A hundred and fifty years ago, slavery was an issue in the U.S. But it wasn't the only issue, and it wasn't the only reason the Civil War happened. The South was less densely populated than the North. As more people emigrated from Europe, they landed in the northern states more often. Soon the southern states felt their interests weren't fairly represented in Congress, and they wanted to secede. Slavery was only part of the reason. We've made it the focal point as we rewrite history, because it makes sense to our limited ability to put events and issues and history in simple, orderly categories in our brains.
The biggest problem with our view of slavery as an old problem, a historical issue that we already dealt with and put away, is that we're dead wrong. Slavery continues. Oh, you think I'm talking about undeveloped countries? Not even close. There are as many slaves in the U.S. today as there were in the 1850s. Even more. There are more slaves in the world now than were sold in the three centuries of legal slave trade in America. And in undeveloped countries, slavery is a way of life. It has been for generations, and it's not changing anytime soon.
Every now and then, we hear news that someone was rescued from a basement or shed where they've been held captive for years. We don't hear about the ones that don't escape. We don't hear about the teenagers, male and female, who are abducted every day and sold into the sex trade. We don't like to be aware of how many U.S. citizens are tricked into drug use and become slaves to their dealers, who are often also their pimps.
Portland is one of the biggest human trafficking cities in the country. We talk about the history of immorality, of prostitution and smuggling related to sailors who landed here way back when, about the underground network of tunnels in which people were shanghaied. Those tunnels are a tourist attraction now, but they were built to transport unsuspecting, often drugged, innocents from the bars and brothels to the ships that would take them to China for sale or keep them as ship hands. We want to think these activities have ended. They haven't.
We hear about fair trade, about slavery and child labor in the production of coffee and chocolate and tobacco. But the atrocities are far away and the marketing is so compelling and we love our luxuries so much that we don't find room in our brains for the intensity of the human rights problem. And, we reason, if children on family farms didn't help with the work, the family wouldn't be able to survive, so isn't it cruel to demand that they end child labor? Well, which makes more sense to you -- letting children harvest tobacco and get nicotine poisoning, or giving up smoking? What if the kids aren't allowed to work with hazardous crops? Could the family switch to growing bananas or something? We want simple answers. They don't exist.
With all the progress we've made on the gender gap, women's rights, education for girls, and modern career opportunities, there are still thousands of young women who find themselves trapped in a life of prostitution. They get conned into using drugs, or they trust the wrong guy, or they drop out of school and run away from abusive parents. Men will always want women's bodies, and women will always have that commodity to sell, often as their only option. Why can't we, in this age of modern science, communication, and prosperity, find a way to treat all humans with dignity?
The truth is that we don't care enough. We want to. We try to. We think we're getting better. But we don't want someone else's rights to impact our own lifestyles. We don't want to have to cut back on manicures so someone else can eat a hot meal. We don't want to skip a vacation so a family living in their car can be placed in an apartment and receive work training. We want to, but we don't need to. Mankind doesn't change anything until staying the same is too difficult, and we've built ourselves such thick insulation against poverty, slavery, and abuse that we may never have the will to end it.
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Modern Slavery: The Secret World of 27 Million People