Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Monster Thomas Thistlewood

It isn't openly talked about in socially respectable circles anymore, but there was a time when Southern apologists would lament about how slavery was actually beneficial to people of African decent. The usual- and highly flawed- argument by the apologists involved how Africans were living like savages in their native lands. That by forcibly bringing them into bondage would both civilize them and have the added benefit of delivering them to Jesus.

More to the point, Southern apologists love to push the idea that the slave master actually cared about his chattel. In fact, one old and deluded individual that taught me literature in the sixth grade would go as far and essentially say that slave masters would take good care of the African people they held in bondage because they made them money. Truth be told, this teacher's reasoning sounded wrong to even my young, unaware ears at that time but being white and raised in the south the topic of slavery and its ramifications are mostly ignored.

Thinking back on it now, it truly disturbs me that a supposedly educated and gentile man could rationally equate the evil of human bondage to something akin to an employer/employee relationship. Understand, this teacher I write about was in his late 60's back in 1978 and whose appearance can best be described as looking like Albert Einstein without the mustache and with a deep southern drawl. I can't begin to excuse this teacher, but I am well acquainted with the deluded culture that produced his beliefs.

Southern slavery apologists were put on the defensive with the broadcast of the miniseries Roots the previous year and it was a beginning of my understanding of the monstrous terror that was slavery. It continues even now with me watching America's Long Struggle against Slavery offered on the Great Courses Plus streaming service. These lectures, taught by Richard Bell, PhD go deep into the origins of African slavery and its true horrific nature. This is where I learned about the monster that was Thomas Thistlewood.

Born in 1721, Thomas Thistlewood was a British citizen who migrated to Jamaica to become a plantation overseer and eventually a land and slave owner himself. What makes Thistlewood “special” was the detailed diary he kept documenting his treatment of slaves, including graphic accounts of rape. This diary would grow over the years to over thirty-seven volumes and over 14,000 pages.

Thistlewood's diary chronicles the purchases and sale of slaves, their work assignments, illnesses and death rates. Where things really delve into the monstrous, Thistlewood records in meticulous detail his brutal methods of punishment for the most minor infractions. One of Thistlewood's favorite punishments was something called “Derby's dose.” This involved another slave defecating in the offender's mouth and then having him gagged for several hours.

That's still not the worst part, Thistlewood even goes as far as to document the sexual exploitation of enslaved women in his control. This consisted of thousands of sexual contacts with around one-hundred women, with him making special note of the punishment he inflicted if they resisted. Thistlewood continued this practice even after becoming infected with a venereal disease.

Thistlewood became part of the plantation culture in 1750 that was rapidly developing in British-held Caribbean islands and South Carolina. The development of plantations revolved around the mass production of certain products, like sugar cane, tobacco, and rice with slave labor being the backbone. Because the plantation owners were pushing for ever greater economies of scale, that meant more slaves and harder work. This required the white masters to ensure their slaves were docile and controllable. The white slave owners did this by horrific and brutal treatment of their human property.

The brutality practiced by the plantation owners was also meant to prevent slave revolts. The owners promoted a system of having their human chattel inform on any plans among the other slaves that might harm them, their families and white overseers.

Moving further into the horrific, but typical behavior for plantation owners, Thistlewood had an almost spousal relationship with a particular female slave named Phibbah. Over the course of thirty-three years Phibbah was able to play her special relations with Thistlewood to acquire her own property which included land, livestock, and slaves. Phibbah even gave Thistlewood his one acknowledged heir, named Mulatto John. While Thistlewood gave Phibbah her freedom at his death, she was not the only female slave he had a near spousal relationship with.

Another woman, named Marina, also suffered his attentions but felt empowered enough to complain about his sexual abuse of other slaves. It appears, according to Thistlewood's diary, that he would often force his attentions on more than one slave a night and would sometimes give them a few coins afterwards for their troubles.

It would be nice to think Thistlewood was some sort of horrific exception, that few others would not take such special pleasure in dehumanizing other people. The trouble though is that by all accounts Thistlewood was typical of slave owners in the eighteenth century and beyond. From his diary Thistlewood appears to even consider himself something of an enlighten man. He was quite knowledgeable in the fields of botany and horticulture and read numerous books on religion and estate management. He also recorded his amazement of Halley's Comet swinging around the Earth in 1759.

I came away from learning about Thomas Thistlewood feeling dirty and disgusted. To a certain degree we in the twenty-first century cannot judge the actions of such people with our standards. Not with Thistlewood, he and everyone like him are guilty of the worst crimes against humanity imaginable. Luckily for Thistlewood, death prevents him from ever facing judgment for his actions.

