Monday, January 05, 2009

Sins of Our Fathers

...Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. (Exodus 34:7)

Several months ago, I caught Traces of the Trade on PBS, a documentary about the descendants of a prominent North American family that, back in the day, made its fortune shipping and selling African slaves. As film goes, the whole thing is hit and miss. It indulges in long, heavy-handed sessions of modern confrontation and reconciliation, and while the accessibility of the various present-day DeWolfs is relatively interesting (why, they look just like my family), there's only so much wallowing in guilt that I really want to see. The lengthy discussions looked too much like half a dozen white folks struggling to find some depth of character. The documentary does establish, however, a fairly innovative and damn interesting historical context. The largest traders in sugar, rum, and forced labor were centered in Bristol, Rhode Island (America's most patriotic town!), and operated with special government dispensation well into the 1800s, well after slavery was officially banned in the state, and well after we normally imagine the peculiar institution to be a strictly southern evil and a strictly southern economic base. I mean, think about it--Rhode Island was a Quaker hotbed of abolitionism. The film documents the attenuated boons that the trade has provided the family in the late generations, some hundred fifty years out. Even if an hour and a half of self-flagellation is too much for you, I still recommend reading PBS's synopsis.

The documentary managed to illustrate the way that slavery fit into the small northern community. The DeWolfs were honored residents of Bristol, philanthropists, men of station, worthwhile citizens, and the reputation passed down through the generations. The presence of Africans in town, according to the film, was surprisingly low-key, but there was plenty of influence--the DeWolfs were traders and sugar magnates, sucking in money from operations in Cuba and customers in the south. And the slave fortune eventually dissolved, but the heirs of it have still done well in the birth lottery, made it as Harvard legacies, and come from of a family tradition of success, measured against good stock. More than a boon to the individual DeWolfs, the trade floated the local economy even for those not directly involved, even for those who objected to the fucking practice. Thanks to the family's filthy enterprise, all sorts of outfitters had jobs, and so did shipbuilders, grocers, construction workers, retailers, and Bristol prospered, owing its collective livlihood to slavery. Did J. Random Cooper love or hate the slave trade for granting him his livlihood? More likely he was just trying to keep up with the property values. But Bristol loved the DeWolfs just fine.

In the engineering community, Rhode Island these days remains a center for ocean and fluid mechanics research. The Navy Undersea Research Center is there, and General Dynamics, builders and designers of fine Navy submarines, keeps half the state, as well as a good chunk of southeastern Connecticut, employed. Slavery ranks up there with the Nazi movement as an example of uncontested nastiness, but it's not hard to extend the thought to other industries. What's defense busy applying itself to these days? Old-moneyed dorks like Tom Friedman may extol the sciences, but if you're ill-disposed to university research, there's not a hell of a lot of alternative funding outside of the defense sector, and even entering the academy your odds of serving it are still pretty high. In the world of contracting, health sciences take a distant second to defense, and the Department of Energy labs are not much differentiated from the contractors anymore. And to be fair, they're just giddy when civilian applications are generated from the effort, and for serving the military, you can get a pretty sweet entrepreneurial deal. Government funding is a business model that ain't entirely broken, at least for applied science, and if you think it's fine to offer a little extra libation to the DoD in exchange for egghead welfare, then it's doing fine indeed. But let's not kid ourselves: the potential to kill or defend is what drives the development. How much defense do we need?

And that's not the only industry that's centrally enhanced. How much power do we really need to grant capital? You will do better than other workers if you're skilled in a challenging field, but Jesus, you still can't do better than your cut-rate simpleton who has his hands on the payroll. The finance industry is absurdly lucrative because that's where the money is, and thanks to policy, it's been that much safer a bet, provided you're deep enough in the game. Investment is a good thing, and opportunities for innovation and ownership are great, but when capital concentrates it has a damnable tendency to keep itself in the in-club over the generations, and iniquity seems to be the usual historical course.*

It would have been nice to see working people benefit more from the recent boom, but wages pretty much crapped out in the midst of the valuation balloon, but there's another unpleasant truth here too: the whole American economy tends to ride just a little bit high. The macroeconomic balance begins to address this global inequality a little--we've been consuming a whole lot more than we produce for a while now--but there's more than that. The American economy has often grown at the expanse of injustice to others, and you can quibble about how the tide affects the boats, but have you looked what you're floating on? In our case, the idea of the inviolability of American capital seems to be contemporary with its seizure (but we're a young country and all of our atrocities are relatively recent). I'd rather leave the important discussion of the precise timing of individualism, classical economics and colonialism to better historical minds (these things are all roughly simultaneous in my cartoon brain), but it's hard to deny that slavery and genocide really got us that leg up. In an otherwise reasonable economics discussion, Charles Wheelan has ascribed the woes of the third world to craptastic government policies--which they no doubt have--but that's not why they suck. They were on the losing side of slavery, colonialism and military-industrial complexes two centuries ago. You don't break into the top tier overnight.

