Sunday, January 18, 2009

Far as the Curse is Found

The book on my desk right now (there’s always at least one—sometimes eight) is called The Book of Night Women by Marlon James. It takes place in 1800ish on a Jamaican sugar plantation. So there’s slavery. And with the slavery, sundry other terrible things.

I guess I just don’t understand how human beings are able to brutalize each other so badly. How could you brand someone? How could you sodomize someone with a white-hot metal object? No one I know is capable of whipping a neighbor’s flesh until their arm gets too tired to continue. And that’s to say nothing of the verbal, nonphysical repression required in order to keep a class of people underfoot.

The thing about living several generations removed from slavery is that from here, it makes no sense whatsoever. Societal acceptance of slavery seems impossibly wrongheaded. I guess it’s the same story with anti-Semitism. (Yeah, sure, the Jews caused the plague. What the heck was wrong with you, 1350? Oh, that’s right, you didn’t know about germs. And you were sort of generally nutso.) It’s all very unsettling, because I don’t think I believe that human society is getting increasingly awesome with each generation. If we sucked before, there’s no reason to think we don’t suck now or won’t suck again.

According to pretty much everyone, raising sugar cane is ridiculously hard work, really back-breaking labor. So I suppose the best way to make a lot of money doing it is to have some people do all the work for you, people you don’t have to pay, just feed (sort of). And I don’t suppose it’s easy to get those people to do that unless you use some kind of force—that and systematically, psychologically break them down. And I guess that’s where the terror comes in.

So maybe it all started with something as simple and timeless as greed.

And if that’s true, maybe there’s more injustice here in this civilized, enlightened society than I realize—and maybe there’s injustice in my own life. Because I’m just as capable as anyone of greed and pride and other deadly sins. And maybe all of us are vulnerable to tacitly accepting injustice—who harvests our sugar cane, anyway? And sews our shoes, and picks our strawberries?

Sorry to open the can of consumer-ethics worms—I know it can be difficult to untangle. But I’m looking at the cover of this book and skimming its pages, and I’m thinking, Let’s not do this again, OK? Let’s just please not do this again.

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