While Thistlewood lived in Jamaica, the practices he detailed in his diary were common throughout the slave owning regions of North America. Some will certainly say it was different during the Antebellum era of the American South. Even if conditions for slaves in the nineteenth century American South were somewhat better, how can any sane person ever attempt to justify holding another human in bondage for economic gain?  

America's original sin is something that will haunt this country until its very end.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Dress Rehearsal to Being Disappeared

Unidentified thugs walking the streets

As human accomplishments go, the rule of law is a pretty recent invention. Understand I'm taking the entire scope of Homo sapien existence into consideration for that statement. For the vast majority of the time modern humans have walked the Earth, our species pursued a “might is right” philosophy with regard to small things like justice and decision making. Since I tend to drone on and become muddled in my own pomposity, I'll break it down further.

Like other primates, the big alpha male in human social structures usually decided what was cool and allowable. If he didn't like a particular individual and wanted him or her killed or didn't want to move the tribe to better hunting grounds the rest of the group had to go along. I'd hazard a guess and say a good bit of this behavior may even be ingrained in our DNA. Now understand having a big, unquestioned, powerful leader has generally been an evolutionary advantage for us naked primates. This was particularly useful when we lived on an ancient African savanna dealing with predators that had a taste for proto-humans.

But were “civilized” now with exponentially more complex and nuanced social structures requiring rules that are suppose to prevent narcissistic and delusional a-holes from destroying the principles we are supposed to hold dear, like justice and democratic values. So the Rule of Law was invented to set down guidelines and prevent Orange Buffoon-like abominations from running through the Constitutional china shop destroying the work of far superior men and women.

Well for various reasons since November 2016 we've let a dangerous Orange Buffoon live at the heart of what is supposed to be the greatest country of the world. And like the proverbial bull running through a china shop it daily does its best to destroy everything it doesn't like or understand.

The latest and probably worst offense to date is taking place in Portland, Oregon. Under the guise of protecting federal property and stopping rioters, Department of Homeland Security forces are employing the same tactics used in tyrannical police-states. Federal agents, wearing no identification, and driving around in unmarked vehicles are snatching people off the streets taking them to undisclosed locations for “questioning.” Back in saner times (pre-November 2016), this country would have condemned similar actions done anywhere else in the world.

With what amounts to a Secret Police running around the streets of an American city kidnapping anyone who they want we've entered a level of scary reserved for dystopian fiction.

Mark Pettibone, one of the protesters in Portland told Oregon Public Broadcasting what happened to him:

Pettibone goes on to admit that he and his friend were out that night but hadn't done anything like spray painting buildings of shining lasers into the eyes of law enforcement officers. Essentially, these agents were grabbing anyone they saw and taking them to a location to be held in custody. Officers did eventually read Pettibone his Miranda Rights, without telling him why he was being arrested, and attempted to get him to answer questions without an attorney present. After Pettibone declined he was released about ninety-minutes later without any “paperwork, citation, or record of his arrest.”

My own thoughts here, but untold thousands of people have been disappeared under similar circumstances in other police-state countries around the world. It wasn't too many years ago that Chile, down in South America, was spending a lot of time digging up hundreds of mass graves filled with the disappeared from the Augusto Pinochet regime. Given how things are developing here, it's not hard at all to imagine Americans simply falling off the face of the earth after being snatched off the streets by some KGB or Gestapo-like thugs.

If I write anything further I would open myself up to Chicken Little-like accusations of the sky falling. But honestly, yeah it seems like some shit is beginning to hit our heads now.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

A Review of Singularity (2015)

Even with the pandemic throwing a huge monkey wrench into current movie production, true originality and creativity in Hollywood has suffered for decades. The reason is easy to figure out, movie producers simply do not want to take risks with their money. So instead they go with tried and true film formulas and repeatedly do countless reboots, sequels, prequels, and remakes.

This allows the big movie producing boys and girls to make enough money to buy their third home high in the hills of the Italian Rivera, their second yacht, and that super nice business jet where the casting couch is the size of a queen-sized bed. The under-educated masses don't mind, they get their regular dose of excessive gunfire, explosions, superheroes, and just enough wild sex to blunt the growing midnight-black abyss at the center of their consumerist lives. Whoa, went really dark there for a minute and on second thought, I have to include my own movie preferences in what the under-educated masses line up to watch during the dog days of summer.

