On objective history

“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 final lines of the Economist‘s review of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward Baptist

It’s impossible to keep up with current events without halting in your tracks from time to time, wondering if you’ve fallen prey to Poe’s law.

The more I look at this review, the more it amuses me. It is 538 words long. The first 215 words tell how slaves were “marketed like livestock” in the United States. A bit book-reportish, but serviceable. After that, the reviewer abruptly introduces what I assume to be Baptist’s thesis: that early U.S. economic growth was built on slavery (39 words).

Now we’re getting to the interesting part. The next 250 words are spent arguing that Baptist overstates his case. Sure, slavery was a contributing factor, but let’s not forget America’s “individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.” The review does not, however, go on to address any of those factors, perhaps for lack of space. Instead, the reviewer points to another book (The Slave Trade, by Hugh Thomas) and says essentially, “What he said!”

There’s some patter about how “[s]laves were valuable property,” and therefore slave owners must have been motivated to treat them well. The reviewer rolls out this old chestnut with an air of originality and without flinching. Some writers would feel the need to at least pay lip service to the concept that no conditions of slavery can be humane; our reviewer remains bravely cheerful.

No attempt is made to isolate the causes of economic growth and productivity, or to argue coherently for one over another. The reviewer’s main point, I suspect, is that it is impossible to know for sure. And if we don’t know, we really can’t blame anybody, can we?

Then those last 34 words veer into frothing nonsense, and that’s a wrap.

At first, the demand for an “objective history” amused me more than anything else in this piece, but now it’s making me angry. Objective history. As though objectivity is just what happens if you do the research and write and try not to advocate for anything in particular.

Non-fiction writers shouldn’t be objective. They should be haunted by the idea of objectivity. They should be students of their own biases. They should be advocates for every good cause, however hopeless, however hopelessly complicated. They should never forget they live in the real world.