Thursday, 13 March 2008

Liverpool gets to me

Liverpool is a building site, much of the building being at sea level. Pity it will be submerged in 50 years, at the rate we are going in melting the polar ice with our not-so-clever, climate-wrecking inventions. The city is also the home of the International Slavery Museum which I visited last Sunday. I particularly remember an engraving of a scene in which a man is branding a woman captive with a hot iron. She twists to look up at him in terror and bewilderment, as animals also do, when people are cruel to them. There was also movie footage of a man being hanged by a lynch mob in the American South in order to maintain a reign of terror. I learned, too, that in at least one State of the American South a law was passed making it a crime to teach any negro to read and write. Later the US Supreme Court ruled that black people could not be citizens of the United States.
In retrospect all this solemn jurisprudence looks barmy. I muse upon the shamefulness of the legal system. How did the common law ever entertain the notion that a human being could be property that could be bought and sold? All too easily. All you need is a system of rules in which someone stretches the concept of a "chattel" a little. From that flows the idea that one man can have the right to buy, sell, punish or destroy another. Slavery itself had been around since ancient times, well entrenched in other cultures (Roman and Islamic for instance) but not in the common law. In the common law it started with indentured labour, where individuals would buy their passage to the New World by promising to work for a specified number of years when they got there. But it could not have developed into the elaborate system of rules that sustained the trade in human captives without the fiction of racial superiority. That, the fiction went, made it okay for people to brand, torture and kill people. Laws arrived by rigorous reasoning at outrageous conclusions because they were based on assumptions that no decent society should ever have entertained.
No amount of elegant reasoning will stop some ideas from being an abomination. We pass laws banning the causing of unnecessary suffering, but I think in time future generations will look in amazement at the disgusting intensive farming methods that inflict misery on our sentient fellow creatures, which we can see are a moral outrage if we exercise our critical faculties for five seconds, and wonder how this could ever have been condoned.

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