Archive for February, 2019

Review: The Half Has Never Been Told

Monday, February 18th, 2019

Edward Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told effectively ties the personal accounts of American Slavery to the power of the institution as an economic engine. Though I’ve read many accounts of the period, I’ve never felt the impact of the events on individuals at the same time feeling the incentives that drove Americans to enslave people and torture them. It’s powerful writing.

I have heard many of the individual accounts before – and they’re appalling – but when he connects the inhuman treatment of people to the insane economic growth that it fuels, it becomes more believable that people continued expanding the geographical scope of slavery and the inhumanity of the physical torture.

People who are getting rich exploiting others can insulate themselves from the horrors they are inflicting on others. They can convince themselves that their hands are clean. It is easy to see people perpetuating similar cycles of exploitation and denial today.

Baptist makes an impersonal and compelling case that these forces held sway in antebellum America. Their echos certainly continue to ring in modern America as well. To me, the power of the argument is that one can accept and promote terrible justifications for atrocities without malice in one’s heart. Individual prosperity combined with rising national prestige is a powerful brew.

Baptist also traces fairly subtle changes in attitudes toward slavery. As the nation’s productivity fuels national prestige, people tied to the economic methods naturally tribalize. The people directly benefiting from slavery have a direct connection to perpetuating the atrocity. Baptist connects the communities that indirectly benefit to that tribe as well. Merchants who transport cotton or operate textile mills also support it. The more direct supporters propagate plausible (or only vaguely plausible) justifications that are easier for more distant supporters to accept because of the community sense and income.

Troublingly, the argument works for abolitionists and Northerners as well. If one believes Baptist, part of the nation’s failure to make good on promises of freedom in Reconstruction stems from the idea that Northern sentiment was more about taking power from the South by destroying slavery than by ending and atoning for the horror. If the moralizing of the North (even though factual) was mostly justification for the War, that is consistent with people losing ardor when the short term goal – destroy the institution – is complete.

I don’t think people fundamentally change a lot. To the extent that Baptist is right about these tendencies toward self-delusion and herd mentality, we need to look at how we are exploiting others in pursuit of prosperity.

Though I believe a lot of Baptist’s arguments, he is gathering and interpreting facts and analyses from many disciplines. One could summarize one of his positions as asserting that the toxic masculinity that a torture-based economy imbued Andrew Jackson with spurred him to both sweep Native Americans from their tribal lands to fuel substantive expansion of slave-driven cotton production at the same time he destroyed the banking system that accelerated that growth. That’s a bold statement.

Baptist does not shy away from showing his work. Half is well sourced and pours supporting facts out in torrents. I find he strikes a good balance between support and narrative, but it is a fine line. I suspect there are some who nit-pick some of the economic arguments as well. My preference is Baptist’s abundance and transparency.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Big Picture

Saturday, February 9th, 2019

The Big Picture aims to propagate a physics-based philosophy and worldview. I am sympathetic to an overall non-supernatural outlook and science as a basis for finding objective fact in a confusing world viewed through imperfect senses and idiosyncratic thinking organs. I think Sean Carroll reaches further than he reasonably can in an effort to build a theory of everything, but his attempt includes many perceptive and thought provoking ideas.

Carroll is a physicist well versed in cosmology and quantum theory. He starts by combining our incomplete understanding of these disciplines into an overall description of the physical universe. Though I mentioned that our understanding of those ideas is incomplete, one of the compelling ideas that Carroll puts forth is that our understanding is complete enough to resolve the overall state of the universe. He supports the justification the consistency of, explanatory power of, and evidence for those theories justifies relying on them. I think that’s compelling, but then I showed up pretty close to that; not everyone will agree, but he lays out a clear position.

When he begins to apply Bayesian analysis and conditional probability theory to belief levels, I start wanting to argue about it. As he extrapolates further from other mathematics and physics into a life philosophy and moral basis, I find more to disagree with. I reject parts of his worldview, but my personal views are incongruent with most people’s. I don’t think any two people will agree completely on those big issues.

The value I see in Picture is that Carroll builds his perspective clearly and directly from modern cosmology. He uses mathematics and other ideas as metaphors when not directly applicable. The book sparked some interesting ideas even when I disagreed with them.


Review: Rivers Of Gold

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

Rivers of Gold is the first volume of Hugh Thomas’s trilogy of books on the Spanish Empire. I picked it up as part of my ongoing interest in South and Central America.

Thomas is an old school British historian and Rivers is correspondingly well researched and clearly delivered. His style is unexpectedly accessible and almost inviting. The combination of invitation and educational focus makes it feel like a great history class.

The research and references are all solid without being overbearing. I think the notes and bibliography provide a solid basis for further exploration.

The overall narrative balances the push and pull of Spanish royalty in Europe and the almost internecine Caribbean politics. Having gobbled up Conquistador and basking in the Western Hemisphere insanity, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that the European politics has a different complimentary flavor.