This is a strange, unsatisfying story about public figures and public outrage.
It starts with this provocative metaphor: Our ever-rising national debt is like slavery.
That statement involves economics and history and even a degree of poetic imagination, but more important, it involves moral judgment — or lack of it.
Last fall, at a fundraiser in Iowa, celebrity-politician Sarah Palin re-ignited the furnace of condemnation that keeps her warm by telling a crowd of supporters:
“Our free stuff today is being paid for today by taking money from our children and borrowing from China. When that money comes due and, this isn’t racist, so try it, try it anyway, this isn’t racist, but it’s going to be like slavery when that note is due. Right? We are going to be beholden to a foreign master.”
The Internet melted down. Many commentators expressed outrage at that remark. My colleague Erik Wemple said, “It was idiotic on its face.” MSNBC host Martin Bashir outdid them all by suggesting that Palin should be forced to eat human excrement. (He later resigned).
But now comes this curious echo from France — and my fruitless attempt to track it down.
The Baffler, an eclectic intellectual journal published in Cambridge, Mass., is my favorite magazine discovery of the year. In the new issue, No. 25, there appears a transcript of a public conversation about the financial crisis: American anthropologist David Graeber, a leading figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and French economist Thomas Piketty, now known to the world as the author of the unlikely bestseller, “Capital in the 21st Century,” were in Paris talking about the financial crisis and its implications.
About half-way through, the conversation turns to Graeber’s 2011 bestseller “Debt: The First 5000 Years.” Piketty says, “One of the points that I most appreciate in David Graeber’s book is the link he shows between slavery and public debt. . . . As Graeber explains, the intergenerational transmission of debt that slavery embodied has found a modern form in the growing public debt, which allows for the transfer of one generation’s indebtedness to the next.”
Sound familiar? Was there any chance, I wondered, that Palin had somehow drawn her widely denounced statement from this 500-page iconoclastic work of scholarship by an author far from Palin’s conservative base?
“No,” Graeber wrote back to me. “There’s absolutely no relation. Anyway, my reference wasn’t to slavery and public debt at all.”
At all? How is that possible, I asked him, given Piketty’s praise for just that point?
“I think it might be a bad translation or language problem,” he replied. “I have no idea what it could be referring to otherwise. I make no connection of slavery and public debt.”
I asked the translator, Donald Nicholson-Smith, if perhaps he were in error. “Here is the passage in the original French,” he replied:
Un des points que j’apprécie le plus dans le livre de David Graeber, c’est la continuité qu’il établit entre l’esclavage et la dette publique. Or, nous explique David Graeber, la transmission inter-générationnelle de la dette, qui se faisait avec l’esclavage, a trouvé un mode d’existence moderne, qui est la dette publique et son augmentation, qui permet de transférer l’endettement d’une génération à l’autre.
“Apparently David forgot this part,” Nicholas-Smith added.
Then the editor of the Baffler, John Summers, joined our e-mail exchange, apologized for the confusion and said, “The crucial point would seem to be that Graeber himself doesn’t argue a link between slavery and public debt. That’s just how Piketty is characterizing David’s book in this conversation. Of course not every mischaracterization or misunderstanding can be grokked in a conversation like this.”
I understand how one might feel constrained by time or courtesy from correcting a passing error in a public venue. But this was the point — however erroneous — that Piketty most appreciated about Graeber’s book. And it’s the very point that inspired weeks of condemnation in the United States when uttered by Sarah Palin. Is it not the kind of mischaracterization one would track down and correct when it was printed in the French magazine Mediapart last fall? Or again in this new American translation in the Baffler? And here’s another turn of the screw: Graeber is a contributing editor of the Baffler.
In any case, Graeber now utterly rejects Piketty’s summary of his work: “I’d challenge anyone to go through my book and find anywhere where I connect slavery and public debt,” he says. “It just isn’t there. If anything I argue the opposite.”
I believe him, but why is it that publicity-hungry Sarah Palin can call forth a million hornets at a moments’ notice, but when exactly the same point is discussed by famous economists, we don’t hear the buzz of a single fly?