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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Entitlement (p. 103)

From chapter "Philanthropy"

The final primary argument in favor of chattel slavery was philanthropic: Far from being something to be abolished, the argument went, slavery was a positive good, beneficial not only to the masters but most especially to the slaves. Not only did contact (albeit un wanted) with EuroAmericans raise Africans (Indians, Chinese, and so on) out of their squalid life of savagery, but because slaves were expensive, they were generally treated better than their free counter parts, the wage slaves.

Early European accounts of their contact with Africans often reveals revulsion on the part of the Europeans (who are strangely silent on what the Africans thought of them). For example, Pyard de Laval wrote in 1610, “The people along this coast . . . are very brutish and savage, as stupid as can be and without intelligence, black and misshapen. . . . They live without law or religion, like animals.” In 1616 the Reverend Terry disparagingly commented on the fact that the Khoikhoi of southern Africa dressed in skins, calling them, “Beasts in the skins of men rather than men in the skins of beasts.” Frederick Andersen Bolling called them “the most hideous folk that can be found in the world,” and Wouter Schouten got right to the point when he said, “Truly they more resemble the unreasoning beasts than reasonable man, living on earth such a miserable and pitiful life, having no knowledge of GOD nor of what leads to their salvation.”

Fortunately for the Africans, the Europeans were more than willing to provide salvation, in the form of slavery, which, as William Harper pointed out, “has done more to elevate a degraded race in the scale of humanity; to tame the savage; to civilize the barbarous; to soften the ferocious; to enlighten the ignorant, and to spread the blessings of Christianity [sic] among the heathen, than all the missionaries that philanthropy and religion have ever sent forth.” Harper asked rhetorically, “Can there be a doubt of the immense benefit which has been conferred on the race, by transplanting them from their native, dark, and barbarous regions, to the American Continent and Islands?”

I thought of the argument put forward now about how global trade is supposed to benefit members of nonindustrialized nations, and wondered how much things have really changed in the last one hundred and seventy years. Substitute the words capitalism, industrialization, or free markets for slavery and I could find these quotes tomorrow in the newspaper. I wondered also how many of the things I am told are good for me actually are, and how many are nothing more than rationales for exploitation: sweet words to keep me from perceiving my own predicament. It made me wonder also something even worse: What things are done to me and to others in ways I cannot even begin to perceive? Do those in power have my best interests at heart? Did the enslavers really believe their own rhetoric? I’m not sure I want to know the answers.

Although “slavery educates, refines, and moralizes the masses,” according to George Fitzhugh, by “bringing them into continual intercourse with masters of superior minds, information, and morality,” there was only so much—because of the raw material with which the masters had to work—that slave owners could hope to accomplish. Without more or less constant supervision, Africans almost always reverted to their prior or natural state of shiftlessness: “We have already seen that the principle of idleness triumphed over the desire for accumulation among the savages of North and South America, among the African nations, among the blacks of St. Domingo, &c, and nothing but the strong arm of authority could overcome its operation,” wrote Thomas Roderick Dew. The reason for the triumph of idleness was that, according to Dew, “In dealing with a negro we must remember that we are dealing with a being possessing the form and strength of a man, but the intellect only of a child.”

I derive a different lesson from all of this, that it takes a hell of a lot of force to ruin the lives of people who were happy not working for you.

Harper, too, noted that “Slaves are perpetual children,” who needed protection, and Fitzhugh provided the answer as to how this protection should be accomplished: “To protect the weak, we must first enslave them, and this slavery must be either political and legal, or social; the latter, including the condition of wives, apprentices, inmates of poor houses, idiots, lunatics, children, sailors, soldiers and domestic slaves. Those latter classes . . . require masters of some kind, whose will and discretion shall stand as a law to them, who shall be entitled to their labor, and bound to provide for them.”

I have spent the past several hours now thinking about the notion that masters “shall be entitled to their labor,” and at the risk of overstating, it seems to me that entitlement is key to nearly all atrocities, and that any threat to perceived entitlement will provoke hatred.

The man who flayed the cat presumably felt that his employers were entitled to the cat’s skin. Europeans felt that they were (and are) entitled to the land of North and South America. Slave owners clearly felt they were entitled to the labor (and the lives) of their slaves, not only in partial payment for protecting slaves from their own idleness, but also simply as a return on their capital investment. Owners of nonhuman capital today feel they, too, are entitled to the “surplus return on labor,” as economists put it, as part of their reward for furnishing jobs, and to provide a return on theirinvestment in capital. Rapists act on the belief that they are entitled to their victims’ bodies, and entitled to inflict cruelty upon them. Americans act as though we are entitled to consume the majority of the world’s resources, and to change the world’s climate. All industrialized humans act like they’re entitled to anything they want on this planet.

Nietzsche wrote, “One does not hate so long as one despises.” There seems to me a pretty clear relationship between feeling entitled to exploit someone and despising her or him. My dictionary defines entitleas “to qualify (a person) to do something: to give a claim to; to give a right to demand or receive.” It comes from the Latin intitulus, to give a title, meaning to honor or dignify with a title. By right of my title as a white man, I have a claim to a black man’s labor. Any black man’s. By right of my title as a man, I have a claim to a woman’s body. Any woman’s. By right of having enough money to invest in capital, I have a claim to “surplus” of other people’s labor. By right of having enough money to buy the rights to land, I have a claim to all of the resources it holds. My dictionary defines despiseas “to look down upon, to scorn; to disdain; to have a low opinion of; to regard as contemptible.” It comes from the Latin de-specere, to look down. If I am above, I have claims upon those I look down upon. I am entitled to take from those I despise.

From the perspective of those who are entitled, the problems begin when those they despise do not go along with—and have the power and wherewithal to not go along with—the perceived entitlement. That’s where Nietzsche’s statement comes in, and that’s where hatred of the sort I’m trying to get at in this book becomes manifest. Several times I have commented that hatred, felt long and deeply enough, no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, “normal,” chronic state— where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized. Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remain underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.