MYANMAR, BELARUS, XINJIANG, AND ALABAMA

I can’t help wondering what Americans would do if Alabama decided to reinstate black slavery.

People who are about to do something the international community is bound to regard as beyond the rights of sovereignty – the military coup in Myanmar, the hijacking of that Ryanair flight to Minsk, Uighur slave labour in Xinjiang – are savvy enough not to leave their foreign assets vulnerable to being seized or frozen. Nor, I suspect, are they planning a family holiday in Disney World. So these kinds of sanctions are, and are only intended to be, symbolic.

Well then, if not these feckless sanctions, what’s the right thing to do? Some would argue that we should break off all relations, demand unconditional surrender, and then wait. Just wait.

Yes, China and Russia would no doubt continue to buttress the regimes in Myanmar and Belarus respectively, and so any bans on trade would be sure to spread. Well, what of it? Suppose the Phoney War (1939-40) had remained phoney. Were England and America brought to their knees because they could no longer trade with Germany and Japan? Nor with occupied Poland  or Korea? 

What this shows is that our solidarity with brutalised people exacts a price, and that price has clearly being judged too much to pay for Myanmar and Belarus and Xinjiang, just as it was for Rwanda, and just as it was for Afghanistan until 9/11 forced our hand. So though of course we have to talk the talk of high dudgeon, and though of course we can’t be explicit that we’re not prepared to walk the walk of it, couldn’t we at least acknowledge all this sotto voce?

Still, I can’t help wondering, sotto voce, what Americans would do if Alabama decided to reinstate black slavery.



Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

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1 reply

  1. I know you are being hyperbolically provocative in trying to come up with a modern-day atrocity that would test the mettle of American outrage. But I do have to point out that black slavery could not be “reinstated” in Alabama because no American colony or state ever had “black slavery” to begin with. They had slavery. The enslavement of Africans was carried out in west Africa, organized by a pre-existing network of (often non-European) slave-traders operating there. Given the locale, the slaves could hardly be other than black. All the planters in the American colonies had to do was buy the survivors from the sellers who brought them across the sea. The American slave owners did not make a conscious decision to enslave people based on their skin colour— they took what was on offer at the slave auctions and west Africa was the source of nearly all the slaves brought to America. (Which was only a tiny slice of the world’s slave trade, I must add.). Had there been any white slaves on auction in Jamestown, would they have sold? (Were there? Did they?). Cortes and Pizarro had enslaved the Aztec and Inca people to assist in the pillaging of Spanish America but they don’t seem to have exported many for work elsewhere. Too few survivors to bother?

    Now, I don’t doubt that white Americans in slave states (and many in the free states) came to see Africans as a race fit only for slavery (to reduce cognitive dissonance and religious squeamishness if for nil else.). Chief Justice Taney in the Dredd Scott decision said exactly that, nearly two and a half centuries after 1619, though, and by then abolitionist public opinion was running ahead of him. Also, there were free people of African origin in the colonies. Some had never been slaves and others had been freed by their owners, often, cynically, when the slave had become too old and sick to earn his keep. The former were considered citizens but the latter (per Dredd Scott) were not, until citizenship-at-birth Amendment was ratified after the Civil War. But there was non-identity between “black” and “slave” all through the existence of slavery in America.

    So to institute “black slavery” today, the authorities in Alabama would first have to figure out how to force currently free residents into slavery based on skin colour. Race is self-identifed on the census and on other official forms like hospital admission records and affirmative-action program applications. Assuming you could identify your quarry population unambiguously you would then have to disarm it before its members would offer themselves up to the chains of bondage. And would there be any buyers in today’s economy?

    Of course, to do any of this, Alabama would have to repudiate the U.S. Constitution which not only prohibits slavery (except as judicial punishment) but also guarantees citizenship rights to all born on U.S. soil. This would amount to sedition by a State government and would surely trigger an armed response by the feds (see Civil War), regardless of the political leanings of the current federal government on the issue of racial justice.

    Why am I going on about this? I think that to test in a thought experiment our capacity for outrage that moves us to actions — war, sanctions — that have negative consequences and risk of disaster for ourselves, the stimulus has to be realistic, which race-based slavery in modern Alabama is not.

    I found it hard to grasp the direction your post was taking. If the Phoney War had remained phoney, England likely would have done nothing much to Germany. Despite its declaration of war, it lacked the means to conduct independent offensive operations on the Continent and with France’s 20 divisions remaining in barracks behind the Maginot Line instead of marching into Germany while the Wehrmacht and the SS were occupied with dismembering Poland there was little that England could have done. Upper-class English pacifists, anti-Semites, and Nazi sympathizers were ridiculing Churchill’s anti-Hitler jeremiads right up until the bombing started in Rotterdam. Had Hitler not attacked to the west, Chamberlain would have looked like a genius, Churchill would have remained in obscurity, and some sort of treaty would have been concluded to allow trade between England and Germany to resume. I suppose it would have depended on how aggressively the German Navy decided to prosecute its U-boat campaign against British trade. But Germany needed French ports to do that effectively and its attack through the Low Countries to get to France forced England’s hand….and ended effective pro-Nazi sentiment in England. But the immediate result was Dunkirk.

    In the United States, President Roosevelt was facing impeachment proceedings by a furious Congress over his repeated violations of American neutrality in his attempts to assist England, by 1941 on the ropes. America and Germany were perfectly content to trade — there was no official ostracism of any kind, not after the Nuremberg Laws and not after invasion of Poland, France, and the USSR, the last being considered a Good Thing in the Bolshevik-fearing U.S. The strident voices were raised in opposition to trade with England, a belligerent (and an industrial and naval rival), which put neutral American ships at risk of being sunk by German submarines. And for the Commander-in-Chief to order American destroyers to escort those neutral ships bound for England would surely have led to impeachment had Japan not saved the day by attacking Hawaii. Germany promptly declared war on the U.S., saving Roosevelt’s presidency, the Anglo-American relationship — and the world.

    So it seems that the real-life examples make it abundantly clear that, pace Raphael Lemkin, sovereign states can do pretty much whatever they want within their borders without fear of being invaded or suffering meaningful sanctions. Only if they attack other countries and eventually hit one whose integrity in vital to the world order — sorry, Taiwan, you’re out of luck there — will war result. Then, if victorious, the invading coalition can set things right by prosecuting both the intra- and extra- territorial atrocities under the U.N. Convention. But only if they are willing to go to war and win it: our tanks in their capital and their government under arrest. Most wars today won’t end that way, so why bother? Deterrence of Armageddon is probably the best your armed forces can do, and only if your enemies play the same game.

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