And if a house be divided against itself,
that house cannot stand
Just take a look around you
What do you see
Kids with feelings like you and me
Understand him, he'll understand you
For you are him, and he is you
I've spent some time, this afternoon, proofing some more of that Bible Defence Of Slavery book. It's become somewhat of a hard slog, and bits of advice for anyone wishing to take on such a project keep floating through my brain. The two main ones being (i) start with something a bit more wholesome than the cesspit I chose for my first essay at it and (ii) don't set targets; do it when you feel like it and for only as long as your attention stays easily on it. Like any detailed work, it'll be done poorly if you're not giving it your full attention, and you'll only end up having to go over whole swathes of it again if you try to force yourself to it.
Over the course of this project I've become somewhat used to divorcing myself from the racism inherent in the topic in particular, and the general lack of anything approaching morality or empathy in general. The fact that I'm white, and therefore not one of the people being described as less worthy of human dignity helps, I'm sure, as does the necessity to concentrate on the minutiae of typographic errors, formatting and so on, rather than the message. One of the signs of my waning attention is, in fact, the tendency to start considering what's being said—that is, I revert to the more normal mode of 'reader,' rather than that of 'proof-reader.'
So, anyway, I found my attention wandering when a passage I actually 'read' sent me off on a mental side-track. Here's what it says:
Thus, having disposed of the foregoing objections and positions of abolitionists, we now address ourself to combat another error of their creating. This is, the circumstance of the slaves laboring, as they say, for no reward or wages; and, therefore, slavery is not according to the principle of eternal rectitude, but is a sin of the blackest dye.
Now, do not frown, dear reader, when we tell you that this is not true of slavery, as slaves do not labor without a hope of reward; and that reward they generally receive. It is true, however, that their wages is not as much as many other laborers obtain, and then again, it is much more than many receive who are not slaves. The laboring classes of men over the whole earth, and among all people, operate under very different circumstances, which has been the case in all ages, and will continue to be thus to the end of time. In all countries, minors, apprentices and children, labor till of age, for no other reward than their food, shelter and clothing. In millions of cases, men labor all their lives, and never receive anything more than their food and raiment, and yet, they were not bondmen, but free. Do not black slaves receive as much as this, and is not this a reward to which they look with all the eagerness of any other kind of laborers? Do they not hail the hours of meal times as the bright spot of their destiny, with as much joy as do other laborers?
And the fact is that in the pure economic sense in which this passage was intended to be read, the author is right. It's merely his conclusion which is wrong. The fact that many people, white or black, live in abject poverty, is, to him, perfectly reasonable; it's the way the world is, and is noteworthy only in that it excuses the poverty in which slaves are kept.
Fact is that desperately poor whites in the slave states had far more in common, if only they had realised it, with the black slaves owned by the rich, landed classes.
Howard Zinn argues that, at least in some times and places, this was, to some extent, realised by some members of the poor class of whites and by the slaves themselves:
Herbert Aptheker quotes a report to the governor of Virginia on a slave conspiracy in 1802: "I have just received information that three white persons are concerned in the plot; and they have arms and ammunition concealed under their houses, and were to give aid when the negroes should begin." One of the conspiring slaves said that it was "the common run of poor white people" who were involved.
In return, blacks helped whites in need. One black runaway told of a slave woman who had received fifty lashes of the whip for giving food to a white neighbor who was poor and sick.
Zinn also argues—it's something of a theme of his book, which is worth reading in its entirety—that a deliberate 'divide and subjugate' policy was used by the rich and their pocket-politicians, to keep various groups who should have had common cause—notably American Indians, black slaves, and poor whites—antagonistic to one another. I'd have to know more about the social history of the period before fully agreeing to that (it has a mild conspiracy-theory smell to it), but the factual content he presents in his work does show enough instances of various cooperative efforts between the various pairings of those groups, that I can see how it must have been viewed as a problem by the landed classes, even if efforts to deal with it were less concerted than he portrays them as being.
But such ruminations do lead to a more general point—and particularly a point regarding the current brouhaha in certain parts of the atheist movement, over whether it should be expanded to address more general social justice concerns than those directly to do with problems caused or exacerbated by religion.
I can think of no protest movement which has remained an island unto itself, and made any real headway. Feminism, in particular, has enriched and aided, and been reciprocally enriched and aided by, movements as diverse as black civil rights, unionism, peace activism and environmentalism. In fact, where social justice movements are concerned, any look at the history of virtually any of them—including, historically, atheism and secularism—shows that far from being neat, easily defined movements, they blur and meld at the edges to the point where it's hard to see where any dividing line could be drawn. Do we, for instance, place the 1888 London matchgirls' strike against Bryant & May into the history of unionism, into a more general history of workers' rights, into a history of feminism, of rights for the poor, or of environmental awareness? Fact is, it's all of those things.
Taking secularism and atheism in particular, we could—and should—claim the repeal of various Sunday-trading laws, the right of women to file for divorce, the repeal of bastardy laws, and many other victories, as our own. But they are not solely our own. Chainstores and others had as much interest as we did in being able to trade on Sundays. Feminists had as much, if not more, interest in getting fair divorce laws for women. And so on. In fact, given religion's general attitude toward women and LGBT people, much of our fight is of a nature which directly, whether we aloofly claim not to be interested in social justice or not, involves feminists and LGBT activists who damn well are interested—as we should be, if we're not cynically hijacking and appropriating their causes as mere anti-religion 'gotchas'—in social justice.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that this idea of an atheism movement which is involved with nothing more than directly secularist topics such as separation of state and church, creationism in schools and the rest of it, is a false picture, based on little more than a few books by a few prominent atheists who are personally concerned with those particular secularist topics, and who managed, for a few years, to concentrate many people's attention on them. Which is fine for them. Those topics do need to be addressed. But they are not now, and never have been, the only topics addressed by atheist and/or secularist activists.
If, as is often claimed, 'religion poisons everything,' then the proper topic for atheists and secularists to address is, obviously, 'everything.' We should be seeking allies in and making ourselves allies of, every sphere of social justice activism. And the thing with true allies is that they don't turn their back on those who they claim to want to help, merely because 'Uh, sorry, we've helped with the bits which directly concern us, as per our completely mythical founding charter. You're on your own now.'
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