Friday, September 12, 2014

Economist Review Generates Discussion of Slavery and Capitalism

On September 4, 2014, The Economist published a short review of Edward Baptist's newly released book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014). The unsigned review concluded that "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."
     The review in general and this comment in particular generated a firestorm of criticism from academics (including numerous sarcastic tweets; Twitter users may check #EconomistBookReviews). The publisher quickly withdrew the piece, though it is still viewable here (minus the still photo originally included of Patsey from the movie "12 Years a Slave," with the caption "Patsey was certainly a valuable property;" that can be viewed here).
     Beyond the furor, the episode generated interesting discussions of the historiography of slavery and capitalism in the United States, links to some of which are collated here:
Jim Downs, " 'Big Wheel Keep on Turnin' ': Slavery, Capitalism, and The Economist," The Huffington Post
"History, Hashtags, and the Truth about Slavery," Chronicle of Higher Education
Matthew Yglesias's extended commentary, on Vox
Jonathan Wilson, review, "Another Kind of Blood: Edward Baptist on America's Slaver Capitalism," The Junto (published before the Economist review)
Hector Tobar, review, LA Times
Ellora Derenoncourt, "The Slaver's Objectivity," The Jacobin
Greg Grandin, " 'The Economist' Has a Slavery Problem," The Nation
Fergus M. Bordewich, review, Wall Street Journal
Edward Baptist responded to the Economist review here:
"What the Economist Doesn't Get about Slavery--and My Book," Politico
Baptist, "The Economist Review," Talking Points Memo
Baptist, "How slavery haunts today's America," CNN
Baptist, "The Economist's review of my book reveals how white people still refuse to believe black people about being black," The Guardian
He can be found discussing the book in general on these sites:
National Archives (talk begins at c. 7 minutes in) (video)
Interview on the Tavis Smiley show (audio)
Interview with Daniel Kilbride on "New Books in History" (audio)
Interview with Scott Porch of Kirkus Reviews (text)
Baptist, who teaches history at Cornell University, is a member of the school's History of Capitalism Initiative.

Also of interest are two related essays, not occasioned by the Economist controversy:
Jim Oakes, "Genovese, Slavery, and Capitalism," Politics/Letters
Seth Rockman, "The Future of Civil War Studies: Slavery and Capitalism," Journal of the Civil War Era (as well as Tom Cutterham's commentary on The Junto and Rockman's reply)
Update, 10/2/14: Baptist's book is reviewed in the New York Times here.