Lifestyle Over Principle

On my recent trip to Monticello, a tour guide made a statement that has continued to haunt me. Thomas Jefferson, the very brain behind the phrase “all men are created equal” certainly had qualms about owning slaves, but throughout his life he chose lifestyle over principle—chose to own slaves so that he could have a life of intellectual engagement rather than physical toil. I have been obsessed with the subject of slavery for the past several years in part because of this very dilemma it poses: the close proximity in which slaves and slave owners lived their lives, the way they often saw and spoke of each other as family, tells us that slave owners could not have doubted the full-fledged humanity of their slaves. And yet they told themselves stories of the lesser nature of their African brothers and sisters: stories about skull size, primitive biology, lesser intelligence—stories that allowed for the rise in economic power that the United States still benefits from today.

I am fascinated by what stories we human beings tell ourselves to justify our privilege: from the might is right violence of pre-modern times to the rules governing gentility and refinement in the courtly tradition, to the colonial era stories of white supremacy to the contemporary myth of the American dream. These are stories we tell so convincingly and come to believe so strongly that we are willing to die for them.

I’m certain we all left the tour at Monticello grateful that our contemporary justification for our privileged lifestyle doesn’t include holding others in physical bondage, but I’m not convinced we’re doing a whole lot better. The average American uses up 10-14 times her share of the planet’s resources, which means someone somewhere is only getting 1/14 of her share. We have allowed corporate interests to dictate our dependence on fossil fuels, we have squandered precious water and food, and continued to diminish the planet’s resources that will be available to future generations, though science and common sense raise serious ethical questions about our behavior. We have closed our borders to those seeking to escape war, violence, and poverty and find a better life for themselves and their families. And of course, we are still haunted by the injustices of racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia.

In two hundred years, if human beings are still around, they will judge us just as harshly as we judge our slave-owning ancestors. This is just one of the lessons Monticello—home of one of our founding fathers and one of the most enlightened men of his time—has to impart to us today.