July 13, 2010

Dave's interview with Mogens Skjolt

I'm posting this in the hope that you go and look at the rest of the interview. Its a really good piece of work by Dave Cole, Dave is a longstanding friend of this blog, his blog is one of the most inciteful around and he has recently started his own youtube channel (available through this video) which is mainly filled with Dave's ruminations about politics. This is a fantastically interesting interview with a former Danish resistance fighter: its worth watching in its entirity (three more videos after this one)- one of the best things about Dave is that he just lets Mogens Skjolt just tell his story, using questions to make sure the story is clear but otherwise letting the subject take control of the interview completely. Its a wonderful interview both because of the subject matter and the person interviewed, but also because of the style in which it is done.

July 12, 2010

Slavery and Democracy

Gordon Wood, in his recent history of the American revolution, makes an important point about servants in the United States. White servants in the United States had a reputation for being useless, they ran away, they went to the master who paid best and they felt no sense of noblesse oblige. He links this to an overwhelming sense in America during the early 19th Century that liberty and equality should overcome traditional distinctions. He also implies though that there was something more to this equality and liberty: something denoted by this speech from an American serving woman to a foreign visitor: "I'll have you know man that I am no sarvant, none but negers are sarvants." The distinction between slavery and servanthood and freedom had obviously become overlain with a racial distinction in her mind: this was not uncommon in early America. Race played a crucial part in the creation of democracy- both in obvious ways in that it allowed a faction of the gentry from the south to lead the revolutionary charge, because such a charge would never imperill their position as slave owning aristocrats, but also because at a deeper level it allowed all Americans to assert that they were alike and there was a population who was other to them, the black slaves.

The nineteenth century, if I can speculate a bit more, often saw this kind of division fusing a new democracy together. Robert Lowe commented in the English debates over reform about the lack of respect for rank in his native Australia where no doubt similar issues were true. Immigrant societies were also societies where rank was difficult to assert (Wood has some fantastic examples)- John Adams the President might consider himself an aristocrat, but if so he was that contradiction in terms, a self taught aristocrat. The simple exclusion of blacks from civic life and the racial overtones of that exclusion must have armed poorer whites with a certainty that they, unlike the "negers" were free. One of the most interesting issues at the heart of American history has to be why the South was able to fight in the 1860s: again I'm guessing but I wonder whether alongside the ranchers who came out to fight in order to save their property, there were whites who came out to fight to save themselves from merging into a population of servants. If you see, to take the woman's words, there were no slaves- then she, as a servant, would indeed be a servant, the lowest of the low. The fact that there were slaves below her both gave her the confidence to assert her equality and also may have led some to believe that the institution needed preserving so they could assert their equality.

History works in ironies rather than in pleasing statements and the issue of slavery in the US and its affect on politics during the post revolutionary period is unendingly complex: slavery sustained the south, the suffering of slaves calls into question the acheivements of the founders and of America itself. As a historian, looking dispassionately if such a thing is possible, slavery gave a character to the politics of the US. It is instructional to think that democracy before the twentieth centuries originated in societies with slavery: Athens, Rome, the Americas. In all of them one wonders whether, just as in Sparta where equality was sustained by a hatred of the oppressed helots, equality and democracy were supported because a group was left outside of both. In that sense modern democracies which have a rhetorical commitment to complete equality are more unique than possibly any of us imagine.