One of the things I find odd about the American discourse about slavery is how rarely Americans think about slavery as an institution which existed outside America. Not only did slavery exist in the ancient world in a pre-racialised way–in which many slaves were white, and many masters were people of colour–but it also existed in many other places during the period in which it existed in America. In many of these places, slavery was abolished not by violence but by ordinary politics. Yet this is rarely acknowledged or discussed, and it is increasingly common for Americans to frame our history largely in terms of the slavery question. We don’t often ask why slavery was more contentious in the United States than in other places. That’s what I want to think about with you today.
Last week, I went to one of the debates at the Cambridge Union about whether or not Britain ought to have a second referendum on Brexit. It struck me that the way this argument works is very misleading. The two sides pretend to be arguing about whether it would be democratic to have another referendum, and frame their arguments around procedural fairness and democratic legitimacy. But that isn’t really what the argument is about. There’s a much deeper disagreement, about whether Brexit is an acceptable outcome in the first place–if it’s the kind of result which, by its very nature, invalidates the process which led up to it.
Like many of you, I’ve seen that clip of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) arguing with children about the Green New Deal. If you haven’t seen it, I have it right here for you:
In and amidst the hostility, Feinstein said something quite honest in this exchange:
Well, it’s [climate change] not going to get turned around in 10 years.
I have a certain admiration for honest centrism. So often these days, politicians pretend to be more radical than they are to excite voters, only to disappoint them. But it’s not merely because we can’t get the votes in a Republican senate to pass the Green New Deal. No–it’s because the United States is at this point no longer capable of cutting its own emissions enough to deal with climate change, and it’s unlikely to successfully lead other states in this direction even if it tries.
It’s been more than a month since British Prime Minister Theresa May told the British people that her deal was the best they were likely to get, and they still don’t believe her. In theory, Brexit can end one of four different ways:
4A: May extracts further concessions from the EU, increasing British policy independence while retaining economic access to Europe.
4B: A general election produces a Labour government, and then Jeremy Corbyn extracts further concessions from the EU, accomplishing the same result as in 4A.
The problem is that #4 is not possible in either its A or B form, but nearly everyone in British politics operates under the delusion that it is.