Dorothy Day Caucus of the American Solidarity Party A Revolution of the Heart
by Tara Ann Thieke
Note: Today The Kitchen Table publishes the second half of a two-part essay regarding history and slavery. The first half, published on Friday August 18, can be found here.
Part Two: What Does History Ask of Us Today?
On Friday I borrowed from William Faulkner to argue the past is not dead, and we are required to hear the voices of the long-silenced and long-suffering. To do so is not to suppress history, but to acknowledge it. History is not a dead thing and the book not yet at an end.
With that in mind, where do we go from here? Once we begin to hear what history tells us of the past, where do we stop? Is there such a thing as too much knowledge, or a search for moral purity which can distract us from our own flaws? Are we willing to allow ourselves to learn enough from history to see what it calls us to acknowledge today?
The answers to these are intertwined. Regarding the removal of monuments to the founding fathers, my own personal take, with a happy wink to our many agnostic iconoclasts and Protestant Southerners, is to say all these statues are the pagan idolatry of mere mortals. Emperor worship, remnants of the impulse to pile rocks and carve stone in honor of those who cannibalize the lives of others in pursuit of greatness: these are the archetypal impulses behind much of our pageantry. These are monuments to magical thinking, to the idea that amoral power is a god which requires constant appeasement. Memorials in monuments, statuary, icons and art should be reserved for the Saints, for those who truly beat the sword of their desire and anger into plowshares. If you would like to build a monument safe from accusations of oppression (deluded, anti-factual criticisms of post-Diderot revisionists not counting as worthy of legitimate time), build a statue of Mary. Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Kibeho: we can have statues around the world manifesting the different faces of the Peace of Mary. Let us have more women and crucifixes to shine down on our common ground; let the generals live in books, classrooms, and museums.
Another answer is a little more practical, though likely less apt to make us saints ourselves; or, at least, to make us saints less quickly. For there is a hidden question in its heart that, if we reject the fundamentalist temptations which lurk within us in regards to any question, could yet bring wisdom.
We reach this question by first distinguishing what a monument celebrates. The monuments to Stonewall Jackson exist because, states rights arguments or not, he was a leader in a war to defend the rights of the states, the right in question being to own slaves. The pyramids exist because of the ego-mania of the Pharoah, convinced he was a god on earth. The pagan gods did not pause their plans to count the cost in human blood.
No one has built a monument to George Washington because he was a slave-owner. They were built because, for one thing, he did not take the path of power and make himself a king. Slave-owning was not peripheral to his accomplishments, it was fundamental. Nonetheless, unlike with Jackson, he did not deliberately wage war to own slaves. He kept war from consuming the country by handing over power peacefully. It's not a trivial accomplishment.
Distinguishing the motives of the builders would guide us through a process of deciding what monuments stay, or how they stay. It would allow us to look at the complexity of individual lives, to see that individuals who did good things sometimes did evil things. To see that individuals who did evil sometimes had a drop of good. To ask why we honor imperfect people: is it their evil we celebrate, or is it the good?
This approach will lead us to the most important question, the one history asks every moment: do we ourselves do good or evil?
Easy, we quickly cry! We do good. Just look at our Facebook avatars which are in a constant state of revolving solidarity. Sure, we live in an imperfect world, and we may be imperfect ourselves, but we know the Right and True and Just when we see it. We, we do not go to war to champion slavery.
This is a true and very significant accomplishment. But do we lay down our lives to end slavery? It is good and right to take down these monuments. It will be good and right if they lead us to take down other monuments. But it will not be good and right if the process stops there. A living history tells us not just about the past, but about ourselves in this hour. And if we were to be honest, perhaps we would find more complexity there than we'd like to acknowledge.
The great Ivan Illich once wrote: "Issues...can be thus divided. Some are considered legitimate. Others not to be raised in polite society. A third kind seem to make no sense at all. If you raise these, you risk being thought impossibly vain."
We are willing to condemn white supremacism? A fine start, though a rather low bar for human decency. Let us push further: Are we willing to condemn the supremacism of material and technological consumption habits? Do we acknowledge we are not just a benefit of past historical injustices, but our comforts and pleasures are entirely dependent upon the exploitation of others in this very hour? Or is this question that third issue, one we cannot understand (or refuse to understand) because our comfort is so dearly entangled with it?
To look at the founding father’s faults and flaws should not be an excuse to ignore their sins; neither should it be an opportunity for us to condemn them without our own examination of conscience. We can use this opportunity to do more than take down stones: we can use it to take down sweatshops.
