A Little More

I also really wish I’d had Baptist’s book assigned to me in a history class in college, because he does such a clear job of laying out pre-Civil War U.S. history not as a series of facts, but as “this happened because of these three things. And because this happened, years later, when this other thing happened, it happened in this way.”

I mean, just at the level of fleshing out “Andrew Jackson didn’t like banks” into “here’s all the crazy shit banks were doing” was really useful. And, though I still think a gold standard is stupid, when you have what we had in the 1830s, with people lending money to other people to lend money to other people who’ve mortgaged crops they haven’t grown yet to buy slaves they’ve already put up as collateral for other loans, you can see the appeal of “you have 300 gold coins in your vault, so you can’t lend out 500000000000 gold coins, because they don’t exist. You don’t have them. If you want more money to lend, you’d better figure out a way to get people to put more money in your bank.” Was Andrew Jackson doing to the banks what he should have been doing to Andrew Jackson Jr.? Probably.

But it’s also hard to look square in the face the fact that we are a white, male supremacist nation. Not just in the way we use those terms now, but in the very real sense of that being exactly who our country was designed for and to benefit. Everything that we have in this country that is different than that is because we have imagined a way to make the dreams those guys had for themselves big enough to cover more of us.

But it is a massive revision. And I was telling the Butcher this morning, when you see what a sweet deal the white guy ruling class had set up for itself and how strongly it depended on other white guys wanting in on that sweet, sweet ruling action, white guys are not wrong to feel like they’ve lost something in the modern era.

Now, I would argue that, it was immoral in the first place, what they were given.

But it doesn’t change the fact that there is a loss of power. And for a lot of them, white power was the only power they really had.

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Whoa

I’m just about finished with Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told. It is just as fantastic as you’ve been told. I only wish I’d read the bad reviews on Goodreads before I’d read the book, because it would have provided me with some levity in a book where there’s very little. (One of the reviewers seems to think that Baptist is black and doing his part of make white people feel bad. A few seemed to think that Baptist’s book had nothing to do with the economics of slavery–even though the whole last half of the book is how Southern speculators managed to tank the American economy in the 1830s and the fall-out from that for the next thirty–and more–years.)

I really highly recommend it. Baptist’s an academic, but his writing is accessible. It’s lengthy and I had to take substantial mental-health breaks between chapters. But I also felt like he walked a really masterful line of showing all the kinds of terrible thing that happened without fixating on a few bad actors, so as to let everyone else off the hook.

I also appreciated how he wrestled with the language we use to talk about slavery to try to really get at what was going on. He calls “plantations” “labor camps,” which is really evocative. But I also ended up feeling like “enslaver” is not entirely satisfactory. On the one hand, it gets at the fact that it was an ongoing, continuous process. You couldn’t just make a person a slave. You had to do things that constantly reinforced to the people you held in captivity that they were slaves. But it also has the effect, to me, of seeming like there was a specific social role or job of “enslaver.” And maybe you could argue that, yes, this is the social role of slave owners. But I kept having to stop and figure out whether we were talking about all slave owners or some subset.

But I don’t think that’s a drawback to the book. I think one of the arguments he’s making is that we’re so familiarized with a certain story about slavery and we have to do things–talk about things we don’t normally talk about, look at things we don’t normally look at, use words we wouldn’t normally use–to jar ourselves out of thinking about slavery in the usual way. That they’re not always going to be satisfactory is to be expected.