The Language of Slavery

Yves here. I wish I had more time to study the sausage-making of propaganda, if nothing else to be able to call it out faster in real time. Generally speaking, its practice has gotten a big help from its close cousins, marketing and advertising, where clients spend huge amounts of money testing themes and language. Conservatives embraced and successfully deployed these techniques in their long-running campaign to move the values of the US to the right, such as calling social benefits “entitlements”. I don’t think it was an accident that the Obama Administration deployed the bloodless and totally context-devoid term “single payer” for government-funded health care.

This is a long-winded way of saying that when the Vichy left makes an explicit effort to engage in language policing, as opposed to attempting by example to shift practice in discourse (or better yet,in actual behavior), one has to wonder how well they’ve tested what they are doing, as opposed to assuming that the public will swallow their New Coke.1

Or maybe we should just leave this to Lewis Carroll:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

By Peter Dorman, a professor of economics at The Evergreen State College. Originally published at Econospeak

The New York Times today has a story about a new study that claims Alexander Hamilton owned slaves right up to the end of his life.  There doesn’t seem to be new evidence but a new, more assertive interpretation of it.  I know little about the period or Hamilton in particular, so my opinion doesn’t mean much, but the argument struck me as persuasive.  I would be surprised to find out that Hamilton wasn’t a slave owner.

But here’s the thing: the article’s writing endorses the new language around slavery.  We no longer have slaves but enslaved people, not slave owners but enslavers.  It is an attempt to personalize the issue.  The word “slave” is said to carry a connotation that the individual in question was somehow different by virtue of their status; instead we want to convey the idea that they were just like anyone else except that, at some point (or repeatedly), other people enslaved them.  Myself, I never thought that slaves were anything other than ordinary folks who had been delivered into slavery, so for me it’s a distinction without a difference, but if other people need the change in terminology to respect the full humanity of slaves I’m OK with that.

The enslaver bit is a different story.  An enslaver is someone who alters the status of another human being from non-slave to slave.  Those who captured previously unenslaved people, whether from a village in Africa or a native community in the New World, were enslavers.  Those who participated in the institution of slavery by buying or selling those already enslaved or by directing their work were slave traders or slave owners but not enslavers.  If we care about precision in language, we should be careful about the words we use.

But the problem goes much deeper than this.  The campaign to replace slave owner with enslaver is part of the larger movement to make politics a matter of individual responsibility.  Slavery was a horror, and this horror, we are to believe, was the product of the individual consciousness and behavior—personal racism—on the part of each person who participated in it.  According to this view, we need to use the word “enslaver” to not let these evildoers off the hook.  If Alexander Hamilton was an enslaver he was personally responsible for the enslavement of the individuals forced to work in his household.

Now personal responsibility is real, but not mainly in this way.  We are all called upon to consider our position in an unjust social order, not because each of us individually creates some small piece of it, but because it rests on our acceptance of it.  It was not Hamilton who authored the enslavement of his servants; it was the slave system itself that placed them in that position and ensured that, with few exceptions, if he didn’t own the slave in question someone else would.  At the margin, an enlightened rich person like George Washington could free a few slaves (in his case upon his death), but slavery as an institution grew and prospered.

At stake is the understanding of politics itself.  Is slavery just an accretion of individual choices by enslavers or an institution with legal, economic and social underpinnings?  Is racism today also institutionalized and reproduced legally, economically and politically, or is it mainly the outcome of racist thoughts and actions one individual at a time?  How does social change happen?

In the case of slavery, it didn’t really matter that Hamilton was active in the Manumission Society, which encouraged slave owners to release individual slaves, nor would it have mattered much for the course of slavery in America if he had refused to purchase slaves from their prior owners.  At the margin again, it was better to promote manumission than not, and it would have been even better if Hamilton weren’t such a hypocrite about it by owning some of his own.  But manumission did not end slavery nor could it: that was accomplished only by a civil war and the subsequent constitutional amendments outlawing it.  It took collective action, and a lot of bloodshed, to bring about this social change.

Obviously the battle for social justice is far from over.  Our society is riven by deep inequalities and change is still on the agenda.  But just as in Hamilton’s day, more enlightened personal behavior is nice but also something of a distraction.  The real personal morality is about participation in movements to dismantle the institutions of inhumanity.


1 In fairness, New Coke was tested extensively, but the studies were famously not representative. Consumers were given sip-sizes of old Coke, New Coke, and I am pretty sure Pepsi too. New Coke won the taste test. But the flaw was they were just tastes.

Most people gulp down soda out of a chilled can, or else over ice. Consumers found New Coke to be cloyingly sweet when they consumed it in normal rates and volumes.

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    1. paul

      I would argue against this, correcting terms brings clarity.

      Slavery is still current, look at those poor (economically) people asphyxiated people who died in an essex truck stop.

      I think the driver is going to fall, but it is not going to affect the drive chain; the war on labour.

      How long and how much enslaving would you tolerate?*

      *I do not want to suggest you are pro slavery

      1. Senator Blutarsky

        What kind of clarity does it bring?

        As I understand it, the one who obducts a person and sells him/her as property is the enslaver,
        but not the one who buys and owns slaves.

        But if the people who buy slaves are the ones who say:
        “We need cheap workers. Bring us people we can buy to work for us as slaves”,
        who are really the enslavers? The ones the actually take those people and sell them
        or the ones who basically ‘order’ it?

        Who is more responsible for a death:
        The one who kills someone or the one who hires someone to kill someone?
        Does assigning more responsibility to one of the two than to the other really bring more clarity?

        1. paul

          I think that was the problem.

