Quick Note: Should the Government Get Out of the Marriage Business?

Marriage equality is the issue of the day, and it’s been a really inspiring experience to see an outpouring of support from my friends and relations. Even if I admit to a little cynicism about “Facebook Fads,” it’s probably done real good for LGBQT folks to see so many declaring their solidarity with a simple change of their profile picture. As if in response to this, I’ve seen some novel suggestions from the self-declared sentinels of liberty that the whole issue is a sideshow, because the real government oppression is in granting marriage licenses at all! What to make of this?

The general shape of the argument is that marriage should simply be a personal, religious, and emotional arrangement which the government has no business regulating. Straight, gay, poly or mono, it’s just not the state’s business. The most amusing advancement of this idea I’ve seen, and the most telling, asserted that the government’s only proper role in civil society is to enforce contracts.

How someone can weigh in on an issue with such bold claims and so little knowledge, I don’t know, but it’s worth pointing out to these libertines that the government is already “out of the marriage business” in they way they describe. The government will not prevent any church from performing marriage ceremonies. You can take your lover to an oak tree, carve your names on it, do a small dance, and declare yourselves married for all the state cares. That’s not what’s at issue. What is at issue is, exactly, a contract. We care about marriage as a civil right, an institution granting certain legal privileges.

Of course, there isn’t exactly lockstep unity in the gay rights movement about this. On the more radical edge, you will find queer critics of marriage as an oppressive institution, as patriarchal and bourgeois, as a tool of the “straight state” to mold an ideal citizenry, which should be done away with entirely. I can at least see the merits of this critique, and think there’s room for healthy discussion about what marriage even means, or should mean. The major difference between the radical gay rights critique of marriage and the libertarian one is essentially one of nuance: proponents of the former “get it” on a number of levels which proponents of the latter do not. They at least understand what their moderate allies care about.

Those who support marriage equality, by and large, do accept a role for the state in regulating it as a contract. They don’t want the state to “get out of it” because they do want the rights and privileges of marriage legally provided, but provided more equally. The libertarian call for “getting the state out of marriage” is as tone deaf as so many of their stances on “liberty,” and as per usual, is only a superficial veneer of support for civil rights and tolerance. In fact, it effectively cedes the issue to social conservatives. I wish I could say I am surprised at seeing the sentinels of liberty acting as the neoliberal handmaids of a paleoconservative understanding of social relations and “family values,” but it happens far too frequently.

Quick Note: On Republics

How often do we hear the sage formula, with every pretense of nuance, that the United States is not a democracy but a republic? You don’t have to look far for examples of it in action: find any situation where one side complains that some policy proposed by the other violates the principle of democracy, and invariably, the other side will trot out this insight.

The lesson is one straight out of the political thinking of the 18th and 19th centuries: democracies are unstable and will lead to mob rule and (horror of horrors) leveling, etc. And so, there’s nothing for it but to limit democracy somehow, to make a government that represents the people (the Latin res publica), but does not grant them unfettered power (the Greek dêmos kratos). It’s not clear to me how this functions as a defense for any particular anti-democratic policy, but the unacknowledged implications of this line of argument are disturbing.

This country was indeed intended to be a republic. And like most good classical republics, it sharply limited the franchise; in our case, despite some local variation, mostly to rich white men. In the south you even had a slave society propping up a leisured upper class, mirroring those liberty-loving slave-owning city-states of Classical Greece. People touting the “republic” talking point never seem to know how right they are, but many Enlightenment thinkers considered Sparta a model of sound governance, and it shows.

What this talking point always seems to elide is that the development of American government since “the Founders'” limited vision of an elitist state is a process of democratization. On the one hand, more and more government functions became subject to the popular vote. The Electoral College, as originally conceived, had nothing to do with any number of regular citizens voting for presidential candidates. Nor were Senators popularly elected. On the other, there was a democratization of what it meant to be a voter: first, classist property requirements fell. Next, slavery was abolished and racist restrictions of the vote to white people were (in theory at least) lifted. Then, the sexist limitation of the franchise to men was abolished. When people drone on about how we are a “republic” because of “the Founders'” vision, what they are doing is repudiating 144 years of progress.

