Homo Homini Lupus – Man A Wolf Upon Man

Earlier this month, Sebastian visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. This is the first of two articles prompted by this visit.

SWuepper LFH Article Picture

 

The room is bathed in red light. It is quite the experience, walking in, from the otherwise well-lit areas of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois . The difference in lighting is the first, striking thing about this room. It announces that something here is different. Bad. Evil, even. A living nightmare.

Then there are the mannequins. Three of them representing African-American slaves, three representing white slavers. What is shown in this room is a slave auction, where, dramatically lit, a black mother and father are torn away from each other and their child. Drawn away by grotesque figures. The slaves are clearly and strongly humanized, their expressions display anguish and despair. The slavers however are like creatures from a horror film. This is mostly due to the way the room is lit – the slave auctioneer mannequin is lit from below, like a purveyor of scary stories around a campfire, in a slightly different shade of red, adding to his utterly ghoulish appearance. The slavers’ inhuman acts are represented as the acts of people who have forgone their humanity, who are no longer among the human family, if they ever were to begin with.

And that is a problem. However, this is not an argument against the dehumanization of those guilty of inhuman acts, lest one was to become inhuman oneself in the process of doing so. Instead, I argue for a harsh lesson of history, which is that people are complicated and capable of seemingly inhuman thoughts and actions. But portraying people guilty of these things as outside of humanity obscures just this. Evil deeds are not committed by monsters. They are committed by people. And like the black slaves, the white slavers, the so called “slave masters”, were just that. People. Human beings. By portraying them as inhuman, the inhumanity of their acts and thoughts and deeds is more obscured than it is revealed.

I grew up in West Germany. The countrymen and -women of my generation all shared lessons and lectures throughout our years of education that people are capable of horrible things. My grandparents’ generation was guilty, is guilty, of some of the worst crimes humans can be guilty of towards other humans. But this does not make them monsters. Because that would be too easy. The Nazis, the members of the National Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, were not monsters. They were small, oftentimes boringly ordinary men and women, who allowed their own seduction by a powerful and dangerous ideology. And then they allowed this ideology to seduce them further into the committing, helping with or tacit agreement to inhuman acts. But, the important lesson here is none of this made them less human.

Again, I am not arguing for the humanity of monsters. I am arguing for an understanding of the monstrous capacity in every single one of us. The Nazis were just as human as their victims. The same thing goes for the slavers and theirs. It is too easy to let these people, in the past and in the present, off the hook by denying them their humanity. Because if we do that, we allow to buy into several, dangerous arguments. First, if they were intrinsically monstrous, then committing monstrous acts would be perfectly in their nature. One might even argue that they couldn’t have acted any other way. What’s a monster to do? Not act like one? It is in the scorpion’s nature to sting. The other implicit argument that is inherent in this specific kind of othering is more insidious.

If the perpetrators of crimes against humanity are denied their own, it makes those left behind blind to the dangers that are inherent in humanity itself while watching out for the proverbial wolves at the door. The call is coming from inside the human family. The most important lesson about the Nazis, about the Khmer Rouge, the American slavers, the Ku Klux Klan, is that all those people were that: people. Not monsters. Not some creatures that stand outside of humanity. They were of us. Are of us. Why is this important?

Because by denying them humanity, by making them more than human (or less than human), we deny responsibility. If only monsters are capable of monstrosities, then all of us are safe for as long as we cannot see any actual monsters around. But, and this is the lesson thirteen years of primary and secondary education in West-Germany have given me, this is an illusion. It was not inhuman monsters that appeared from somewhere beyond who murdered six million Jews in corpse factories in Eastern Europe. It was not inhuman creatures from hell who enslaved thirteen million Africans in the quest for profit. It was people. Human beings. Ancestors, relatives, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sons, daughters.

By accepting this, by embracing this ugly and harsh truth, we can make the world safer. Because by embracing this, by accepting that evil is indeed, and here is the inevitable Hannah Arendt reference any piece like this requires, banal, we can guard against it. We, you, me, everyone around us, can under certain circumstances allow ourselves being seduced by dangerous and powerful ideologies, which could make us act out inhuman deeds towards our fellow men and women. The monsters are people. The wolves at the door are not animals, but human. My grandparent’s generation was guilty of the mass murder of Europe’s Jewry. This country’s forefathers are guilty of the enslavement of untold numbers of Africans and the murder of equally untold numbers of Native Americans. They were not monsters, they were not outside of humanity, but part of it.

And that is what the slave auction display obscures. The slavers, here, are monsters. Inhuman. Outside of humanity, not a part of it. They are nobody’s relatives or ancestors, they are just a thing that happened, a faceless monstrosity that crawled out the depths of the abyss of history to impose their inhumanity on people of African descent in America.