          It goes back to the helpless* porn problem

          By consuming, you enable without approving.

          *they do not consent

        2. Basil Pesto

          well, you’re making an historical assumption here: that the slave owners “ordered” or demanded the enslavers to do anything. I don’t believe, to take one example, that the cowards who kidnapped and sold Solomon Northup were acting under orders.

          I’m lamentably ignorant about the history of slavery, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of your historical assumption. But it seems to me if people are in the market for labour, and said market, unregulated, is then supplied with chattel slaves, then they will avail themselves of that labour, and become slaveholders. It doesn’t necessarily follow that they “ordered” the enslavers to do anything (consider this my counter-assumption, if you will).

          What you then have is a system. A monstrous one, to be sure, but one where the actors within the system have different roles, behaviour, motivations, social positions, etc. In this context, precise language surely is important.

          1. Basil Pesto

            mistagged, sorry. Only the the first instance of the word ‘system’ in my last paragraph was meant to be italicised.

          2. Senator Blutarsky

            If you look closely, I put the word ‘order’ in quotes.
            An order is usually explicit. I don’t think that this was the case.

            But maybe if you look at it this way:

            Imagine someone has a ship, and I mean way back when slavery started in america.
            Would that person embark on a journey across the atlantic ocean to africa to somehow get hold of people he can sell as slaves in america without being sure
            that there is demand for it? That’s taking a substantial risk.
            Don’t you think there must have been prior signaling by farm owners that they
            need ‘cheap workers’ on their farms?
            Do you think the guy with a ship would take the risk of such an endeavor not being
            sure he can sell those people for a good price?

            You don’t need orders for that. Power and greed is enough.

            1. Basil Pesto

              Don’t you think there must have been prior signaling by farm owners that they
              need ‘cheap workers’ on their farms?

              I’m not so sure. I’m inclined to think that if there is a surfeit of labour, this will probably be readily apparent. I’m not convinced that an opportunistic trader would need specific signals, clandestine or otherwise, from the powerful to pick up on this.

              Do you think the guy with a ship would take the risk of such an endeavor not being sure he can sell those people for a good price?

              I’m not sure that the risk was intrinsically higher than trade in any other good at the time. The institution, or system of slavery was thoroughly established in the world (see David and vlade’s comments below). In fact, considered purely as a commodity, I’m not sure that chattel slaves wouldn’t have been less risky than myriad other commodities traded overseas. The demand for the cheapest labour that one can get away with according to the mores and laws of the time – as opposed to, say, kola nuts – is surely inexhaustible.

          3. Aumua

            But it seems to me if people are in the market for labour, and said market, unregulated, is then supplied with chattel slaves, then they will avail themselves of that labour, and become slaveholders … What you then have is a system.

            Indeed, and the system has a name: Capitalism.

            1. Basil Pesto

              but systems of slavery predate capitalism by thousands of years. that analysis, such as it is, just seems a bit too glib to me (even acknowledging as I do below how bereft my in toto knowledge of history is)

    2. hemeantwell

      Dorman unfortunately left out the money shot from the study, quoted in the Times article:

      Not only did Alexander Hamilton enslave people, but his involvement in the institution of slavery was essential to his identity, both personally and professionally,” [writes Jessie Serfilippi, an historical interpreter]

      Looks like the goal here is to make slave-owning an central aspect of the person, one that cannot be set aside for the sake of, say, lauding his mercantilist insights. But then that implies that the reader must themselves take on the identity of an anti-slaveowner and become exclusively preoccupied with that project: an enlistment into retroactive cancel culture.

      If you read the article what is more interesting is the finding that Hamilton and his crowd would elide acknowledgement of slave-owning, e.g. confusingly referring to their slaves as “servants,” a substitution of action for status that Serfilippi spotted by finding expenditure records indicating they’d been bought.

  1. Basic Hummus Rights

    Not giving me what I want is an injustice.

    No demand I make is too great.

    I deserve more than you to do because I’ve suffered.

    I’ve suffered because I’ve been deprived of what I believe I deserve.

    1. ambrit

      Did you forget to add the *snark* tag?
      I like how you sneak the terms “want” and “believe” into the discussion.
      The “objective” world does not ‘run’ on subjective nor aspirational rules. What one ‘wants’ does not automatically align with what is “possible” or “available” under the presently operating set of ‘rules.’ To achieve what you ‘want’ requires some work to change the “ground rules” of societal function.
      So, I’ll just assume that your comment is *snark*. Otherwise, it sounds too much like actual conversations I have been on the periphery of. It is also possible that such a point of view is a natural outcome of a system that is designed to oppress and deny a large part of the population basic human rights. Once people have been ‘trained’ to accept magical thinking as a “rational” course of action, one enters into the sphere of Religion. With the conditions “on the ground” today being as fraught as they are, that way lies Apocalypse.

    2. Clem

      “I’ve suffered because I’ve been deprived of what I believe I deserve.”

      “After I watched a really clever advertisement for it…”

      “Therefore I shall use my credit card to buy what I deserve, even if I pay 29% interest on it and I trade dental care, or food for my children to have it.”

  2. VK

    It’s all about priorities of appearance. Shift the focus from societal policy debate to debate of societal morality and all is well.

    “Shortly there was public outcry, when the well educated, soft spoken, well dressed and well kempt owner of concentration camps sweatshops, that killed people on industrial scale every year, let the sweet budgie of his granddaughter starve to death.”/s

  3. Eduardo

    The White Knight’s Song by Lewis Carroll

    “The name of the song is called ‘Haddocks’ Eyes’.”

