June 5, 2001

Hugh Thomas’s 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. I’d known that before, but I’d 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 don’t have to worry about such demands from the descendants of the aggrieved. Maybe they were thinking ahead.

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.

[Breaker quote: Does the eunuch 
have a future?]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 didn’t 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 art’s 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 can’t get rid of them. Perhaps castration is the answer.

I suggest that we require civil servants to be eunuchs. I don’t 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 don’t 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. Shouldn’t 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 aren’t in it for selfish gain. Most of them probably wouldn’t 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 anyone’s 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.

Joseph Sobran

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