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John Derbyshire reviews Civil War movies, sight unseen

John Derbyshire just can’t get a break. The poor man…first he was fired from the National Review for racist ignorance even they couldn’t take, and now he’s getting raked over the coals for his review of 12 Years A Slave. Don’t y’all think it would be unkind to expect him to actually sit through a whole two hours of an illustration of the injustice and horror of American slavery? He’s got an opinion, he doesn’t need to actually see slavery demonized to know it’s a one sided show.

It seems I’ve picked up an interest in the Civil War just as America is undergoing a revival of Abolitionist Porn. That, at any rate, is what I take this much-talked-of new movie 12 Years a Slave to be.

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.

What a perfect example. Just as I know I don’t have to sit through every porn movie ever made to know that there will be a) naked people b) moaning as they c) have sex, just so Derbyshire doesn’t need to sit through every movie about slavery to know people will just be complaining and neglecting to tell the other side of the story, the story about kindly, noble masters taking loving care of their property.

To that end, Derbyshire feels obligated to tell the white side of the story, and unlike all those squeamish people who just shudder and speak from emotion at the awful thought of losing all liberty, Derbyshire brings the facts, the actual accounts of former slaves, who, he claims, weren’t treated all that badly. So he cites this brief anecdote.

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’.

[Mississippi Slave Narratives , Harriet Walker.]

I know, most of us are just appalled at the story of a man being hunted down with dogs, tied to a tree, and whipped. Read it with Derbyshire’s eyes, and instead, it becomes an account of a well-deserved punishment for a layabout, perhaps of the sort that the young wastrel who gave him the wrong order at McDonald’s ought to get, and notice instead only the first line. Master George gave his slaves food and clothing, and was kind. Just stop there. Don’t bother to read on to the bit about dogs and lashings. He was kind. His own slave said so.

As that extract illustrates, though, the Slave Narratives also remind us how remarkably often ex-slaves spoke well of their masters.

Plainly there was more to American race slavery that white masters brutalizing resentful Negroes. How much more, though? What was slavery actually like?

His conclusion? Slavery was irksome to some, but there were and are people who would be happy in slavery. Not him personally, of course, but other people. And of course it is entirely reasonable to judge who would like slavery best by the color of their skin.

Comments

  1. says

    So I guess Derbyshire won’t object if I abduct him and force him to tend to my every need, as long as I feed him and give him nice clothing, and am “kind” to him by only punishing him viciously if he tries to escape.

    You can bet that if a story came out about a group of white people being enslaved by Africans he would claim it’s proof of the inherent savagery of Africans. Probably call for a new era of white colonialism in Africa as well.

  2. says

    If John Derbyshire had actually seen the movie, he would know that Northrup’s first master actually was kind, and treated Northrup as more of a worker then a slave, but he still was unable (or saw himself so) to protect Northrup from the brutal overseer, and refused to try to help Northrup contact his friends up north and establish his free status. Instead, he sold Northrup to another, more brutal plantation owner because he, the kind owner, was in debt to the slave dealer and couldn’t afford to help Northrup get free. Even kind, well meaning owners were only kind and well meaning to the extent they saw themselves as able to be, and the extent to which they saw themselves as able to be was affected by their seeing themselves as entitled to own other people.

    My husband commented after the movie that surely if the slave owners saw the slaves as property they would want to treat them well because they were property. So I reminded him of all the friends we know seen with deferred maintenance on their houses and asked him how many people he thinks really change the oil in their cars as scheduled or perform other routine maintenance. Heck, hubby’s job is inspecting dams around the state on private property and he is forever telling me what bad shape those dams are in, even though if they break they can flood someone’s house. And dams and cars and houses can’t rise up and revolt (although I swear it sometimes seems they do), so no one feels they have to establish who’s in charge with inanimate property.

  3. vaiyt says

    Next on: Derbyshire doubles down and tries to justify his review by saying black people should be grateful for the white man bringing civilization for them.

    Mark my words.

  4. Ogvorbis: Broken, failing, hurting. says

    Plainly there was more to American race slavery that white masters brutalizing resentful Negroes.

    Well, he is right. There was a lot more.