    “Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?” Alice said, trying to feel interested.

    “No, you don’t understand,” the Knight said, looking a little vexed. “That is what the name is called. The name really is ‘The Aged Aged Man’.”

    “Then I ought to have said ‘That’s what the song is called?’ ” Alice corrected herself.

    “No, you oughtn’t: that’s quite another thing! The song is called `Ways And Means’: but that’s only what it’s called, you know!”

    “Well, what is the song, then?” said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

    “I was coming to that,” the Knight said. “The song really is `A-sitting On A Gate’: and the tune’s my own invention.”

    The White Knight’s Song by Lewis Carroll

    1. Deplorado

      This is object oriented programming. Objects and their pointers, and their properties being objects.

      That’s great!

    2. deplorado

      This is object oriented programming. Objects have properties that are objects too, with pointers and names.

      This is great!

  4. Eduardo

    Hmmm … If I am a slave owner and I could free them but do not, then I am continuing their enslavement. Using the term enslaver seems to emphasize the ongoing choice to continue keeping them as slaves.

    Maybe I have not thought this through but that seems reasonable to me.

    1. ambrit

      That would be good for your personal moral condition, but it would not address the systemic nature of the “peculiar institution.” To achieve the supposed goal of “personal responsibility” on a societal level, one needs to organize to rid the system of the ‘cancer’ of slavery. This is a situation where there is such a ‘thing’ as a society, not just a congeries of atomistic individual actors.
      The Myth of the Rugged Individualist is one of the greatest cons ever pulled on the American public. It embodies the essence of the old Roman maxim: “Divide and Rule.”

      1. Eduardo

        I agree, but what language choices address or emphasize the systemic nature?

        And does so without unduly diminishing the individual contribution?

        1. Basil Pesto

          I’m not sure that ‘slaveowner’/‘slaveholder’ does unduly diminish the individual contribution. I mean, it’s hardly euphemistic.

          1. Eduardo

            But how does ‘slaveowner’/‘slaveholder’ emphasize the systemic nature any better than ‘enslaver’?

            1. Basil Pesto

              I mean, it just seems kind of clear to me that it does. Maybe not emphasise, but it certainly delineates it, no? (moreso than the generalised, all-encompassing ‘enslaver’ that Dorman’s arguing against, at any rate)

            2. pebird

              Slaveowner puts some responsibility on the system that allows/supports slavery ownership, while still identifying the individual holder. Enslaver personalizes the issue (which I assume is the objective). One can enslave in a society that has never allowed legal slavery

    2. Eduardo

      Of course if I am taking the opposite side of this argument, I am merely a property owner, or an investor, or a capitalist. You can’t blame me for exercising my fiduciary responsibilities.

      1. ambrit

        Ah, but as the post points out, it matters who sets the “rules” of the system that ‘runs’ the society.
        I’ll posit that the “Rugged Individualist” maliciously tries to separate the individual functions of the ‘integrated’ person. One is not just a property owner, nor an investor, much less a capitalist in a vacuum. In this case, “…exercising [one’s] fiduciary responsibilities…” has effects far beyond one’s financial sphere. “Rugged individualism” is an excellent unbalancing mechanism, thus, the opposite of what constitutes a “Balanced Person.” A cynic would observe that disharmony is a primary goal of political “rugged individualism.” Again, “Divide and Rule.”
        This imbroglio concerning the language of “slavery” is not an isolated nor picayune subject. It effects our entire political discourse.
        Humpty Dumpty is correct; “…who is to be master..”

      2. Eric Anderson

        Yes, and we all are descendants of child abusers as well. This need for flagellation of our predecessors smells like virtue signaling, a common practice of the timid. There is no leadership in this reflective dialog. In the recent election witness the surge in minority votes recognizing the work of Trump in their behalf.

  5. Eduardo

    Slavery was a horror, and this horror, we are to believe, was the product of the individual consciousness and behavior—personal racism—on the part of each person who participated in it.

    Really? Racism? Equating slavery with racism?

    According to this view, we need to use the word “enslaver” to not let these evildoers off the hook. If Alexander Hamilton was an enslaver he was personally responsible for the enslavement of the individuals forced to work in his household.

    Seems right to me presuming that he could have un-enslaved them at any time.

    1. jsn

      So slavery is the personal responsibility of everyone born into it, whichever side of the social institution fate lands them on.

      Okay, so slaves are obligated to escape it and slave owners are obligated to free them.

      In a society that has institutionalized slavery, which on a time accrual basis has been most of what has hitherto passed as “civilization” (I’m open to arguments about that term as “money” & “slavery” appear to be coincident inventions at the dawn of “civilization”), how does the end of the institution come about if it’s all on the individuals?

      1. Eduardo

        So slavery is the personal responsibility …

        It is the personal responsibility of the people with the power to change it.

        In a society that has institutionalized slavery, … how does the end of the institution come about if it’s all on the individuals?

        How else can it end except by individual acts? Governments, Corporations and Societies do not act despite legal and other fictions to the contrary. Individuals do.

        1. jsn

          The “collective action problem” is what the author above is addressing. Yes, individuals have agency and act, but your values only change injustices to the extent you coordinate them with society.

          Why would slave holders coordinate their actions if the responsibility is all on the individual?

          For the people with “the power to change it”, like neoliberalism, it’s someone else’s problem if it doesn’t work for them. For the vast history of slave holding, doing so has worked quite well for those doing it just as all the injustices of neoliberalism work just fine for those for whom this system works.

          The argument of this article as I read it is that by personalizing political agency over institutional forces you prevent change to the institutions, not cause it. To the extent people can be brought to agreement that the institution is unjust, through collective action the institutions can be changed, but we’ll never get close to that if its your personal responsibility: fix it yourself.

