Monday, February 22, 2010

thoughts on de Tocqueville on slavery

"The negro, who is plunged in this abyss of evils, scarcely feels his own calamitous situation. Violence made him a slave, and the habit of servitude gives him the thoughts and desires of a slave; he admires his tyrants more than he hates them, and finds his joy and his pride in the servile imitation of those who oppress him: his understanding is degraded to the level of his soul.

"The negro enters upon slavery as soon as he is born: nay, he may have been purchased in the womb, and have begun his slavery before he began his existence. Equally devoid of wants and of enjoyment, and useless to himself, he learns, with his first notions of existence, that he is the property of another, who has an interest in preserving his life, and that the care of it does not devolve upon himself; even the power of thought appears to him a useless gift of Providence, and he quietly enjoys the privileges of his debasement. If he becomes free, independence is often felt by him to be a heavier burden than slavery; for having learned, in the course of his life, to submit to everything except reason, he is too much unacquainted with her dictates to obey them. A thousand new desires beset him, and he is destitute of the knowledge and energy necessary to resist them: these are masters which it is necessary to contend with, and he has learnt only to submit and obey. In short, he sinks to such a depth of wretchedness, that while servitude brutalizes, liberty destroys him."

Thus observed Alexis de Tocqueville during his stay in America. Yet reading the lines, I felt myself inserted into the pathetic tale of mental servitude.

Since infancy, I have been brought up on the notion of the absolute and unqualified superiority of the White Race. This deep impression – like all impressions made upon the childish intellect – remained with me; and I am ashamed to admit, remained with me till my thirtieth year.

I was woken from this dream of inferiority by the study of comparative history. I recoiled with horror at the object of my prolonged infatuation. Was this the beast that I had embraced as a beauty?

Looking around, I found a nation incapable of reason, unable and unwilling to govern itself, incapable of original thought, and without a pulse of authentic emotion. And the more I studied this animal, the more I discovered the rot to lie in the head rather than in the body. In short, I refer to the thinking part of our society – the so-called intellectuals ("Have you heard? Jihadis blew off the head of a Bangladeshi intellectual, and spattered the place with faeces. What a pong! They've sworn never to go for the head again.")

It has been observed that a slave has only one master, but that a man of ambition has many. This is true of our intelligentsia, who fawn before their European masters as well as their domestic ones – for since their careers straddle two realms, the local and the foreign, they needs must keep two sorts of masters happy.

I have never yet met any educated person in this country: experts, yes, but not men or women of education, what the Persians would call 'elm'. This is not surprising: the profound disgust for knowledge that carries no reward comes naturally to those used to calculating their whole lives on the benefits to be derived or the losses to be sustained from certain courses of action. It is always the main chance, the master's blessing for a job 'well done'. That something can be a good-in-itself is beyond the imagination of a servant.

Naturally, from this parochial view of knowledge arises the other vices: the indifference to immorality ('what's in it for me?'), the apathy towards the suffering of others, the lack of indignation at evil done or goodness withheld.

When was the last time that we were shocked by a murder in this country? Imagine: the premature and unnatural death of a human being solicits no interest simply because 'there's nothing in it for me', because the victim was not related to me in any way.

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