Vexed by vocabulary
I am not sure of the reasons The Hatchet published the opinion of a student at UCLA (“U.S. needs black holocaust monument,” March 23, p.4), but the writer’s putative revolutionary thoughts are mired in his ignorance of the English language.
Specifically, the opinion piece concerns itself with the imperative of building a monument attesting to the plight of slaves: “It serves as a reminder to blacks of how they were the unwilling participants in a capitalist endeavor in which they were the actual commodity.” It’s all well and good to consider slaves commodity because, well, that’s what they were. There’s no denying that.
What is puzzling, and rather annoying, in the writer’s pontifications is that the slave trade is somehow capitalistic. It is nothing of the sort. It is mercantilist. The dictionary helps here. The American Heritage Dictionary defines capitalism as “an economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market.”
It defines mercantilism as “the theory and system of political economy prevailing in Europe after the decline of feudalism, based on national policies of accumulating bullion, establishing colonies and a merchant marine, and developing industry and mining to attain a favorable balance of trade.”
These are clearly different. Since we all, in an enlightened time, know slaves not to be the commodities slave traders considered them, “the means of production and distribution” in the slave trade was anything but “proportionate to the accumulation … of profits gained in a free market” – the slaves gained nothing. Rather, mercantilism’s aim of “accumulating bullion, establishing colonies and a merchant marine” all led to the imperative, per the Europeans’ and colonials’ view, of enslaving Africans.
The writer must pick his battle here. If his cause is to denigrate capitalism and deny its moral imperative, then he needs to read Karl Marx. If his cause is to highlight the plight of African slaves, then he should do so. But the morality or immorality of capitalism and the plight of slaves is tenuously connected at best.-David Friedmanjunior