I'm sure that many a crafty preacher has woven a fine sermon around the biblical passage. The most charitable analysis I can think of would require that worldly success is trumped by supernatural disapproval, which seems to fit a Christian message well enough. After all, sin at a big scale has often made the generations stinkin' rich, and just ask the DeWolfs for starters. It's difficult, at least for me, to picture the many mechanisms of how rational individual decisions can result in a collective political evil (or good), although it's not hard to accept that they do. Unfortunately, I have fuckall of an idea what to do about any of it, but if it wasn't a hard question, if it would ride on any number of convenient approximations, and the economists, sociologists and politicians paid to ponder it would earn no respect. It's an easier ride for Americans than for a lot of other people, and if that's not really fair, it's not like very many of us has the luxury to quit.

*I'm really sorry for this post, by the way--I keep bumping into radicalism from every angle, and I swear it's not my fault. I didn't expect, for example, that Neil Peart's favorite author would be a hardcore communist sympathizer. I'm not clear how much Dos Passos documented his late-life conservative turn--I suspect it had something to do with how those workers' revolutions actually turned out.


Artemesia said...

Was just able to get in! I wonder how many British families owe theirs$ to the opium trade? The Kennedys owe theirs to rum and smuggling. And who was it harvesting the cane for the rum? Chains of infamy lead wherever many great fortunes were made..Nobel? Bombs into plowshares..

When my son was in the Navy he was stationed at the War College in R.I. Lots of international traffic went on there. And all those 'cottages' still there from the robber barons..An interesting State. Immigrants, diplomats and ministers..

Happy New Year! I can't believe I cracked the entrance to your Blog!

Keifus said...

Thanks! It's alarming to think that either of my readers would be excluded from commenting here. Happy new year.

I suppose any country's navy gets associated with its seaports, especially its historic ones. But our navy sure does have a lot of cash.

New England has a blue collar and a Puritan tradition, but there's a lot of old money too. Yep, it's weird when they get close.

(I wonder if it's possible to make an honest living anywhere. )


Archaeopteryx said...

So...I was attending to my morning toilette the other day, and happened to look down at the tag in my pajamas. "Made in Cambodia." It struck me that some eight-year-old had made 3 cents for sewing together the PJs that I had bought for 10 bucks at Target.

Then, you know, I had a bagel and drove my SUV to work.

James said...

Keifus, I'm one of the ten DeWolf descendants who appear in the documentary, and I just want to say that I think you've written a terrific entry here on the film and the implications of its history.

As far as I'm concerned, the interesting issues the film raises are precisely those you've identified: the historical context, the economic interconnections, the difficult questions about how people were able to justify their complicity in the trade, and the parallels to modern practices.

Of particular importance, I think, is your observation that "slavery and genocide really got us that leg up." While it's mildly interesting that my family was, two centuries ago, wealthy due to the slave trade, I think it's tremendously significant for our society that we enjoy today the fruits of slavery and other evils. It helps put our high standard of living into perspective, and can grant us at least a humility about what we as Americans enjoy in the world today.

It seems that different people really take different messages from the film. Some of our audiences, for instance, are especially moved by the scenes dwelling on the psychological implications for some white Americans today, and fail to take away much at all from the film's broader historical and economic material. I suspect that these are, in many cases, people who have some of these psychological issues with race themselves, and "Traces of the Trade" seems to be well-designed to have a lasting impact on them.

For me, however, the issues raised by our journey across the route of the triangle trade were different. So I'm always glad to see someone for whom the historical and economic themes of the film resonate so strongly.

Keifus said...

Hi James, thanks for reading. Sorry the post wasn't one of my better-written ones, and sorry I didn't find all the aspects of the film more compelling. I certainly respect the effort to make a trip like that. Amazing really.