Interestingly, the racial barrier to voting isn’t actually a dead issue, thanks to conservative policy initiatives: from the racist enforcement of drug laws combined with disenfranchisement of ex-convicts; to dubious “voter fraud” reduction laws which, as implemented in the time frame proposed, would have effectively barred many African-American citizens, among others, from voting in the most recent election; to recent attempts to take advantage of gerrymandering to undermine the popular will in presidential elections. Additionally, there is a rising trend of actively rejecting democratic progress with an explicit call for a return to the Founders’ vision in political structure, chock full of all the old tropes about unstable democracies. It seems the “Lost Cause” of the “Old Republic” is still a vital motivating force for the political right.

Hey, Conservative Americans! I Have A Proposal For You.

I understand that right now it’s a confusing and scary time. Not because of all these shooting sprees, no, but because of the inevitable legislative response! Armed with so-called “facts,” from an obviously liberally-biased reality, indicating that your John Wayne fantasies of preventing these incidents with more available guns are, in fact, complete nonsense, the Left is going to take away your guns and leave you prone before the power of the British Empire.

But you know why this is happening, right? No, it’s not an inside job. I’m going to let you in on the secret: the problem with America right now is that we have (culturally and politically) bought into your definition of “liberty,” a definition which is nothing but an incoherent defense of privilege and power. It’s a cumbersome bricolage of the detritus of ideological history, a shotgun wedding of Cold War paranoia and pre-industrial political-economic philosophy. In this ideology, ensuring that people have reliable access to firearms is a higher priority than ensuring that they have reliable access to healthcare. The cost of the former is relatively low, and disabling every legal barrier to purchasing a gun is the appropriate defense of a vital freedom for which shooting sprees are the unfortunate price. The cost of the latter is often prohibitively high, but for the government to address this, rather than leaving it to the price-rationing of the market, would mean dabbling in the dark arts of Socialism. The combination of easy access to firearms with an economically precarious existence where mental health issues too often go unaddressed is not something we’re often encouraged to think about, under your philosophy. That combination is part and parcel of your idea of “liberty,” however, which just goes to show why your definition of liberty is garbage.

It seems to me that it’s time to decide which is more important, your pre-industrial Enlightenment-era love of negative liberty or your Cold War fear of positive liberty. To that end, I’m going to propose a compromise that I think would go a long way towards making “the right to bear arms” more bear-able:

  1. Comprehensive universal healthcare. This means you stop opposing Obamacare because it goes too far, and start opposing it because it does not go far enough. The less economic stress Americans have to face from the fear of losing access to medical care, the more contentment we’ll have, and the less we’ll be on the kind of psychological hair-trigger which makes shooting people seem attractive as a problem-solving technique.
  2. In the above, explicitly including a guarantee of access to mental health treatment. This should be obvious: the fewer crazy people there are, the fewer crazy people can get a gun. Sharp readers may note that the link I posted above refutes the idea that stress or mental health issues correlate with gross levels of gun violence. While that is true, these first two items are specifically about the kinds of dramatic spree-shootings in which these may be greater factors.
  3. A move towards a stronger and more comprehensive welfare state. It is an observed fact of reality that lower economic inequality correlates with safer, saner, and more happy people. Healthcare is simply the first step. If we want less gun violence in a country with freely accessible guns, then we must do everything possible to ensure greater levels of social trust, community spirit, empathy, and childhood stability. This means a real commitment to economic egalitarianism.
  4. Immediately end the war on drugs. I am not even sure how supporting the drug war is consistent with a “government off of my back!” stance (I guess this is one place where libertarians get credit for at least being theoretically consistent), but we don’t have the luxury of wasting vital police resources on making sure people don’t get high (while still allowing them to get drunk for some reason). Even with the advantages of the above policies, there’s still a chance that someone could misuse a gun for mass murder, and anyway, it’s not like mass murder is the only kind we should be concerned about. Not only would this free up police resources to guard vulnerable locations like schools and provide a credible deterrence to homicide, it would break the back of the institutional racism in the enforcement of drug laws, which besides being a travesty of justice, is another cause of economic inequality and social strife.
  5. On that note, get serious about racism. The case of Trayvon Martin demonstrates that the use of violence in our country is racialized, and gun violence did not start being a problem when it started affecting white communities. Stop pretending that having a black president means racism is over, that “reverse-racism” is some kind of actual issue, and for God’s sake, ditch all that “government plantation” insanity. Getting serious about racism is probably the hardest part for folks with a “negative rights” stance on liberty and the role of government, because it requires acknowledging the fact that racism isn’t just about personal prejudices, it’s also in large part about social and economic structures, and thus requires proactive policy solutions. Seriously fighting racism means supporting affirmative action, it means bussing and other strategies to undo the current, greater-than-Jim-Crow levels of de facto segregation in the school system, and it means generally acknowledging that it is right and proper to spend tax dollars, skimmed off a prosperity historically built by racist exploitation, to economically support and build up racially disadvantaged communities.