    2. Janie

      Freeing one’s slaves wasn’t that easy. States had different rules (of course they would). The Encyclopedia Virginia has an article on manumission. It required the owner or estate to provide funds to support the freed slave of a certain age, to provide a certificate of manumission and to pay a tax. Didn’t look up other states but no state wanted slaves put upon them as public charges.

      1. Basil Pesto

        Thanks for this information. When I said above that I’m lamentably ignorant on the history of slavery, this is exactly what I mean.

        Put another way, I think I’m better read than most about the holocaust for example, but I also think I’ve barely scratched the surface of it – just the breadth of it, the various facets of it, over a period of years (even if you just take the short period of Wannsee – Jan 45), encompasses a massive amount of information and source material.
        And then you have the Atlantic slave trade which was a massive institution (economically, geographically, temporally). it’s daunting trying to get one’s head around that. Never quite sure whether to be in awe or despair of what I don’t know.

        1. ObjectiveFunction

          Yes, comparison to the industry and spiritual devotion that has grown up around Holocaust remembrance is quite apt:

          1. Redefine slavery as a crime against humanity (how dare they not know better!)
          on the exact same level as the Holocaust.

          Make any attempts to nuance that view (“the past is a different country”, etc.), factual or otherwise, taboo, insensitive and wounding to people of color. In fact, you might as well have white robes in your basement if you even bring it up.

          2. And anyway, how dare you intepret history as anything other than one long episode of pig faced white people mass murdering everyone else?

          History itself of course is merely a construct to inculcate fealty to the white patriarchy, whose descendants (and anyone who looks like a descendant) hold the ill gotten legacy of aforementioned mass murder. More, any deep interest in this topic is itself a disturbing sign of an unhealthy fixation on the original sins of Racism, Sexism, Genderism, etc. Do you not recall the toxic spew of the Evil One? (may he be consigned to flames for all eternity): “Fine People on Both Sides”, ach ptoo!

          3. So now that we have enshrined in unalterable holy writ that

          – Slavery = Holocaust
          – History is the unalterable ledger (blockchain) of hereditary white guilt
          – All people who *look* like they descended from slave owners share in the spoils of slavery and are thus equally guilty, even if their ancestors walked off the boat yesterday.
          – Similarly, all people who look of African descent share in the burdens and harm of slavery’s toxic legacy, even if their parents were upper caste Hindus or Kenyan academicians.

          4. We must now discuss reparations and set asides, for make benefit* glorious Misleadership class!

          Isn’t this fun?

          * House in the Vineyard, whatever. Some animals are more equal than others.

          1. Thuto

            Would you mind providing a “factual, nuanced view” of the history of slavery that an African like me can sink his teeth into? And while you’re at it, do expand on your take that any attempt to chronicle the true horrors of slavery is an attempt to either:

            1. Guilt trip white people into paying reparation, or

            2. To reposition slavery as a crime against humanity on par with the holocaust, or worse, both.

            The factual view is that masses of people were forcibly removed from their home continent, packed into the bowels of ships like sardines headed for a life of unimaginable dehumanization and exploitation and many of them died en route to this “new world”. Please put as much empirical meat on this “nuanced view” bone as you possibly can as i’m loaded up on bandwidth to dissect and analyze nuance in anticipation of your response.

            1. Janie

              Watch the movie, a true story, “Twelve Years a Slave”. it’s a hard movie to see, but it puts a face on the institution. The history of this country is hard for us to grapple with, and the interpretation varies across geographic sections, economic classes and family histories and races. iOW, to generalize, Americans are all over the place in their views of our history;.

              Some people to read about:
              Frederick Douglas
              George Washington Carver
              Booker T Washington
              Robert Small’s
              Sojourner Truth
              Marian Anderson
              Paul Robeson

              The desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas, schools and segregation academies.

              Thev1960s and Lyndon Johnson.

              It’s good to see you here.

              1. Thuto

                Thank you Janie, I have watched “12 years a slave” and the way you characterize perhaps its most impactful lesson as “putting a face on the institution” is quite apt. And thank you also for the list of people to do more reading on, some I am already familiar with but admittedly need to delve a bit deeper into their historical entanglement with the subject at hand.

          2. Basil Pesto

            Yes, comparison to the industry and spiritual devotion that has grown up around Holocaust remembrance is quite apt:

            That’s not what I was doing, certainly not intentionally. As far as I can tell, my post has only a tenuous connection to your rant. My point, put as simply and blandly as possible, is that history is massive.

  6. Jeff N

    I remember when I did “the Pepsi challenge” as a little kid; I thought the point was to guess which was Coke and which was Pepsi. I guessed wrong! Then years later I realized you were supposed to pick out which one you liked better.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I had my own fun with the “Pepsi challenge” once. I had read that when you are hot and sweaty for a long time, “more sweet” things can taste better than “less sweet” things. And I read that the PepsiCo Lords knew all about that. And so they held their “Pepsi challenges” on hot sweaty summer days. Because Pepsi is sweeter than Coke.

      So when I met a “Pepsi challenger” at a public event in the summertime, I remembered that bit of information. And I realised that the “less sweet” mystery cola would probably be coke. So I tasted both and said I liked the “less sweet” one better. And it was the coke. And the “Pepsi challenge” test giver was clearly disappointed.

