Blogs > Cliopatria > Knowledge is Inconvenient

Sep 28, 2007 10:30 am

Knowledge is Inconvenient

Via Crooked Timber, I see that Michael Medved has put forth six inconvenient truths about the Atlantic slave trade.

Also at Crooked Timber, Michael Berube recently observed that when we're talking culture war in the US, it's always 1987. Here, too, I think. Medved sets his historiographical clock to somewhere right around a year or two after Roots aired on television.

Where is it that these discussions about the Atlantic system are being kept as a deep, dark, concealed secret from the tender minds of America's youth? Not in the university classrooms that I know. Certainly not in the monographs and articles of scholars studying the Atlantic system. That's where Medved is drawing (and caricaturing and misunderstanding and misrepresenting) the knowledge that goes into his "six inconvenient truths". He didn't get this information from reading secret samidzats kept alive by subterranean cells of conservative historians. It comes from the mainstream canon of writing about slavery, the Atlantic system, African history, and the settlement of the Americas. Most of what Medved talks about comes up in my classroom, and in the classroom of colleagues who teach about the Atlantic system.

Let's look at the inconvenient truths, and the ways in which Medved takes the state of scholarly knowledge and hacks it into stupid propaganda.

Let's take Medved's truth #1: "Slavery was an ancient and universal institution, and not a distinctively American innovation". Seriously, this is a basic point raised again and again in the scholarship, a question that academics have been exploring in a sustained way for forty years. Medved overstates the universality of slavery a bit in his summary (and does a potted summary of Jared Diamond along the way). But no historian denies that slavery and related forms of servile labor are a basic part of human history.

What historians do debate are two things, both missing from Medved's summary.

First, whether the definition of slavery should be narrow or expansive, about where and when a form of servile labor becomes something other than slavery. Among the issues that arise out of definitional disputes is this: what do we do with people who are technically "slaves" but who hold considerable social and economic power? (This is why Orlando Patterson talked about slavery as "social death".) There were "slaves" in West Africa and the Middle East who were also the chief administrative powers in centralized states or empires, for example.

Second, whether the Atlantic system was distinguished from other forms of slavery not by the fact that it used slaves, but by the uses to which slaves were put and the character of the slave as a commodity in the Atlantic system. There are definitely examples of the extensive use of slave labor for agriculture in history before the Atlantic system, but a great deal of pre-Atlantic slavery was domestic slavery rather than slavery used for intensive productive labor. More importantly, most premodern slave systems arose out of warfare, and many premodern slaves had limits on the degree to which they could be commodified.

Take West African systems of "kinship slavery". The current sketch in the scholarly literature is that slavery in this case was partially a system for bringing captives taken in war into kin-based social networks, that at least some West African societies had no social place for a "stranger", someone outside of kin. This kind of slavery wasn't kind or easy, mind you: it was oppressive and violent. But the point is, slaves weren't being taken en masse for use as laborers, and they weren't freely exchangeable as commodities.

The Atlantic system was different: it was a system that arose primarily for the purpose of acquiring and transporting slaves and then transporting the products of their labor, it turned slaves into nothing but commodities, and it occurred at an unprecedented scale in world history. Medved has a particularly irritating bit of deliberate misrepresentation when he mentioned that the trans-Saharan and East African slave trades to the Middle East probably topped the numbers taken across the Atlantic. Yes, that might be so, but the timescale is different. Medved mentions that the "Islamic slave trade" took those numbers over a timespan of a thousand or more years, but somehow neglects to mention the timescale of the Atlantic slave trade, where the biggest intake of slaves happened within about 150 years. Many millions gone in 1,000 years, many millions gone in 150 years: I think even a six-year old could grasp that these two things are not like each other in their likely impact on human societies.


Medved's other "truths" aim argue that slavery was not a dominant institution in the United States, that it was not the key to the United States' economic success, that it did not instrumentally aim to commit genocide, that the United States was a leader in pursuing abolition, and that Africans wouldn't have been any better off had they not been taken as slaves.

Each one of these draws whatever validity it has from the mainstream scholarly consensus or debate about these subjects. There's nothing startling or suppressed about the argument that slavery was vastly more important to the rest of the Americas than to the United States. But that hardly makes the Atlantic system trivial or unimportant to modern history. It just means that the United States was a more parochial part of that system as a whole than American exceptionalists might imagine.

There's a very detailed literature on slave mortality in the Middle Passage and the Americas that makes it clear that the slave ships weren't gas ovens at Auschwitz--but also makes it clear that because slaves were commodities, their death and suffering were little more than figures on a balance sheet. It's not the same kind of inhumanity, but saying, "It's not genocide" as if that makes it more excusable is, frankly, dumb.

Medved writes that the most prosperous American states were those that freed their slaves first, ergo, slavery didn't create American wealth. First, again, the question of what kinds of capital the Atlantic system created, and where that capital was invested, is an exceptionally well-studied one, not some kind of yet-to-be told truth. But Medved just acts like "banking centers" were spontaneously created in Philadelphia, or "commerce" arose in New England, pristine of any connection to slavery or the slave trade. Another hint to Medved: there's this little thing called sugar, see? And another little thing that comes from sugar called rum, you may have tried it once. (I wanted to try it twice after reading Medved's column.) And, oh, other things that <em>slaves in the New World</em> produced which, by the way, were part of what "commerce" in New England grew out of. It's kind of why we talk about an "Atlantic system", you know, that old triangular trade thing?

On abolition, Medved acts as if the clock only started ticking once you got to 1776, and therefore, you get "special credit" if you have abolitionism as a force right after you have a nation. Hint to Medved: the history of European settlement in North America begins before 1776. More importantly, the US doesn't exactly cross the abolitionist finish line in the lead of the race, more like in the middle of the pack. And they don't exactly cross it the way that England did, through a process of legal and moral reform evolving into militant commitment to antislavery. It takes a little thing called the Civil War in the United States--and gives rise to a little thing called Reconstruction in which black Americans were eventually forced into a subservient and terrorized position within American society.

As far as ye olde "Africans were lucky to have been taken across the Atlantic" (I kind of wish Medved would at least quote or mention the people he's cribbing from since here he's paraphrasing Keith Richberg), again, it's not as if the question of why Africa is the way it is today is something that scholars don't discuss, or that they only mention in terms of politically correct slogans. But it is at least a complex historical question: there is a huge literature that tries to evaluate what the actual impact of the slave trade on African societies was, and some of it plausibly and with great empirical detail argues that the impact was hugely destructive. There's also a little thing called colonialism that came along later: perhaps Medved regards that as politically correct to even mention?


You read this kind of presentation and you have to decide really whether the author is simply a weak thinker or whether he's perfectly aware that he is both drawing upon utterly mainstream arguments AND deceptively truncating or manipulating them. Either way, it's frustrating.

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Jonathan Dresner - 9/28/2007

Nicely done.

It is true that a lot of students get out of HS with some version of the fallacies and errors Medved cites (the "Lucky to come to America" meme is more of a right-wing talking point than an actual error-correction) and I spend some time in my World History classes pointing those things out. I wonder if Medved's actually looked at the mainstream textbooks used in HS and college World History in the last ten years?

William L Ramsey - 9/28/2007

Thank you, Dr. Burke, for an excellent rebuttal to Medved's performance. Sadly, his success on talk radio suggests that he is intentionally massaging this history for a mass audience that he knows all too well.