpredictable nature of an open society bothers many who crave safety and security above all else. The phoenix-like transformation of New York City between 1975 and 1995 may seem like magic to anyone who did not do the back-breaking work to achieve it. Now, with the accession of managers to the offices of innovators, New York has begun a decline once again. But it must be remembered that it required the bankruptcy of 1975 to open the minds of the politicians to the alternatives that made 1995 possible.
I do not wish such a bankruptcy on my nation now, in these troubled times. There are those who will take full advantage of the moment. But we have been here before–back when garbage tumbled unrestrained through the mean and graffiti stained streets of New York. Politicians wallowed then in their power as they condemned the citizens for our ‘national malaise,’ and preached ever-greater sacrifice. It is astonishing to me that my own prosperous and overfed generation does not want to remember even so recent a past. It is incomprehensible that they should condemn their own children back to the future that is upon us.
So I ask again, what is it about the concept of slavery that you do not understand? Do you not realize the power over your body that you have just given to others who do not have your best interest at heart? You do in fact have the government you deserve. You voted for it, because you were looking out for your own interests–for yourself. You chose these masters.
But I did not. And there are others who did not.
For my part, I object to my fellow citizens who so easily give up their freedoms for promises and false premises. But perhaps that slaveholder Mr. Jefferson, like the slaveholding Greeks of so long ago, had insight for this as well: “A little rebellion is a good thing,” and “every generation needs a new revolution.”
Slavery is the most common system of organized labor in human history. That it persists today in all its forms is a testament to its usefulness and success. That it exists at all in the United States today would be a surprise to most readers of this essay.
It may come as a further surprise to some that we are all going to die. Some sooner than others. And a few other matters might be pertinent. Most of what people think they know is wrong. Life is not fair, nor will it ever be. Right and wrong are not arbitrary, nor are they absolute. The first thing they should be worried about is their own ignorance. The second thing to worry about is the ignorance of the person who will determine what happens to them next.
The subject here is slavery, the forcible enslavement of one human being for the purpose of another. The problem for me in discussing it only begins with suggesting that most of my readers are at least indentured and probably worse. I can only guess how they will accept the categorization of their own bondage.
There are issues in our time which can no longer be civilly discussed. Abortion, for instance. Opening such topics produces a visceral response. Any chance for rational parley is immediately lost. There are words which have been removed from our grammar. They cannot be spoken. There are names which have been demonized beyond any possibility of true appreciation. This is the way it once was with the peculiar institution of slavery.
But the history of slavery is elsewhere being re-written even as I address my topic. And more importantly, the language is being altered to suit vested interests.
The art of relabeling and calling the forced labor of one human being to benefit another by a different name, of finding excuses which make it more palatable, and of inventing political necessities which are schooled into the popular culture to make the act acceptable by the slaves themselves is just a part of the many unexamined atrocities of modern life. But most people don’t want to hear anything about it, much less deal with it.
This last bit is essentially an example of how much of established authority is endangered by any closer examination. If it is not spoken of, it does not exist. Thus, my purpose here is only to draw attention to it, not fulfill the scholarly or scientific functions of mapping or perform a bloody dissection.
A key mistake would be to assume the silence is part of a conspiracy. But conspiracy is not necessary when the act itself has been redefined. The dialectic of modern slavery is a part of the fabric of our society. It is a profoundly revealing phenomena that many people who would be harshly critical of Thomas Jefferson for being a slaveholder can accept the idea that half of the adult population in the United States today must work to support the other half. And not by choice, but by force. Any direct and explicit poll of the citizenry concerning taxation proves this. The excuses fly. The fact remains. Most people, even many of those who must work twice as hard to support the others, believe in their own de-facto slavery.
‘Chattel’ slavery is outright ownership of another human being as property. This is less common today, though it still exists in parts of Asia and Africa. A primary difference between chattel slavery and modern slavery is that with ownership comes value and thus some care for the property, as well as responsibility, however meager. State controlled slavery is no more kind, and usually less. Human beings are used for whatever purposes the political authority sees fit. ‘For the good of the Fatherland’ has moved many armies. Even the Generals sent their sons into the machine guns at Somme in 1916.
