The Economist Strikes Again #Economistbookreviews

BaptistweetLast fall, The Economist published a review of Ed Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told which one could fairly summarize as, in its own words, as follows:

Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

The publication, under what must have been a bewildering assault from the foreign forces of sound historical practice, intractable facts, and basic human decency, later withdrew that review and published a begrudging apology. Slavery, the anonymous author told us with his feet to the fire, did not amount to a good time had by all. The magazine’s review sparked an interest in its record on such matters. Greg Grandin, the victim of a very similar review earlier on 2014, dug all the way back to 1860. The long dead writers of the time deemed a high tariff a greater evil than slavery. The Economist could have used the occasion of fifteen decades’ remove to reflect upon its history and consider how it had come to publish such a blinkered, blatantly racist piece. I harbored a small hope that it might.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a book coming out, its publication moved up to this month for, I imagine, the obvious reasons. His book takes the form of a series of letters to his son offering advise and insight on the struggle inherent in living in America while black. Given the content, it would provide a wonderful opportunity for The Economist to show that it had learned something, even if only that the one anonymous reviewer who laid into Grandin and Baptist ought not receive further assignments. I don’t know who wrote the review of Between the World and Me. Given its different content, it might have gone to another staff writer. Whoever wrote it chose instead to follow the magazine’s hallowed tradition of white supremacy. One supposes the same person as last time signs the checks, but what one does for pay often comports well enough with what one thinks right in these things.

Thus The Economist informs its readers that the fear that pervades Coates’ inner life

is the product of 250 years of whipping, burning, shooting and locking up black people. “In America,” writes Mr Coates, “it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” This is all necessary, he says, to maintain “the Dream”, which is capitalised throughout the book and, along with “the body” (usually Mr Coates’s own), appears on every other page. The Dream is not defined so much as described: it smells of peppermint and tastes of strawberry shortcake; it lives in suburban streets with tree houses in the gardens. This all makes some poetic sense but, shorn of ornament, its implication is that in order to have dreamy Greenwich, Connecticut, Chicago’s housing projects must also exist. Racial mixing in the suburbs over the past two decades suggests otherwise: real life is not so Manichean.

I suspect Coates would say that Greenwich Connecticut was built on the back of the nearer housing projects. This claim comes burdened with facts of how advantages compound themselves down the generations, to say nothing of how housing policy precisely did just that on racial lines. I presume that such proletarian accoutrements clash far too badly with a business suit for The Economist to tolerate. Nor have the writers sullied themselves with knowledge of the workings of comparative advantage. But I am unfair to so indict them, as one cannot expect the writers or editors of The Economist to be familiar with work done on the subject by a discipline so foreign to their experience and interests as economics.

The anonymous author, his answer to the white sheet hanging in his closet, would have us know that the fact of small increases of diversity in the suburbs prove the injustice has ended. It also, I imagine, ended with the election of a black president. It ended with the Thirteenth Amendment, or the Fourteenth. It ended with the Voting Rights Act. It doesn’t matter when any more than facts matter, it simply must have ended so we need not discomfit ourselves. We can only mention past injustice in order to declare ourselves perfected.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

The disdain drips off the screen. I can’t read this and not see this subtext: Upper-middle class whites tolerate miscegenation, so what more can Coates possibly ask? Have they not sacrificed enough for his people? Nineteenth century authors would have included reference to how blacks learned the arts of civilization and Christianity from their kindly white tutors. If The Economist doesn’t care to include those claims, though it did in its review of The Half Has Never Been Told, then it doubles down with irony:

Mr Coates does not spare well-intentioned individuals for their part in maiming black bodies, however indirect that may be. In a passage that is sure to bring him some notoriety, he describes how he looked on the plumes of smoke over Manhattan on 9/11, shortly after an unarmed college acquaintance had been murdered by an undercover policeman. “I could see no difference between the officer who killed [him] and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature…which could—with no justification—shatter my body.” The honesty deserves some praise, but what it reveals does not.

Mr Coates urges his son to remember that slavery was not an indefinable mass of flesh but “a particular, specific enslaved woman…who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favourite cousin.” The same can be said of those who did the enslaving. By spreading blame so widely, Mr Coates eases the consciences of those who fastened the chains, tightened the noose, wielded the billy club and the people who told them to do it.

We must now believe that a realistic fear of white authority figures charged with the use of violence by the state, who often execute that charge with pride and to great celebration within white America, comes back around and justifies the brutality. Eric Garner feared the police, so when they strangled him to death he had it coming. He could have also smiled at a white woman. Do we know that Ta-Nehisi Coates has not? The Economist would have us believe that he helps create the problem and, indeed, the magazine can’t be asked to recognize any present problem except to blame black Americans.

The Economist concludes:

When talking about race, Barack Obama often says that anyone who doubts that there has been progress in America should put the question to a black man who lived in the south under Jim Crow. Then he adds that, despite this, the country is still struggling with racial troubles that did not vanish with the passing of the Civil Rights Act. This is right. Mr Coates has written a powerful book that reveals how being the parent of a black teenage boy in America is to be visited by night terrors about his survival. He is also correct to point out that there are echoes of slavery in America today. But they are echoes, rather than the thing itself, and that means there is also hope that the recent violence that spurred the book’s publication may one day be abolished too.

Ultimately I can think of no better answer to The Economist than Coates’ own. He anticipated it:

That Sunday, on that news show, I tried to explain this as best I could within the time allotted. But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of an eleven-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she asked me about “hope.” And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that I had expected to fail. And I wondered again at the indistinct sadness welling up in me. Why exactly was I sad? I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree-houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

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