March 14, 2008

A Crime So Monstrous

When I was younger, I used to play soccer with Ben Skinner.

I grew up and started this blog, writing about mundane things like dropping gnocchi into a pot of boiling water without significant splash-back.

Ben grew up to become E. Benjamin Skinner, a journalist and author of "A Crime So Monstrous," a new call-to-action book about modern-day slavery that has won praise from Bill Clinton, Elie Wiesel and Samantha Power (see the book's Web page for the testimonials). Those of you in D.C. can see him at Busboys & Poets on March 26.

Skinner reveals that in 1850, a slave would cost as much as $40,000 in today's money. But nowadays, sexual and domestic slaves are for sale in Haiti for $50.

He explained to me that he goes by E. Benjamin these days to avoid confusion with the professional surfer by the same name. Here's our full conversation:

Today, you write, there are more slaves than at any time in history. Are most people surprised to hear that?

The word "slavery" has lost its meaning in popular consciousness. If you go to right now and look up "slavery," the first definition that comes up is "drudgery; toil." Few know that real slaves — those forced to work under threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence — are today more numerous than ever.

You say that people around the world don't seem to care about modern-day slavery because they don't know it exists. As people become aware, what can they do?

Three critical steps: learn about the crime; shout about the crime to public, business and civic leaders; and support those actively fighting to stop it. Much more detail at

During the presidential campaign, Ron Paul went on Meet the Press and said the U.S. didn't need the Civil War to get rid of slavery — Paul said the U.S. government should have just bought all the slaves and released them. As you researched the book and came across slaves, were you tempted to just buy all the slaves that you could so that they could be free?

I saw that. You know, the frustrating thing is that Ron Paul claims to be a libertarian, which is a philosophy that I often lean toward, but he is so wrong on this point. I take my cues from Henry David Thoreau, another libertarian, who railed against the Fugitive Slave Act and refused to acknowledge the right of property in man.

I took Thoreau's logic — and the hard-learned wisdom of many failed would-be redeemers — into my own work and early-on established a principle that I would not pay for human life. Was that an easy decision when I was offered a raped, suicidal young woman with Down syndrome in exchange for a used car? No, nor was it an easy decision in the other instances. But ultimately, I feel that it was the right decision.

How many times per hour do you check to see how high the book is climbing Amazon's best-selling list?

David, you know me well. Actually, I'm glad that, at least so far, I've been so busy that I haven't been able to check that. But I do hope it sells--the more people understand the crime, the sooner we build a consensus to end it.

What's the deal with the initial to start your name?

It stands for "Eric." I use it because I have a doppelgänger in a pro surfer called Ben Skinner, who hitherto has dominated the Google bandwidth.

When it comes to soccer, who was the best sweeper you ever played with?

My man, [dl004d]. But don't tell Tim Raducha-Grace I said that, or he'll bring the might of the U.S. Congress down on top of me.


Jeff said...

Wow impressive. Congratulations Ben! I'll have to pick up a copy.

Tom Clancy said...

"there are more slaves than at any time in history"

At the risk of being That Guy, is that adjusted for population growth? Otherwise, there are also more free people than at any time in history. In no way to I want to undermine the larger point, but this is why statistics get a bad name.

Josh said...

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the percent of the population that is enslaved has declined, it's still a terrible statistic. Even slaves die. When the number increases, it means new people are enslaved.

Slave-owners die, too, and one assumed -- absent the revelation of this shocking fact -- that each successive generation has found slavery to be more abhorrent than the generation before it did. That it continues is a crime against humanity. That it would increase, by any thinkable measure, is a further outrage.

BEN said...

Thanks for the thoughtful responses!

It's absolutely true that there are more people on earth than ever before and today, as a percentage of the world population, there are fewer slaves than ever. But two key points:

1.) Does it relieve our consciences to know that there are fewer slaves per capita? Or does it shock the senses that the crime still exists in larger aggregate numbers than ever before? For me, the latter.

2.) The fact that the percent is lower than ever before should not be discounted. On the contrary, it provides great hope that as a race, humans are capable of moving in the right direction in a relatively short time. What's shocking is that we haven't freed all the slaves by now. But, in relative per capita terms, if we've been able to come this far in 150 years: we should be able to finish the job of abolition in a generation.