For more than half of the Nineteenth Century the issue of slavery was argued until the very topic became anathema in polite company, just as certain topics are today. But with the passing of a hundred and sixty years, and the assumption of the final defeat of slavery in our Civil War so long ago, the issue has cooled. That our society is still dependent on many of the mechanisms of slavery is generally ignored.
There are many approaches to the matter as a whole. Let me address just a few that come easily to mind—my mind of course. You may have your own examples.
The ‘mechanizing’ of modern life is the great failed theme of the Twentieth Century. The State needs the workers to produce the goods and pay the taxes which allows the state to function. Charlie Chaplin comically lampooned the dilemma in Modern Times. His imagery was precisely hewn to the sense of many that their value as individuals had been sacrificed on an alter of machine-age efficiency. The great boon of modern science had been turned not to a better life but a more productive life. To what purpose? A longer and healthier employment, so that more might be produced? To what end? So that more wars can be waged? Is there any surprise then that so many people in the most advanced nations have simply stopped making more people rather than continue the cycle?
The ‘dehumanization’ of factory work was part of the cause of Ned Ludd in 1810. His issue was the transformation of human beings into slaves for the machine, and the loss of better values. That farm work was even more dangerous and easily as grinding and repetitive could be ignored against the more dramatic imagery of steel and fire. As wrong-headed as the Luddite tactics were, their analysis was not so bad. Anyone who has worked around a cotton loom would understand this, even while wearing the better and cheaper clothing it produced.
We accept this education to interact well with the machine from an early age. We may question someone’s judgment about politics but we will automatically fit our lives into the routine necessary to make the machine function correctly—questioning the time allowance or pay perhaps, but seldom the work itself.
What is more important to me here is that the process of adjusting human behavior to work well with machines taught us many things. Mostly about controlling mass human behavior. And politics is the craft of such manipulation
The key to political hegemony is language. Armies may win battles but ruling requires a mastery of words. Controlling the language can make the need for chains unnecessary. George Orwell, wrote most clearly of this phenomena in his prescient novel, 1984. He introduced a whole lexicon of useful terms to describe it: ‘Blackwhite,’ the loyal willingness to say black is white when the party discipline demands it; ‘Doublethink,’ believing in two contradictory ideas at the same time; ‘Memory hole,’ where documents go to be destroyed (this a pet fear of my own in this age when books are being replaced with the fungible digital record); ‘Ministry of Love,’ law and order; ‘Ministry of Peace,’ war; ‘Ministry of Plenty,’ rationing; ‘Ministry of Truth,’ propaganda.
But my favorite of Orwell’s terms are: ‘Newspeak,’ language where all ’politically incorrect’ words have been removed; ‘Sexcrime,’ sex for personal pleasure; ‘Thoughtcrime,’ to think something not authorized by the state; ‘Unperson,’ an individual banished from society and their very existence expunged (Someone who has been vaporized); and finally, ‘Ownlife,’ individualism and eccentricity (Being solitary, acting by yourself); ‘Resistance,’ those who defy authority (always the cause of government failure rather than the government itself); and ‘Freedom,’ being able to say two plus two equals four without fear of retribution.
Now the ‘Ministry of Truth’ has brought us a ‘Troubled Asset Relief Program’ for insolvent (bankrupt) banks; a ‘War on terror’ for war, Hatespeach for saying anything politically incorrect; Hatecrime: for committing a crime, and many more verbal inventions.
The politics of modern slavery are rather obvious but typically ignored. (Wiggle your toes in your Chinese made shoes and forget about the twelve year old slave who made them.) The most successful political subterfuge of the past two centuries are the various forms of ‘socialism’ under which, supposedly, everyone will be made equal—thus we are all slaves to one another. This appeals to the aesthetic sensibility of the few who believe they are naturally better than the rest of humanity and thus, as in Orwell’s other authoritarian classic Animal Farm, are more equal than others. They believe they will inevitably rise to the surface, like cream, to be the ones in charge.
