On Tuesday night’s All In with Chris Hayes, host and passionate climate change activistChris Hayescompared the burning of fossil fuel with the institution of slavery, and in mid-comparison, insisted to his audience that “I am not comparing slavery to the burning of fossil fuel.” The denial seemed to be a preemptive strike against the sort of fake outrage that led conservative guests to accuse Hayes of endorsing a Cow Holocaust and/or of silencing women. Whatever you think of the comparison, though, he definitely made it.
Discussing the $20 trillion dollars worth of known fossil fuel reserves, $16 trillion of which will have to be left in the ground in order to avoid civilization-crushing warming, Hayes pointed out that “In all of history, there’s really only one time anything even remotely like that has ever happened,” which was “the end of the Civil War and the liberation of the slaves.”
“Now, before we go any further, I am not comparing slavery to the burning of fossil fuel,” Hayes said, adding “The evil of slavery is distinct and incomparable. The only thing comparable to slavery is slavery.”
He then went on to continue the comparison, noting that when slavery ended, the economic value of the freed slaves was “about $10 trillion” in today’s dollars, and that it took our bloodiest war to end it. (Full segment here)
Clearly, Hayes wasn’t trying to equate slavery with fossil fuel, but identifying similarities and differences between two things is, in fact, comparing them. You can even find the details behind that $10 trillion figure in Hayes’ article for The Nation, entitled “The New Abolitionism,” and if you missed last night’s All In, you can catch Hayes explaining the whole thing to Ronan Farrow in a segment headlined “How abolition of slavery informs the fossil fuel fight,” in which he flat-out agrees that he is making a comparison, just not a moral one. It’s a comparison that he’s been making for several years now.
It’s also a very good comparison, although maybe not for the reasons Hayes enumerates. He sees it as hopeful that fossil fuels are so expensive to extract, versus what he calls the relatively easy deployment of slaves as a resource. This, the theory goes, offers a pressure point to energy companies that was absent with slaveowners. But it is precisely the moral dimension that Hayes wants to avoid which perfectly illustrates the inertia that is dooming efforts to mitigate climate change. It is precisely because slavery was such a monumental moral and social evil that the will existed to defeat it, and even then, just barely.
If you reverse-engineer the analogy, imagine how people in the 1860s would have reacted if slaveholders had given them any wiggle room at all, had made any attempt to adapt their institution to the attitudes of the time. What if there had been the slavery equivalent of a bridge fuel? Would 600,000 people have gone to war if they’d been given any pretense of progress at all? The challenge for climate change is precisely that it is not seen with the urgency, moral or otherwise, that slavery was. Even with that intense moral pressure, it took unprecedented amounts of blood and money to bring it to an end. Without it, climate change can’t even muster a nudge at fossil fuel.
Whatever you think of the comparison, why shrink from it? The right-wing has very successfully brainwashed some liberals into accepting a premise of false equivalency which says that the two sides of every coin are equal, that, for example, calling out racism is at least as terrifying as racism itself, or that any comparison of a historic tragedy is equal to every other. Just Google “Chris Hayes” and “slavery” to see how this works. The object of this exercise, however, is not to enforce standards of rhetorical fairness or decency, it is to obliterate them. They don’t accuse Hank Aaron of racism in order to fight racism, they do it to render the charge meaningless so they can be immune to it. They don’t get outraged about Hayes’ slavery comparison in order to end slavery comparisons, they do it in order to validate their own.
Instead of being cowed by it, though, liberals should embrace their outrage, and expose it. Making a comparison is not, in and of itself, an evil act. Make them explain why they’re outraged. Did Hayes’ comparison trivialize slavery, or demean its legacy, and if so, how so? Was the point being made worthwhile, and was there another way to make it? That’s a conversation worth having.
It’s not as though disclaiming the comparison is going to make a bit of difference, either, but what it does do is validate the premise of false equivalence that conservatives are pushing. There will still be a Twitchy post about this segment (if there isn’t already one), and it will be no less derpy for that disclaimer. Whether you can stand that “heat” or not, you’re already in the kitchen.