Sunday, September 7, 2014

Edward E. Baptist, the Economist, and US Slavery

Edward E. Baptist

A teapot tempest blew up when The Economist reviewed Cornell University professor Edward E. Baptist's new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. After the predictable negative response to their review, the editors of the British magazine apologized for their critique. The author himself followed with a response to the apology here.

Baptist's book is meant to bring to our attention the importance of the peculiar institution to the development of the vibrant American economy and its origin in the plantation production of cotton for the textile industry, one of the first beneficiaries of the industrial revolution. Ergo, Americans sitting in front of their televisions watching the Vikings play the Redskins while nibbling on taco chips and guacamole owe this pleasantry to enslaved Africans who were freed 150 years ago.

We believe today that involuntary servitude is morally wrong. Yet that never stopped the use of conscription, many thousands of men being involuntarily drafted into the military over the years until the practice was discontinued in 1973. In fact, the Select Service System still exists and all men between 18 and 26 are required to register for a possible draft. Failure to do so is a felony. Evidently, some kinds of involuntary servitude are OK, since we never hear  about the children that weren't born because their father was conscripted and used for cannon fodder in a foreign country. Our buddies in China, South and North Korea, Kuwait, Egypt, the Scandinavian and Baltic countries and most South American countries, among others, still conscript draftees into military service. We don't see any news coverage of protests in front of the Kuwaiti embassy over their mandatory military service. There are no books being published about the economic cost of jerking thousands of young men out of their families and communities, training them for jobs that don't exist in the civilian world, and then sending them to foreign  lands where they can be targets for the unhappy locals.

You're saying, "Gee, conscription doesn't justify slavery, even though its the same thing. Bringing up other wrongs doesn't diminish the terrible tragedy of slavery. And it was based on race." Fair enough. That brings us to the people the Washington NFL team is named after.  In spite of the fact that they were victims of a racial genocide quite similar to that imposed by the Mongols on the 13th century Persians and that their land and property was literally stolen from them, they are not a political cause celebre. Even the liberals with the nicest limousines don't complain much about the fact that practically all of the US was taken away from its New Stone Age owners at the point of a gun. Unlike African slaves in the south, who were regarded as valuable property, the native Americans were considered as hostile vermin to be eradicated in the name of "manifest destiny". Historians need to get their priorities in order.

One could make the case that the biggest problem with American slavery wasn't lack of freedom as such but was instead the various wrongs inflicted on the slaves by callous or evil owners. Just as there was in 1850 no EPA, no Department of Education, no OSHA, there was no Department of Slave Administration to prevent or punish lashings (flogging was outlawed in the US Navy in 1850) and other mistreatment. Perhaps if there had been a DSA prior to the War Between the States, an agency that could define and regulate human bondage, it would exist even today, despite any conclusion reached by the conflict. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was established in 1824, as part of the War Department, and continues to exist today, administering over 55 million acres of land held "in trust" by the US government, among other duties. There are federal agencies that appear to be designed to advance the cause of the descendents of slaves, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a division of the Justice Dept., for instance, but it didn't come into existence until 1965.

The central tenet of Baptist's book is that all Americans, and even citizens of other countries, owe much of their current affluence to the exploitation of black slaves during the roughly 250 years that they were a factor in the US economy. The reality is that the foundation of US economic success was the millions of acres of virtually free land confiscated from the native Americans, some of which was used for the production of cotton by slaves.

There isn't any possible rectification for the native Americans, or the descendents of slaves, for that matter. The state of Wisconsin isn't going to be  returned to the Winnebagos and Ojibwa that once called it home. The issue is the continuing hypocrisy displayed by the US government and its patriotic apologists that keep singing the national anthem before hockey games and pretending that the US is unique in its embrace of freedom. 

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