  7. Mattski

    Too bad the author didn’t consult his colleagues in history and related disciplined (see historicized approaches to literature) to get their take. The first bit about the “enslaved” comes off as straight-up low-grade flip reactionary. It’s not hard to see how calling someone ‘enslaved’ or ‘formerly enslaved’ differs from calling them a slave. It suggest that something was done to them, not that they embodied it.

    AFAI–or my wife, who has two books about texts (narratives, print matter, etc.) in the English, Spanish, and French Caribbean colonies during the period, there IS not wide move to make slavers “enslavers.” And it shouldn’t take much cogitation to recognize that there might be advantages in recognizing that a certain agency was indeed involved in enslaving people, or–to pause another minute to recognize–that any worthy account of such matters won’t stand or fall on a single word in either propelling the standard-issue great man sort of history we all grew up on forward or offering us political-economic insight. Too much of this kind of light medium-weight, ultimately kinda dilletantish, not-quite-right insight on offer here.

    For once, the paper of record got something half-right! Personally, I’m far more concerned with how they’re selling us the triumph of neoconservative centrism, newly embodied in the Democratic Party, at the moment.

    1. Laputan

      Too bad the author didn’t consult his colleagues in history and related disciplined (see historicized approaches to literature) to get their take. The first bit about the “enslaved” comes off as straight-up low-grade flip reactionary. It’s not hard to see how calling someone ‘enslaved’ or ‘formerly enslaved’ differs from calling them a slave. It suggest that something was done to them, not that they embodied it.

      Like the author, I think of the two as a “distinction without a difference” and don’t care whether “enslaved” or “slave” is used, but how does that indifference make someone a reactionary? It seems such a silly thing to base an extrapolation about something as complex as one’s political ideology, especially considering where he teaches. It’s in the same category as “latinx”, “ableist”, or “microgressions” and other academic contrivances that are used in the main to advertise the speaker’s cultural affinities. Use them, don’t use them, nobody cares except for some keyed up Twitter junkies and hack academics.

      I would also add to his point that the use of new terms like “enslaver” goes beyond implying the view that institutions are a matter of personal responsibility, but we’re so lazy and shallow that, instead of debating policy, economics, ideology, etc., we play these stupid gotcha games like using an unfashionable word as pretext for cancelization.

  8. David

    It’s not only dishonest, it’s bad history. To say that someone was “enslaved” as a definite act, is to say that before that point they were what we would see as a free human being, able to dispose of themselves. This wasn’t universally true: the word “slave” itself comes, via a complicated history, from words which are cognate with “Slav,” and few Slavs, a thousand years ago, were anything like free. The same applies to large parts of Africa.

    Indeed, if you want to be technical about it, the “enslavement” took place the vast majority of the time in Africa itself, where there were slaving empires like the Ashante, and where the trade in slaves was already well developed when first Ottoman and the Western slave traders arrived. Many of the slaves who arrived in the Caribbean, for example, or the Ottoman Empire, had been “enslaved” years before, and already changed owners several times.

    The reduction of the problem of slave-owning to personal responsibility, of course, makes it easier to grasp and to fulminate about, and avoids all these awkward issues, because we can use names and cases that everybody knows, rather than rulers of African slaving kingdoms whose names nobody now remembers, or Ottoman Sultans who tend to get a free pass. I often think Crosby Stills Nash and Young, in an unreleased version of one of their most famous songs, got it right fifty years ago:

    “If you can’t be with the one you hate
    Hate the one you’re with.”

    1. vlade

      I’d recommed listening to Fall of Civilisations podcast episode 7, Songhai empire.

      It’s really depressing how Europe centric – and in the US Anglo-centric – the history most people know is.

      1. Quentin

        vlade, I appreciate the reference to Fall of Civilisations. You’ve given me access to whole new worlds over the centuries.

    2. KevinD

      After reading this paper, I’m reminded of a lyric as well, from a Rosebuds song..’if you dance to the devils tune, you’re the devil too”

      1. Off The Street

        When people in DC, say, took that ticket to the dance, they later found that there was no exit.

  9. meadows

    In the early 1970’s I was a Conscientious Objector during the American War in Vietnam. My good friend N. agreed to be drafted and killed people there. If N. had killed people in the U.S. he would be called a murderer and imprisoned, perhaps even put to death by the State. Murder or Justice?

    Is N. a murderer and am I a hero? Actually, he was considered a hero and I was considered a coward. But depending on our social circles, the words describing the character of Nate or I easily reverse.

    There are many ways to label a person, all with a wide range of social meaning, not necessarily any of the ways all truthful.

    I don’t know if any of the younger commenters realize that to qualify for CO status one had to renounce ALL war, not just the war du jour.

    I am dubious of this “enslaver” term. In his time Hamilton could’ve no more erased slavery on his own than I could have stopped the war by being a CO.

  10. rl

    [P]ersonal responsibility is real, but not mainly in this way. We are all called upon to consider our position in an unjust social order, not because each of us individually creates some small piece of it, but because it rests on our acceptance of it.

    Thank you for this excellent phrasing.

    ETA: Silly me–scrolling too quickly over the header while at work. In any case … my thanks to the original author.

  11. Senator Blutarsky

    When I hear about someone is endorsing a ‘new language’, the first thing I immediately think is:
    ‘This crap is made up by upper class white people’.

    I may be wrong some of the times that happens, but that has become a knee-jerk reaction of mine when I read about ‘new language’ or ‘new terminology’.

