Slavery and Freedom

“Lot ninety-seven,” the auctioneer announced.  “A boy.”  The boy was dizzy and half sick from the feel of the ground underfoot.  The slave ship had come more than forty light years; it carried in its holds the stink of all slave ships, a reek of crowded, unwashed bodies, of fear, and vomit and ancient grief. 

This is the opening to Robert A. Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy.

"Slavery and freedom" is a thread that runs through Heinlein’s work, sometimes openly, sometimes unobtrusively, and sometimes as a point of character development, but I can think of only two of his books that have a slave main character.  Both (all of his books, really) are dangerous books, particularly dangerous to today’s ethos of “victimhood makes you valued.”

Sure that opening grips, but at least if you are my young self when I first encountered the story, you read it not so much for the boy, but for the intriguing figure of the maimed beggar who buys the boy and eventually sets him free, not just of the chains of legal slavery but the chains on his mind, the ones that make him truly a slave.

There is never a hint that having been a slave makes the character noble, though there is a feeling of repulsion and disgust at the institution of slavery.  And opprobrium and disgust at those who engage in the trade.

The slavery of Citizen of the Galaxy is “traditional slavery” — the original sin of mankind, of making chattel out of our fellow humans and trading them and using them as objects.  It’s existed since the world was world, and been present in every civilization in the world.

The other slave character is of course Friday.  That is a different kind of slavery, though ultimately the same.  The character is a futuristic human, a created person — “my father was a knife, my mother was a test tube” as is said in the novel — an enhanced person, but for all that one who considers herself inferior to “natural born humans” partly because that’s how she was raised: to believe the artificiality of her birth made her a chattel and not really human.

Both Thorby, the character of Citizen of the Galaxy, and Friday (or Marjorie) the character of Friday, eventually set themselves free.  Thorby becomes a slave-hunter and uses his considerable wealth, to the extent he can (being chained by profit and investors and other such considerations), to fight slavery.  Friday’s past makes her freedom look more like “normal” settled life as a farmer’s wife on a colony planet.

But the important thing is that from the moment they reject the chains that make them slaves in their own minds, they both become truly interesting characters, and you get the sense that they’d succeed at whatever they really wanted to do.

Until that moment, though, they get pushed by fate, even after they are legally free.  Perhaps worse when they are legally free.

So why do I call these books dangerous?  Doesn’t every right thinking person abhor slavery and wish to make sure that ancient stain on the character of humanity is gone from the world (as it’s not yet, particularly in Africa) and viewed by all as the true horror it was?

Oh, you only wish it were so.

There are academics and victimhood peddlers who are very much invested not just in keeping the idea of slavery alive forever, but in keeping the descendants of (recent, American) slaves enslaved forever where it counts: in their heads.

In recent months I’ve run across the insane idea that slavery in the Americas was unique and uniquely racist; the idea that white people invented slavery to enslave black people; and the idea that claiming anyone else, at any time was equally enslaved and demeaned is racist.

If this completely puzzles you, given that “slave” comes from Slav, an entire people enslaved before there was anyone sailing to Africa, rest assured that the advocates of “real slavery was only present in the Americas; it was born of race hatred, and the only reason you could suggest slavery has nothing to do with race in general is because you’re a white supremacist” have workarounds.

It might amuse you that their workarounds are predicted in Citizen of the Galaxy (and possibly existed in academic circles in Heinlein’s time) by saying that it wasn’t the same kind of slavery; that it was a cultural slavery; that it wasn’t right to call the slaves slaves because it was more like a caste in society.

To those people I respond as Thorby did: if you can be bought and sold and traded as a commodity, you are a slave.  Slavery is slavery.  It wasn’t invented by white Americans, and frankly, I don’t think anyone gave much thought to the skin color of the people enslaved, not until it became the “expected” thing.  The white Americans of colonial America, far better educated in history and civics than their descendants, knew that Romans had slaves; that Roman slaves either looked much like their masters or were blond; and that a slave was a slave, whatever his skin color.  They also knew there had been a thread of existing slavery throughout history, from earliest documented times, to the Middle Ages, to their present time.  In fact, in the Iberian Peninsula of my ancestors, during the Moorish occupation/Reconquista, Moors and Christians raided each other across the border even though both sides were of Mediterranean ancestry and probably looked pretty much alike.

Colonials enslaved black people because black people were available, being enthusiastically traded by North African/Moorish slavers and later on by tribes like the Dahomey (and the ones sold to Europe/the Americas were the lucky ones since the Dahomey were as human sacrifice-happy as the Aztecs). Early on, they enslaved others, if not in paperwork, in reality.  There was the skeleton found some years ago during the remodeling of an old house in New England, which appeared to be of an indigent teen girl who as far as they could trace had been brought from England as a sort of chattel/slave and who had died or been killed and buried between the floors of the house, without anyone asking or caring about her.  She might not have been bought or sold officially (though it wouldn’t be strange if her “indenture” was traded back and forth), but she was in no more control of her life, nor treated more as a real human being, than any slave.  It’s a semantic distinction without a difference.

But to the people who hope to profit from enslaving the minds of others, it’s very important to keep those whose ancestors were enslaved in the Americas believing that their fate was uniquely bad and that it was racially motivated.

This belief keeps them convinced that it’s impossible for them to be the equal of anyone else, or to succeed just as well as any fresh immigrant to this country.  If their ancestors were the only ones uniquely enslaved in such a horrible way, then there must be psychic scars that remain in their minds.  And if their ancestors were enslaved for the color of their skin, then everyone of another color must still consider them inferior and be plotting how to enslave them again.

This is the only thing that explains why every so often – most notably on "The View" during the Romney candidacy – a wildly successful black American will act like every white person – including those whose ancestors were nowhere near here before the civil war – must be plotting to enslave them again.

In fact, as Heinlein more than makes clear, slavery is a universal human sin.  It has existed since there has been humanity, and since there’s been the possibility of keeping other humans in subjection and forcing them to do work no one else wants to do.

In the U.S. it was from independence (at least, and probably before) a contentious institution, first because Christianity opposed it, and second because a land devoted to liberty and the equality of all men before the law was, of necessity, not well suited to having slaves.

I think what has finally freed us of it is not our superior enlightenment as a civilization, but the industrial revolution, which makes it uneconomic to keep human beings enslaved for unsavory or annoying tasks, and therefore allows the Western repugnance for the institution to flourish.

But keeping people in ignorance of this, and convincing them that uniquely evil people (or a different color) enslaved their ancestors for their skin color, makes it possible for their descendants to feel they, uniquely, are victims of history, and therefore powerless to make their way, to make themselves free.

In both of Heinlein’s novels dealing with slavery, the characters finally feel themselves to be free when they realize they are the same as other humans: whatever their history or their mode of birth, they’re just humans like everyone else.  Their freedom and their achievements, from then on, depend on themselves alone, and they can’t be enslaved again.  No matter how many circumstances are against them, or what others think of them, they are free.

This is a dangerous message.  It’s the message encapsulated in one of Heinlein’s other quotes as “You can’t enslave a free man.  You can only kill him.”

Once you realize any power exerted over your freedom is illegitimate, you are free.  And yes, Heinlein’s stories can make you realize that.

They are therefore dangerous to the peddlers of victimhood, who would enslave the minds of others for their tawdry (mostly political) gain.

For that reason alone — beyond the fact that they are enjoyable — they are worth reading and re-reading.

They upset all the right people and arm the reader with the intellectual weapons to counter some of the most poisonous lies of politics.

Keep reading.