Monday, May 11, 2009

Standing on the Backs of Slaves

Last weekend, I visited Mount Vernon.  I was mesmerized by its picturesque quality.  I drove the near twenty miles along the Potomac river on the George Washington Parkway to reach his home.  

The home captures the haphazard quality of American historical identity.  It is a plantation made to look simple, belying its 21 bedrooms.  The flanks of the home are extended by Greek colonnades and then,the slave quarters!  The back patio view looks down the sloping hills, into the Potomac, with the trees manicured to remove obstruction of the view.  Literally, the City on the Hill.

On the side of the hill is an icehouse.  The icehouse is 21 feet in depth, and functioned to store ice in order for the General's family to have ice cream.  The ice was collected from the Potomac by three slaves, whose primary role was to carry ice blocks from the Potomac, carry it up the hill, and store it in this reservoir.  The lives of three people were used and abused so that a family can have ice cream.  

In developmental economics, the return on investment is the golden answer that secures funding, political support, and reason for providing aid.  What was the return on investment of those three lives?  One of George Washington's ice cream parties in the back lawn?  The development of America did not happen because of free market principles, but because of a complete market failure that allowed four million people to be used for a nations economic growth.  

I am in a precarious stage in my political thought, where I don't know where the role of the government ends and individual rights begin.  I am writing to strategize my thought in deciphering what I believe and support. 

1 comment:

  1. I am glad we started our dialoguing looking to the past. It'll serve us well to see some of the disjunctures that come up against the simple narratives we tell ourselves to rationalize the present.

    For example, in your post you point out that ice cream is no equivalent to the three lives/slaves. But you are generously and intuitively linking slaves to valuable people, equal to their master - that slavery was an ethical wrong white (and a few black) Americans elected to commit. However, it was natural (and even right*) for slaves to be used because they were not valued as human.

    Today, questions of public justice rely on the precept of our uniform value to one another but historically, the public/citizenry was a narrower set of individuals. How we continue to widen who is a part of the public is an interesting way to begin broaching the question: where does the role of government end and individual rights begin.

    Actually, I should correct myself. "Value" is an inappropriate term since slaves were definitely regarded as valuable - arguably, the most valuable of a master's property. "Value" also relies on the utilitarian function of an object to an individual, its functionality to another. "Value" is a deeply social-communitarian term since it speaks to relationality. As social beings, "value" is an explanatory device for how we behave towards one another, linked to the superfluous shifts in importance of one being/object to another.

    So increasing value does not always correlate to more humane treatment. Slavery suggests that the inverse can be true.

    Judith Butler in a lecture claimed that what makes a *living* person is a question of what makes a person alive to others. In the case of slaves, this is the primary question I ask when I hear you wonder why ice cream was a fair exchange for three human lives. It was not a matter of valuing those lives but why these black folks were not seen as totally alive.

    What makes a human life a living, sentient one? Its a kind of annoying meta question that doesn't necessarily require an answer.

    But maybe if we're committed to the idea that justice through a government, or some similar social contract, should be accessible to everyone living in the US, then asking what makes them a *living* part of the polity is important.