So a Cornell historian wrote a book about how slavery, rather than God, the Marlboro Man or Vince Lombardi, fueled America's capitalist development. But did you ever consider how nice some slaveowners were, Mr. Historian? Your Economist book reviewer did, and now he's getting torched on Twitter.
Cornell professor Ed Baptist's argument seems pretty straightforward, given that his book is titled The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. But he commits fatal errors of bias and imbalance, according to the Economist's unnamed critic! Has he ever considered things from the leisurely antebellum plantation tycoon's point of view?
Baptist apparently cites the threefold increase in slaves' cotton-field productivity from 1800 to 1860, a figure that vaulted South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia to the top of the list of richest states—for whites, at least. Using testimonies from slaves, Baptist says this productivity boost came from a system of harsher treatment of slaves, "calibrated pain."
But! "[A]n historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all," the Economist's reviewer states. And anyway, there could be lots of benign—even benevolent—explanations for better bale-totin', he says:
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 added. Mind you, this reviewer's just sayin', since unlike Baptist, he hasn't done any research into any of this.
His case was not helped by this accompanying photo and caption:
The People of Twitter, inspired by the Economist's plea for even-handedness, decided to undertake a bit of revisionist criticism of their own, interrogating the literary canon and its lack of objectivity. I present to you #EconomistBookReviews:
#economistbookreviews "At no point does the Diary of Anne Frank mention the daily tribulations of ordinary hardworking Wehrmacht."
— Paul Moloney (@oceanclub) September 4, 2014
"But what about all of the presidents John Wilkes Booth DIDN'T shoot?" #economistbookreviews
— Michael Schaub (@michaelschaub) September 4, 2014
Why does Nabokov paint such a grim portrait of Humbert Humbert when by his own account he bought Lolita lots of candy?#economistbookreviews
— Roberto Brianni (@rahbrine) September 4, 2014
The portrayal of Lady Macbeth is relentlessly negative; it's entirely possible that her hands were in fact dirty #economistbookreviews
— Penny Schenk (@galoot) September 4, 2014
Nowhere in Mr. Dickens' account does he acknowledge the proprietor's generosity in providing orphans with factory work #EconomistBookReviews
— Katje (@silentkpants) September 4, 2014
"I can't recommend these Gospels. The protagonist defends the poor and says not one good thing about rich people" #economistbookreviews
— Matthew Rindge (@mattrindge) September 4, 2014
Has Mr. Preston not thought to ask for Ebola's side of the story? #economistbookreviews
— Joel Gordon (@JoelGord) September 4, 2014
#economistbookreviews "Jonas Salk is portrayed as a hero, but what of the irreparable harm he did to the children's wheelchair industry?"
— Zeddonymous (@ZeddRebel) September 4, 2014
"Mr. Capote does not address the Clutter family's responsibility, as they were clearly well-to-do and worth robbing." #economistbookreviews
— STEVE HUFF (@SteveHuff) September 4, 2014
And in the Economist's misery, some media organizations saw an opportunity:
— L.A. Times Books (@latimesbooks) September 4, 2014
Let it never be said that the hive mind wasn't an adequate corrective to the imbalance of some biased writers.