Cruel Humanitarians

This post is part of a history of a human rights class reading list. See more reviews under the human rights tag.

In Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism, Margaret Abruzzo examines the contested origins of the idea of humanitarianism by investigating the proslavery and antislavery debates over the meaning of pain. This is an excellent work for understanding not only the intellectual development of the pro and antislavery positions, but also for breaking apart the concept of humanitarianism, to understand it as a contested and not static term.

She begins with a discussion of the role of the Quakers in developing the idea of sinfulness of slaveholders. For them slaveholding was not wrong because it inflicted pain, but because it created a desire for luxury, therefore bringing shame to the community. Over time this morphs into a broader understanding of the sufferer and the role of the community to alleviate suffering. Next, she examines the merging of Scottish moral philosophy with American religion, where indifference to the misery of others is sign of a moral and social breakdown. Both of these cases tend to focus on distant cruelty as the problem and not the immediate issue of slavery. Because of this it becomes much easier to fight “distant cruelties” such as the slave trade than to tackle the slavery issue at home. Finally she presents the proslavery view that argues that slavery was a moral responsibility of the slave owner to the slave, and that life outside of slavery would be harsh and cruel.

This last point is especially critical because proslavery advocates were framing slavery as benevolent (if free, the slaves would suffer, etc), which then nudged the antislavery activists toward using cruelty rhetoric too. Many antislavery activists found this rhetoric problematic because they were wanting to frame slavery in terms of human rights and equality and not in terms of pain and suffering. Because society was not ready or willing to answer those harder questions of equality, cruelty became the dominant discourse. Unfortunately the proslavery rhetoric of slavery as benevolent returns after the Civil War to shape race relations through the “myth of the happy slave” (236).

This is a critical book because it breaks apart the notion of humanitarianism and examines the debate over its meaning. This is significant because “Humanitarianism relies on a facade of self-evidence, the sense that both cruelty and humanness should be instantly recognizable to all people of goodwill” (239). The problem though is that “cruelty allowed whites to criticize slavery without asking tough questions about human rights, racial equality, or African Americans’ place in society” (239). And this problem still exists. We are better able to identify issues of suffering and pain than to deal with the larger questions about justice.

While not a book for everyone, it illuminates issues surrounding the idea of humanitarianism, both in the origin of the idea and in its future application.

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America’s destiny … warts included

This post is part of a history of a human rights class reading list. See more reviews under the human rights tag.

Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right by Anders Stephanson is a short gast-hi-resbook (it almost doesn’t fit the page length for Cannonball Read), but don’t be deceived. It is incredibly dense. It is one of those books that to understand it fully you almost need to read it twice. Nonetheless, if you really want to know more about the origins of manifest destiny and America exceptionalism, this is a perfect starting point.

I am presenting this book to my class on Wednesday and need to work through some thoughts beforehand. So if this review seems disjointed it is because I’m still getting my head around his arguments. Basically he is examining the origins of the ideology of manifest destiny in American thought and political culture. While we can point directly to John O’Sullivan who coined the term in 1845 when he wrote that the role of the US is “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions,” Stephanson argues that the broader idea of manifest destiny is rooted in the Puritans’ understanding of themselves as God’s chosen people.

He then looks at how this religiously rooted ideology develops over time and negotiates expanding US borders. This religious ideology then becomes intertwined with agricultural and industrial capitalism and mutates into a more secular understanding of manifest destiny, but while the national ideology takes on a new character, “the sacred-prophetic impulse never waned” (110). The interesting difference in these two ideologies is that the older religious idea of manifest destiny focused on a predestined future of God’s chosen people, while in the newer ideology will be determined by individual agency.

The most interesting chapter to me is his closing essay where he discusses President Wilson’s time up to the 1990s. He critiques President Wilson’s understanding of the United States’ role as the leader in the world and how that is still infused with a prophetic mission. This translates into a principle of universal right that believes it is always right and sees those who disagree as “inhuman or criminal” (119).

Interestingly he ends in the mid-1990s (the book was published in 1995) and maintains that the difficulty for the US is that it has lost its defining enemy with the end of the Cold War, and therefore “simple concepts super-imposed on simple divisions and simple enemies no longer suffice as basic ideological props of American geopolitics (129).” I would love to see an update to the work in light of the past decade’s events. Have we invented a new enemy in “terrorism” based on our understanding of America’s destiny?