Chattel slavery stands apart in American history. It was unlike anything else in the Antebellum world: a comprehensive system that touched every life, from slave owners and overseers to notaries and store-owners. It was incredibly lucrative, laying the foundation for American commercial success and driving economic growth throughout the Union, from manufacturers in the North to millionaires in the South. (Prior to the Civil War, Natchez, Mississippi, had the most millionaires per capita of any city in the country.) It was also brutal, an institution that sanctioned terrible, existential violence against black families, that tore children from their parents and sold them for a profit.
Slavery was so terrible, in fact, that people who lack perspective are tempted to use it as a shorthand for anything they don’t like. Hence, Sarah Palin, in a speech this past weekend, compared the federal debt to, yup, slavery:
“Our free stuff today is being paid for by taking money from our children and borrowing from China,” she said at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s fall fundraiser at the State Fairgrounds Saturday night. “When that money comes due—and this isn’t racist, but it’ll be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to beholden to the foreign master.”
Nothing about this statement is accurate. Yes, at $1.28 trillion, China is the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt. But the vast majority of American debt is owned by Americans. We’re borrowing from ourselves, and in the current economic environment of mass unemployment and sluggish growth, this isn’t a huge concern.
What’s most important to note, however, is that owing debt is nothing like slavery. Let’s say we lived in a world where China owned most of our debt and we had to take drastic actions to pay our obligations. Even then, it would be a far cry from enslavement, where everything produced is stolen by an outside power.
But the stupidity of these analogies haven’t stopped them from gaining currency on the right wing of American politics. In just the last year, conservatives have invoked slavery in opposition to gun control—Glenn Beck attacked universal background checks as part of an effort to enslave Americans—affirmative action, and federal spending. To wit, in his opinion attacking the admissions policy at the University of Texas, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas compared affirmative action supporters to slaveholders and segregationists. “Slaveholders argued that slavery was a ‘positive good’ that civilized blacks and elevated them in every dimension of life,” wrote Thomas. “A century later, segregationists similarly asserted that segregation was not only benign, but good for black students.”
I’m sure Thomas saw the moral difference between discrimination to oppress blacks and discrimination to ameliorate historical wrongs, but I don’t think he cared. For him, attacking his opponents was more important than giving a fair and truthful account of their views. But he’s in good company. For another slavery comparison, here is failed Virginia lieutenant governor candidate E.W. Jackson, who told supporters that Great Society programs did more to damage black families than the “peculiar institution”:
“In 1960, most black children were raised in two-parent, monogamous families …By now, by this time, we only have 20 percent of black children being raised in two-parent, monogamous families with a married man and woman raising those children. It wasn’t slavery that did that, it was government that did that, trying to solve problems that only God can solve, and that only we as human beings can solve.”
And just a few months later, Dr. Ben Carson—the latest right-wing celebrity—told the audience at this year’s Values Voter Summit that “Obamacare” was, in fact, “worse than slavery.” Which is obvious, unless we all missed the part where Barack Obama lynched recalcitrant doctors, and Lyndon Johnson kidnapped children and sold them for goods and services.
In addition to these direct comparisons, conservatives also have analogized themselves to groups and figures in the struggle against slavery. Republicans such as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan have compared abortion foes (like themselves) to abolitionists, as a way to claim a place on the right side of history.
That slaves, unlike embryos, were fully autonomous doesn’t seem to occur to either, nor does do they seem to understand that the earliest abolitionists were slaves, a far cry from anti-abortion activists, who—from what I can tell—aren’t fetuses. Indeed, there’s an entire world of problems with the analogy, from its disregard for women to its refusal to deal with slavery as a fact and not just a slogan.
It’s not hard to understand why anyone would use slavery or any other evil—like the Holocaust—to attack policies they oppose. Among co-partisans, it’s an easy way to claim the moral high ground. To everyone else, however, it’s foolish. If you oppose something, you should argue against it on its own terms. To compare everything you don’t like to evil is to do a disservice to yourself, and—in a small way—minimize the reality of suffering.