And they are of the past, the monsters were beaten and everyone is safe now. Any superficial perusal of the news in the recent months and years should teach us different. And much like many bad, contemporary portrayals of Nazis have them appear as inhuman monsters, often lacking the mental capacities to comprehend the vileness of their actions. This, too, obscures. It obscures that indeed many ordinary people of above average intelligence ascribed to the Nazi creed. It was indeed not only dumb brutes who joined the ranks of the Nazi Party, but human beings from all parts of society.

As historians it is our duty to prevent such obscurities. We must not ever shy away from the harsh and ugly truths, from the skeletons hidden in our closets or dangling from our family trees. We must not allow these obscurities to happen, we must not corral the ones guilty of monstrous crimes against our own off outside the human family, even if we have good reasons to do so. Maybe to spare current generations the shame and guilt and pain of such gruesome pasts. Maybe because we ourselves are afraid of what facing these realities might mean to our own sense of what it means to be human. Whatever the reasons for embracing such an obscuring, with it we do all of humanity a disservice. We blind ourselves from the dangerous realities we, us, human beings, are capable of conjuring up through thoughts and deeds. If we allow people to believe that monstrous acts will only ever be committed by monsters, and that these monsters were defeated in the past, never to return, then those among us capable of atrocities will walk unnoticed. Because they are people, because they are human, because they are someone’s relative, someone’s friend. Human beings. If we cannot see that among the multitudes we contain there are also some that are bad, some that are evil even, then we are blind and in danger of allowing more atrocities like those of the past to happen again and again. The truth is harsh, and not always pleasant. But it inoculates. And it teaches what it means to be human, and that being human can indeed sometimes be a bad thing. Man was, is, and can in the future be a wolf upon man.

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Review of Avengers of the New World by Laurent Dubois

LAURENT DUBOIS. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, York: The Dial Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 357. $17.95.

Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (... Cover Art

Avengers of the New World is the first book written by Laurent Dubois, the historian, anthropologist, and literary scholar of France, the French Atlantic, and the Caribbean. Dubois wrote Avengers as a new history of the Haitian revolution (1791-1804), updating the anticolonial work of the Caribbean scholar C.L.R. James with Atlantic and African scholarship and social and cultural methodologies. Whereas James tended to “essentialize the differences” between groups within San Domingo, and focus on defending the actions of black revolutionaries and condemning those of planters from within a racialized discourse, Dubois is interested in creating an understanding of the revolution’s wider context within the “Age of Revolutions.” Although his book lacks the passion, verve, and spontaneous philosophical insight that characterized The Black Jacobins, it succeeds at drawing a more holistic portrait of the transatlantic republican forces that contributed not only to the “crucial moment” of the Haitian revolution, but to “the overall destruction of slavery in the Americas,” and to our ongoing battle for global democracy and human rights.

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Review of The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker

MARCUS REDIKER. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking Press, 2007. Pp. 434. $27.95.

Introduction:

Slave Ship Book Cover

The Slave Ship is the fourth book written by Marcus Rediker, a prize-winning American historian of the early-modern era and the Atlantic world and a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Through evocative language, fluid narration, poignant imagery, dramatic vignettes, diverse sources, dynamic characters, and bold statistics, Rediker synthesizes the violent nature of the Anglo-American slave trade during its so-called Golden Age, from 1700-1808, for common readership. Like Walter Johnson’s multi-perspective approach to the American interstate trade in Soul by Soul, Rediker captures the phenomenon of the transatlantic trade from the perspectives of its many, diverse participants: merchants, underwriters, captains and officers, seaman, slaves, and agitators. At the core of this visceral, conceptual history is a special focus on the gruesome yet calculated “hardware of bondage,” most aptly characterized by that “vast and diabolical machine,” the Guineaman slaver. To borrow a metaphor used elsewhere by Walter Rodney, although The Slave Ship offers very little new information, the book presents one of the first nuanced and comprehensive portrayals of the Atlantic slave trade as “capitalism without a loincloth.” It not only reminds us that “violence and terror were central to the Atlantic economy.” It shows us, time and time again.

Sources:

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Review of Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams

ERIC WILLIAMS. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944. Pp. ix, 245. $29.95.

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Capitalism and Slavery is the first and most important work by the late Trinidadian scholar and statesman, Eric Eustace Williams. Based on a dissertation written at the University of Oxford in 1938, entitled “The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the British West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery,” the work is an “economic study of the role of Negro slavery and the slave trade in providing the capital which financed the industrial revolution in England and of mature industrial capitalism [eventually] destroying the slave system.” More generally, the book documents the historical shift of Britain’s political economy from monopolistic commercial mercantilism based on tropical, Caribbean islands with black-plantation slavery to laissez faire commercial capitalism based on white free-labor factories in temperate, Continental regions. In doing so, it challenges one-hundred years of British imperial historiography by making the controversial argument that the causes of abolition and emancipation were economic, not humanitarian. Although too cynical in its conclusions, and slightly contrived in its teleology, Capitalism and Slavery is one of the most effective, creative, powerful, and influential history books that has ever been written.

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Vengeance and History in Django Unchained

This is one of two reviews of “Django Unchained” by Lakefront Historian bloggers. See also ajdilorenzo’s post on the film.