For the truth is the end of chattel slavery has not plunged the world into peace and equality. Historian Mike Davis calculated the costs of those "Late Victorian Holocausts", those murders that don’t seem like murders because they fall under the heading “economic,” and they are in the many, many millions. And there is yet more cause for tears, for with those deaths in mind have arisen avengers, and they have racked up their own millions of corpses. Differences between the ideologies? Of course. But it is unavoidable that capitalism and communism have ravaged the peoples of the planet. And neither has yet exited the stage.
What does it say about us, that we are always eager to sit in judgment upon others, but so dismissive of any claims an uncomfortable judgment may make upon us? We say historical time is no reason to perpetuate injustice in the form of monuments. So why is spatial distance a reason to accept injustice in the form of our dependence upon sweatshops and slavery? Especially when those distances are not incidental, but fundamental to the structure of oppression?
Cheap Solidarity, or Virtue for Me but not Thee: Can Solidarity Exist Without Sacrifice?
Let us take stock of who we are today, and of what we call our moral progress.
Surely we have made moral progress in many areas. No one I personally know, I am fairly certain, has ever beaten another human being or sold them. None of us store other human beings on our property like animals and watch them labor for us. This is a real, laudable, tremendous improvement.
In some cases, though, evil has not vanished but changed its face. It’s wonderful that we burn with passion for injustice, but is that enough? For we must not rush about in anger, but must also look keenly at reality.
Well, let us start with the uncomfortable facts. There are more slaves now than at any time in human history. Free the Slaves says the number is about 27 million. Global Slavery Index estimates the number of human beings living in slavery is closer to 46 million.
It's all too easy to disconnect from these numbers. Injustice of the past is one thing, someone else's flaws are easy to condemn. When it comes to our own we don't want to hear it. We don't drive past slaves on the plantation. We don't see our neighbors working 12-hour days in a garment factory without ventilation. The steel mills are closed. The coal miners work in unsightly pseudo-colonies like West Viriginia. We, the good, the brave, the true, the just, we take pictures of our activism on phones that require slavery, that come from murky conflicts in far-flung regions of the world where MNCs profit from our refusal to look closely at who benefits. Suicide nets are set up outside of factories manufacturing iphones. But it's not like we ourselves make these decisions. We put a clever, thick wall between us and the reality. A hundred shadow companies with non-brand names confuse us. And who wants to live like the Amish anyway? This is just the way the world works.
No, the local Apple store didn't apparate out of a Harry Potter book to deliver these "blessings" from thin air. But we do our fair share of magical thinking to disconnect us from the ugly truth beneath the gleaming, sterile, blood-free walls of the Apple store. The local strip mall, the highway off-ramp mega chains, our constant restaurant-going, our cheap food, our cheap travel, our access to cheap entertainment: all of this absolutely requires a shadowy web where slave labor, sweatshops, and environmental ravaging take place. We are desperate to believe we can get something for nothing, and the externalized costs of our comfort are soothingly dismissed as the byproducts of industrialization or as problems that will somehow just "work out." It's so easy when we don't have to look slaves in the face, isn't it?
The ugly truth about much of what passes for our activism and progress is that it is false solidarity, or half-hearted solidarity at best. Can solidarity exist without sacrifice? Is a wind turbine such a beautiful step forward that our comfort in our moral progress justifies overlooking the cost in sludge lakes and cancer deaths?
A universal constant remains: if a man's comfort depends upon him rationalizing away someone else's suffering, he will do so. How easy to throw up one's hand when we see the log in our own eye, saying it's much too big and #actually it's probably part of the price of progress. Do I really want to go back to a world without GPS? This is just how it works. Statues, that's a problem we can handle. Yes, injustice from the past is easier to condemn than injustice across the planet. Globalism is the great soother of our conscience, sweeping the eternal problem of labor from our minds. William Lloyd Garrison never saw it coming.
There are degrees of culpability in this story, but one thing remains true. Even if we did not start the process, we play the key role. The story could not exist without our desires. We may be manipulated. We may be tired. We may only be doing what everyone does. There are a thousand excuses for our indifference. But we are not sinless. For the slave has never existed without the demand for the labor or the desire for the product. The sweatshop, the miner, the child in the brick kilns: they suffer, are injured, have little to no autonomy, and die. Very, very few people do these things out of sheer malevolence. The issue turns on profit, on our desire for cheap things. Brutality happens because it is convenient. We demand convenience, cheapness, and entertainment.
