Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Slavery and American / Western Exceptionalism

In Thomas Sowell's most recent, stellar blog post entitled "Filtering History", Sowell shows how American slavery is unfairly, or perhaps unevenly, portrayed in popular media and in academia. Reading it got me thinking about how essentially everything our culture conditions us to think about the issue, via these institutions, is effectively the opposite of the truth.

The truth being that, as Sowell points out, America and the West were the first in the history of mankind to reject slavery and take very clear steps toward eradicating it's existence. Meanwhile we are conditioned to believe that America's brand of slavery was in some way unique, or exceptionally brutal. We are taught that the the sins of America were somehow worse than those of any other society in history. When in reality it wasn't America's sins that were exceptional; our sins were quite ordinary and commonplace. What was exceptional was our recognition of the evil of slavery, and the great sacrifices and pains that the people of America went through in order to end the institution. That was original. That was exceptional.

Yet we still feel the need to take an apologetic, sorrowful tone when approaching the issue in the present, rather than a more appropriately triumphant one. Not that we deserve any more credit for the heroic acts of our ancestors than we do blame for their wicked deeds. We deserve neither. But if you're going to attempt to dole out one, then in order to be consistent, you must factor in the other.

As Sowell is careful to point out, it isn't that the information that is presented by the media or in academia on the subject is false, only theat there's a selection bias as to what information is presented, the manner that it's presented in and how often it's presented. What's missing is a historical framework and context within which to properly view the events.

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