As the noose was slipped over his neck, Adolf Eichmann spoke his last words, ‘We will meet again...I have lived, believing in God...I obeyed the laws of war and was loyal to my flag...’
For a Nazi war criminal – the words sound too heroic. But, therein lies a lesson, history teaches us so well – What is considered to be accepted reality or even self-evident truth, may have been heavily contested in the past, to the point of self-delusion.
Let us travel a couple of centuries back to the American Civil War – One realises that the brutality of slavery was not as evident, as it may seem today. James Thornwell; a preacher and writer, one among many apologetics, wrote:
‘The parties in the conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders. They are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other.’
Slavery, he gently equated with ‘order and regulated freedom’.
A longer journey to Greece – one of the wisest men known - Aristotle, begins his ‘Politics’ with the defence of slavery – In the First Book itself – he states:
‘The lower sort are by nature slaves and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of the master.’
Comparing slaves with animals, his wisdom spills over, ‘use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different.’
With economic condescension he grants, ‘some men are by nature free and others slaves, and for these latter slavery is both expedient and right’.
We could go on quoting maxims from his wisdom, but these, I suppose, suffice.
Slavery, as an institution, will find very few (if any) takers in our present world (or so I hope). But, this was not always the case. To further my point, allow me to offer a light glimpse of what it exactly looked like - Quoting a passage from a slave memoir – by Solomon Northup; describing a scene wherein a slave child is taken away from his slave mother, begging to be bought along with her son:
‘Eliza (mother) was crying aloud...She besought the man not to buy him, unless he also bought herself and Emily(daughter). She promised, in that case, to be the most faithful slave that ever lived. The man answered he could not afford it, and then Eliza burst into a paroxysm of grief, weeping plaintively. Freeman (seller) turned round to her, savagely with his whip...ordering her to stop her noise...’
Strange enough that the heart-wrenching scene – visible at every slave market – could neither move the masses, nor the intelligentsia.
Among a series of edicts on the legal ethics of slavery in the Ottoman Empire, one from 1595; thus directed,
‘Slave dealers are hereby prohibited from applying either white face paint or rouge to slave girls, and may not cover the girls up with excessive clothing’.
Since slaves were considered more of merchandise than humans – the concern of the legal faculty over facial make-up, rather than human enslavement, was rather obvious.
From more recent events of industrial slavery - Popular education was a contested issue; a bill to provide elementary schools in England was introduced in 1807, subsequently to be defeated in the House of Lords – The President of the Royal Society protested,
‘...giving education to the labouring classes of the poor, it would in effect be found to be prejudicial to their morals and happiness; it would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants...instead of teaching them sub-ordination, it would tender them fractious and refractory...’
This leads us to a strange, but useful, understanding of history. The issues over which we believe history, to have passed judgement - things that we consider fundamental to human life and dignity – have once been debated, contested and fought over. We can go on quoting lengthy arguments in defence of, what we now consider to be indefensible – Upholding Slavery as natural order.
Apologetics offered in favour of gender subordination, under the guise of women deification. Inquisition, as an expression of piety. Fascism as national salvation – and the list goes on. But, what is worth reading in these – that the collective conscience of humanity (or so I believe) now considers abominable and the highest form of absurdity, is their line of argument.
Arguments that came not only from the mouth of simpletons – but were also parroted by the intellectual elite, preachers, parliamentarians, patriarchs and other notable un-notables (and, on occasions, even genuine thinkers not being completely immune from the epidemic) – were basically excuses crafted for the convenience of existing power relations.
This intellectual myopia – symptomatic of being imprisoned in the accidental time and place of birth, caused masses, and their leaders, to toe a line - with which history has associated epithets of disgust and shame. Instead of being honest proponents of knowledge, enlightenment and human emancipation – they imprisoned themselves – and, as a consequence; their society – in sheer chance. What now, even the blind can perceive, remained invisible to the well sighted - as they failed to step out of the prison, nature had placed them in.
This realization, for us, provides a genuine clue for settling questions that still hold us hostage. It outlines the direction in which society has, and will evolve – namely human dignity and freedom. Anachronistic themes; holding men by their heavy chains –can’t be painted in gold.
There are no reasons valid enough to enslave humanity. Practices that inhibit individual growth and joy; constitute soul murder, and cannot be justified under pretexts - earthly or divine. Excuses cannot be weaved to imprison thought, spontaneity and human expression.
One cannot walk on the wrong path in the right way. What is evil, is evil – Dominion over other’s lives – in whatever way that may be – must be done away with. And, in this reading of the other side of history, not the victorious but the defeated narrative; aptly stated Bertrand Russell, shall we find ‘emancipation from the accidental circumstances of our education’.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.