Bob Schwartz

Tag: slavery

Today’s Torah: Slavery Might Be Right Around the Corner

A section of this week’s Torah portion (Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27) is described even by sympathetic commentators as “unusual”, “troubling”, and “brutal”, though one commentator admits it is “ironic or poetic justice.”

Joseph is the sharp CEO of Egypt. (Sharp dealing runs in the family; recall that his father Jacob cheated his uncle Esau out of the family birthright.) He has now brought not only his family but all the Jews down to Egypt.

The new arrivals enjoy a relatively good life, while the native Egyptians are suffering through a disastrous famine, the famine foretold by Joseph himself. To solve the dire situation, Joseph has the desperate Egyptians turn over all money and land to Egypt and the Pharaoh, and then gives them seed and assigns them land to farm so they don’t starve. The Egyptians, we are told, were grateful. This is most kindly characterized as serfdom, but is most commonly described as slavery. The poetic justice is that the Jews themselves were later trapped in the slavery plan that Joseph devised.

Are there any interesting lessons here?

If you are a regular reader of the Torah, you recognize that some of the most iconic figures are not depicted as paragons. Incidents of cheating and lying are found among the patriarchs. Then there’s Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians. Some commentators face this head on, while others are apologists, contextualizing the miscreant behavior as all part of a bigger, better plan. But cheating, lying and cruelty are still just that, no matter the actor.

Another lesson? In hard times for the common people, it’s good to be the Pharaoh, or the Pharaoh’s right hand man, or the family and friends of the Pharaoh or the Pharaoh’s right hand man. Otherwise, slavery might be right around the corner.

If Princeton Expunges Segregationist Woodrow Wilson, Why Not Expunge All Presidential Slave Owners?

Princeton University is considering the demands of activists who want the legacy of Woodrow Wilson expunged from the university.

Woodrow Wilson was President of Princeton, Governor of New Jersey, and President of the United States. He was also a Democratic progressive in many areas. Not as progressive as his presidential opponent in the 1912 presidential election, former President and Progressive Party candidate Teddy Roosevelt. Wilson, for example, was friendly with Wall Street and opposed some financial reforms. (Sound like any current Democratic Party candidate we know?).

Wilson was also a man of his time and place. He was a Southerner and a segregationist, at a time when segregation was legally sanctioned. That isn’t an excuse for maintaining and promoting injustice, just a fact. That he might be less enlightened than current leaders by modern standards goes without saying. But given all the rest, it does not seem the stuff of an indictment.

If there is validity to the demands, then there is no principled reason not to expunge the legacy of all slave-owning Presidents from all settings. After all, slavery is undoubtedly a greater transgression than segregation.

Here’s the list:

Owned slaves while President

George Washington
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Monroe
Andrew Jackson
John Tyler
James K. Polk
Zachary Taylor

Owned slaves but not while President

Martin Van Buren
William Henry Harrison
Andrew Johnson
Ulysses S Grant

Let’s admit that as national leaders, some of these slave-owning Presidents are more historically benign and popular than others. (We are looking at you, Andrew Jackson.) Even so, if you eliminate the ones whose legacy is now considered shady, you’re still left with some pretty worthy and venerated individuals—including, of course, the father of our country.

No one is saying that Woodrow Wilson is a George Washington, a James Madison, or a James Monroe. But if you’re going to start making principled distinctions, trade-offs and excuses, it’s impossible to know where to begin.

And that is the slippery slope we really don’t want to walk near. Which leaves us with the choice of leaving certain appropriately contextualized history behind, and making things better going forward. Or taking down the legacy of all of them, Washington, et al., because we want history to be thoroughly cleansed of its dark stains.

As if, Princeton and its activists. As if.

The Next Civil War: Religion

Lincoln Penny
A few years ago, I proposed that the American divide over abortion might one day reach the dangerous depths of a much earlier conflict over slavery. Not since slavery—not even with still-festering questions about racial and other inequalities—has an issue had such a basic and visceral impact.

The poll numbers on abortion have shifted, the judicial context may be stable (for the moment), but the legislative activity is still a battlefield: among the initiatives, just today Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed a law prohibiting insurers that offer abortion coverage from participating in the state’s exchange under the Affordable Care Act.

Yet even with that, abortion will not be the biggest issue that cleaves America in the next few years. It will be, much more than it is now, religion.

Not one religion against another, or one religion-based position against another. We are approaching the point where half of America has an explicit or implicit affinity with some organized religious denomination or belief, and half does not. The not includes a wide range from atheists, agnostics, areligionists or anti-religionists to those who are “spiritual but not religious.”

America is not a theocracy or, officially, a theocratic democracy. But “theocratic democracy” (see Israel) is the way a number of Americans see it approvingly. Our conventions, traditions and even our money support this, and when they didn’t support it sufficiently, it was enhanced—as when during the Cold War against godless Communism, “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.

The dynamic between religious and secular has long played out in America in just about every official sphere. But in the past, those who fought for the secular and even succeeded (prayer in schools) were considered an aberrant and weird fringe. The fringe is now a minority, but still in some eyes, aberrant and weird. What happens when that fringe turned minority becomes an equal partner in American civics, citizens who are guided by bright moral lights, just not those that emanate from lamps they don’t believe in and refuse to support—or allow to rule their lives? What then?

Abraham Lincoln said we could not survive half-slave and half-free. The nineteenth century would not have hinted at it. but the American twenty-first may be half-God, half-not. What might Lincoln say then?