Sunday, September 9, 2007

What Torture Foes Can Learn from History of the Abolitionist Movement

I am not original in comparing the fight to ban or abolish torture with the struggle to end slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nor am I original in suggesting there is much to learn from the lessons of those struggles. But lack of originality is not the same as making programmatic proposals.

Two good places to start one's education on the history of the abolitionist movement are the online capsule histories of the British and American abolitionist movements provided here. An interesting overview of the British abolitionist movement was given by Lord Peter Archer at an address to the Anti-Slavery Society in 1992.

Between 1787, when the pioneers of our Movement formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and 1807, when Parliament abolished slave trading in British ships and by British subjects, a new science was invented. In those twenty years, there emerged the science of political lobbying.

A closely-knit group set about employing techniques of persuasion which are now in common use, but were then developed for the first time.

They set about persuading members of Parliament to abolish the slave trade in areas which lay within the jurisdiction of the British Parliament. They won one of the most complete and outright victories for a great cause in human history. But as with so many moral victories, when they arrived, they found not that they were looking down on Eldorado, but that they were simply confronted by the next stage of the journey.

American Abolitionism

An even more interesting site, to me, discusses the history of American Abolitionism, from its origins among the Society of Friends (Quakers) through the schisms that created the Garrisonian movement, the religious abolitionists, the Liberty Party and the Republican Party, and the radical anti-slavery movement, exemplified by John Brown (who was financially backed by the Northern Transcendalists, like Emerson and Thoreau). The capusle history was written by John R. McKivigan at Purdue University.

Wide-spread rejection of the antislavery program forced abolitionists to reconsider their moral suasion strategy. Many followed the lead of the Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and abandoned the churches, believing them to be hopelessly corrupted by slavery. Garrisonians also counseled Northerners to refuse to vote as a way of expressing disapproval for the "proslavery" Constitution. The Garrisonians also championed universal reform, including temperance, pacifism, and extension of women's rights....

Under Garrisonian control, the American Anti-Slavery Society committed itself to nonresistant political practices and advocated the dissolution of the union with slaveholding states. Garrisonians also experimented with dramatic new propaganda techniques to awaken the Northern conscience. Women played key roles in the American Anti-Slavery Society after 1840....

While some non-Garrisonian abolitionists focused on reforming the churches, others shifted their energies to political antislavery reform. Beginning in the mid-1830s, abolitionists petitioned legislatures and interrogated political candidates on slavery-related issues. When no candidate expressed antislavery sentiments, abolitionists often protested by "scattering" their ballots among write-in candidates. When the federal government failed to respond to petitioning or lobbying, politically minded abolitionists formed an independent antislavery party in 1840....

Opposition to events in Kansas, coupled with resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, helped produce a new more militant strain of abolitionism. Free blacks joined many younger white abolitionists in blocking the rendition of fugitive slaves from the Northern states. A well-organized "emigration" effort recruited hundreds of antislavery settlers for Kansas and armed them to resist the proslavery statehood movement there. John Brown emerged from the guerrilla skirmishing in "Bleeding Kansas." Committed to battling slavery through violent means, Brown received clandestine financial support from antislavery veterans, mainly from the small radical political abolitionist faction....

The majority of political abolitionists rejected violent tactics and remained content to work with moderate antislavery Northerners inside the Republican party. Former Liberty party leaders and radical abolitionists who defected from other major parties joined forces to resist conservative or racist elements in the Republican coalition. These efforts were so successful that by 1860 nearly all political abolitionists and even some Garrisonians endorsed the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as a means of battling slavery.

Two conclusions: 1) It would be wrong to take the above accounts as definitive, nor to imagine that one can become knowledgeable about these struggles without a thorough grounding in the history and literature of and about the period. One could start with a reading of Frederick Douglass's autobiography. And 2) It would also be incorrect to think we can simply lift tactics and analogies in a straightforward way to provide a road-map for the struggle against torture.

Lessons for APA Torture Opponents

But a decent education in these matters will provide the basis for a considered discussion of strategy and tactics regarding current struggles. For instance, a well-regarded American Psychological Association (APA) opponent on the interrogation issue is proposing the construction of a foundation within APA "to support peace and human rights oriented research to replace military funded research funding". Is this not similar to schemes during abolitionist times to buy out the slave-owning class?

Another well-meaning APA member thinks that we should separate out a National Security Ethics Office for Psychology from the regular APA Ethics Code, to be run by "some formally constituted group of military ethicists". Is this not like asking pro-manumission slave-owners in the antebellum South to provide the nation with a set of guidelines for the nation on the slavery issue?

These analogies may be deficient in some ways, as are all historical analogies, but they provide an approach and a depth of analysis that gives perspective to a discussion, as opposed to rushing off blindly upon what seems to be a good idea.

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