  12. PeasantParty

    Witty words have been around a long time, and our media, and Government are Pros at it. Anytime, I hear, or read the name of a new bill being proffered I automatically assume it is the exact opposite in true meaning; ie: Affordable Care Act, Lilly Ledbetter fair wage Act, The war on drugs, The war on terror, and, well, you name it. Behind those witty words is a long line of carpet baggers lining their pockets, and laughing all the way to the bank, er most of them are the Banks! On slavery, I don’t think it was ever abolished completely. I think the Robber Barons just turned us all into Wage Slaves. We really don’t have full independence. We have to scratch, and scrap to live each day in this modern world.

    1. HotFlash

      Indeed! I believe that in fact the worst slaveowners would have found Emancipation a great boon to their bottom line — outsourced slavery, if you will. Landowners/big ag of the day get cheap labour but all the costs of keeping a slave — food, housing, clothing, medical care, etc. etc. are externalized, ie, passed to the (former) slaves, now tenant farmers. Day labourers are even better! Rainy days, or no cotton to pick, you don’t have to pay them anything!

  13. Eclair

    ‘Slave,’ ‘enslaved,’ ”wage slave,’ ‘serf,”gig worker.’ ‘Slave owner/holder,’ ‘industrialist.’ ‘capitalist,’ ‘elite,’ ‘master of the universe.’

    The exploited and the exploiters. The prey and the predators.

    The big question: can we create a social system in which those people with a tendency towards unbridled greed and power, those who loot and destroy the planet, are firmly suppressed. If not, we face ruin.

    1. flora

      So, Uber and Bezos are ‘wage enslavers’? It’s all a personal failing? Nothing to do with the current political or neoliberal “because markets” system in effect? Alrighty, then. /heh

      Heck, in Hamilton’s time, slavery existed because markets. However, pointing that out might make woke neoliberals have a sad. ;)

      1. Eclair

        I am not saying that to enslave or not to enslave is a personal choice. To the contrary, our social and economic systems determine what form our collective greed will take. Our tolerance as a society for the dichotomy of winners and losers, and for the economic systems that enable the accumulation of obscene amounts of wealth, is what keeps the slave drivers on top and the enslaved on the bottom.

  14. Geof

    So if you hold shares in a company, and that company uses slave labour to make its products, are you an “enslaver”? What if you simply buy things from that company?

    The word “slave” is said to carry a connotation that the individual in question was somehow different by virtue of their status; instead we want to convey the idea that they were just like anyone else except that, at some point . . . other people enslaved them.

    Then this language obscures the crime of slavery. Treating people as less than human changes their consciousnesses so that they internalize their condition. In my mind, that is the ultimate obscenity, the worst thing one can do to a person (slavery isn’t the only way to do it). True slavery is not external, it is internal. We rightly celebrate those souls with the will to resist, and the determination of slaves to carve out spaces for their own culture and lives. The term “survivor” applied to many forms of abuse implies the task of clawing back one’s humanity in the face of inhumanity. But the fact remains that abuse on this scale does something to a person. In each of us exists the capacity to commit such evil, and to undergo and in some ways make peace with it.

    Pretending that slaves were merely “enslaved” suggests it was a momentary transaction rather than a process. Slavery isn’t just oppression; it’s continuous abuse. The vast majority of people do not have the almost superhuman will to resist. Resistance often brought torture to others. Imagining that slaves could remain above their condition suggests that those who found a way to live with horror were something less.

    Slavery was not a momentary transaction that made people into property. Slaves were property. The normality of the statement is what makes it so vile. Oppressors and oppressed, went about their daily lives with that normality as a fact of life. Slavery warped not only the slaves, but owners and bystanders. To make peace with a world like that is abhorrent – but what could you do? To make a difference in the world you have to make compromises. Lincoln said he would not abolish slavery, only limit its spread: with his compromise came the beginning of the end.

    The lesson of slavery is not that there were uniquely bad people who were “enslavers,” or that the “enslaved” rose above their condition: it is that that capacity for good and evil resides in each of us. Only the gods have infinite will: our weakness is at the heart of what makes us human. We are able to reinvision the world so that some people are not human – sometimes even ourselves. Enslaver or enslaved, it could have been us. In such a world there is no clarity, no pure good, no ideal choices. Sometimes the best you can do is try to hang on to a shred of your humanity, and try to forgive people their weakness – beginning with yourself.

    1. Geof

      Many people have compared wokeness to religion. It has concepts of good and evil, original sin, penitence, etc. What it lacks is forgiveness.

      They mean forgiveness of the oppressor. I would take that a step farther. The worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves. The worst betrayals are self betrayals. Forgiveness of the oppressor is good: even more important is forgiveness of ourselves for our complicity, real or perceived.

      I have read many times that abuse victims blame themselves. They look back and say, “I should have done this.” Or they look into their heart and imagine they didn’t fight hard enough, or didn’t have the will. Oppression works because it uses us against ourselves. It often uses our perception of complicity against us: “you really wanted it or you would have fought.” We go along to survive; we go along to get along. It might be the least bad choice, but it’s still a choice and it burdens us with guilt.

      People are told that they are brave. I have read survivors say they aren’t, and they’re sick of being told that they are. Courage is an unrealistic standard that leaves too many behind. What they need is to come to terms with human weakness, including their own. What they need is to forgive themselves.

      If you forgive the oppressor, you can forgive yourself. Maybe that’s the best reason to do it. If there is not even a little forgiveness for the oppressor (often in turn a victim of oppression), and none for complicity (you’re anti-racist or you’re racist, there’s nothing in between), then how can one forgive one’s complicity in one’s own oppression?

      I’m giving wokeness to much credit here. It’s not what it claims to be. But the argument stands. The oppressor (if such he really is) does not need forgiveness. He has his power to console him. The oppressed has nothing. A doctrine of guilt, with no room for forgiveness, closes all the more securely on the truly oppressed. It is a doctrine not of justice, but of control.