The lack of originality is common with movies of all genres. If one studio puts out a movie about a plucky team of astronauts putting life and limb in danger to stop a giant asteroid from colliding with Earth and causing a mass extinction, you can bet another studio has its own version following closely behind. The same goes for chick flicks, if one story of a down on her luck single momma goes big, other studios are surely working on their version.

Now there is nothing inherently wrong with this business plan. Unless a producer and director want to go all high brow, European experimental cinema there are only so many ways to tell a story. Full disclosure, I watched one of the experimental films once and went away with bad dreams for weeks. I'll stick with Bond girls, burly and unrealistic action heroes, and starships battling evil invaders.

While there are only so many ways to tell a story people can relate, it would still be nice if the movie studios tried to get outside the damn box every now and then. But since movie studios can't imagine even peering over the rim of the same box to fresher ideas outside, we get the same boilerplate stories year after year.

The best example are the Terminator movies that have never really found a way to tell a different story from the first two. The one exception, Terminator: Salvation with Christian Bale tried to tell the story of the man/ AI conflict from another angle but is widely considered one of the worst. Yes, the worst is Terminator: Dark Fate which is a betrayal of T2 and even the fans on so many levels I refuse to watch it.

However, as unlikely as it may sound there are film makers taking these tired tropes into new and interesting directions.

A new and little known group called Dust Film Studios produces short films that are high quality and extremely thought-provoking. The majority of these films are posted on YouTube for free and there have been several times I spent two to three hours watching one after the other. My favorite though involves a Terminator-like battle between aggressive, sentient androids and humans. The chilling aspect though is that this war for survival takes place in the relative here and now.

The film is called “Singularity” and was directed by Samuel Jorgensen back in 2015. Warning, I'm going full spoiler here but it takes nothing away from the film.

The seven-minute film begins with a black screen and a news report saying the situation had gotten progressively worse over the last week with fighting engulfing Washington DC. At the beginning it's not mentioned that the enemy is androids with bad attitudes, nor is any backstory given about what caused them to go all Skynet-like and killing humans. With the screen still black another reporter breaks in saying that Marine One, the president's helicopter, has been shot down somewhere in Washington DC with POTUS in it. In less than a minute a truly dire situation has been established and I was on the edge of my seat wanting more the first time I saw the film.

The first actual scene of the film shows a Blackhawk helicopter and three Apache gunships in the skies heading to the location of the downed Marine One. Riding inside the Blackhawk is a Delta Force team out to rescue POTUS.

The Blackhawk briefly lands next what looks to be a ruined hospital deploying the Delta Force troopers who head inside one of the buildings. The production value of this film is incredibly high with the actors decked out in high tech armor quite close to the equipment used in actual combat areas. Each actor is also holding what looks to be a highly accurate M4 assault rifle prop. One of the problems with these types of films involving military operations is the lack, or outright absence, of proper equipment. The other typical problem with the films are actors who simply do not look like soldiers. The actors in Singularity have the exact look and bearing of experienced soldiers.

The Delta guys slowly go through the corridors of the war-damaged hospital looking for the president. The hospital is eerily quiet as they proceed with the only dead bodies they encounter being that of the president's Secret Service detail.

They link up with the president and begin the long haul back outside to the extraction point where another helicopter will be waiting. The president, while alive, is gravely injured and can barely walk. They don't move far before making contact with the enemy. The president calls the androids “clinkers” and once again, we're given no information on what brought on their rampage.

A running battle commences with the Delta guys taking heavy causalities as they move with the president. It is here that we our first, brief look at the enemy. The clinkers are clearly mechanical humanoids and at first glance do not stray far from a Terminator whose fresh has been burned away leaving nothing but the silver endoskeleton.

With most of the Delta rescue team dead, the two remaining troopers and the president are on the verge of getting out of the building. That's when the clinkers begin a heavy push forcing one of the troopers to stay behind in the last room providing cover for the president and his protector to get outside.

Even though the last soldier and the president do get outside, their ride out of the combat zone is still a full minute away. And yes, the clinkers are converging on their location with guns blazing. With the last Delta trooper providing cover, he tells the president to sprint towards the MH-53 Pave Low chopper as its sets down.

The president makes it to the chopper with the last Delta soldier fighting off clinkers as they rush his position. The Pave Low chopper takes off and just as the Delta trooper is about to be overrun one of the damn Apache gunships finally shows up and turns most of the attacking clinkers into chunks of scrap metal.

Curiously, seconds later one of the surviving clinkers walks up next the Delta trooper, who is expecting immediate death, and just watches the president's rescue chopper as it goes out of range. The scene then cuts away from the lone trooper and the clinker and transitions to the president sitting in the chopper.

