A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Blood Cotton Affair

Down on the ol' plantation
Nearly two months ago, I listened to a CBC radio program as I cooked dinner. This program had on one of those “humorous” little items it regularly airs, to give the listener a brief chuckle and a sense of superiority over someone who has said or done something silly. In this case, it was a quote from an anonymous book review in the September 6, 2014 issue of The Economist magazine, pp. 86-87. It was cleverly titled "Blood Cotton". The book it reviewed was The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and American Capitalism, by Edward Baptist.

The quote, criticizing the author of a book on American slavery, was this:

“Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.”
Oh boy.

That was it. The radio host gave no commentary on the line. After all, it speaks for itself, no? The listener is supposed to be boggled at the appalling obtuseness of the reviewer. Of course the blacks were victims of slavery, and of course the whites were its villains! The reviewer has somehow managed to miss the moral point of the story of US slavery. A snicker and a shake of the listener’s head is supposed to ensue. The overall effect is presumably amplified by the leftish CBC audience’s hatred of the stuffy old Economist magazine, a reviled organ written by and for smartypants ruling-class types. “O brother, can a journalist truly be that stupid?” asks the listener. (Don’t answer.)

The whole effect is that pleasurable mixture of superiority and righteous indignation on behalf of unknown others that is the peculiar enjoyment of politically-correct middle class white folk, who are ever ready to feel much – and do little – on behalf of unknown others. It is the easy and undemanding new morality of the affluent, along with yoga and kale.

Now, I happen to be an Economist subscriber (just the sort of educated listener the CBC is actively trying to get rid of in favour of knuckle-dragging hockey fans). As such, I had actually read the review in question. I therefore knew that the CBC had done a hatchet job on it.

Unfortunately, the story was not only picked up by the CBC. The egregious quote had been making the rounds in other media sources too. The author of the original book himself has been getting quite a bit of mileage out of the review, appearing in several media outlets taking The Economist to task, conveniently deflecting attention away from the review’s core criticism, which if true, is that Baptist’s book — methodologically speaking — is simply shoddy history. This is the main point the reviewer was trying to make, and it is a criticism that hasn’t really been refuted, amidst all the moralistic cheap shots.

I don’t frankly know which is more saddening to me: the misguided moral outrage, or The Economist’s abject, groveling retraction of a review that to my mind raised valid questions of scholarship. Although the review was pulled from their main website, it can still be read here.

Now here is The Economist’s shameful retraction:

“In our review last week of ‘The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism’ by Edward Baptist, we said: ‘Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.’ 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 were willing participants and beneficiaries. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so.”
I was left confused as to what, precisely, they were apologizing for. The reviewer never denied that slavery was an evil system.  Nor did he deny that the majority of its victims were blacks. (To claim, as the retraction does, that the great majority of whites were willing participants and beneficiaries is debatable, but I'll leave that aside.) The reviewer's implied criticism was that there was little attempt made by the author to present any other than the standard caricatured narrative of slavery as a moral evil. Yes, slavery was evil. Tell me something I don't know. But it was also a complicated evil, and the author fails to bring out that complexity. That was what the reviewer's sentence was awkwardly trying to point out. I was very disappointed that The Economist threw its reviewer under the bus in the name of political correctness. I personally found the review to be interesting and thoughtful, and so I’d like to do it a little justice. I am glad for the reviewer's sake that at least The Economist does not name their contributors, as it would be a shame for his or her career to have been ruined by this needless debacle.

Aside from a lack of nuance, the reviewer has two main criticisms of Baptist’s book. I must make it clear that I have not personally read the book, and so I am not well-placed to verify whether these criticisms are valid or not. But as I said, I haven’t really seen a plausible refutation of them amid all the fuss, so I shall assume them valid for argument’s sake, as one must do with a review of any book one hasn't read yet.

The first criticism is that the book is mostly anecdotal and therefore lacking in objectivity. In this connection, here are the reviewer’s words:

“Mr Baptist cites the testimony of a few slaves to support his view that these rises in productivity were achieved by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of ‘calibrated pain’. The complication here was noted by Hugh Thomas in 1997 in his definitive history, ‘The Slave Trade’; an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all.”

Methodologically, a work of sound scholarship in history, as in other social sciences, ought not to rely too heavily on the self-reporting of a small sample of subjects. Anecdotes may suffice for an autobiography or memoir, but not for a work of history. That is not to say that anecdotes have no place in such works, to function as illustrations of a broader point. But that broader point should not – indeed cannot – be demonstrated by anecdotes. Now, if Baptist’s book is largely anecdotal, and if it presents itself as a history, and in any way a scholarly one, then this is a problem. I leave it to readers of the book to determine whether this is the case. However, it is what led the reviewer to question the book’s rigour, and it is also the point behind his criticism that the chosen heroes and villains may be as much of the author’s creation as they are of history’s. How many (white) heroes and (black) villains get left out in the cherry picking of sources? We know there must have been some, if only as a matter of the law of large numbers.

The second criticism comes in the form of a very interesting historical puzzle raised by the reviewer, which is this: After the first decade of the 19th century, importation of slaves from Africa to the US was abolished. Once the external source of slaves had dried up, slave owners were forced to rely on the domestic “stock”. Although slaves were always a valuable commodity, they became more so as time went on. How is this fact to be squared with Baptist’s thesis that the productivity of slave labour was increasing over the same period, and that this productivity increase was largely driven by the increasing meanness of slave owners? If slaves were becoming more valuable (and productive), how much economic sense does it make for owners to risk damaging their property by beating them? How much can productivity be increased by starving one’s producers? As the reviewer notes, “Slave 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.” Note that he said “could have”. It is a puzzle that at least deserves to be honestly examined. And since it is also an economic puzzle, it is entirely appropriate that it be aired in a magazine called The Economist.

The reviewer’s alternative hypothesis regarding slave productivity doesn’t sit comfortably with the knowledge that US slavery was an evil institution. And I believe it was inherently evil, in that even were we to make the laughable assumption that all slave owners fed and pampered their slaves luxuriously, slavery would still be a moral stain. Thus, to consider the reviewer’s conjecture and explore the question she poses is not to justify slavery. She could be right, and slavery would still be wrong. So why the reluctance to consider and explore? This is one of the dangers of unthinking political correctness. If a supposedly scholarly book cannot be honestly reviewed according to the accepted standards of rigorous scholarship merely because it is about a certain topic, then woe to scholarship, and woe to us all.

I will end this post with the following point: In most sources, including the CBC, the controversial quote is characterized as ending the review in which it appears. This is not entirely true. As a matter of fact, the first part of the sentence is cut out, and one more sentence follows it, which if reprinted might do much to soften the impact of the whole. Even The Economist presented the butchered version of the quote in its own retraction of the piece. To set the record straight, here is the actual ending of the review (I have bolded parts that were removed from quoted versions):

Unlike Mr Thomas, 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.”


US slavery victimized many, black and white. As I have read more and more on the topic, I have come to believe that this was one of its greatest evils, the fact that it could damage or corrupt all who came into contact with it. White “victims” can be found who bravely opposed slavery and suffered dearly for their beliefs, as well as many white villains who kept, traded, and drove slaves. It seems both of these, along with slavery’s innumerable black victims, are easier to write about than the black “villains” who were implicated in it — a much less palatable topic of study. But they existed. We forget that, at the source of supply, for a long time it was blacks in Africa who sold their brethren to white slavers. Many overseers were themselves black, and although I can't say whether on the whole they were any less or more cruel than the white overseers, I suspect they were probably a mixed bag. And I leave it to the reader to consider such an interesting figure as Anthony Johnson of Virginia.