I think this provides a good set of counter-balances to the corrosive effects of widespread gun ownership. I see you out there shaking your heads sadly at the senselessness of it all, the tragedy, saying a little prayer, and then condemning the “politicization” of these shootings while at the same time continuing to promote your gunslinger heroism solution, that this would not happen if more people had guns! Fine. I’m going to meet you part-way and agree that we’re not getting rid of guns in this country, but only if you meet me part-way in committing yourself to eradicating the large-scale institutional social and economic forces that make the misuse of your beloved guns more likely.

The Mask of Liberty

"I am the 1%, Let's Talk."Last fall, I took a day to visit the original Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park. As it turned out, the day I chose was to be an odd one, as it was the day that investment broker Peter Schiff decided to visit with the intent of opening a dialog. He set up a large banner in front of a small camera crew for maximum exposure and attention gathering. The banner read: “I am the 1%, Let’s Talk.” Mr. Schiff’s theme was that the goals of the OWS movement were misguided; that it is not capitalism that deserves to be protested, but the government; that more capitalism, not more government or socialism, will lead to greater freedom. It had the predictable effect of drawing a large crowd of Occupiers who argued with him into the evening.

This interesting episode came to mind when I read an interview with Schiff on his participation in a debate where he argued that China’s version of capitalism is superior to America’s. Some stand-out quotes:

Slate: You’ll argue on Tuesday in support of the motion that China does capitalism better than America. What do they know that we don’t?

Peter Schiff: First of all, I don’t think either the United States or China does capitalism all that well. America did capitalism a lot better in the 19th century than China does it now, but today, China does it better than we do. Though both countries have far too much government involvement in the economy, we have more. They’re Communists, supposedly, and we’re not, but our government screws up our economy more than the Chinese government screws up its.

Slate: What lies ahead for China politically?

Schiff: I think there will ultimately be more freedom than there is today. Will China ever become a one man, one vote democracy? Hopefully not, for the sake of the Chinese. Doing so has certainly not served our interest. We enjoyed a lot more freedom and prosperity when we were less democratic. In the 19th century we were quite undemocratic in the way government ran, and we benefited from that lack of democracy. But as we became more democratic, we grew less free and therefore less prosperous. If they’re wise, the Chinese won’t follow that example. They’ll try to model their government after what America used to be, before we screwed it up.