A hundred unknown companies and transit points stand along the route from the Congolese miner who is a slave in fact if not in legal status. We enjoy plausible deniability. We are comforted by our own ignorance. But there is the problem. The slaveowners of old hardened their hearts to the faces of the human beings before them. Our sin is different. We drown out the voice of our heart, our conscience, with noise. We shrug before the overwhelming, indecipherable knots.
These are sins of different gravity, and we know not what legacy our own indifference will leave. Perhaps the genius of Steve Jobs will be scorned; perhaps the legacy of our leaders will be seen as the tolerance and advancement of a brutal economic system. Perhaps we will be seen as enablers ourselves.
The slaveowners are dead and buried, but the memory of their greed and evil remains. We should not only tear down the monuments to these men, but tear down the greed within ourselves. George Washington freed his slaves, however late, however inadequately; what do we do with everything around us? Do we have it in us to also eventually say "Enough?"
We can stop using the excuse of “progress” to justify our greed. We can stop indulging the fashion industry, or the advertisers and cultural norms which lead us to participate in an ever-escalating cycle of rapid consumption and throwaway goods. We can reject a culture which demands us to own dozens and dozens of pieces of clothing made in sweatshops. We can reject cheap food, recognizing the evil that has gone into the growing and sowing of the seed. We can reject a “treat yo’self” culture which valorizes our identification as consumers above all. We can reject the idea that we must be constantly entertained. We may decide our activism requires us to develop our skills, so we are less dependent upon those shadowy supply-chains which hide so much suffering.
We can inject our discourse with the language of responsibility and stewardship. We can ask why Aristotle thought slavery was fundamental to the human condition, why the slaveowners of the Western Hemisphere justified slavery as unavoidable, and why today’s capitalists and economists say this is all just part of the process of economic development.
What is it about the powerful that they excuse the suffering of others? What is it that makes them think some goals are worth human blood? And is there anyone, anywhere, who says it doesn’t have to be this way? If so, what do they ask of us?
Many have rejected the way of greed. Gandhi didn't just seek freedom: he sought the good life, one of simplicity and self-sufficiency. Dorothy Day sought liberation from capitalism through distributism. But there was One who did more than any: He gave Faith, which tells us there is more to be had than satisfaction in earthly delights and consumption. As the Roman Empire fattened itself in the sun, enjoying the fruits of others labor, the Son of God arose, taught, was persecuted, died, and rose again from death. The Emperors have risen naught. It was He whose followers were sneered at for being “women and slaves” who showed us True Life.
It was He who wore few garments, who lived simply in the homes of others, who built no economic system, who demanded no technological progress: it was He who showed us another way to live. He did not just preach a shape of governance or economic model for Utopia; He preached Peace. He saw our suffering, and forgave us the sins we committed to avoid it. He then told us of His Kingdom, which is not of this world, and left us His Blood and His Body, sacraments which prepare us to receive this Peace beyond all understanding. Grace is a gift which cannot be bought. It can be denied, and there can be chemical imitations. But this Joy which comes from beyond the world is what we are called to find, and He showed us we find it not by being slaveowners, or by enjoying in slavery's corrupting fruits, but by dying to ourselves.
That way is peace. Peace can never come from slavery. Some of the worst forms of slavery have ended, but slavery itself, in its myriad forms and shapes, is with us yet. While we have progressed enough to know the wickedness of legal slavery, we have failed to reject the fruits of outsourced slavery. The human appetite has remained unchanged and our technology has allowed us to re-arrange things so we no longer need be troubled by the plight of others.
Let us tear down these monuments, but let us ask ourselves if we are willing to tear down the lesser idols within ourselves. Without picking up the sword, can we follow the straight but narrow path? Can we accept a life not steered and managed by those who profit by our desires? Can we fast from our own wants and accept the scorn of others by choosing to live differently? Can we make it easier on our neighbor, helping one another to re-learn the skills we lost as we became atomized consumers? Can we develop a solidarity that is not a mile wide but an inch deep? Rather, can we face the truth of the log in our eye, and thus leave the entangling web of desires?
The tearing down of these monuments, which could be followed by the revision and altering of our historical understanding of other slaveowners and war-makers, is a good thing. But it will be a magnificent thing if our own hearts and lives are reshaped by what we learn about ourselves, and the true nature of peace, in the process.
Tara Ann Thieke