 

Who would guess that in the past year two of the most talked about movies would be on the topic of American slavery? If you have not noticed yet Lincoln and Django Unchained deal with the history of slavery very differently. Some Americans, interestingly a select few African Americans, have decried the film as irreverent in its revisionism of slavery or paradoxically for its use of the “n-word”. I suggest that the film memorably revises the remembrance of slavery and, in particular, plays to the emotions of modern descendants of enslaved people.

American slavery remains as a stain on our history, one of its greatest philosophical hypocrisies. Slavery for many contemporary Americans is widely considered immoral and shameful yet socially irrelevant in our daily lives today. On the other hand, bring up slavery with an African American and you may get reaction ranging from ambivalence to anger to, more insidiously, shame. What Quentin Tarantino really does with his film is counteract the shame or guilt that occurs when someone asks: ‘why didn’t they fight?’ or ‘why didn’t we fight back?’ when referring to slaves. In fact, Tarantino includes that theme in his dialogue. The character Django is not the slave who is simply worked, branded, sold, and tortured (even though all of those things happen to him); he is the symbol of retribution and the Black hero who independently delivers his bloody judgment on the institution of slavery. Django is the answer to the question, at least in fantasy.

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Civility and Savagery in Django Unchained

This is one of two reviews of “Django Unchained” by Lakefront Historian bloggers. See also Courtney Baxter’s post on the film. 

In the wake of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western inspired take on antebellum American slavery Django Unchained risked misinterpretation of its tone and message. Throughout the film, however, Tarantino deftly strikes the right balance between genre bending playfulness and respect for the weighty subject matter. Like his last film Inglorious Bastards, Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy, empowering an oppressed group against powerful enemies. Taking on two of the darkest chapters in human history, the holocaust and racial slavery, while maintaining his slick sense of humor and film geek B-movie references seems a recipe doomed to trivialize and offend. Yet somehow Tarantino pulls it off.ImageImage

For the record, I have never been as enamored with his work as others. Prior to Inglorious Bastards, I respected his craftsmanship and flare for dialogue, but his movies always seemed hyper referential and lacking in authenticity. It is often difficult to tell where the film geek allusions and homages end and Quentin the auteur begins. His breakthrough film Pulp Fiction, while bursting with style, offered few genuine insights or emotional depth. The promise of this recent turn toward historical (or counter-historical) subject matter is that he has found a way to employ his talent for subverting genre as a means to analyze the process of historical memory. For better or for worse, the movies have become probably the most powerful medium for the transmission of historical knowledge. There have been plenty of films that have focused on the Civil War, but few have  engaged with the savagery of slavery in an immediate way. In Django Unchained Tarantino seems to be saying, “why not remember it this way?” But the key to the success of this approach is that he delivers a serious counter-narrative within the guise of a celebrated and seemingly benign genre, the spaghetti western.

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Lincoln Review: Rachel Boyle

In this five-part series, Lakefront Historian contributors respond to the critically acclaimed blockbuster Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis.

Spielberg’s Lincoln

The opening shots were so promising.  A pan of Civil War carnage preceded any mention of Abraham Lincoln.  African American soldiers stood before The Great Emancipator and called him to task on the problem of wage inequality.  Then Lincoln subdued them with a charming anecdote, thus setting the tone of the rest of the film.  In the subsequent two and half hours, a thoroughly endearing Abe ambled through a world of rhetorical and ethical dilemmas, mesmerizing everyone with his storytelling and lawyering skills.  Indeed, Spielberg’s Lincoln succeeded as a comedic drama of white politicians debating slavery while effectively silencing other nineteenth century voices.

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Re-envisioning Historic Fort Snelling: Confessions of a Fort Employee

I wake up most mornings thrilled to go to work. I relish the rare opportunity to engage in positive dialogue with the public about critical themes in Minnesota and United States history. On a daily basis I participate in open conversations about class, slavery, and American Indian history. I feel continually supported by a remarkably amicable staff and refreshingly thoughtful and efficient supervisors. Considering the many museums and historic sites still reveling in nostalgia and Great Man history, I truly value the opportunity to practice public history at Historic Fort Snelling. Not to mention my sheer enjoyment of hearth cooking or playing nineteenth century games with children.

All the fantastic aspects of employment at Historic Fort Snelling tend to overshadow the occasional discomforts: the offhanded racist comment of a guest; the low traffic in Dred Scott Space or Indian Agency compared to the overwhelming popularity of the infantry and artillery drills; enthusiastic youth marching and shooting imaginary guns. Perhaps these are just the unfortunate realities of interacting with the public.

A recent experience, however, put my discomforts into sharp relief. While stationed in the Indian Agency I observed a visitor who appeared to me to be American Indian. As he exited the space he turned to his companion and stated matter-of-factly, “there is a lot of evil in this room.” Continue reading “Re-envisioning Historic Fort Snelling: Confessions of a Fort Employee”