This is a lot to take in. It seems that when Schiff argued that the government is the problem and capitalism the solution, he did not merely have in mind the extent of government operations but its very form: a representative democracy. There’s a lot of familiar stuff here. I have commented previously on the trend of libertarians viewing the 19th century in the United States as a golden, rather than gilded, age, and on the propertarian opposition to democracy. They are entwined here in a very disturbing way: as the franchise expanded to the poor, and then to black people, and then to women, “we grew less free.” Greater citizen participation in government led to a decline in the freedom “we enjoyed” which did not serve “our interest.” Viewing Schiff’s use of the first person plural very literally and personally, I suppose he is entirely right: rich white men like him had a lot more freedom than others back then.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a very long review of Atlas Shrugged which deconstructed the book’s utopian vision to reveal its implicitly totalitarian message. It ended with what I think of as an appeal to the “average libertarian,” the sort of person who feels strongly against government intrusion in all fields but who might not understand the perverse implications of Rand’s thoughts. Granted, Objectivism is not the same as libertarianism, but the former has provided enough intellectual backing to the latter that I felt the warning worth making.

This was predicated on the idea that most libertarians, regardless of what I thought of the impact of their ideas, really did care about freedom and saw their ideas as key to improving the human condition, in sharp contrast to the message of Atlas Shrugged, that the common good is irrelevant and plutocracy is self-justified. As I looked into libertarianism more and more, in the time since then, I found a number of things that challenged this picture, from statements by libertarians and their fellow travelers to unfortunate implications of libertarian arguments. I have written about them on this blog, but always thought of them as odd flukes, or a few cranks letting slip their darker motives.

At this point, while I still don’t doubt that the majority of people calling themselves “libertarians” have good intentions, I can’t extend this benefit of the doubt the activists and thinkers of the movement any more. Libertarianism is, inherently, nothing more than a defense of plutocracy. Its ideal, the propertarian minarchy, creates the perfect apparatus for the private dictatorial control over everyday life, with the state serving no function but enforcing the will of those with extraordinary economic power by the protection of property rights. It used to be that the idea of liberal democracy as a sham was a leftist or Marxist preoccupation. It was said that this theory justified tyranny since, after all, parliamentary representation is nothing but a bourgeois dictatorship. Now, however, the shoe is on the other foot. Libertarianism is the radical communism of the 21st century, in that it is a utopian ideology that values certain principles and goals above everyday freedoms and accountable government. And like the communists of the early 20th century, its adherents are either blind to the hellish implications of their ideas, or cynically exploiting the rest for their own ends.

Continue reading

Lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

This past Sunday marked the 101st anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory. This incident had, before the September 11th terror attack on the World Trade Center, the dubious distinction of being the worst fire-related workplace disaster in New York City history. The level of qualification present is an important element of its description, as there have been worse incidents of loss of life, in New York City, in fires, and in labor disasters generally. Despite this, the Triangle fire holds an iconic place in the history of labor relations and progressive politics.

In the standard narrative, the Triangle fire was the result of the unsafe working conditions and inhumane policies maintained at workplaces in the heyday of laissez-faire capitalism in the United States. The tragedy of its hundreds of deaths started a reform movement in government to create workplace safety regulations with teeth, resulting in the relatively safe working conditions we enjoy today. More complete treatments mention the strikes and protests by the labor movement leading up to the fire, and Tammany Hall’s obstructions and corruption. What comes out of this narrative is the clear message that the Triangle fire is why we have workplace safety regulations and that the government is exercising proper authority in enforcing them.

It is thus a cornerstone of the American liberal stance favoring state intervention, a stance which only makes sense in context of the American conception of an antagonistic political divide between government and private industry. It is used as a “teaching moment” in political discourse, an origin story for the state regulatory apparatus. In this, the standard narrative obscures the picture of how capitalism and the state interacted in the lead-up to the Triangle fire, and the role of mass action and organized labor. A fuller understanding of the meaning of the Triangle fire in both history and politics can only come from looking at it in the context of mass action and public outcry for reform. Moreover, contrasting the Triangle fire with other, similar disasters which have not become historical icons reveals the importance of that context: it turned the Triangle fire into a “spectacle of justice.” This term denotes a process by which public understanding of an event is heightened through a dramatic spectacle, which plays out in the public theater of mass protest actions and criminal trials, surrounding a claim of societal injury which must be rectified. In other words, what is it critical to understand about the Triangle fire is how prior mass action against the conditions that made the fire possible “set the stage” on which the fire became a highly visible offense against society, inciting mass public outrage and desire for change, which in turn forced or enticed power elites to create a just outcome in order to quell the public’s anger, a success which those power elites appropriated. Continue reading

Correcting “Media Narratives” the White Supremacist Way

You're missing out on a fake meme from Stormfront, how disappointing!