Because of the supposed ‘leveling’ effect of socialism, this also appeals to the mind that sees all human beings as nasty and soiled creatures unworthy of nature’s bounty. There is a whole school of belief in the purity and righteousness of nature (not including humans, of course), as if this was at some level of godly perfection before it was spoilt by mankind.
Having been raised around the weakened influence of one sect of slavery or another, but in a generally free condition, and in a country established as a harbor of human liberty (however faulty), I have had the opportunity to observe the machinations of more than one disguise for the various forms of human bondage in my time. I do affirm that humanity in general has drifted toward some significant improvements over the ages. The slavery of the factory town in China today is by degree better than the chattel slavery of the Virginia plantation of 1776.
The wealth of nations has provided for a higher standard of living for most people, especially in those countries influenced by a Western sense of human value based on the worth of the individual. Still, given the brief history of such improvement and the generally weak foundation for it, I cannot help but worry that this too shall pass. Perhaps the Luddite had one thing right: with a dependence on technology comes a debasement of human value and thus with the rise of the machine (computer) we have made ourselves dispensable.
Whatever the disguise for slavery in the particular ruling political system, most people object to the idea of thinking of themselves as slaves to anything. This is human nature. (The other guy may be a slave, but I am doing this because I want to). Yet this, not unexpectedly, is a source of hope for any libertarian–that human beings will, on their own and as they have through recorded history, work their way toward some state of greater individual freedom.
The most successful technique for outright human bondage over the past century in the United States is the income tax. It has all the best features of a working system of slavery. It is forced. It is enforceable. It is applied to wages thus the few who act as masters and receive their compensation in other forms do not have to pay or may pay taxes at reduced rates depending on their privileged positions in the hierarchy of authority. And it can be made ‘progressive.’
This last quality is a form of genius unknown to Egyptians or Romans or even Virginians in past slave dependent societies. Those who might elicit the mercy of their fellow citizens to some infirmity or handicap are excused, thus giving the appearance of ‘progressive’ kindness to the system. Unfortunately, as with all such systems, the mechanics falter on the simpler forms of human imperfection, especially self-interest. Systems are abused, taken advantage of and become heavy with inequities.
But, income tax has a more important flaw. It is obvious. Every slave can readily see what is being taken from his labor.
An alternative, the sales tax, is useful for the fact that it can be collected on the goods that human beings need to live. And it’s cheap because the person who collects the tax is a slave to this duty, under penalty of law. But this too is very obvious. As the tax increases, people become restive at the open theft.
Thus, a new system, designed by some European geniuses, has been proffered. The ‘Value Added Tax.’ VAT. With VAT, all manufactured goods are taxed at each stage of production. This has the added quality of being both discrete and discreet. The buyer at each stage of manufacture has no idea of the amount of the tax that is already built into the item when it reaches them. In addition, a sales tax can still be placed on the item at the retail end. Oh joy!
One form of vicarious entertainment for some libertarians, myself included, is the political passion-play over taxes. With each increase, there is a predictable outcry. The abuse of tax revenues by government is too obvious. The amounts are so enormous it is difficult to imagine—especially now that we speak of ‘trillions’, a number so great that a thousand human beings living a thousand consecutive lifetimes could not count to one.
The enormous success of income tax collection has outstripped the imagination of the best authorities. Simply by applying this one disguise they have successfully enslaved all the productive members of an entire society.
By offering ‘tax breaks’ and ‘loop holes’ to the chosen managers (re: bosses), they can fund almost any architecture for their plantations. All the while, public schools properly educate the workers to their roles of submission and the politically licensed news media offer ‘newspeak’ to quell the anxiety or fuel it as needed. When some slaves manage to escape the cycle, new workers can be imported from countries which haven’t achieved our success.
The cost of maintaining even an average standard of living in America, with taxes removing more than half of family income, requires both parents to work. The crucial guidance and passing of values that is at the heart of the family and a culture is replaced by the television, the computer, and the iPod, and the state run school.
