From Cain To Cain’t

Possibly as a result of inadvertently attending a rock concert on Monday, I spent a while yesterday listening to music, and ended up watching a two-part (1, 2) documentary about the history of the blues.

According to the documentary, the blues had emerged around 1900 in the postbellum black American south. And had moved north to places like Chicago in the 1930s and 40s. And had (improbably) crossed the black-white racial divide in England, where people like Keith Richards were listening to Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, before they re-exported it back to white USA in the 1960s.

What wasn’t clear was whether the blues had deeper roots in antebellum black slave society, or whether it was the unique product of postbellum freed slaves. Had life got better for the freed slaves, or had it got worse? Had they been singing the lament of the blues before they were freed, or did they only start singing it after?

One striking remark by somebody was that in the postbellum cotton fields, people worked “from cain to cain’t“: from when you can see in the morning to when you can’t see at night. They may have been “free”, but they were working just as hard as before. And quite probably, precisely because they were free, their existence was far more tenuous and uncertain than it had been when they were slaves, with food and shelter provided by their masters. And they started drifting north to places like Chicago and Detroit when the cotton plantations began to be industrialised with machines.

And the crossover of the blues from black to white in the 1960s saw the beginning of white shame and guilt about the historic slave culture of the south, and the continuing segregation of blacks and whites well into the 20th century. White liberals wondered how their forebears could have been so cruel and exploitative. They still are wondering, and a lot of the current political tension in the USA seems to be an expression of that guilt: it was white liberals who demolished the statue of southern civil war general Robert E Lee in Charlotteville a week or two back. Same with another statue (snapshot from a YouTube video):

Those are white people pulling down the statue. Black Americans – who feel no shame or guilt – must be watching in astonishment.

Should white liberals feel such intense shame and guilt? You’d almost think that slavery was something that was first invented by people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But they didn’t invent it at all. The institution of slavery has existed for thousands of years. It underpinned both Greek and Roman civilisations. It has probably always existed. And probably still does. And it wasn’t just black people who were always being enslaved.

The way I see it, and have written about it here and there, slavery is just something that just happens when people have to work very hard to stay alive. It’s got nothing to do with race or sex or creed.  It’s just that in any society, some people come out on top, and other people wind up on the bottom. If nothing else, some people are always going to be richer (and idler) than other people. In slave societies, that inequity is institutionalised as a permanent arrangement. And it gets institutionalised because life is hard – and remains hard – for people. Slavery concentrates all the idle time of a society in a few people, who are thereby freed to become full-time philosophers and writers and mathematicians and architects and engineers. And in Rome, the engineers built roads and bridges and ports and aqueducts (using slave labour) which made transport and travel a bit easier for everyone (including the slaves). The Romans – or those of them who were free man – were great innovators. Some of their roads and bridges are still in use today. And it’s been entirely due to countless innovations of this sort that life has gotten to be much easier for everyone today than it was 2,000 years ago, or 8,000 years ago. And that’s also why we no longer have the institution of slavery: we don’t need it any more. If our technological civilisation should collapse for any reason – war, plague, or asteroid impact -, slavery will re-appear overnight.

And that’s probably why slavery re-appeared in Nazi Germany during WW2. Wars are times when everyone has to work harder to survive. And when, circa 1941, Nazi Germany began to lose the war, everyone in Germany had to work harder. Germany had a ring of steel around it, preventing almost everything they needed from being imported from the outside world. There were shortages of everything, and there was starvation as well. In these circumstances, forced labour – slavery – re-emerged. It wasn’t because Hitler and the Nazis were uniquely nasty people (many of them were highly cultured people), but because life had become very hard for everyone in Nazi Germany. Slavery isn’t something that comes out of people’s bad character, but from the conditions in which they find themselves living. If Germany had defeated the Soviet Union in 1941, there would have been no slave labour in Germany, and most likely no Holocaust either.

But in much of the Western world these days, many people believe that the Nazis were just nasty people, and so were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – and now Donald Trump. If they knew about them, they’d probably say that the Romans and the Greeks were nasty people as well, for enslaving all those slaves in Rome and Athens. The same people seem to think that the Industrial Revolution was something whereby nasty people built factories whose sole purpose was to tear open the earth and pollute it with poison and belch out black smoke, while employing thousands of women and children in factories, working from cain to cain’t. They want to end the exploitation of minorities like blacks and women and above all children. And they want to undo the Industrial Revolution, and close all the factories, and make everybody equal.

