War in Slow Motion

In 1858 the abolitionist John Brown was an extended guest at Frederick Douglass’ home in Rochester, New York. Already well embarked on his plans for the Harpers Ferry raid, Brown’s imagination extended to the creation of an independent, interracial state in the American southeast. The idea gripped him so tightly that he spent three weeks writing a provisional constitution for the government of such a state. Its preamble begins:

Whereas, Slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is nothing other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion . . .

I ran across this quote a few years ago when the students in a graduate readings course read a recent biography of Harriet Tubman by Catherine Clinton.  (Like Douglass, Tubman was acquainted with Brown and his plans for the Harpers Ferry raid. Brown, in turn, referred to her, in complete seriousness, as “General Tubman.”)

No one happened to remark upon the quote during our discussion, which was understandable given that our focus was on Tubman. Still, I was struck by Brown’s equation of slavery with war. Most of us are conditioned to regard that as rhetoric, but Brown meant it quite literally. Gandhi made a similar point when he insisted, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

Indeed, slavery, colonization/neocolonization, apartheid, and so on, can all be seen as examples of war in slow motion. Of course, the idea that they are conducting a slow motion war is alien to those in positions of dominance, because they have a vested interest in considering the existing order of things to be normal and in convincing others of that idea, most especially the groups they oppress. But for those alive to the fact of oppression the notion that a war is underway has greater resonance.

Consider, for example, this excerpt from an essay published in 2004 by the black scholar and activist Manning Marable:

The political economy of the “New Racial Domain” . . . is driven and largely determined by the forces of transnational capitalism, and the public policies of state neoliberalism. From the vantagepoint of the most oppressed U.S. populations, the New Racial Domain rests on an unholy trinity, or deadly triad, of structural barriers to a decent life. These oppressive structures are mass unemployment, mass incarceration, and mass disfranchisement. Each factor directly feeds and accelerates the others, creating an ever-widening circle of social disadvantage, poverty, and civil death, touching the lives of tens of millions of U.S. people.

Though Marable never uses the term outright, his portrayal of developments abroad and at home is redolent of the idea of an ongoing war in slow motion.

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