Thursday, December 8, 2016

The New Post-Factual History

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published “Shackles and Dollars,” an article on the forum on slavery and capitalism that was held at Dartmouth. Dough Irwin moderated a discussion between Caitlin Rosenthal, Sven Beckert, Alan Olmstead and Trevon Logan. While reading the article, I realized that I had not really appreciated how revolutionary the work of Edward Baptist and his supporters is.  I had thought that it was just bad history: misleading historiography, misrepresenting the work of others, omitting evidence that is inconsistent with your claim, not providing evidence to support your claim, and simply making up evidence. Yes, it is true that in the past these things were regarded as characteristics of bad historical work, but that is the past. Baptist is on the cutting edge of bringing standards of historical scholarship in to line with a post-factual age. Baptist and his supporters are less interested in changing the questions that historians focus on than they are in changing the methods that historians use to answer questions. It is not the new history of capitalism; it is the new post-factual history.

Eric Foner is onboard. He tells us that the economic historians who point out that Baptist is just making stuff up are “champion nitpickers.” Foner declares that “I’m sure there are good, legitimate criticisms of the handling of economic data. But in some ways I think it’s almost irrelevant to the fundamental thrust of these works." The thrust of Baptist’s book (other than the style in which it is written) are the claim that unlike previous economists and historians he shows that the slave South was a capitalist system, the claim that slave grown cotton was the driving force behind economic growth, and the claim that the increases in cotton production were driven by ever more intense use of torture. The first claim is demonstrably false: The vast majority of economic historians, as well as many other historians, had long regraded slave owners as capitalists driven by profit motives (see this 1995 survey of economic historians conducted by Robert Whaples). Baptist’s only evidence to support the second claim is a series of numbers that he makes up and then proceeds to sum ; he does appear to be able to do at least some basic addition. (See Pseudoerasmus  for an extensive critique of the cotton driven growth argument, as well as pretty much everything else Baptist says; see also my blogpost.)  For the last claim Baptist provides no evidence in support of his argument and omits evidence that is inconsistent with his argument. When people challenge his argument his response is always the same: throw up a straw man and beat it to pieces. But, of course, all this is merely nitpicking. The critical evaluation of evidence is irrelevant to the fundamental thrust of the work.  
The article also notes that “For all the mudslinging, the slavery fight does not break cleanly along disciplinary lines. Historians under attack find support for their ideas in the writing of some economists, like Ronald Findlay and Kevin H. O’Rourke. What the article does not note is that Beckert’s book never mentions that Findlay and O’Rourke had made a similar argument six years earlier. As a matter of fact, Beckert does not cite Power and Plenty at all in his book. That is probably just more nitpicking.

The degree to which Baptist and his supporters seek a post-factual history was brought home to me again when I saw that Seth Rockman had tweeted that “new CHE article highlights economists thinking ahistorically and ahistoriographically.” Read the article and judge for yourself. I will, however, point out that the article notes that “Historians and economists criticize the new slavery scholarship on grounds that go beyond economics.” And it gives the last word to the economist Trevon Logan: “Like many others, Baptist "continues to see the enslaved as a vehicle for his own need to tell us something new, even when it is not," Logan writes. "That, I believe, is the true shame about the historiography of slavery."”

If you are a historian or simply someone interested in history. Read Beckert and Baptist, but also read Rhode and Olmstead, and Logan. Read them all carefully and critically. If you are persuaded by, for instance, Ed Baptist's calculation of the quantitative impact of slavery (page 321-22 of The Half), please tell me what you found persuasive about it.  

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