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What Were They Thinking In This Book Review?

This week brings the publication of a book by Cornell history professor Edward Baptist that argues slavery was the foundation of America’s “modern industrial capitalist economy” (quoted from Amazon.com’s product description) and its evil legacy remains with us.  As a reviewer on the Amazon.com website puts it,

“Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family really captures this book perfectly when he states that ‘[t]his book reveals a dirty secret about American business … a big, nasty story: in the North and the South, slavery was the tainted fuel that kindled the fires of U.S. capitalism and made the country grow.’  As a scholar of race in this country, I found this book thought-provoking and important. This country has never dealt with the fact that slavery built this country.”

A less favorable review by The Economist drew a firestorm of social media criticism that forced the magazine to issue an apology and withdraw its review which, after noting slave-labor productivity tripled between 1800 and 1860, concluded with these statements:

“Slaves were valuable property, and … [s]lave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their ‘hands’ ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. … Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.”

In its retraction, The Economist said, “There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so.”  The Economist is maintaining its original book review on a “special page” at its website for public view “in the interests of transparency,” which you can see here:  http://www.economist.com/news/books/21615864-how-slaves-built-american-capitalism-blood-cotton

I think The Economist editors deserve credit for admitting they screwed up and trying to make it right.  The Economist is a generally decent publication, and I normally respect them for their concise and usually thoughtful writing.  It also should be noted their review of this book didn’t approve of slavery; its flaw was one of insensitivity.  They also made themselves a target by criticizing the book’s author for advocating against slavery.  What if he did?  Is that a problem?

When critiquing a historian’s work, his objectivity, accuracy, and factual completeness are fair subjects for comment.  It’s also within fair bounds of scholarly inquiry to delve into such factual questions as whether the labor productivity of the slavery system increased over time, and if so, why it did, dealt with as a purely economic question — although granted it’s emotionally difficult for many people to deal with such questions on anything like an objective plane when you’re discussing a subject like slavery.  And finally, from a historical perspective, it’s not unfair to point out that some blacks culpably participated in the slave trade; we all know that’s true, but putting this in proper perspective also requires acknowledging that slavery was largely and essentially a white crime against black victims. In this respect, The Economist’s error was one of omission rather than misstatement.

But the problem with all of these critiques is they’re tangential and miss the book’s main conclusion, which is that modern American capitalism arose from slavery.  Whether this assertion is valid, and what it implies for America’s modern-day labor policies,  is what book reviewers should address.  See, e.g., this commentary by Columbia political science professor Chris Blattman:  http://chrisblattman.com/2014/09/05/economist-read-suggesting-us-slavery-wasnt-always-bad/  Why The Economist skipped so lightly over this point is a mystery.  They must have been in a hurry and disinclined to do their Roger Rabbit iconhomework that day.

 


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