Tag Archives: Nellie Norton

Convince me that puppies are cute! And flowers are pretty! And cupcakes are yummy! Let’s hone those critical thinking skills!

16 Apr


Ok, class, today we are going to try and figure out how it is that an entire society, composed mostly of good people, can nevertheless engage in behaviors so profoundly cruel and evil that it defies the imagination.

We’ll start with the following two maxims:

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing  

Edmund Burke


Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana

Slavery as an institution has been part of human history for as long as human history has been recorded. For tens of thousands of years, humans were bought and sold and used for their labor.


For over 400 years (1440 – 1888), the Atlantic slave trade flourished, with many nations participating.  Many of the slave traders were themselves black Africans.  Everybody involved found some way to justify what in retrospect seems like pure, unmitigated evil.


But it isn’t particularly helpful to use words like “evil”, because if everyone was “evil”, then the word has no meaning.

There are specific techniques and strategies and methods that can be used to convince otherwise good and kind and decent people to participate in atrocity.

Let’s look at just one of those things:  persuasive writing.  Otherwise known as propaganda.

nellie pic

This is Nellie Norton, writing to defend slavery on Biblical principles.


MANY books have been written in favor of slavery; but few of them have been generally read. This little volume claims no superiority over any of them. It was thought that a reply to abolition objections, based upon the Divine argument, might satisfy many minds who had not the time to devote to a thorough investigation of the subject, and, perhaps, set the question, as to its moral aspect, forever at rest.



I want you to download Nellie’s entire tract and read it carefully.  Note all the specific ways and arguments that she uses to justify the cruel exploitation of one group of humans by another.  And just to make certain that you understand how these techniques can be deployed to make horror palatable, I want you to construct your own argument to justify slavery.

Use all the same techniques as Nellie.

Use the same arguments.

This might make you uncomfortable.  That’s good.  Pay attention to those feelings.  Ask yourself if you might have been susceptible to such persuasion.  Could you have been a slave owner?  Could you have watched a ship come into harbor and watched the sale of human beings? Don’t automatically discount it.  We understand now that slavery is evil, but we didn’t then.  We didn’t want to.

There are plenty of ways that the modern world continues to exploit and enslave other groups of people, if not explicitly, then implicitly.  Where did your iPhone come from?  Who built it?  What are the conditions under which they labor? Do you care? Do you want to care?


And remember, the reason we study history, the reason we take apart the arguments and justifications, the reason we try to relate those to our own lives is so that we do not repeat history.

Class dismissed.

Personally, I think that’s a great assignment.  Take a bunch of high school sophomores, give them a scenario that is indefensible by any sane person, ask them to examine the arguments carefully and then relate what they have learned to their own lives.

Ask them to think critically.

To consider the world and other people in it.

To see that willful blindness has tragic consequences.

To understand that evil can flourish even when people are basically good.

A teacher in Albany, New York, tried to do exactly that, and she may very well lose her job over it.  The special snowflakes in her class didn’t want to think about yucky things. They shouldn’t have to confront the ways in which they themselves might be complicit in a similar tragedy.  They don’t like intellectual provocation. That’s no fair.  Thinking carefully and critically is bullshit.  Who needs to do that?


After spending weeks looking at Nazi propaganda, the Albany teacher asked her students to demonstrate that they understood the techniques Nazis used to convince an entire population that Jews were evil, and that made some students “uncomfortable”.



The Holocaust SHOULD make you uncomfortable! It should horrify you to the very depths of your soul.  It should strip every ounce of self-absorption from your bones and lay bare to you the fact that evil exists and it just might be you.


This teacher gave her students the opportunity to examine the role that persuasive writing plays in an event in which there are no reasonable, rational justifications. None.  There is not one possible way to rationalize the holocaust. Students who felt that were being asked to defend the Nazis are breath-takingly missing the point. The words “bag of hammers stupid” leap to mind, but mustn’t get too judgy now.

bag of hammers

There is no defense.

That is what makes it such a great assignment.

Real life problems are hardly ever that clear cut.  Should you use that cheaper cancer drug ingredient?  Should you use the pricier ingredient and thereby ensure that some people won’t get treatment at all? How do make a decision like this?  What facts do you consider? What role do your feelings play?  Have you been influenced unduly? How might that have happened?


Who wants to bet that the cupcakes who didn’t wike their assignment were girls?

arms crossed

We already know that women don’t like making decisions that are ethically fraught and require careful thinking. We only need to look to cases like Albany to see why that is the case.  I personally cannot believe the adults in charge of the school and the administration caved in to these whiny little assholes, and to frame the objection in terms of anti-Semitism is beyond outrageous.

Those students didn’t object on the basis of prejudice.  Bullshit. They objected because the assignment forced them to confront their own capacity for evil and ugliness and cruelty and brutality.  In special snowflake culture, no one is ever evil or cruel. They’re just misunderstood.

Girls especially.

Boys not so much.  Which is why they tend to be incarcerated at 10 times the rates women are.


Re-enacting the propaganda of Nazi Germany cannot help but reveal some disturbing truths about humanity. Those truths SHOULD be disturbing.  They haven’t gone anywhere, and allowing children to have tantrums to avoid looking in the mirror is exactly the right strategy to ensure that history does, indeed, repeat itself.

It’s practically begging for it.

And in a way, it’s already happening.  Consider the incredibly disturbing situation in Sweden, where being a man, at least linguistically, has formally been declared illegal.


How can we expect a new generation of citizens to think about something like the mandatory policing of language to ensure that gender is eradicated when they refuse to even contemplate much less nuanced examples from lived history?

Is that the point?  Could it be that some people have a vested interest in making certain that young people, and young women in particular, are incapable of rationally considering the cultural context in which they live?  That unthinking, willful blindness to injustice is just what the liberal school system is trying to teach?

When teachers like the one in Albany stand up and demand their students think critically, and more importantly, self-critically, they meet a screaming mass of protesters who demand their silence.

The silence allows us to forget.

And those who forget history are indeed doomed to repeat it.  Who will the victims be this time?

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.


We cannot allow this to happen.

Silence is not golden.  It’s deadly.

Lots of love,


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