21 January 2008

A Fortuitous Coincidence of Dates

It's not been lost on many that MLKjr day and the March for Life, held each year on the anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision on Roe vs. Wade, happen to coincide. To add to the significance, I was sifting through my unread books the other day and finally started to tackle The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass after letting it sit on the shelf for years, as I tend to do with most of my purchases. It was a well-timed choice. There are a number of stirring passages in which the narrator, Douglass himself, describes the horrific treatment the black slaves received at the hands of even their more compassionate masters, which, when paired with the depth of interior dialogue, would not fail to stir all but the most callous of modern sensitivities. To hear Douglass’s owner correct his wife with great insistence when she was discovered to be teaching a slave boy to read with the admonition, “give a n----r an inch, and he’ll take an ell” brought the whole revolting institution into the sort of macro-focus intensity that did more to convey its perversion that any tally of statistics ever could have. To his great credit, Douglass set about from that very moment to do everything he could to make that “ell” his own.

Stepping into the South of the 1820s and 30s is to put oneself in a frame of mind so utterly contrary to that of the present age that it is difficult not to regard what I read about the treatment of slaves as fiction. It was an age when appearances were discounted as illusory. It must have been a powerful force indeed to persuade the mass of society that what appeared to be a human being in all respects save the color of its skin was, in fact, not one.

The parallel to the abortion issue in our own age is clear. It is surprising to many of us that there is a fairly large portion of our society that does not consider the unborn creature in the mother’s womb to be a human being, some going so far to say that even infants who have been living outside the womb fail to achieve that status, and do not possess an inalienable right to life if a parent wishes to withdraw it up to a certain (almost unavoidably arbitrary) moment in time. What appears to be self-evident to those who defend the rights of the unborn, namely the humanity of the unborn child, is very much in question for those who would preserve the right to abortion on demand, though there are exceptions to this generalization. Yet, in some way, this is a much more plausible refusal to justify in comparison to the proposed humanity of a black person, given that there is a substantial period in an infant’s gestation during which its resemblance to an adult human is at best difficult to discern. What was it that absolved the conscience of slaveholders who looked upon their property and saw a figure identical to themselves? What was it that overcame the instinctual urge to look upon a human being as devoid of any innate dignity or rights? To my mind, thoroughly schooled in the modern natural rights perspective, such blindness appeared impossible in good faith. When I came upon the following passage, however, some light was shed:

I had resided but a short time in Baltimore before I observed a marked difference, in the treatment of slaves, from that which I had witnessed in the country. A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation. There is a vestige of decency, a sense of shame, that does much to curb and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty so commonly enacted on the plantation. He is a desperate slaveholder, who will shock the humanity of his non-slaveholding neighbors with the cries of his lacerated slave. Few are willing to incur the odium attaching to the reputation of being a cruel master …

Public opinion appears to have exerted tremendous influence upon the institution of slavery, and contained it, to some degree, within acceptable bounds. Slavery was, in varying degrees, condoned and even encouraged by religious authorities; several of Douglass’s owners were supposedly devout Christians. It is an independent mind indeed that can look at a cultural custom—one upon which the very economic lifeblood of the region depends—and conclude that what the mass has declared to be acceptable, and declares to be so day in and day out, is in fact deeply contrary to what it means to be human. To recognize this is a feat in itself; to speak against the overwhelming tide of general opinion with a criticism as devastating as the abolitionist critique is nothing short of superhuman. Yet it was done, often at great personal expense.

This drove home to me the overwhelming victory pro-choice advocates have achieved in getting abortion to be culturally acceptable. The prevailing opinion of society in this matter has worked to radically undermine the deep-seated instinct to hallow the personhood of another, just as it did in the case of slavery. One intuits that the great assembly of one's neighbors has a greater sense of right and wrong; how could so many be deceived? This has been so successful that even the bond between mother and unborn child, possibly one of the strongest possible interpersonal bonds, has proven too weak in tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of cases. The progressive accusation of "groupthink," so often directed at proponents of religion, here sounds like the pot calling the kettle black.

Yet there was a day when that despicable practice of enslavement ended. Later generations were given the task of addressing the persistent underlying attitudes that made it possible, but there was a day in history that it ended. Let us hope, pray, and work for just such a day of our own.

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