The Economist withdrew its review of a non-fiction book on slavery after being criticized for arguing that it's somehow biased to acknowledge that slaves were victims of ... slavery. In an editor's note the magazine said it "regret(s) having published this and apologise for having done so."
Update 11:02 am: In an email to The Wire, Edward Baptist, the Cornell professor and author of the reviewed book — The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism — said he was disappointed that the review was taken down because it served as a reminder that people today still think slavery was okay, and slaves were treated well:
It is a rare gift when people reveal themselves for who they are and what they believe. One of the challenges of writing a book about slavery is that a lot of the historians and journalists and students you talk to when you are writing the book are exactly the kind of people who can’t believe that anyone still thinks U.S. slavery was a mild, paternalist institution. Or that anyone still thinks slaves were “well-treated.” But in fact those people are still out there. Many of them are powerful. And their ideas still influence public policy and public discussion of race. So it is a good thing to flush out the ideas and reveal them for what they are.
Of course, The Economist’s reviews are unsigned, so who knows who actually wrote it and how it got green-lit for publication. I’m actually sorry that the review was retracted, both for the reasons I just mentioned, and because it inspired some brilliant takedowns of the piece in the Economist’s own comment thread.
On Twitter, Baptist thanked the Twitter historian community for its support and said it's been "interesting" watching this unfold:
In its review of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism published Thursday, The Economist argued that the book was one-sided because "almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains."
The Economist argued that Baptist's supposed one-sidedness wasn't "history" but "activism." It didn't help matters that the photo used to illustrate slavery was a still from 12 Years a Slave, with an equally inappropriate caption, as opposed to an actual photograph of an actual slave.
This caused a huge backlash among people who are aware of what slavery was, for reasons that are hopefully obvious.
And to think this whole time we all had the wrong idea about slavery b/c they didn't interview any happy slaves. #notallslaveowners— Zerlina Maxwell (@ZerlinaMaxwell) September 4, 2014
Slavery was also a strangely likable fever dream for "the blacks." @theeconomist— Roxane Bey (@rgay) September 5, 2014
Subject I did not expect to be arguing about on the internet today: slavery.— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) September 4, 2014
It also prompted an #economistbookreviews hashtag, to give other historical villains a fair shot:
By Friday, The Economist had retracted the review (which is still available here) with the following apology:
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.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.