Friday, February 8, 2013

Will 'Lincoln' encourage people to give more thought to modern forms of slavery?

Since seeing 'Lincoln', the movie, I have felt a need to find out more about modern versions of slavery – often described as human trafficking and debt bondage. Why? The movie made me feel that as author of a book entitled Free to Flourish and of this blog about freedom and flourishing, I should be making more of an effort to come to understand the issues involved in modern versions of slavery and similar restrictions on liberty.

'Lincoln' is basically about wheeling and dealing of politics, at a time when politics was possibly even more venal than it is today. Some people (myself included) find that kind of thing intrinsically interesting. This movie manages to entertain a broader audience because it has colourful characters and a story-line in which the goodies have to win in the end. In my view, the story is inspiring because it shows that fallible leaders can sometimes use democratic political processes to overcome entrenched interests for worthwhile purposes.

Given the history of slave ownership in the US it is not surprising that many politicians would have seen powerful reasons to keep deferring abolition, even while claiming to be opposed to slavery. While slave ownership remained profitable, slave owners had an interest in seeking to retain what they would have seen as property that they had acquired legally. Against that background, it seems amazing that sufficient numbers of representatives were eventually persuaded to take advantage of the opportunity to abolish slavery before the end of the civil war. (I still find it hard to accept that the civil war was necessary, but that is another story.)

I was intrigued by the part of the movie in which Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones) tempered his remarks in congress to avoid frightening conservatives that abolition of slavery would be a slippery slope leading to full equality. He refused to be goaded by an interjector to support the view that 'all men are created equal', rather than supporting 'equality before the law' even though he was a lifelong advocate of full citizenship rights:
'How can I hold that all men are created equal, when before me stands stinking the moral carcase of the gentleman from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their Maker with dim wits impermeable to reason with cold pallid slime in their veins instead of red hot blood! …
After further castigating the interjector, the passage ends:
' … even worthless unworthy you ought to be treated equally before the law.'

Those looking for further discussion of the movie should read, among other things, Jim Emerson's article, 'It's true because it works'.

I haven't managed to get far at this stage in learning more about human trafficking and debt bondage. Human trafficking has been defined to include a range of nasty activities - some worse than others in my view.

The UN's 'Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons' defines human trafficking as: 
'the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation'

The US State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report (2012) suggests that trafficking doesn't necessarily require movement of people:
'People may be considered traficking victims regardless of whether they were born into a state of servitude, were transported to the exploitative situation, previously consented to work for a traficker, or participated in a crime as a direct result of being traficked. At the heart of this phenomenon is the trafickers’ goal of exploiting and enslaving their victims and the myriad coercive and deceptive practices they use to do so'.

The State Department also uses the ILO's term 'forced labour' to describe human trafficking. The ILO's estimate of the number of people engaged in forced labour throughout the world is 20.9 million – not much less than the population of Australia. Most forced labour apparently takes place in Asia, although prevalence as a percentage of population is higher in former communist countries of eastern Europe and Africa.

It is fairly easy for people in countries like Australia to claim that that human trafficking is a minor problem as far as we are concerned - and largely beyond our influence. However, people associated with the abolitionist movement in Britain in the 19th century – people such as John Bright who was also a prominent advocate of free trade – did not take that view with respect to slavery in America.

When Lincoln was assassinated he apparently had in his pocket a testimonial from John Bright calling for him to be re-elected.

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