Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Reprinting New Nation's lead story, and giving Michael Eboda a platform to discuss "Why should Tony Blair have apologised for slavery?" achieved the Guardian's end: it inflammed all the trolls.

Where Eboda was particularly disgraceful was his facile attempt to flip the script:
Imagine if, today, Africans came to Europe and started kidnapping the fittest young men and women they could find. Let's say they took them from Norfolk, for example, dragged them down to Bristol in chains, put them on a ship and transported them to Africa, a place they didn't even know existed.
That, of course, is precisely what did happen. Giles Milton described just that in his White Gold [2004] and Des Ekin in The Stolen Village [which Amazon promises for publication next year, but which was freely on sale in Dublin two months since]. And, by the way, all those defensive towers along the Mediterranean coast, each topped out with its little bell-tower, were built for a purpose.

Milton personifies the whole experience by telling the story of Thomas Pellow, a cabin-boy taken by Barbary pirates in 1716 and a slave (one of perhaps two million) for the next 23 years. Ekin, with limited first-hand evidence, narrates the 1631 sack of Baltimore in West Cork: of the hundred-plus taken, only two would return, and sixteen years later.

The holier-than-thou bit, which goes with denunciation of English (and then British) involvement in the Slave Trade, is myopic and self-defeating. It ignores that Cromwell exported thousands from Berwick, Dunbar and Ireland into forced labour in the Americas. It could equally be argued (and has been by Black American revisionist historians) that the bulk import into North America of Africans only started because the system ran out of Scots and Irish. Then there is the well-rehearsed argument that it was the Irish Famine of the 1840s which made slavery uneconomic: why keep a slave all year round, when it was more economic to hire a labourer by the day? And have we eliminated slavery even in the twenty-first century?

Why, for heaven's sake, are we teaching "Black History" (which amounts, in most syllabuses in most schools, to the Triangular Trade and a few posters of Rosa Parks and other eminents)? Anyone who doubts this, look here or here. And what is the outcome of such efforts? Malcolm is still stirred by the moment a bright kid in an East London school declared: "I'm black. I can't be racist." [Malcolm's response: to say nothing, cock an eye, let the silence linger, and wait for others in the class to react. They did.]

Meanwhile, what about the "wage-slaves" who persisted (and persist) in our own society, two centuries after Wilberforce? No socialist, no true liberal should forget the mordant self-criticism of Orwell's 1937 essay:
It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But—most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence.
That's in Chapter Two of The Road to Wigan Pier, but it is also available as Down the Mine in England Your England and elsewhere.

Malcolm declares a double interest here: one of his alter-egos found a namesake, and relative, being a pre-teen witness to Lord Ashley's 1842 Commission on children in the mines. And that same alter-ego remembers his last conversation with a dying father, remembering his father (a Yorkshire miner): "I came home from school, and the house was quiet, so I knew my Dad was dead. The next day I went to work." That's called miner's lung, folks: and the child coming home from school was twelve years old. Suffering is universal: when and from whom is the pointless apology forthcoming for that kind of industrial exploitation?

Here, then, is Eboda's conclusion:
Acknowledgement and atonement for slavery, for colonialism and for imperialism is important for its victims and their decendents [sic], but it is also important for the perpertrators [sic] and their decendents [sic]. If they are ever to be whole and to finally neutralise the effects of past actions, nations, like individuals, must face what they did.
That's tosh, and dangerously so. It emphasises false differences, perceived grievances and petty animosities. It provides platforms for the self-perpetuating, self-appointed petty oligarchs (that weasel-term "community-leaders") to stir invented past grievances. It is essentially sterile. Malcolm once made the point a different way: he contrasted the positivism of (say) the pink ribbon for breast cancer (which says, "Let's do something about it!") to the green ribbon of (say) the social-fascists of Saoirse (a "sign of solidarity", pandering to past grievances).

What Malcolm finds so distasteful here is that very apologetics-culture, as if there is some kind of "kiss-it-and-make-it-better". The truth is that we learn from history: we are not condemned to relive it or wallow in it. My griefs are not per se more painful than yours: but together we can make sure neither's are perpetuated. Malcolm has previously cited Joe Hill as his model: "Don't mourn. Organise!":
Would you have freedom from wage slavery,
Then join in the grand Industrial band;
Would you from mis'ry and hunger be free,
Then come! Do your share, be a man.
Leaders of all communities need to be forward-looking, not retrospective; improving the lot of their group or class, not looking for sociological and archaeological scabs to pick over. Eboda and New Nation have that opportunity, and fail to use it, on a weekly basis, by being two ideas, several gripes, and a circulation-war short of an ideology or an activism,

Karl Marx's ceaseless labour in the book-stacks of Bloomsbury gave us unread tomes; but his youngest daughter, Eleanor, made a difference by unionising the matchgirls and the gasworkers. Malcolm knows whom he finds the more admirable. Sphere: Related Content

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