The same people want to rid the roads of cars and trucks, and have everyone cycle everywhere, or walk everywhere, or – better still – run everywhere. Instead of using innovation to make life easier for everyone, they want to make life much harder for everyone, because the harder people have to work, the fitter and healthier they become. These people look back with approval on a wartime era when people had to work hard on not much food, and everyone was so much leaner and fitter than they are now. They’d have loved Nazi Germany.

In addition to exploring the history of American blues yesterday, I spent a while exploring the astonishing world of fitness trackers. These wrist-mounted devices seem to be able to measure heart rates, energy expenditure, footsteps, sleep, and more. Some of them even include GPS positioning. They also come with apps which can be used to analyse the data they store. They seem to be mostly intended for athletic people who do a lot of running or sports. The ads for them show people running up steps or playing sports. And they seem to have a work ethic built into them: some of them include alarms to wake people up, and prompts to get them to do something if they’ve been immobile for too long. They seemed to be designed to keep people as busy as possible. The FitBit Charge 2, for example, includes:

Reminders to Move

To help you stay active throughout the day, Charge 2 sends Reminders to Move that encourage you to take 250 steps every hour.

I was vaguely thinking of buying one. Not because I want to keep busy and fit, but because I don’t. I was thinking instead that, with the work ethic and alarms and reminders taken out of them, they might be useful for monitoring hospital patient activity levels (a current interest of mine). Wouldn’t it be useful for hospital doctors to monitor their patients recovery, and count the number of steps they have to take in order to smoke a cigarette outside the hospital gates?

About Frank Davis

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19 Responses to From Cain To Cain’t

  1. Clicky says:

  2. slugbop007 says:

    I just found the Monty Python NHS sketch from forty plus years ago. It was very prophetic. Send a copy to PM Theresa May and her Health Minister.

    slugbop007

  3. Emily says:

    I know a ton of people who own those FitBits (fitness trackers). Mainly to track their daily “steps” it seems. I don’t see the point personally, I love to walk but it seems like it would take the fun out of walking for me.

    • beobrigitte says:

      I, too, know loads of people with these things around their wrists. When I bought my first smartphone, it had these kind of apps on it, which I deleted instantly.
      I figure that if I wake up feeling well rested, I had a good night’s sleep. And, no, I do not want to know how many steps I’ve taken or how many km I’ve walked.

      The healthists sure do know how to fuel paranoia.

  4. Clicky says:

  5. waltc says:

    A statue of Columbus was just found beheaded in a local park here. I wonder if the noble ISIS imitators know that Columbus never set foot in continental America but second, and more important, that the mostly warrior tribes here also kept slaves–the prisoners of their endless wars with each other. That famous 60s poster of the weeping Indian–ostensibly weeping for the white man’s environmental depredations–was as much a romanticized fiction as anything else about American history. This is not to underplay our screwing of the tribes, but it was neither a story of the Noble Savage vs the Evil Interloper or the Evil Savage vs the Civilized European. Any people who invent torturing their captives by horizontal crucifixion– nailing them to the ground, then slitting off their eyelids so they’re forced to go blind from staring at the sun while being gnawed at by vultures can’t be all good. Either.

    • nisakiman says:

      When you think of the extent of man’s inhumanity to man throughout history, I suppose it’s not surprising we have legions of people who delight in creating grief and misery (and penury) for those groups they don’t like and who won’t bend to their will. It’s a mild manifestation (tempered only by the current legal strictures in place, I suspect) of the instinctive cruelty of a significant percentage of the population.

  6. beobrigitte says:

    The same people seem to think that the Industrial Revolution was something whereby nasty people built factories whose sole purpose was to tear open the earth and pollute it with poison and belch out black smoke, while employing thousands of women and children in factories, working from cain to cain’t. They want to end the exploitation of minorities like blacks and women and above all children.
    Didn’t the industrial revolution enable the mass production of goods, thus increased availability, otherwise out of most people’s reach? We still benefit as can be seen on visiting shopping centers, supermarkets etc. etc.
    Sure, the industrial surface coal mining “tears open” the earth, yet again, at one time it also prevented a lot of people dying from hypothermia in winter. Nowadays hypothermia in winter affects the elderly who find themselves in a position of having to decide whether to eat or to heat.
    (Is living longer really fun?)
    Child labour was not uncommon in the time of the industrial revolution. A family unit’s survival was more important than the individual’s. That often involved the women working in factories, too.
    Their wages were a pittance, of course. At that point in time it was still better than none. Was this slavery?
    slavery in British
    (ˈsleɪvərɪ )
    noun
    1.
    the state or condition of being a slave; a civil relationship whereby one person has absolute power over another and controls his life, liberty, and fortune
    2.
    the subjection of a person to another person, esp in being forced into work
    3.
    the condition of being subject to some influence or habit
    4.
    work done in harsh conditions for low pay

    https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/slavery

    Looks like not much has changed:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sponsored/lifestyle/modern-slavery-britain/

    And they want to undo the Industrial Revolution, and close all the factories, and make everybody equal.
    We all ARE equal as we all are homo sapiens. That does not mean we all have equal chances in life, simply because we all haven’t been born into exactly the same environment with exactly the same abilities.
    Human nature gets in the way of equal opportunities, never mind how much those who want to close all the factories and revert to a medieval life style dream of it.