Before today, I never knew how satisfying it was to sarcastically congratulate people for successfully propagating a fraudulent exposé made by Neo-Nazis. However, I think it would be a shame if this amazing reversal of fortune obscured the fact that even if the Aryan culture warriors responsible for this image macro weren’t using a photo of the wrong Trayvon Martin, that is, if the boy on the right were the boy who got shot, it would still be a bunch of idiotic racist garbage.

Let’s examine the original set of photos supposedly betraying some media bias:

A biased depiction??

Wait, hold on, I’m not sure I’ve got that right, this doesn’t look very unbalanced at all, does it? Both victim and shooter with blank, neutral expressions, similarly composed, there’s not much to complain about here, is there? Well, I didn’t get it from some lamestream media source like ABC News so maybe that explains it. Let’s see…

The horror...

…yes, that’s more like it, this is the side-by-side that seems to have gotten the sensible middle ground up in arms. On the left, a teenager who was shot to death, on the right, a grown man who shot and killed an unarmed boy. I can tell you right now, if it wasn’t for that orange (prison?) shirt and (comparative) frown on George Zimmerman and the sunny smile on the face of Trayvon Martin, I wouldn’t know who to root for! Clearly, the way to restore the balance upset by the insane, politically correct, liberal media is to compare a picture of a smiling grown man who shot and killed an unarmed boy with a teenager who was shot to death depicted in a tough guy pose and flipping the bird. That changes everything around.

I’m pretty sure that teenaged boys who have never done anything as immature and stupid as striking macho poses and making obscene hand gestures to be “edgy” are in the minority. So really, even if that were a picture of the “right” Trayvon, it doesn’t actually reflect poorly on him. He’s a 17 year old boy, stuff like that is par for the course. Actually, this specific form of goofy posing seems to be popular with people of all ages and races, if a quick review of ImSoGangsta.org is to be believed.

Some scary stuff is missing here!

Another picture you won't find in the MSM!

But here I’m kind of giving the game away, aren’t I? It’s not that “Trayvon” is just puffing up like an adolescent, it’s that he’s doing so like a gangsta. He’s embodying Thug Culture. Now, why does comparing a smiling, composed, suit-wearing Zimmerman to a “thugged-out” Martin restore a balance that was lost in a side-by-side depiction of a smiling, well-behaved Martin and a glowering Zimmerman mug shot? What sympathies are supposed to be reversed? What viewpoint would I have to assume to actually find the shot of “Trayvon” repping his set threatening enough to feel, if not good, then at least not disturbed by the thought of Zimmerman shooting and killing him?

It’s hard for me to see that pose as anything but funny in a childish way, but I’m going to take a guess at the counter-narrative this meme is supposed to present. It’s the one where black men and boys are all potentially violent criminals and respectable white men carrying guns are the protectors of civilization. So even if that image macro up top weren’t a fraud, if you posted it or passed it around like it was some mind-blowing revelation, you’d still be a dope spreading racist bile.

On Agency in History

In my review of 1491, I wrote about Mann’s revision of traditional narratives about Indians in history, how “the portrayal of Indians as passive recipients of European actions, either as enemies or victims” is false, as “the first peoples of the Americas were active in history…” Activity in history is an important theme of much recent scholarship, especially in the study of traditionally marginalized groups. The reduction of Indians to passive victims or unthinking barbarians, either way destined to be swept aside, is prevalent in the historiography of other peoples, such as slaves and the victims of colonialism. Note the construction I used, almost reflexively: “victims of…” This thought process is the problem which the new narrative of historical activity seeks to rectify. It is the study of agency.