It's not always easy to see how policy makes chunks of the economy wealthy or unequal, or more basically, to get a feel for the mechanisms of collective behavior, and understanding about these things influence so much of what happens to people. (I posit that this understanding is typically bad.) Been thinking a great deal about my role in the defense industry, and the ridiculous way that the oddly-regulated finance has shaken out. It's not helped that these discussions are usually hijacked by interested and lazy idealogues. It's not helped that even for the most of us here that have it easier, it's still not easy.

Arch: so long as you used your credit card to buy any of those things, you're helping America keep its real value-added advantage.

Artemesia said...

Perhaps an extreme comment here..But I think: That 'economics' is a blanket word that koshers what makes the wheels of commerce run. I think our economy is now balanced precariously, precisely because of 'slavery' in a new dress..We have had decades of what I will call Corporate Feudalism..The Knights have received their golden stallion parachutes/bonuses in the $millions, shareholders (Fief Keepers) getting trickle down largess..and the 'workers,' salaries shrinking but giving the workers their survival $ take for labor unless they were lucky enough to be Union members..And, with labor from overseas that IS in many instances, slave wage..or actually slave driven, no child labor laws,etc.. indentured families in some of those cultures..America, America..
We have been the New Rome, seeding our coffers with our preemptive incursions into other countries as a new form of our 'Monroe Doctrine,' supporting Dictators and or other puppets who support 'New Rome.'We live in a society that doesn't care where the money or the labor comes from. The mines in Appalachia are still unsafe, only noticed when there is a cave in or exposion; then, concern recedes soon after. No one likes to look under the rock they are sitting on..or how their pedestals were built.

Thomas Paine said...

Interesting comments on the extent to which the present-day wealth of our country, as well as Europe etc was built on the exploitation of others.

Perhaps I am just becoming more radicalized in my old age, but I increasingly see capital in large part as the fruits of past exploitation, as well as the means for current and future exploitation.

James said...

Keifus, I'm glad that you didn't find all aspects of the film compelling. It adds to the authenticity of the praise you do offer for what we accomplished, and no one finds all of the film's themes to be equally relevant and useful to them.

Artemesia, I think it's safe to say that few societies "care where the money or the labor comes from." It isn't something that most of us want to think about, even if we're inclined to care. This is how virtually all members of U.S. society two centuries ago could go along with slavery, enjoying its benefits and not speaking up. It's also how the important issues you raise about our contemporary economy are often danced around, but rarely confronted directly and in a sustained way.

Thomas Paine, it's astonishing how much, according to economists, of present wealth is the result of past wealth (compared to hard work, skill, or luck). The advantages of inherited wealth to individuals and business enterprises constitute much of what allows further wealth generation. I think this is precisely why history is so important to understanding the present, and to maintaining a sense of modesty and fair play in how we look at ourselves and those around us.

Keifus said...

Artemesia, I think that we people have an obligation to study human behavior in these (and other) matters and if we don't call it "economics" then we'd have to think of another word.

But it's not rare for science to get coopted by interests, and economics isn't quite as concrete as the physical sciences, and everyone wants their quest for wealth justified. In the past ten years, we're looking at stagnant wages (but easy credit) even as the economy did well. We got sold policies of "free" markets (which are really just another set of regulations--good take on that here) and "strong" dollars (even though a dollar probably represents less production than advertised) which convenienty made a small class of people a lot richer.

And it's hard to see different property rights (ultimately defined by the market rules) as equal in power: land rents are at one pole (generally including an extremely convenient "starting" clause, c.f.) and singular objects made by an individual's hands at the other. Wages for labor, unique designs and ideas, and rents on excess capital show up at various points in between I guess. Capital as $$ is exchangable for any of 'em, but it's very difficult to obtain the high-power versions by just selling your labor or your creative work, and owners of concentrated capital have no wish to make it any easier. I'm more than a little under-read on the fundamental sources here though, and frequently it occurs to me that I should understand this much better before I go spouting about it, but there you go. (A lengthy comment buried in here too, btw--and I really needed to get a lot of work done today).

So I think corporate feudalism is the trend anyway and just like everyone, I would prefer to see more of those boons more fairly spread according to actual contribution (and with the least up-top involvement possible--and it's funny that I'm fairly sure my Dad, for example, agrees, and he thinks he holds a conservative view).

And no, we didn't just end up on top thanks only to our awesome ingenuity, either.

(So much more strident than I want to be.)