Why Do Conservatives Minimize Slavery?

The Economist: Are We Racists?I’m sure you’ve read about The Economist review of Edward Baptist’s forthcoming book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The anonymous reviewer concluded, “This is not history; it is advocacy.” That was because Baptist just focused on how slave owners forced more productivity out of slaves. The reviewer just couldn’t understand why he didn’t spend any time on all the slave owners who got their slaves to be more productive by being nice to them. You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar! Am I right?!

There has been a lot of comment on this review, but most people just think it is funny. It is so over-the-top offensive that it is hard to take it seriously. Or maybe we are all so used to it by now that we figure, “Of course a conservative magazine would write that.” Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times noted that the review was very similar to what The American Spectator wrote about the film 12 Years a Slave, “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.” Yeah! Can’t we get a little Margaret Mitchell fiction to cut the bitter taste of Solomon Northup’s nonfiction? A little balance, that’s all we want! Am I right?!

The Economist has reacted the way you would expect from a British publication. They admitted their error and moved on. In place of the article is an apology, Our Withdrawn Review “Blood Cotton.” (For transparency, they rightly leave the article after the apology.) And they don’t try to justify or minimize:

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 apologize for having done so.

So good for The Economist. But the question is naturally raised: why is it that conservatives — Libertarians most especially! — are so often trapped by a kind of slavery apologia? One would think that believers in freedom would be especially offended by slavery. Yet they are forever making arguments that slavery was on its last leg and this nonsense about how slave owners treated slaves well because the slaves were valuable “property.” What’s with that?

I think there are two issues. The first, and less important, is that they define “freedom” in such a way that it is meaningless. For example, freedom is “paying no taxes.” It is not “the ability to find work.” Conservatives believe that the government has a role in enforcing property rights. But it has no role in seeing that people who were born poor after all the property was divvied up have an option to make a living. Thus, it isn’t surprising that such a skewed idea of freedom would cause them to get confused about an issue like slavery were the slave owner is, after all, extremely free. And eliminating slavery requires collective action, which they hate.

The second reason that conservatives tend to minimize slavery is much more important. Conservatives have created a kind of idolatry. In its most simplistic form, this is a religion where the founding fathers were demigods who produced the divinely inspired Constitution and so on. Slavery puts a real damper on this party. If God was really behind the founding of America, why didn’t he get rid of slavery instead of coming up with that three-fifths clause? Thus, conservatives need to minimize the horror that was slavery to make it at least seem acceptable enough that it could wait 77 years.

Of course, the knowledgeable and intelligent people at The Economist don’t fall for such a thing. They believe something more sophisticated: free market ideology. But this is no more defensible. If free markets work so well, why is there slavery? And note: during slavery, it was those in the South — the slave owners — who were in favor of free trade. In the north, the fledgling industries wanted economic protection. So, far from being anti-free-market, slavery fully embraced it. I’ve been in many arguments with libertarians about this, but the arguments are not good. They all come down to, “But protecting people from slavery is one of the things we do need a government for!” Of course, the kind of weakling government they want would never have the power to stop slavery. It’s all nonsense.

I think that intelligent conservatives need to take a close look at themselves. When The Economist can push an idea that is normally reserved for confederate apologists, it is clear that there is racism festering in the core of conservative ideology. It’s great that the editors of The Economist were quick to admit their error. But that error indicates something going very wrong at the magazine and the conservative movement generally. But maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe all political movements have racism bubbling under the surface. Am I right?!

Actually: no. I don’t think so.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Why Do Conservatives Minimize Slavery?

  1. I think it is an abominable distortion of history when studies about the Holocaust do not give equal time to the Nazi prison camp guards who patted little children on the head before herding them into the gas chambers.

    • Brilliant! It reminds me of Franz Liebkind in The Producers, “Not many people know it, but the Fuhrer was a terrific dancer.” Can’t we get a little balance about the Holocaust!

  2. Another line I hear conservatives make is that African-Americans should be glad for slavery, otherwise they might have been born in African countries that suffer from poverty, disease, violence, etc. What doesn’t seem to seep into their thick skulls is that the slave trade destabilized many African societies and that Africa would have been a better place in the absence of the slave trade.

    • I have heard such claims just this last week. It’s amazing. It reminds me of Randy Newman’s song “Sail Away”:

      In America
      You get food to eat
      Won’t have to run through the jungle
      And scuff up your feet
      You just sing about Jesus
      And drink wine all day
      It’s great to be an American

      Ain’t no lions or tigers
      Ain’t no mamba snake
      Just the sweet watermelon
      And the buckwheat cake
      Everybody is as happy as a man can be
      Climb aboard little wog, sail away with me

      I occasionally find myself on Confederate apologist sites. These are not white supremacist websites. They are run by people who don’t consider themselves in the least bit racist. Yet they make these arguments. It’s amazing. And very very sad.

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