Edward Baptist, Slavery and Capitalism

Edward Baptist continues to want to defend his book against criticism. His most recent post is in http://earlyamericanists.com/2015/11/04/guest-post-correcting-an-incorrect-corrective/

I wrote a review of his book in Slavery and Abolition that questioned his use of evidence. In response I got a very hostile response.

Here are some thoughts on his typically robust response to criticism by Alan Olmstead and John Clegg:

“Here he goes again. One thing you have to admire about Mr Baptist is that he is never prepared to let people criticize him without him striking back. He responds with gusto to devastating critiques, though he is curiously silent about the most devastating critique of all, that by Trevon Logan, who questions some of his assumptions about how he can speak for African-Americans. Sadly, whenever he does respond he does so in ad hominem ways. He either suggests that his critics are racist nit-pickers (that was his response to a review I wrote about his book). Or, as he snidely suggests here, his critics are economists (a particular bete noire of his) and sociologists who have not done the basic historical research that a high school student of slave labor should have done before daring to talk about slave management practices. One of the weirdest things that Baptist seems to believe is that historians have some sort of special insight into human behavior that is denied to practitioners from other disciplines. History rules, right? It shows we are in a very strange moment, as exemplified by the History Manifesto of Armitage and Guldi, where historians are convinced that they are the source of all wisdom.

Both Olmstead and Clegg ask him for proof as to why he thinks that slave owners got especially good at torture as a means of increasing productivity in the late antebellum period. Olmstead asks the obvious question about why previous generations of planters eschewed torture as a means of slave management when, according to Baptist, it was a great way to get enslaved people to pick more cotton. Can one reasonably believe that planters in 1810, or 1710, were somehow nicer than planters in 1830, or 1850? Baptist won’t answer this question. Instead he makes an ad hominem attack on his critics, mainly by suggesting that, unlike him, they refuse to accept the testimony of slaves as being valid.

Olmstead goes to great lengths in his review of Baptist’s book in JEH to say that what he objects to is not the use of slave testimony but Baptist’s selective use (or misuse) of it. Clegg, also, talks at length about how scholars might use slave testimony and cites Paul Escott as someone who comes to quite different conclusions from Baptist about a matter of considerable importance to Baptist’s arguments. Yet, repeatedly, Baptist puts himself up as the authority on slave testimony; places himself as the judge of what is contained in slave testimony, and suggests that all of his critics are deficient because they don’t take slave testimony as seriously as he does.

He contends that the argument for increased cotton picking rates coming from increased levels of torture, and more efficient application of force and coercion against slaves in order to repeatedly increase cotton production rates can be traced clearly within slave narratives. He has read the testimony of the survivors of slavery; he is certain that what they say is that methods of torture worked very well in order to make enslaved people pick greater amounts of cotton; and that this reading of slave testimony is not just the only reading of slave testimony that can exist but that if anyone questions how he uses testimony coming from slaves then that person is attacking the very idea of using slave testimony at all.

If you don’t like how Baptist treats testimony from slaves, that then is a Rorschach test about what you think about black people. My questioning of how Baptist used his sources was, he argued, “frankly racist” and the sort of thing that was a “certain kind of academic’s masquerade of a highly selective faux empiricism.” How does one can respond to this kind of criticism (do many historians get accused publicly in print as being racist?) Perhaps one does so by using the language Baptist employs incessantly in his execrable chapter on “Seed.”

I don’t trust Baptist to get things right either when he uses testimony from slaves or when he tries to engage with economic historians. My problem with Baptist is that he is a poor historian. He doesn’t seem to be able to read simple statements and get them right. Thus, in his response to a section in my review of his book where I state that he is practicing ventriloquism (i.e. him, as author, wanting to speak for slaves) he acidly comments that this must mean that I think that African-Americans are literally dummies. How does one get from a statement that I think that Baptist is asserting that enslaved people said things that I don’t believe that they said to the amazingly objectionable proposition that I must therefore think African-Americans are stupid?

Similarly, in this response above he argues that Olmstead and Clegg dismiss slave testimony as anecdotal, putting quote marks around anecdotal so as to suggest that each author used this exact word when discussing slave testimony. Well, Olmstead and Clegg do not dismiss slave testimony as “anecdotal.” The implication from Baptist here is that while he investigates enslaved people’s words with all the tools at the historian’s disposal, the rest of us, me especially whom he castigates as a racist hypocrite who with “cloying condescension” engages in “deeply pernicious” forms of criticism, believe that slave testimony is worthless and should be dismissed. Let’s be clear, Ed, about what I am actually saying – I am saying that I do not believe that YOU have the insights that you think you have into the African-American mind and I think you are a very poor reader of complicated source material.

