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Monday, January 25, 2010

Blood Sweetened Insurance

I recall the first time I went to the Soviet Union in 1986.  I spoke very little Russian at the time, not even enough to get by, but our group sponsored by Putney Student Travel was led by a couple Russian majors from Dartmouth. 

During an orientation we had in Helsinki just before heading by train to Leningrad there was some confusion as to when the serfs had been freed.  I asserted that Alexander II had done so in 1861, but nobody would believe me because Dog knows nobody could've emancipated their servile underclass before Lincoln.  Of course...*cough*.

Yes, know-it-alls are always extremely popular.  But that's not my point!  Geesh.  This anecdote was brought to mind because of a Mother Jones article I read about British abolition which noted:

Every American schoolchild learns about the Underground Railroad and the Emancipation Proclamation. But our self-centered textbooks often skip over the fact that in the superpower of the time slavery ended a full quarter-century earlier. For more than two decades before the Civil War, the holiday celebrated most fervently by free blacks in the American North was not July 4 (when they were at risk of attack from drunken white mobs) but August 1, Emancipation Day in the British Empire.

Anyway, it was just a subtle example of our intrinsic American exceptionalism.  Not much of a leap from "knowing" the US as beacon of freedom must have been first to rid itself of slavery to "knowing" methods used by British abolitionists could not be used in the US now to bring about social change.

I've been arguing that there is nothing really special about the American experience, even in this ultra-consumerist era where corporatists hold sway, that prevents us from employing similar tactics.  And the the article goes on to describe the successful approach we could learn from that ended slavery in Britain:

The most important expression of public feeling came on great, stiff rolls of parchment. By the time Parliament adjourned for the year, petitions asking for abolition or reform of the slave trade had been signed by more than 60,000 people. Petitions were a time-honored means of pressure in a country where voters had no control whatever over the House of Lords, and where fewer than one adult man in ten could vote for the House of Commons. Anti-slave-trade petitions-never seen before-suddenly outnumbered those on all other subjects combined.

The superbly organized anti-slavery committee also pioneered several techniques used ever since. For example, they periodically printed copies of "a Letter to our Friends in the Country, to inform them of the state of the Business" -- the ancestor of many a newsletter, print or electronic, published by activist groups today. They also agreed on a piece of text delivered to every donor in greater London appealing for another contribution, at least as big as the last. This may have been history's first direct-mail fundraising letter.

When the famous one-legged pottery entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood joined the committee, he had one of his craftsmen make a bas-relief of a kneeling slave, in chains, encircled by the legend "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" American anti-slavery sympathizer Benjamin Franklin, impressed, declared that the image had an impact "equal to that of the best written Pamphlet."

Clarkson gave out 500 of these medallions on his organizing trips. "Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair." The equivalent of the lapel buttons we wear for an electoral campaign, this was probably the first widespread use of a logo designed for a political cause. It was the 18th century's "new media."

Within a few years, another tactic arose from the grassroots. Throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles, people stopped eating the major product harvested by British slaves: sugar. Clarkson was delighted to find a "remedy, which the people were... taking into their own hands.... Rich and poor, churchmen and dissenters.... By the best computation I was able to make from notes taken down in my journey, no fewer than three hundred thousand persons had abandoned the use of sugar."

Almost like "fair trade" food labeling today, advertisements quickly filled the press: "BENJAMIN TRAVERS, Sugar-Refiner, acquaints the Publick that he has now an assortment of Loaves, Lumps, Powder Sugar, and Syrup, ready for sale...produced by the labour of FREEMEN." Then, as now, the full workings of a globalized economy were largely invisible. The boycott caught people's imagination because it brought these hidden ties to light. The poet Robert Southey spoke of tea as "the blood-sweetened beverage."

Slavery advocates were horrified. One rushed out a counterpamphlet claiming that "sugar is not a luxury; but...a necessary of life; and great injury have many persons done to their constitutions by totally abstaining from it."

Note the use of multiple tactics, including forms of protest and persuasion through various communication channels, capped by economic intervention.  Adam Hochschild describes the effort in Bury the Chains:

Like many such actions today, the sugar boycott was partly symbolic.  Systematically giving up all slave-​grown products would have required Britons to also stop using tobacco, coffee, and cotton clothing (much of it woven in the mills of staunchly antislavery Manchester).  Nonetheless, a boycott of sugar was potentially a powerful weapon because the country
consumed so much of it.  In the eighteenth century, sugar was Britain’s largest import...Everyone could understand the logic of the sugar boycott, even children.…

Quietly but subversively, the boycott added a new dimension to British political life.  At a time when only a small fraction of the population could vote, citizens took upon themselves the power to act when Parliament had not.  “The legislature having refused to interpose, the people are now necessarily called on,” wrote one boycotter.  The boycott was radical in yet another way, made explicit in at least one pamphlet: it struck not just at the slave trade but at slavery itself.  And, finally, the boycott was largely put into effect by those who bought and cooked the family food: women.

Explicit appeals to join in abstention were made to women who made up half of the 300 to 400 thousand Britons who participated.  Women who, as was observed at the time, "have no voice at present in these matters."  Even those who were as yet disenfranchised had power to help free other human beings from bondage.

Perhaps woman, who won their suffrage through further hard work in both the UK and the US over a century later, can lead our fight for equitable access to healthcare. 

What say you, NOW, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, et al?  Think you can mobilize your large memberships to step up the game in this generation's civil rights struggle?  After all, being a women shouldn't be a pre-existing condition, though it seems that hoping the Democrats will do the right thing might be...


(Post at Pax Americana, Dohiyi Mir, Green Mountain Code Pink, Corrente and Daily Kos.)

January 25, 2010 in Pax Americana, Why We Fight | Permalink


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