Sunday, November 07, 2010

Joe Sobran's writing is indeed "intended for educated and literate adults," as Ronn Neff notes. But among those “conformist, hot-button reactors” for whom it’s not intended, as Mr. Neff surely knows, we must include a substantial number of the ostensibly educated and literate. Many have mastered such cognitively complex subject matter as differential calculus, Latin declensions and (of course!) Keynesians "economics." Notwithstanding acquisition of critical-thinking skills, they have been socialized to emote when confronted with hot-button views. My guess is that Patricia McCoy falls in this camp.

I had a similar experience over a Joseph Sobran column better than a decade ago. I had emailed the offending piece ( to an old college friend. A Ph.D. candidate (in political science no less!) at a major American university, “S” certainly qualified as educated and literate. He was even reasonably open to contrarian views. We’d engaged in numerous heated political exchanges over the years; neither of us took things personally.

Yes, Sobran's “The Legitimacy of Slavery” (Universal Press Syndicate, June 15, 1999) was controversial. The title alone was enough to raise the hackles of the most even-tempered bien-pensant. With that in mind, I had included a caveat: "Read it all the way through or don't read it at all. Sobran deftly shows how slavery is still 'legitimate' today. Great piece of writing."

It did nothing to dissuade my correspondent from issuing this philippic:

"I'm sitting here wondering why Pivetta sent me such bullshit. There's nothing wrong with saying that states can impose a type of slavery and there's nothing wrong with examining the diverse history of slavery in different parts of the world. But the way Sobran does it is to excuse the American variety, to completely dismiss a couple hundred [sic] years of awful, awful human degradation. There's a more legitimate way to make your point than to cite this racist trash, even if you share his view of the state.

"Please, Tony, don't send me this crap anymore."

This was bizarre. I still scratch my head over it. Had he actually read the same article? Where does Sobran defend American chattel slavery? What kind of selective reading sees him dismissing “awful, awful human degradation”? S was an ardent statist. Perhaps the parallels Sobran draws between freelance and state slavery were too much for him. But surely he had the imagination to read the article from a libertarian’s premises. Sobran isn’t downplaying the evil of freelance slavery: he’s calling the state out as history’s most murderous and ubiquitous slaveholder. (Google, for example, “Soviet gulags” for more on this.) It was S who was downplaying the state’s own legacy of “awful, awful human degradation.”

Or perhaps it was the suggestion African slaves embraced their servitude and revered their masters? Is that where the “racist trash” comes in? But Sobran nowhere claims the Africans were too obtuse to perceive their own enslavement. He is merely passing along the accounts of G. T. Basden, from whose 1921 book, Among the Ibos of Nigeria, he quotes liberally. Even then, the fact they’re African has nothing to do with it. Sobran hastens to point out that white slaves in pre-Christian Europe held the same attitudes:

"Did the slaves revolt? Rarely, Basden affirms: 'I have never met a slave who hankered after or even expressed a desire for freedom. Indeed, in instances where the possibility of freedom has been suggested to young men, they have indignantly refused to consider the proposal.'

. . .

"In the Nigerian cultures, slavery was regarded as completely legitimate--even by the slaves themselves. It was totally indigenous and had nothing to do with the white man--though in pre-Christian Europe, white men enslaved other white men and held most of the same attitudes as the Nigerians.

"In the modern world, state slavery has replaced chattel slavery, and this is widely accepted as legitimate. Through two world wars, young men (and their parents) acknowledged the right of the state to demand that they give their lives in combat. Even now, many are grateful dependents of the state, their kindly master, while the state's right to confiscate the fruits of our labor through taxation is seldom challenged. Maybe Aristotle had a point when he said that most men are slaves by nature."

Yes, maybe Aristotle had a point. But it is also man’s nature to try to improve man’s nature. Man doesn’t just think: he thinks about thinking. He is a reflective being. He develops moral principles and political theories and applies them to the world around him. In so doing, he comes to recognize injustice and take a stand against it. It is precisely his faculty for reasoning that enabled him to overcome the blight of freelance slavery. It wasn’t by throwing hissy-fits, Pavlov’s-doglike, at those who accept or resist the prevailing superstitions of the day.



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