Olmstead never uses the word “anecdotal” in his review of Baptist’s book and it is dishonest to imply that he does. That is an academic discourtesy – alleging someone has written something when he has not. And while Clegg does indeed use the word “anecdotal” in his review, he uses it not to dismiss the relevance of slave testimony but to say that Baptist (the author, the person who wrote the book, the one putting forward the arguments that make up his book) presents an argument about the increasing prevalence of torture and its increasing efficiency that Clegg argues is not based on rigorously tested empirical evidence. Clegg is arguing, as I read him, that Olmstead and Rhode do history properly because they use evidence that is thoroughly tested. He further argues that Baptist does not understand what he is trying to write about, especially when he ventures into the field of economic history, and that he is a very poor reader of historical evidence. And let’s make this absolutely clear, even though it is straightforwardly obvious in exposition: it is Baptist and his historical method that is the object of Clegg’s criticism NOT the idea of using slave testimony as a source.

How Baptist uses the word “anecdotal” is revealing about his historical method. First, he claims, wrongly, that Clegg and Olmstead dismiss slave testimony as “anecdotal.” Next, he uses this incorrect claim (a claim he can only make because he is insensitive to what Clegg and Olmstead actually wrote), to make ridiculous and offensive statements that anyone who thinks that slave testimony is “anecdotal” must also think that brutal technologies of violence did not play a part in how slaves were forced to work. It is absolutely clear to Baptist that violence against slaves increased over time. If you are skeptical that this increase in violence over time either occurred or else that it explains significant changes in cotton production, then you don’t know anything about the recent scholarship of historians writing about American slavery.

The “homo economicus” who would make such a “logic fail” is, he argues, failing to understand something very simple. One of Mr Baptist’s standard rhetorical ploys in replying to criticism is to assume that his critics, in their determination to get one over on Baptist, just miss the obvious and make errors that are so catastrophically simple-minded that they show that any criticism is motivated just by prejudice: thus Clegg and Olmstead make a “doozy” of a mistake that make their critique so shaky that it has “holes big enough to push a bale of cotton through.” It is not enough for Baptist that his critics are misguided – they have to be idiots or, as in my case, motivated by mysterious and highly dubious pathologies that make people refuse to see the truth when it is placed in front of him or her. Baptist’s view is that his critics just haven’t read enough history in order to know that Baptist is merely repeating standard historical orthodoxies. If you think that slave testimony is “anecdotal,” then, he concludes, you are dismissing the possibility that African-Americans can have anything useful to say about slavery, and you are retreating into fallacies which show you are a fool, or worse, an economist or sociologist. You are evading understanding the real truth about slavery in antebellum America (an institution he argues, contrary to what I thought was the common understanding among historians, at least among historians of the colonial period, that was getting ever harsher over time, more dominated by torture and increasingly more ruthless).

Baptist, by contrast, knows the truth because he, unlike everyone who criticizes him, does not treat the testimony of the survivors of slavery as “anecdotal.” The question then is how his critics can be so blind as to not accept that what Baptist says is incontrovertibly true. We reject his views, he says, “axiomatically.”

An axiom is something so true as to be immune to criticism – it is a premise without controversy. Why would we as scholars be so dogmatic as to reject Baptist’s obvious truths just because we are convinced before examining his evidence that “axiomatically” he must be wrong? It is pretty clear why he thinks I reject his views “axiomatically”: it is because I am a racist hypocrite. He doesn’t make the same claim about Clegg and Olmstead (though there is a hint in his reply that he thinks their refusal to accept what Baptist thinks is blindingly obvious is based on some deep-seated unwillingness to credit the words of African-Americans as being as reliable sources as white-created economic data – he keeps on insinuating that people who disagree with him rate enslavers more highly than slaves). But because they are not historians, they should not go around having the temerity of questioning what historians say. Historians, after all, do history best.

He is wrong. Historians should not be above criticism. I can’t speak for Clegg, Logan or Olmstead about why they thought his book to be, in Olmstead’s words, so “flawed beyond repair” that we critics were all willing to endure his rage and, worse, his condescension by questioning his use of evidence, his conclusions and (in my case) his manner of writing. I did not enjoy writing my review and certainly did not do it as a kind of “ironic performance art,” as Baptist offensively claims I was doing. I have never written a review as hostile as the one I wrote about his book and I hope I never have to write another review that is in a similar vein.

I attacked Baptist’s book because I thought it fundamentally dishonest and an example of extremely poor historical practice. As I said above, I think he is a poor historian and that his book is poor history. I believe one has a duty to the profession to point out such things. And instead of lashing out at his critics, perhaps Mr Baptist might try and write better and more accurate history. And please can he stop pontificating and making out that everyone who questions his work is working from some malign political agenda that is intended to deny that African Americans had agency during slavery. We all believe that they did have agency and find it offensive when it is implied that we are just doing the modern day work of antebellum planters.

Mr Baptist is not the only person with good intentions. And he is certainly not the only person who can tell us the truth about slavery. Some of these seekers after the real lived experience of enslaved African-Americans might even be economic historians or sociologists. And I have one final comment.  It is a shame that so far no woman has been asked to review his book. I’d love to read what a feminist critic thinks of Baptist’s prose when it comes to describing (I think the better term is luxuriating in) the sexual exploitation of enslaved African American women. I’d challenge anyone to read the chapter on “Seed” and not find it grossly offensive and close to pornographic in its fevered re-imaginings of the evils that white men did to black women.”

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