June 5, 2001
Thomass imposing history The Slave Trade, which I
wrote about the other day, reminds me that until the nineteenth century African
slaves were highly prized in the Arab world as eunuchs. Id known that
before, but Id never stopped to reflect on its implications.
My reaction can be summed up in one syllable:
Yipes! If blacks ever start demanding reparations from the Arabs, the bill could get
rather steep. On the other hand, the Arabs probably dont have to worry
about such demands from the descendants of the aggrieved. Maybe they were
In that respect, American slaves were
relatively fortunate. Even the most brutal white masters left their slaves
procreative equipment pretty much intact, thereby dooming posterity to Jesse
Jackson and Snoop Dogg.
In the Arab world, eunuchs served two chief
functions: they were employed as guardians of harems and as civil servants. In the
latter role they could amass considerable power, though we may doubt whether
they regarded this as full compensation for their condition. History, which
notoriously tends to be told by the victors, has bequeathed little testimony from
the eunuchs themselves.
The Christian world was always somewhat
squeamish about slavery, which raised inescapable questions about natural rights
and the immortal soul. To bring a filthy, overcrowded ship full of people across the
ocean was to condemn a certain number to death; the Atlantic slave trade was
literally murderous. But the profits were so irresistible that papal condemnations
of slavery were widely ignored.
Even so, the eunuch was all but unknown in the
New World. Maybe this was due to Christian monogamy: there were no harems to
guard. (The Tales of the Arabian Nights are full of stories of rich
men who discover that they have been cuckolded by Negroes evidently a
source of anxiety and a topic of rough humor.)
For whatever reason, Christians cringed at the
mutilation of slaves; many regarded it as their duty to convert and civilize them,
even to prepare them for freedom. When they defended slavery, they defended it as
good for the Negro himself.
Such scruples would have baffled
non-Christians, who took owning slaves as much for granted as owning animals
and felt no need to justify it. And, as with animals, if you owned them you could do
as you pleased with them. After all, you didnt have to justify castrating
your livestock, did you?
At the same time, the Renaissance Church
accepted the castration of boy singers to preserve their beautiful voices. This
abominable cruelty, as it seems to us, was approved for arts sake, and
many castrati became international celebrities. Now I like a good soprano as much
as the next man, but not if it means taking jobs from women.
Is there a place for the eunuch in the modern
world? The harem hardly exists (outside Utah and Hollywood, anyway), but civil
servants are more numerous than ever. Like cockroaches and intellectuals, they
multiply madly and you cant get rid of them. Perhaps castration is the
I suggest that we require civil servants to be
eunuchs. I dont say this out of cruelty: the operation could be performed
surgically, with anesthetic. It would be voluntary. But it would be our assurance
that our civil servants really wanted to serve.
Am I asking too much? I dont think so.
After all, these people exercise great power over us; we pay them generously for
oppressing us; and they have almost absolute job security. Shouldnt they be
willing to give something back?
Putting someone on the government payroll is
nearly as irreversible as castration. As things now stand, calling such people our
servants is a sour joke. They are our masters. Asking them to make
a small sacrifice would be no more than requiring a pledge of good faith, a sign
that they arent in it for selfish gain. Most of them probably wouldnt
be giving up much anyway.
Call me a dreamer, a starry-eyed idealist, a
deluded utopian, but I think this would be a very practical reform. It would weed
out the self-seeking careerists, now all too common, who grab government jobs
with no intention of serving anyones interest but their own. We would be
left with a solid corps of truly dedicated people whom we could call our
public servants without sarcasm.
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