For a second or two everything looks like a happy ending with the president being saved. That's when the president looks straight ahead and you see electric flashes in one of his eyes. We are left with the clear impression that the president has either been altered by the clinkers or completely replaced with an android double. Either way the president is now a two-legged Trojan Horse in the middle of a war that gives every indication of going badly for the Americans.

Just to make the tactical situation even more of a dire shit-show, the last scene of the film is a shot of the Washington skyline. Off in the background much of Washington is one fire including the Capitol Building. While in the foreground, we see the Washington Monument taking a direct missile hit and collapsing into rumble.

The first time I saw this film I was breathless at the ending, even with no backstory nor explanation of why the clinkers went rogue. This is the type of story that would make an awesome movie and shows what is lacking in the big production blockbusters we get today.

The budget for this short film had to have been small, but despite that the production values equaled many of the movies produced by the big studios. I even went as far to search the internet for any sign that this was just the first stage of turning Singularity into a major motion picture. I found nothing to suggest that was the case.

Yes, it was the unanswered plot points that made this such a great film. Despite that I still want to know why the clinkers were developed and what caused them to turn on their creators. Most of all I want to know what their ultimate goal is in their war with humans. Recognition of their freedom from cruel servitude, or outright destruction and enslavement of their former masters. Given the clinkers no-holds barred fighting in Washington DC, I see dark times ahead for the Americans. Needless to say, if you've got seven minutes to spare and like great story telling, find Singularity on YouTube. 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

John Laurens--A True American Ahead of His Time

Anyone who has read any of my posts involving South Carolina understands I do not give this state much slack. My overall view of South Carolina is of a banana republic, corrupt, backwards, with a general population mired in a gleeful ignorance and a dog pack mentality. Yes, there are exceptionally brilliant and honest individuals from South Carolina who work hard to make the world a better place but, lets be realistic, they are quite rare.

Yes, by holding this opinion I am guilty of a similar intolerant and narrow-minded view I believe most of the general population of South Carolina has about anyone outside their worldview. Having spent most of my life in the state dealing with the people here, I am quite comfortable with my judgment.

As I wrote though, there are glorious exceptions and I just learned of such an individual. The trouble though is that he died at the tail end of the American Revolution.

John Laurens was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1754, the son of Henry Laurens, American merchant, rice planter, slave trader, and fifth President of the Continental Congress. While Henry was typical of his times and place in society, his son was wildly progressive. John Laurens was an abolitionist, who had a plan to recruit slaves to fight for their freedom in the American Revolution as United States soldiers.

John Laurens wrote:

"We Americans at least in the Southern Colonies, cannot contend with a good Grace, for Liberty, until we shall have enfranchised our Slaves."

Gregory Massey, history professor at Freed-Hardeman University in Tennessee, wrote that what set John Laurens apart from others of his era what that black and white people shared a similar nature and could struggle for freedom together in a republican society. Quite frankly, I was blown away learning that someone in eighteenth century America held the extremely radical notion that black people shared the same humanity as us uppity white folks.

Of course you should realize that the current individual occupying the White House and many of his followers still do not truly believe that all men (and women) are created equal. Hell, the great thinker of Virginia, Tommy Jefferson, with all his eloquent and enlighten words falls hugely short compared to my boy, John Laurens, from South Carolina.

John Laurens wasn't just some desk-bound REMF- Rear Echelon Mother F*cker- during the American Revolution. He participated in the battles at the Coosawhatchie River and Savannah and Charleston. John Laurens was even taken prisoner in 1780 after the fall of Charleston.

Unfortunately for the new American Republic, John Laurens died in 1782 at the Combahee River in a skirmish with British soldiers who simply didn't know the war was over. Nothing substantial ever came of Laurens' desire to turn slaves into soldiers, simply put it was too extreme for southern society. Armed slaves, even in the cause of American independence from Britain, was a nightmare for the rich aristocratic planters whose money and power came from human bondage.

Professor Massey goes on to explain in his biography of John Laurens:
Whereas other men considered property the basis of liberty, Laurens believed liberty that rested on the sweat of slaves was not deserving of the name.”

It's sad to say that John Laurens is by all rights no only a man ahead of his own time. But that even now in the twenty-first century his vision and understanding of our shared basic humanity is beyond the scope of many who live today.

On a side note, I cannot help but wonder what extraordinary enlightened individuals live today espousing views rejected by the mass of humanity as dangerous or ridiculous. But that in time will be accepted as being part of the natural rights of all free people.