  7. Philip Neal says:

    Statues. What I find striking about this phenomenon is the extent to which the left has lost its historical sense. Campaigners and activists nowadays seem to have no awareness of how people thought in the nineteenth century, let alone in mediaeval or classical times. Old school Marxism used to be an all-encompassing theory of history from the Pyramids to the railways with the promise of a better world to come. Can it be that radicals are trying to erase history because they no longer think it is on their side?

  8. Joe L. says:

    And that’s also why we no longer have the institution of slavery: we don’t need it any more.

    Is there really no longer an institution of slavery, or has it simply transformed?

    All anyone needs to do is take a step back and observe how the majority of us, the “99%,” live paycheck-to-paycheck while the profits of our labor are enjoyed by the elite “1%.”

    We may not be forced to wear physical shackles and chains, however we are being subjected to ever-increasing lifestyle/behavior control and social engineering. But hey, we’re still told that we’re free, so most people continue to believe it. After all, slaves can’t revolt if they don’t realize they’re slaves.

  9. Lepercolonist says:

    Why would you want to tear down a beautiful statue of Julius Caesar ?

  10. Joe L. says:

    I just found out that the newer FitBits allow for app development. If I had $200 to waste, I would buy one and develop a smoking-related app! The app would alert you that it’s time for a cigarette break (at an interval you determine), and instead of counting steps, I could use the accelerometer to count the number of drags you take, based on how many times you raise your hand to your mouth (you’d always have to smoke with the same hand on which wrist you wear the device, though).

    I highly doubt FitBit would accept such an app in their app marketplace, because it’s “unhealthy.” But then that would be discrimination–the app could possibly make news because of this controversy. Hmm … Goodbye, FitBit … Hello, CigBit!

    • Frank Davis says:

      I could use the accelerometer to count the number of drags you take, based on how many times you raise your hand to your mouth

      That’s exactly what I was thinking too…

      But…. that way I’d find out something that I don’t know, and don’t really want to know: how many cigarettes I smoke every day. At present if anybody asks me I can say that I don’t know, because roll-ups don’t come in packs of 10 or 20. It’s possible to count ready-made cigarettes because when a pack empties, you can make a mental note that you’ve smoked another 20. But roll-ups just materialise in my fingers whenever I want them. It’s impossible to keep count.

      In principle it should be possible to find how long you spend doing almost anything, if there are characteristic movements associated with each, like playing chess or cards. But you’d really need to have multiple accelerometers.

      • Joe L. says:

        But…. that way I’d find out something that I don’t know, and don’t really want to know: how many cigarettes I smoke every day.

        I totally agree – it’s useless information, but then again, so is the number of steps on takes in a day. There is no one-to-correlation between steps and health; it’s just a bullshit excuse to sell a pretty much useless product. My thought was why not replace the “healthy” useless information with “unhealthy” useless information, thus turning FitBit into a parody of itself.

        In principle it should be possible to find how long you spend doing almost anything, if there are characteristic movements associated with each, like playing chess or cards. But you’d really need to have multiple accelerometers.

        Absolutely. With more sensors (accelerometers, gyroscopes, etc.) you could fairly accurately detect the motions involved with certain activities. You could potentially create an “Idle Time Measurement Device.” However, the same activity can be “work” for one person and “pleasure” for another. There’s really no way to automatically discern the purpose of the activity. That would require manual input.

        • Joe L. says:

          Yikes–typos! Should read:

          … the number of steps one takes in a day. There is no one-to-one correlation between steps and health …

        • Frank Davis says:

          However, the same activity can be “work” for one person and “pleasure” for another

          Indeed. And sometimes for the same person. When I was hired to program computers, it was work. When I did it off my own bat, it was pleasure.

          But I think that with most of the “fitness” code left out,a FitBit could actually provide a lot of useful information in a hospital environment, monitoring overall activity levels.

  11. Clicky says:

    • Smoking Lamp says:

      I responded; but they won’t like my comments which amounted to stop persecuting smokers and imposing lifestyle controls on adults.

  12. Pingback: I Can’t Count | Frank Davis

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