Agency, in simplest terms, is the ability of a person to be an actor, to be at least partially in command of her own destiny, rather than a “thing” that is acted upon or manipulated. It’s an important shift in the narrative of marginalized people. The first accounts were those “written by the victors,” which justified conquest by the vices of the conquered, or glorification of the conqueror’s virtues. This account, in addition to rendering marginalized peoples into passive things, made them into villains. The first round of corrective revision focused on the moral dimension and ignored the issue of agency. Essentially, the moral narrative is reversed: marginalized peoples had more virtue than had been recognized, their vices had to be placed in context, and the process of their marginalization and subjugation was a great crime. While a useful corrective to an account of history that effectively functioned as apologia for power, and which still serves that role, it still relegates its subject to the margins, now as victims of historical injustice rather than righteously punished enemies. They are still not actors in history.

The new narrative of agency corrects this aspect, but invites other problems. One significant “mixed blessing” is in abandoning the moral argument. On one level, continuing a moralization of marginalization beyond the point of counterbalance returns to a propagandistic mode that obscures our understanding of history, and so an “amoral” or value neutral exploration is desirable. On another, it’s problematic when agency itself becomes a moralized virtue. After all, few would doubt the “agency” or the conquistadors. Agency can mean active complicity in some truly horrific things. Moralizing agency as something to be celebrated rather than explored can also lead to an exaggerated glorification of historical actions in anachronistic ways.

In “The costs of coercion: African agency in the pre-modern Atlantic world,” Stephen D. Behrendt, David Eltis, and David Richardson give an account of slave revolts aboard slave trading ships that exemplifies the different aspects, positive and negative, of placing emphasis on agency in history.1 It is also a fascinating and informative analysis of the economic dimensions of the slave trade. Essentially, the frequency of revolts aboard ship increased risk in the trade and thus raised the costs of shipping slaves. While each individual revolt was unlikely to succeed, the constant fear of revolt required preventative measures which raised costs, and thus prices, leading to reduced demand (when compared to a hypothetical slave trade that did not need to fear revolts) and thus lowering the volume of trade.

In what I would call a “neutral” application of agency analysis, the authors examine the frequency of revolts by region of origin for slaves. Different parts of Africa apparently yielded slaves with differing likelihoods for shipboard revolt, and this correlated with European “patronage” of these regions: slaver traders focused on markets in regions from which they could buy slaves who tended not to revolt aboard ship. Thus, the character of Africans shaped the patterns of the slave trade. This is what agency means in the broadest sense: people in history having a significant effect on its course by their own actions. There is no moral dimension to this observation, it simply relates how Europeans had to react to the actions of Africans, and how this affected the cultural makeup of slaves in the Americas and thus the contributions of Africa to the nature of the nations and societies formed in the New World.

Indeed, on a large enough scale, the effects of slave revolts on the Middle Passage had massive historical consequences. The risk and thus cost of transporting slaves meant that Europeans were less keen to begin importing slaves, and more keen to stop. In essence, other methods of obtaining productive labor were more attractive, for longer (in the case of European colonists and native workers) and earlier (in the case of industrialization and contracting cheap wage labor from other parts of the world). Revolts on slave ships thus shortened the duration of the slave trade. The aggregate decreased demand also led to a decrease in the total number of slaves sold. The authors calculate that in the 18th century, 600,000 fewer slaves were transported to the Americas as a result of the increased costs of preventing revolts, meaning that every rebel aboard ship saved many other Africans from slavery.

This is where agency has the potential to become problematic. To describe this aggregate effect in terms of salvation, as the authors do, is to apply a moral value that is somewhat anachronistic. From our perch in the present, we see this large-scale effect, but the mutinying slaves themselves were unlikely to have had this perspective as a motivation. There is inspirational bravery in their desperate fights for freedom, but basing further valorization on historical consequence occludes history. It creates heroes of legend rather then actors in fact. Still, this is more of a stylistic concern than a cause for alarm. Learning about the positive effect which these slaves in revolt had is heartening, and valorizing them and the importance of their actions reveals a useful lesson about the importance of resistance, even if it seems futile. The authors are not engaging in propaganda simply for finding legitimate inspiration in the record they have uncovered.

