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 hard on slavery as an institution, and on the people who owned their fellow human beings.
This isn’t actually an idea that deserves to be taken seriously. But examining Derbyshire’s reasoning does provide some insight into the cruelty and delusions of his worldview, and his unwillingness to engage with the ways in which trade in human life and work degraded not just people who were held in bondage, but the people who held them there. And it’s a reminder of just how factually shoddy you can be in your film analysis and still get your writing on culture published.
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’.”
Derbyshire might have a point that 12 Years A Slave didn’t explore the idea that some slaves were loyal to their masters, or that some slaves saw the punishments meted out by their masters and their masters’ employees as justified, except that the movie does both of those things. While in the first stage of his captivity, Solomon meets another man named Clemens (Chris Chalk), who was stolen and resold into slavery, though unlike Solomon, who was previously free, Clemens was stolen from another master. When the man shows up to claim him, Clemens rushes, weeping, into his arms. Laster in the film, Solomon meets Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a slave who has settled into an established position as her master’s mistress. In portraying both Clemens’ open relief and Shaw’s compromise, one salved by the belief that her owner will be tortured by hellfire, 12 Years A Slave actually has more nuance about the kinds of affections slaves might have felt for their masters than Derbyshire’s column does.
Beyond the basic inaccuracy, getting oppressed people accustomed to their circumstances, or making clear to them that those circumstances could be worse, does not, in and of itself, make those circumstances defensible, much less admirable. Would Derbyshire have us believe that domestic violence is an excellent addition to any marriage because a woman who’s told that if she leaves her husband, she will be killed, accustoms herself to being battered instead? Are we supposed to believe that gay people in the 1960s preferred the closet to living openly when such lives were not available to them, and when the alternatives were unemployment, terrible violence, medical malpractice, and alienation from their families? Maybe he would! He certainly goes on to talk about how well most Chinese people he knew in the early 1980s accustomed themselves to Communism, suggesting that “You didn’t have to think much, or take much responsibility. And that suits many of us just fine.” But it’s a mistake that Derbyshire will make over and over again in this column, arguing that because there are worse options available at the time, that slavery wasn’t so bad.
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.
He goes on to quote Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman’s Time On The Cross as saying “U.S. slaves had much longer life expectations than free urban industrial workers in both the United States and Europe.” Derbyshire doesn’t acknowledge labor historian Herbert G. Gutman’s extensive critique of the reasoning and methodology behind Fogel and Engerman’s argument that slavery was economically efficient and that slaves shared their masters’ goals — he does say that “I am told (by Bob Weissberg, who knows this territory well) that Time On the Cross is in serious disfavor with the current generation of social scientists for painting too nuanced a picture of Southern slave society,” which is not an answer to Gutman’s methodological criticisms and examination of the data sets his colleagues used, nor does it acknowledge that Weissberg was also fired from National Review over his racial views. And he slides over the fact that even Fogel and Engerman’s records suggest that the rates of physical violence inflicted on slaves was higher than Derbyshire implies earlier in the review. And even if Fogel and Engerman’s analysis was unimpeachable, pointing to Europe and suggesting some workers shorter life expectancies is hardly an affirmative defense of slavery. If you live longer, after all, the person who owns you can extract more labor from you.
This isn’t even getting into the fact that Derbyshire cites Scarlett O’Hara as a sociological expert. Or the way he echoes his own defense of himself as a racist by suggesting that “Venturing into very seriously un-PC territory, Fogel and Engerman argue that Southern white men anyway did not desire black women, an aversion the authors put down to ‘racism,’” because who we find sexually attractive of course has nothing whatsoever to do with social conditioning. Or the fact that he suggests that paternalism and racism even among Abolitionists, which I think no serious person would deny existed, somehow puts slave owners up in the ledger.
In the end, Derbyshire himself sums up his own work, writing: “In the matter of slavery, though, I already feel sure that the shallow good North, bad South simplicities of Abolitionist Porn and popular perception bear little relation to the thorny tangles of reality.” His critique of 12 Years A Slave has no actual relationship to the film in question, and a decidedly deluded relationship to reality itself. The piece is a remarkable reminder of how long certain ideas persist, and how long it’s possible for certain people to stay employed by bandying them about.