The Economist gets confused about what century it is

If you’re on Twitter, you’ve probably already read about the Economist’s puzzling decision to criticize Edward Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by defending American slavery. The unsigned review concludes by speculating:

Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. 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. 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. [emphasis mine]

I’m not going to spend much time on the obvious, if rather alarming, historical ignorance here, though I will point out that the Economist is making literally the same argument in defense of slavery that nineteenth-century slaveholders made, and it is no more reasonable or accurate today than it was then. The historical research on the efficiency of slave labor is complex and inconclusive, but regardless, the final word on slavery as a system really ought to rest on the fact that it is fundamentally inhumane and abhorrent.

But that’s not actually the point I want to make, because it’s been made far more eloquently in other places. I want to note that the final line of this review, like the reasoning itself, is also drawn directly from the nineteenth century. Again, this is literally the same argument people used in the nineteenth century to dismiss criticism of slavery and Jim Crow. Below are excerpts from reviews of Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), which gave a fictionalized account of the 1898 Wilmington Massacre:

Unlike Mr. Booker Washington, who in his grand book on the race question deals so fairly and squarely with both white and colored, the writer of “The Marrow of Tradition” is decidedly one sided, and paints the white man as little less than a fiend. (Christian Work)

The treatment of the question is faulty, in that the contrast between the two races is marked with all good on the side of the negro and all bad on the side of the white. (St. Paul Globe)

If the Negroes were not so blameless and the Whites not so unrelievedly bad, it would be more convincing. (World’s Work)

He divides his community up into whites and blacks, and then proceeds to make all the white people black as to character and all the black people white. (Dallas Morning News)

The story tells how the white people plot against, oppress and persecute the negroes. Every white man in the book is made to be a villain, and the white women are made to be designing creatures without a semblance of honesty or any other virtue that is esteemed in the south… And then the negroes of the book! They are all depicted as absolutely honest and upright. There is no such thing as a negro villain in Chesnutt’s book. (Atlanta Journal)

That these authors were all intent on dismissing Chesnutt’s criticism of race relations in the South is understandable, if regrettable: they were steeped in racist ideology and threatened by calls for change. Charging Chesnutt with a lack of balance provided an easy way of rejecting his criticism without really considering its substance (and, I’ll note, there are a few admirable white characters in the book, so these accusations, which are repeated in several other reviews, are not even strictly accurate). It’s a rhetorical move, not an analytic one, and as in the Economist‘s review, it often comes at the end of these reviews, as if to make an emphatic and definitive point that is in actuality more like a sleight of hand.

We’re still steeped in racist ideology today, and as the Economist demonstrates, that ideology remains rooted in the rhetoric of nineteenth century racism.

Update: The Economist has wisely withdrawn the review. You can still find the full text here, along with a brief and rather unreflective apology.

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2 responses to “The Economist gets confused about what century it is

  1. This little gem from the review says a lot, as well:

    “By 1860 the four wealthiest states in the United States, ranked in terms of wealth per white person, were all southern: South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia.”

    The review offers us a comparison of states that emphasizes per capita (per human being) wealth, and they explicitly exclude black human beings from the population (and therefore from humanity). They seem to forget that slaves, while property, were also human beings whose lives and livelihoods were supported by the local resources (the wealth) of the states in which they lived. The terms of The Economist’s calculation does less to recognize the humanity of enslaved black people than the notorious “Three-fifths Compromise.”

  2. Heather Branstetter

    Thanks for your insight! I’m sharing this with my rhetorical traditions class…

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