And I have hardly touched on the technocratic evolution of slavery in the form of bread and circuses gone electronic and now digital. The technology itself is only as harmless as a gun without a hand. There is little time for contemplation, or appreciation when the mind is under the constant assault of sound and visual stimulation produced to effect precut sensibilities and educate a passive intellect. The sound of a bird in the pine at dusk is unheard. The colors of dawn go unseen.
The passions of youth are now inflamed by the digital effect. Guns are fired using software imagery and sound effects by teenagers who have no clue about how to handle a real weapon much less the true damage it can produce. Computer graphics now suspends the disbelief of young minds which have barely had the chance to appreciate the simplest laws of gravity and biology.
Television raised many in my own generation more than their parents. Fortunately for us, this new media was in unpracticed hands and produced uneven results. But methods have improved. Minds can now be swayed by the crafted electronic impulses of masters.
I think, in the minds of many, the very definition of freedom has been reduced to some sort of prolonged vacation from work. As if those summer days of bliss just went on and on. But this is more than just a fantasy engaged in by corporate cogs as they turn on their wheel. It is also a small extrapolation of the same enslaved mindset, because it ignores the necessity for someone else’s labor to feed you while you lie on the beach, and it is a prophesy of continued servitude.
Freedom is not free and liberty is always dangerous. New political faiths will not save the day. A thousand million individuals, without a sound sense of their own purpose, will not save the day. A persistence of vision and a patient effort may.
An open society, one where labor is not regulated and legalized by taxation, where political dogma does not dictate the role of each individual, is a better place, but it is not a perfect world. It is simply closer to home. It is not a utopia. It is far far from any heaven. It is a human place where what you do is your responsibility, and mistakes are made and some people fail, but dreams can be made real.
The point here is that in a freer, messier, more open society, as each of us might reach that moment of inspiration which could add to the sum total of human wisdom, we might be able to act upon it, as a slave could not. Now we are on the threshold of new ways to enslave, both body and mind, and we have not yet resolved the problems of the past.
None of this ignores other realities. There are competing systems of slavery out there. The success of Western nations, even with their faults, spawns jealousy in the eyes of those who have failed to up-date their priorities. The most capable citizens of those countries will happily escape, when they can, to better their circumstances. Friction ensues.
When I think of the uncounted generations of Irish serfs (my fore-fathers) who labored on the plantations of English lords I think of all that might have been possible to them had they had the opportunity that liberty would have provided—a chance that finally came at last when they fled to the West.
Importantly, it was that very quest for some greater measure of liberty that would in the end make their new homeland that much different. And it was a quest repeated millions of times again by Germans and Chinese, by Italians and Scots, and countless others.
It seems to me that we are now losing that sense of purpose. Wanting security and safety, we are giving up our humanity as truly as any factory worker or field hand or simple slave.
The abiding hope of a slave is an end to their bondage. If we have accepted the terms of our slavery, however gentle, we will not be better off in the end. After work, there is little time or strength left for a slave to reach beyond the clasp.
Freedom may be an old idea in the mind of mankind, but the exercise of freedom is still new. After thousands of generations, we have achieved at least a small measure of liberty for all in the United States. But it is as thin as it is precious. Slavery is an older idea and well entrenched. And the forces of bondage are still with us, like the barbarian hordes that overwhelmed those small city-states which once experimented with odd ideas in Greece so long ago.
It may be poetic that a progenitor of the welfare state, Sweden, has given us a psychological term for kidnapping victims who become attached to their captors and defend them—Stockholm Syndrome. But this tag does not precisely match the sort of mass denial common in the United States and most Western countries today.
In looking for a one word definition to describe the condition of a populace which has willingly enslaved itself and refuses to admit the simple and obvious fact, the old English term ‘thralldom’ is as close to the truth as our current language permits. A ‘thrall’ is a slave. We have been enthralled by a promise of security and safety; by technology; by amusements; by a culture of personality over substance; by our very language. But we are in need of an Orwell to describe the full state of our bondage.