John Derbyshire, the incredibly racist former National Review columnist who now writes for white nationalist site VDARE, hasn’t seen the movie 12 Years a Slave. But if he knows anything (and that may be a crapshoot), he knows that it fails to capture the happy-go-lucky nature of slavery.
John Derbyshire has, fortunately, not merited inclusion in these pages since he defenestrated himself from National Review in 2012 for writing what I called at the time “a confoundingly racist guide for white parents about how to speak to their children about their social interactions with black people.” Now, he’s struck again. This time, it’s with a piece about 12 Years A Slave that can’t be called a review, because as Derbyshire cheerfully admits up front, “No, I haven’t seen the thing, but I’ve read reviews. Also I’ve seen (and reviewed) a specimen of the allied genre: Civil Rights Porn,” but that attempts to demonstrate that slavery wasn’t actually so bad.
There’s a line of critique of Steve McQueen’s film–and really of McQueen’s work more generally–that the way it lingers on the suffering of slaves like Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is pornographic and degrading to the viewer, without improving our understanding of slavery as an institution and the way its legacy continues to poison us. But that isn’t what Derbyshire, who has described himself as a racist for a decade, meant. Instead, his argument is that 12 Years A Slave, which is based on Northup’s first-person account of his abduction and sale into slavery, after he’d grown up free, goes too hardon slavery as an institution, and on the people who owned their fellow human beings…
One of Derbyshire’s complaints is that he’s sure 12 Years A Slave doesn’t take into account the fact that some slaves spoke affectionately of their masters into account. He quotes Harriet Walker, who participated in the Slave Narratives program, as evidence that some slaves did, in fact, speak this way. Walker recalls: “Mars George fed an’ clo’esed well an’ was kin’ to his slaves, but once in a while one would git onruly an’ have to be punished. De worse I ever seen one whupped was a slave man dat had slipped off an’ hid out in de woods to git out of wuk. Dey chased him wid blood hounds, an’ when dey did fin’ him dey tied him to a tree, stroppin’ him ’round an’ ’round. Dey sho’ did gib him a lashin’.”…He goes on to suggest that “Slavery is more irksome to some than to others; and freedom can be irksome, too. Personally, I’d be a terrible slave—too ornery. I know people, though—and I’m talking about white people—who I quietly suspect would be happy in slavery,” which is an incredibly bizarre and un-sourced assertion. It also ignores the extent to which slavery wasn’t merely an economic system. The slave narrative Derbyshire quotes mostly talks about the difficulties of making a living on one’s own, which is, of course, a reality that has everything to do with conditions like the accumulation of land holdings in large plantations, the lack of industrial development in the South prior to the Civil War, and the closing of jobs to African-Americans rather than to any sort of natural order. And while there’s no question that economic and food security are attractive things, slavery did not precisely provide those things on a consistent basis, and it was a master’s prerogative to withhold them. More to the point, slavery isn’t just about trading labor for housing and food. It’s about constraining almost every aspect of a person’s life, from their physical mobility in day-to-day life, their access to education, their right to practice religion in their own way, to marry who they choose, conduct their marriages as they saw fit and to raise their children as they chose, and to seek leisure on their own terms. I’m not sure Derbyshire’s imagined voluntary slaves would see that as quite such an attractive bargain.
Yeah, that’s our biggest problem — we’re just too darn harsh in our condemnation of one of the worst evils in human history. Up next from Derbyshire: Hitler wasn’t so bad really and Pol Pot was just a delight.