Anthony Esolen

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"We are not going to turn human beings into cattle for sale, to help pick cotton. We will turn them into cattle for other purposes."

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Slavery returns

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By the time the disastrous and punitive Reconstruction ended in the southern states, as part of an understanding that settled the disputed presidential election of 1876, men of intelligence and reasonably good will no longer defended the “peculiar institution” of slavery. They affirmed, with a defensiveness that should not surprise us, that everyone had always acknowledged it to be an evil. The task now was what to do to achieve the common good, given that the black man was free and equal to the white man under the law.  

So I find, in some of my old copies of The Century (1884-85), an eloquent and passionate argument between two southern men, one decrying segregation, and the other defending it as something that the people of each race were naturally drawn to, and insisted upon. And yet the specter of slavery lingered in the dark corners of men's imaginations. Blacks feared its return, and the habits that slavery had long engendered could not be eradicated by political change.

What was the evil of slavery? It cannot be merely that one man's will was subject to another. If that were all, then children would be slaves of their parents, employees would be slaves of their employers, enlisted men would be the slaves of their officers, and all of us would be slaves of politicians. A Christian cannot consider the sacrifice of his will, in itself, to be evil, nor the unimpeded exercise of his will to be good.

“Let there be subordination among you,” says Saint Paul, who is speaking not only of husbands and wives, but of all Christians. Obedience is the virtue whereby a son hears the will of his father, and makes it his own. “The Son does nothing but what He sees the Father do,” says Jesus. Obedience raises the lower to share in the authority of the higher, just as the hand obeys the direction of the head; the hand is the head's executor. Christians are to love one another – and love does not insist upon its own; love does not envy any advantage the beloved may enjoy. Love speaks the generous language of praise, not the squinting language of equality.

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What was the evil? It cannot have been service. A politician battening upon the public wealth will still call it by the exalted name of “public service.” Even he must fool himself into believing that he does what he does not to stuff his wallet and to erect for himself castles of power, but to benefit his clients, the citizens. The harpies of Child Protective Services, destroying a family and herding its children into foster care and misery, must persuade themselves that they are serving, not domineering.  

The heart of the evil was not something human, abused. It was something inhuman; and the inhumanity is with us still.

I do not mean simply that it was unkind. Consider a bustling slave mart. The huckster brings on the stage a “strong young buck, with good teeth,” “plenty of smarts,” “clean skin,” and so forth. Then “a pretty female,” with “wide hips and a firm bosom,” auguring well for a bumper crop of slave children to help pick the cotton. My flesh crawls to write the words.

The evil is to reduce a human being to a commodity, like a prize steer. It is to think of a man or a woman or a child as a thing, a product. God made man in His image and likeness. We sinners would like to raise men like cattle, or to produce men, like articles of furniture.

The slave owner had a rejoinder ready. “We treat our slaves well,” he might say. “We feed them, we care for them when they are sick, we introduce them to the faith, we rejoice with them and we mourn with them. They are more than slaves to us. They are a part of our family.” We need not suppose that all of the people who said such things were simply lying. Many of them must have believed what they were saying. They were not monsters. And that is one of the mysteries of evil, that people who are by nature no more monstrous than anyone can become accustomed to monstrous evil. Yet they can never be entirely unaware of it, either. So it's no surprise that, after the Civil War, the men and women who had had their mouths pried open for buyers to check for cavities shied away from the buyers, and vice versa. Not a “race instinct,” as the apologist for segregation would have it, but bad conscience.

Have we learned the lesson? No, man never does learn. Oh, we learn it as it applies to the specific form of the evil; we are not going to turn human beings into cattle for sale, to help pick cotton. We will turn them into cattle for other purposes.

Or into artifacts. Some of my readers will have heard of the man suing a surrogate mother (whom he has taken out on lease, like a milk cow), trying to compel her to thin out the triplet-herd she had conceived by him by “reproductive technology.” The evil here spreads like a fungus far beyond the vile murder-on-demand. Or you will have heard of attempts by others, especially homosexuals, to mix and match genes, so as to produce children of two or even three “parents,” just as you would mix paint colors, or plan out the moldings on a remodeled parlor. Or you may have heard of the doctor in the aptly named Netherlands, upon seeing a child with Down Syndrome, jesting with sang froid, “Looks like we missed one!” Such children are culled out, like misshapen loaves of bread coming down the conveyor belt. They are factory rejects, human garbage. The rest of us are wrapped up in cultural cellophane and tagged with a Grade A. Only the best, you know.

So we speed along like brainless teenagers on a debauch, to a new slavery, the manufacture of mankind according to the specifications of the makers. Perhaps we will grow little ones to provide us with healthy organs for harvesting. Who knows? There is no bottom to the evil to which man can fall. If there were a bottom, that would imply that evil was a thing in itself, like matter with an absolute limit of cold, rather than a privation, a defect of being, a disintegration. Chaos knows only one limit, and that is nonexistence.

God help us.

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Anthony Esolen

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Anthony currently serves as professor of English at Providence College, and is perhaps best known for his widely acclaimed translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He has also authored several original works, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization and the satirically titled Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He regularly writes for publications including The Catholic Thing and Crisis Magazine.

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