The Week in Early American History

TWEAHIt’s not every Sunday that we get to begin this recap with a genuinely fresh proslavery argument. But this week the International Herald Tribune ran a brief column by Humayan Dar, a self-described “Islamic economist” with a PhD from Cambridge.  Under the headline, “Modern slavery: how bad is bonded labour,” the essay decried “the negative perception of slavery and bonded labour,” and suggested that a legal forced-labor regime in Pakistan would “work for the mutual benefit of the parties, the employer and the worker and their families.”

Although Dar’s candid defense of servitude might be a rarity in today’s politics, his actual arguments — that forced labor provides employers with a stable and productive work force,  while giving laborers protection against “slums,” “begging” and moral degradation — were anything but fresh. Dael Norwood’s incisive blog commentary, meanwhile, reminded us that The New York Times media empire (which includes the Herald Tribune) has its own long history of defending bound labor for Asian workers.

Of course, the larger relationship between capitalist enterprise and labor coercion remains an active subject of debate, as Gabriel Winant pointed out in a vivid and penetrating essay on Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams. Writing in n+1, Winant  observed that the central insight that has driven Johnson’s work since Soul by Soul is the contention that “slavery is not something outside of capitalism or the American liberal tradition but the clearest instance of each.” Persuasively historicizing the last half-century of scholarship on American slavery, Winant argued that in contrast to Eugene Genovese’s late-Fordist notion of “paternalism,” Johnson’s interpretation of slaves as a “policed, starved, terrorized underclass of global capitalist enterprise” is “a strategic adaptation for the world since Reagan and Gorbachev: the world neoliberalism made.” The whole thing is well worth your time; for more on River of Dark Dreams, of course, you should consult The Junto’s own roundtable from June.

12 years a slave Cotton

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

It looks like Steve McQueen’s much-anticipated Solomon Northup film, Twelve Years A Slave, follows Django Unchained in offering a Johnsonian rather than Genovesian portrait of slavery. Browsing through the first online responses after last week’s Telluride Film Festival, it’s impossible to distinguish between heft and hype, but if enthralled critics at Indiewire, Shadow and Act, and The Hollywood Reporter can be believed, the film — which opens on October 18 — should make a major splash. For me, the most interesting detail came in an otherwise historically obtuse Variety review: McQueen has chosen to dramatize Northup’s detailed  account of being forced to pick a certain weight of cotton each day—a link between slavery’s physical discipline and capitalism’s profit imperative that Johnson hammered home in River of Dark Dreams.

In other film news, McQueen’s opus shouldn’t make us overlook Tula: The Revolt, which tells the story of the 1795 slave insurrection in Dutch Curaçao. Danny Glover co-stars; it’s not clear whether the film will be released widely in the U.S., but you can check out the trailer here.

The summer issue of Common-Place is now out and it features Susannah Ashton’s fascinating essay on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1850 encounter with the fugitive slave John Andrew Jackson. Via the Legal History Blog, Oxford Journals has opened access to the current issue of the Jerusalem Review of Legal Studies, which includes a symposium on Jack Balkin’s Living Originalism. For a forthright response to Balkin’s question, “Must we be Faithful to Original Meanings?” you might check out Scott Lemieux’s piece for The American Prospect: “Who Cares What the Framers Thought about the Filibuster?”

Fun digital goodies recently unveiled include the Smithsonian’s interactive map that layers modern New York City and the New York of 1836; and a new Stanford database, Kindred Britain, which provides lively visual demonstrations of the genealogical connections between eminent Anglo-types down the centuries: here’s the link between George Washington and George III. And from the Slumber Wise blog, some evidence that pre-electric sleepers more often went to bed twice, not once, per day.

With the fall semester cranking slowly into gear, Ian Bogost in the Atlantic explored the idea of the “flipped classroom,” Brian Mathews in the Chronicle wondered whether three clicks was too many for library databases, and Ashley Thorne, in the Guardian, wondered why American universities were moving away from books published  before 1990.

Lastly, don’t miss the week’s top two polemics: the Tenured Radical’s vivisection of President Obama’s new “College Affordability Plan,” and the Madwoman with a Laptop’s Labor Day Weekend manifesto on the decision to leave academia in the era of the “cash-strapped, technocratic, lawyered-up, outcomes-obsessed postmodern university.”


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