  15. hunkerdown

    Private property must absolutely be set off against all moral considerations. It is the taboo from which the entirety of civilization flows. Capital must be revised to have never possibly included people, lest capitalism itself be seen to create slavery as a residue. iTs jUsT a jOb / iTs jUsT mY iDeNtiTY, whichever works in any given moment.

  16. Amfortas the hippie

    smells like the people pushing this “new language” are more or less the same bunch that think Lincoln needs to be erased:

    upon happening on this, adjacent to links, I considered calling the University of Wisconsin-Madison to tell them that if they really feel the need to get rid of that big bronze monument to Abe…that I have a spot for it.

    1. ChiGal in Carolina

      I am somewhat surprised to see WSWS faulting the NYT for failing to appreciate the social justice agenda of the founding fathers:

      Ripped from this historical context, the tragic events that took place in Minnesota 158 years ago are manipulated to portray Lincoln as a racist no different from those who called for the extermination of the Native populations. This is part of a larger campaign, spearheaded by the New York Times’ 1619 Project, to undermine the democratic and egalitarian legacy of America’s first two revolutions.

      1. JBird4049

        Ain’t that interesting. It has been claim that the abolitionist John Brown was crazy partly because he treated Blacks just the same as anyone else. He even (gasp) had those people say grace and eat at the same table as his wife, which was considered scandalous by many. Honestly, I believe the idea of his supposed insanity was supported by those who did want equality or social amity. If only crazy White people could actually not be racist, what hope is there?

  17. Clem

    Alexander Hamilton has been dead a long time. Perhaps we can ascribe some privilege and guilt to his descendants, especially those that rant on about the evils of slavery.

    Kamala Harris does such rants, and has capitalized on them in her self promotion campaign of late. Her ancestors owned almost a hundred slaves in Jamaica, the privilege derived from which she must have profited via her father’s side. We know her proposals to tap the taxpayers through reparations. But, what is she to do to make up for this from her own fortunes?

    “[Harris]and sister Maya rubbed shoulders and posed for photos with a number of prominent Jamaican Americans, including Mayor of the City of Miramar Wayne Messam and City of Miramar Commissioner Winston Barnes among others.
    In a Facebook post after the event, Barnes effused:
    „…..very special lady and as Jamaican as they come…when I asked her where her dad was from, she says St Ann‟s Bay, so I ask, what you know about St Ann‟s Bay The response?‟ “How you mean man? I know there growing up.”

    KAMALA HARRIS’ JAMAICAN HERITAGE – UPDATED – 14.01.2019 Jamaica Global Online

    Harris’ father:
    “My roots go back, within my lifetime, to my paternal grandmother Miss Chrishy (née Christiana Brown, descendant of Hamilton Brown who is on record as plantation and slave owner and founder of Brown‟s Town) and to my maternal grandmother Miss Iris (née Iris Finegan, farmer and educator, from Aenon Town and Inverness, ancestry unknown to me).”

    Suddenly, all mentions of her father’s statement have disappeared online, including the slave owning part. The internet never forgets though. Save this file because it too may be disappeared into the Orwellian Memory Hole.*/

      1. Clem

        And, the Kamaleon trained a whole new generation of law enforcement to pre-imprison youth of color via their parents who miss school–Can’t have children at home alone when mom is in jail can we?

        “Peoples was arrested six years ago for Shayla’s repeated truancy despite ample evidence given to the Orange County school showing Shayla suffers from sickle cell anemia, which leaves her in constant pain and requires frequent hospitalization.”

  18. Fastball

    It’s a bit ironic, I was just over at an excellent post of Lambert’s excellent “What it Took” post talking about the corrupt use of the phrase “intelligence community”.

    So, here’s where I think where “going there” can be used to best effect.

    Not to do language policing but to use entirely different language without fear or favor. If people on the left want to parrot “intelligence community” we should not police them for using the language they’re comfortable with as long as it’s clear.

    Policing language beyond some bigoted “no go” places that most people agree with, is beyond weird, to me.

    Me, I want to start using different language going forward, dispensing with catchy terms that serve the ruling class, not disparaging others if they do.

    So, if Lambert wishes: “intelligence community”, that’s fine, I’m not going to disparage him.

    Me: “Intelligence agents:. Clarity is not lost but the ruling class is upset that I use the latter not the former. I want them upset. I want them railing and having their heads exploding because I don’t use their disingenuous terms.

    I want them shrieking that I’m not using their preferred phrasing.

    The NYT is old media. They may set standards for establishment reporters, but not me and not for the blog I’m trying to launch later next year.

    And yes, I do think “enslaver” versus “slave owner” is kind of a grey area, inasmuch as we now agree as a society that one cannot own other people.

    1. Mo's Bike Shop

      Or is that just the one we’ve been encouraged to notice? There are so many mechanisms that make us cogs withing the gears. Like terrible pedestrian precincts. Its a whole different world when you don’t have to getinthecar to do everything.

  19. Still Above Water

    By using words derived from “Slav”, they are demeaning all Slavic people. Quelle horreur!

    1. ambrit

      Well, a lot of that goes back to the original Rus, vikings who traded along the West Asian river systems from the Baltic on down to Constantinople. They established little kingdoms that eventually became a large kingdom. Add in the depredations of the Mongol Hordes back in the 13th Century and you have the subjugation of the Slavs becoming a cultural item.
      Moral of the story: The Russians Did It!
      From the above it can be determined that “slavery” is a core precept of Neo-liberalism.
      [Fun with words!]

