I’ve been reading through a lot of back issues of the Journal of American History lately, while I eagerly anticipate the arrival of the newest one in the mail. (I’m a nerd, it’s true.) The article I’m currently reading (“Beyond Freedom and Slavery” in vol. 89, no. 4) is about the conceptualization of slavery in early America, both pre- and post-revolution – i.e., how could those Founding Fathers have justified their yammering about freedom and democracy while they owned slaves and were dependent on their labor? The author, Francois Furstenberg, posits that while slavery was indeed viewed as a horrible condition by Washington et. al., to the point where they used rhetoric about being enslaved to justify their revolt against the British, they were A-OK with having African slaves due to the lack of organized, widespread slave revolts. If the slaves were not fighting to the death for their freedoms like the colonists had, they had obviously chosen to be enslaved. (This view, of course, ignores the fact that there were many slaves who chose to defy their masters in ways both obvious and sneaky, but it’s no surprise that the wealthy white architects of the new Republic would look the other way when their slaves’ supposed passivity justified what would have otherwise been a glaring contradiction in their rhetoric about freedom and equality.) Furstenberg quotes a 1761 Massachusetts author who states that “They, who are willing to be made slaves and to lose their rights…without one struggle, justly deserve the miseries and insults an imperious despot can put upon them.” Freedom was not a right, but something earned through personal struggle. If someone was a slave, it was doubtless due to a failing of character, rather than outside circumstances.

These words kept coming back into my head while I was doing a little reading on the pirates operating off the coast of Somalia. Canadian-Somali singer and activist K’naan wrote an article a while ago for Huffington Post, explaining why the pirates are not universally condemned in Somalia. I’d encourage everyone to just go and read it, but if you want the bullet-points version: yes, the pirates are hardly altruists, but the reason they hopped on those boats in the first place was European companies thinking that the Somali coast was a dandy place to be dumping toxic chemicals. After a tsunami washed several containers ashore, locals began experiencing symptoms straight out of a B-grade horror movie (skin melting off, stomach bleeding), and took to the seas to prevent more of that shit from being merrily poured into their waters. They may be raiding ships for money, but at least there’s not so much toxic crap being washed ashore. Want to stop the pirates? Provide some assurance that, once they’re gone, the Somalians won’t get (literally) dumped on by moneyed Westerners who just can’t be bothered to properly deal with their toxic sludge.

The comments contain any number of Americans huffily declaring shit along the lines of “blah blah blah, those people blame the West for everything” and “a few bad acts don’t justify piracy” and “if they really wanted this problem stopped they would have a functioning government.” I find it hilarious, and awful, that the people with no resources and no power in this scenario are the ones who are supposed to be taking the high road, just as I found the rationalizations for slavery Furstenberg describes hilarious and awful. “If the slaves really wanted to be free, they would revolt.” (Like it’s easy to raise up an army and start a revolt across several states when you are being constantly physically brutalized and under threat of being separated from your family, friends, and home.) “If the Somalis really wanted recourse in this scenario, they would have a functioning government and take it to the U.N.” (Yeah, because after 18 years of warlord rule I’m sure they can just snap their fucking fingers and create a coherent ruling body. And the U.N. is so good at stopping people from being fucked over by powerful Western governments. Just ask the Palestinians!)

Am I pro-pirate? Not really, but I understand why, in the absence of any other options, some Somalis appreciate their presence. And you know what? You generally can blame Western governments for bad shit that happens in the Global South. Have any of these chumps crying about how their precious home countries are being maligned ever seen Spider-Man? Remember the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” theme? That applies to global politics as well. If you hold all the cards as far as money and political clout, you have to accept some responsibility when entities tied to you (corporations, government agencies) use those resources to fuck with countries that have neither of those things and they don’t necessarily respond in the most diplomatic manner. I don’t get my panties in a wad when someone points out how U.S. foreign policy has contributed to some horrible shit worldwide, but then again, I don’t tie my self-esteem to what people say about my government. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

Time to murder my upstairs neighbors before they play another goddamn pop-punk album. G’night!

~ by Smellen on November 28, 2009.

2 Responses to “”

  1. an article on The Mantle argues that one good thing coming out of the Somali pirate issue is an unprecedented level of cooperation amongst countries to combat piracy.


    • Yeah, I suppose it’s good that it is a broad(er) coalition of countries, with no particular one emerging as the leader, so that no one’s being strong-armed into supporting any particular set of interests. Still, as I saw you noted in your comment, it’s a bummer that they only mobilized when international commerce was under threat. Dumping toxic waste is apparently a-OK, but seize an oil tanker and you’re toast.

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