The authors then turn in their analysis to events in Africa, and this is where a possible “dark side” to appraising agency appears. When Europeans first began expanding into the Atlantic, their first probings and colonization efforts crept down the coast of Africa. However, they were unable to effectively control very much territory on the continent itself, and were not able to subdue local populations and polities. This forced the march of the plantation economy to change direction and move all the way across the ocean, to South America. In effect, the active resistance and strength of African polities resulted in the distance between the site of production and the source of labor that necessitated the slave trade.

A simplistic evaluation of this effect (which, I should make very clear, the authors do not make) would seek to place blame. It would say that Africans are partially “at fault” for the slave trade. Among other problems with this judgment is that it ignores European agency, and thus responsibility, for seeking to create a plantation economy and buying slaves to run it. Additionally, it is in some ways as “anachronistic” as idolizing slaves in revolt for saving people in Africa from slavery through the high-level operation of market forces. Native Africans did not seek to create a transatlantic slave trade, they sought to keep control of their land. The African “role” in creating the slave trade was something of a side-effect of their actual motives, as much as was the African role in reducing the volume of the trade through revolt.

The impulse to “shift the blame” for slavery exists due to the profound and ruinous long-term after-effects of slavery on American nations. In the United States, there is an historical/political interest ever ready to defend the South and the Confederacy, explaining away the American Civil War as a conflict over “states rights,” thus making the Union an unprincipled, tyrannical aggressor, and to write off slavery as an African institution thousands of years old which affected the South for a tiny fraction of that time. Never mind that it was not an African institution to ship slaves overseas. Never mind the critical role of European demand for slaves in expanding both the scope of African slavery and changing its nature. Never mind the immense benefits reaped by white Americans, northern and southern, due to slavery, which persist today in the form of institutional racism. Never mind that the Confederacy was a self-conscious slave state that saw itself as a natural republic which, unlike other nations where members of the same race perversely subjugated each other, enshrined in law the natural relationship between an inherently servile race and an inherently free one.2

Where agency becomes problematic is in celebrating agency itself as a virtue, regardless of whether that agency is used for good or ill. The authors explore the fact that Europeans had to buy slaves from African elites, which necessarily implied that Africans and Europeans were on equal footing in the trade. While the authors note that this arrangement also reduced the volume of the slave trade, as Europeans could have obtained slaves much more easily by direct raiding, which they were not actually able to conduct, it’s possible to come away with the sense that African complicity in slavery is to be celebrated for the power it demonstrated. The fact that Africans had agency in the trade overshadows, in significance, their participation. We would look with suspicion upon an analysis of the European role in the slave trade that celebrated their business savvy and determination in building new societies at a perilous cost. Yet this is the mirror image of a celebration of African agency in the slave trade, rather than a simple examination.

This is also, in some sense, a simplistic analysis, but simplistic analyses are the heart of political abuses of history. By noting the aggregate effect which Europeans being forced to negotiate with African elites had on the volume of the slave trade, the authors clearly are sensitive to this. And yet, at the same time, the article’s very title puts agency front and center, thus making it seem to be a virtue in itself. The risk of abusing such an impression, however unintended, is lessened to the degree that agency is simply a factor to look for in traditionally ignored areas rather than imbued with an inherent significance. Much like the first round of revision, wherein the morality of marginalization in history was reversed, emphasis on agency is a useful corrective. And like that earlier revision, agency as a cause for celebration in itself runs the risk of distorting the record and inviting opportunistic abuses of history, however cautious historians may be to head off this possibility.

1. The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Aug., 2001), pp. 454-476
2. See, for examples: “Cornerstone Speech” by Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the CSA; “Slavery a Positive Good” by John C. Calhoun; and other examples from an article on “compensated emancipation” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.