  20. ewmayer

    What I want to know is how any of this addresses the structural racism inherent in the system – help, help, I’m being structurally repressed! – which that lifelong hero of the abolition movement Joe Biden has said needs, like, a national conversation, or something.

    1. Kfish

      Hell no. The whole point of this shuffle is to move responsibility from an institution to the (now dead) individuals, as a handy way to avoid looking at the issue as a systemic one. Blame Hamilton, and ignore modern prison labour.

  21. John

    The Schuyler family owned slaves. Elizabeth Schuyler was Hamilton’s wife. She was raised in a household that included slaves. Alexander Hamilton was a member of the manumission society. I think it vanishingly unlikely that he personally owned anyone but himself. The only way I believe you can tag Hamilton as a slaveholder would be via the laws regarding the ownership of property by a married woman at that time and I have no idea nor have I seen evidence that Elizabeth Schuyler brought one or more of the Schuyler slaves with her when she married Hamilton. If such evidence exists, let it be produced.

  22. Michael Fiorillo

    This discussion is all well and good, but do i advertise my wokefulness by speaking positively about the Broadway show, or by attacking it? I’m so confused…

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      This is pure speculation, but I always suspected the play author ran with the undocumented rumor that since Hamilton was born illegitimate in the West Indies he was part black.

      The idea is quite compelling, as it reimages an African American as a leading Founder of the Republic, that is to say an agent in mainstream history, and not simply a sidekick, victim or martyr (Crispus Attucks).

      Well intended, but fast and loose with reality, a morality tale for children, kind of like Washington and the cherry tree. And so the politician and person Hamilton actually was is a little beside the point.

  23. rps

    Dorman says “It is an attempt to personalize the issue.” I’d say its another attempt to control the language- that in turn, controls the conversation. NYT’s farcical agenda is the self promotion of the 1619 revisionist history project and more toppling of statuary.

    1. Mo's Bike Shop

      Yes but, it’s also like convincing people that putting your wrapper in the other bin and using a plastic ‘cloth’ bag will have some effect on a global plastic manufacturing industry. It works.

  24. Jessica

    I am not sure that “enslaved person” is even more accurate than “slave”. “Enslaved person” implies that the status of bondage ended when slavery did (abolition) or when one’s own slavery ended (emancipation, manumission).
    In the US, society treated all African-Americans as a lower caste, tainted by the fact of former slavery, at least into the 1960s. “Enslaved person” actually obscures that fact.
    Concerning the phenomenon of woke language policing, I highly recommend:
    This article explains much better than I can.

    1. fwe'zy

      Speaking as a semi-fallen person, I say that it’s good to recognize the class society we live in. The farther down you go, the worse you’re treated and the less your “voice” matters. I don’t think it’s helpful to shed privilege, and that is my firsthand experience. That’s just another exercise in idpol and fetishizing powerlessness.

      1. hunkerdown

        Agree, privilege shedding isn’t helpful. Its purpose is to prevent people from using their privilege to effect a renegotiation of the class order.

        Immiseration of the masses turns out to not necessarily be revolutionary, if the immiseration can be carefully observed and precisely meted and controlled by elites or their allies. The downward defection of the lower middle class or their resources, however, is a real danger to the order. I suspect that’s where all these NGOs, non-profits and political parties come in, as a sort of charity in effigy that keeps actual resource transfers from affecting the balance of power. Donors may or may not know that. The bigger ones keeping the lights consistently on, probably do. Alms, the oldest phishing equilibrium.

        1. fwe'zy

          Totes my man
          Bigger donors are there for hyper-rational reasons that have little to do with nurturing the commonweal

  25. David in Santa Cruz

    The New York Manumission Society was not an abolitionist organization. More than half of its members were slave owners. They supported a gradual lifting of the bonds of people as property. In a particularly cruel twist, they recommended the freeing of slaves at the age of 45, relieving themselves of the duty to feed and house their slave once he or she could no longer provide productive labor — abandoning that person to fend for him or herself in a hostile society.

    Since a New York slave owner had the power and legal authority to manumit his or her slave in any given moment, wasn’t each moment that he or she failed to do so a new and conscious act of “enslavement” of that person?

  26. H. Alexander Ivey

    enlightened rich person like George Washington could free a few slaves (in his case upon his death)

    How does freeing his slaves show that Washington was enlighten? By showing that he knew he couldn’t take it (slaves were property) with him? Discarding what you can not use does not show enlightenment.

    1. skippy

      So many at mortes door act in desperation after life is spent to rectify life’s balance sheet before judgment.

      GW broke contract with the solider farmers over promises of land to incite them to leave harvests and family to fight a hostile take over of Judiciary rights.

      Its as nuts as Trumps lot losing the plot over having the stocked pond of Conservative Judiciary knock back his submissions and posture about stuff being stolen from him ….

  27. drumlin woodchuckles

    Since these word games are being introduced by the same paper which decided to platform the so-called
    “1619 Project”, I assume the author of these word games and the paper which prints them are pursuing the same bad-faith project which motivated the doing and publishing of the so-called “1619 Project”.

    Since they are acting in bad faith, they deserve responses based on the same sort of bad faith. I am beginning to think that I may respond to words like ” white privilege”, ” enslaver” “enslaved person”, etc. with the following: that is a Cultural Marxist word. Or . . . that is Cultural Marxist terminology. I speak English.
    I don’t speak Cultural Marxist. And I don’t talk to Cultural Marxists.”

    And if that doesn’t shut the bad-faith conversator down, I would just have to start chanting slogans like Cry little ARPOC, the more you cry the more I laugh, etc.

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