We must face the ultimate contradiction that our free and democratic society was made possible by massive slave labor.
The abolition of New World slavery depended in large measure on a major transformation in moral perception––on the emergence of writers, speakers, and reformers, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, who were willing to condemn an institution that had been sanctioned for thousands of years and who also strove to make human society something more than an endless contest of greed and power.
February’s Westerly House Book Social read is David Brion Davis’s Inhuman Bondage, from which the above quotes are taken. We can never appreciate the magnitude of chattel slavery’s brutality. Yet, through books like Davis’s, we can begin to understand the long shadow New World slavery cast onto our own times. Against all odds there were individuals––usually moved by Christian fervor and grace––who rose up to convince the world slavery was evil. Those abolitionists were a bright light; they can still enlighten us today.
Something does not feel right. Walker Percy attempts to explain. I am attracted to Percy’s view. We cannot simply respond to malaise by blaming it on, say, the invasion of technology into our lives and then assume removing the technology will restore comfort to our hearts. There is more to be done than merely getting rid of false solutions to our heart’s desire. Any solution must involve getting past blocks, like for instance idealizing the efficaciousness of technology, in order to get to the right place.
Man knows he is something more than an organism in an environment, because for one thing he acts like anything but an organism in an environment. Yet he no longer has the means of understanding the traditional Judeo-Christian teaching that the ‘something more’ is a soul somehow locked in the organism like a ghost in a machine. What is he then? He has not the faintest idea. Entered as he is into a new age, he is like, a child who sees everything in the new world, names everything, knows everything except himself. …
By the very cogent anthropology of Judeo-Christianity, whether or not one agreed with it, human existence was by no means to be understood as the transaction of a higher organism satisfying this or that need form its environment, by being ‘creative’ or enjoying ‘meaningful relationships,’ but as the journey of a wayfarer along life’s way. The experience of alienation was thus not a symptom of maladaptation (psychology) nor evidence of the absurdity of life (existentialism) nor an inevitable consequence of capitalism (Marx) nor the necessary dehumanization of technology (Ellul). Though the exacerbating influence of these forces was not denied, it was not to be forgotten that human alienation was first and last the homelessness of a man who is not in fact at home.
Walker Percy, “The Delta Factor” in The Message in The Bottle