Bulletin: Economist magazine rediscovers that slavery was bad

"12 Years a Slave": Also too negative a view of the Old South?
“12 Years a Slave”: Also too negative a view of the Old South?
(Francois Duhamel / Fox Searchlight)

The award for fastest climbdown of the year (so far) goes to The Economist. The magazine already has withdrawn and apologized for a review in its latest issue that criticized a forthcoming book by Cornell historian Edward Baptist for being just too negative about the institution of slavery in the South.

The unidentified reviewer argues that Baptist missed a bet by not conceding that the explosion of productivity at cotton plantations in the 1850s might have come from better treatment of slaves: “Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their ‘hands’ ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton,” the review speculates. “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 book, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” is to be published next week by Basic Books.

Following an outcry characterized more by ridicule than anger, The Economist acknowledged that “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. We are therefore withdrawing the review.” It did provide a link to the original review, which is proper.


It’s worth observing that The Economist is one of the few publications with the intellect and class to acknowledge when a retrograde picture of slavery leaks into its pages. Not so the conservative American Spectator, which last November published a review of director Steve McQueen’s film “12 Years a Slave” that prefigured the Economist review almost word for word:

“If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave, as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that Mr. McQueen does not want us to hear about it.”

The notion that the occasional islands and moments of happiness and good fellowship tell the story of slavery, or the story of the Jim Crow era, still gets trotted out now and then by would-be “truth-tellers.” Remember Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty”?

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person,” he told GQ in an infamous interview. “Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people'—not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”


When Robertson got “suspended” by his network as punishment for these words and others, political opportunists like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal couldn’t wait to embrace him as a martyr to free speech. Stupidity and racism in some parts of the country are very hard to eradicate. At The Economist, they recognize these qualities when they see them, if a bit belatedly.

Keep up to date with The Economy Hub by following @hiltzikm.