    There was the manipulation of democracy to benefit the slaveholders. There was the economic brutalization of white workers and small farmers by the slaveholding aristocracy. There was the dehumanization of white women who had to be protected from the scary slaves. There was a lot more, just not what Derbyshire thinks.

  5. cgm3 says

    Let’s see…

    Assume I am a slave, the property of an individual who, quite literally, holds the power of life and death over me, can make my existence a living hell or even kill me with little or no threat of punishment…

    Would I be dumb enough to badmouth that individual aloud?

  6. Goodbye Enemy Janine says

    Would I be dumb enough to badmouth that individual aloud?

    Wrong question. How full of resentment would you be? And at what point would a person react, regardless of the consequence.

  7. says

    Exactly how did Derbyshire become a writer when he obviously doesn’t understand the meaning of common words and phrases like, “porn”, “whipping”, “slavery” “Civil Rights” and “not being a complete and total racist douche-monger.”

  8. tbp1 says

    To be fair, I decide not to see lots of movies based on the subject matter, reviews, or other factors, concluding sight unseen that probably I wouldn’t like them. I’m pretty sure everybody does that—you can’t possibly see every movie that comes out, or read every book…

    I don’t, however, publish reviews of the movies I haven’t seen, expecting anyone to take said reviews seriously.

  9. jnorris says

    Let’s not be too mean to Mr Derbyshire . My Scots-Irish ancestors came to New York City in the early 1800′s. They immediately moved to the South and became slaves on a cotton plantation because the living was easy. I’m sure Mr Derbyshire family would have done the same thing.

    OT: an ad for an online college just started. Is this how FTBs gets people to buy an ad free subscription?

  10. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    Some of them may have spoken well of those who owned them. Stockholm syndrome exists.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    Not having seen a printed version of southern dialect in a while, I read that first Harriet Walker narrative as saying that “Mars George” was “kin” to his slaves.

    As a native Mississippian fairly well versed in history, I believed it.

  12. robinjohnson says

    One of the most chilling parts of this story for me is that slavery is so dehumanising that it makes someone capable of calling someone kind, and recounting how they tied someone to a tree and beat them bloody, in the same sentence. It’s not as chilling as the thought of someone being tied to a tree and beaten bloody, but it’s close.

  13. fmitchell says

    Among the many problems with Derbyshire and his “review”, he commits the “fair and balanced” fallacy (a.k.a. the golden mean fallacy). Anecdotes of humane behavior don’t justify a fundamentally inhumane, degrading, and violent institution. Sometimes there’s really only one side … a concept neo-conservatives have trouble grasping unless it’s their own side.

  14. garnetstar says

    tbp1@9, that’s a good point. But, in fact, Derbyshire could have learned it from the reviews, had he in fact read them, which he obviously did not.

    I haven’t seen the movie, but every one of the many reviews I read mentioned that Northrup had one master who was shown as being (relatively) humane, what Derbyshire calls “kind”.

    So, in this review, Derbyshire earns the title of blatant liar, as well as racist inhuman fool.

  15. busterggi says

    It wasn’t so tough being black way back. Just look how happy Jolson, Mack & Moran, Pick & Pat, etc were!

  16. says

    On top of being oblivious to just how bad conditions were for slaves, Derbyshire apparently doesn’t grasp why the phrase “gilded cage” is used negatively.

  17. Rey Fox says

    Tangentially, i’m getting a little tired of anything with largely visual interest or perhaps niche appeal being described as ”______ porn”. It smacks of pointless elitism and sex phobia.

  18. carlie says

    I saw this on twitter by Cynthia Boaz and thought it was a good comparison:

    tweet

    Can someone explain to me why we are told to “never forget” Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, & 9/11, but blacks should just “get over” slavery?

  19. reinderdijkhuis says

    In good news, Derbyshire acknowledges that something can be porn if the characters are older than 15. For him, that’s …progress, of a sort.

  20. Bicarbonate says

    Butler @ 12

    Me too, I thought he meant kin to his slaves. In other words that many of them were his half-brothers and sisters or his own children. That is how it was after all.

  21. The Mellow Monkey: Non-Hypothetical says

    coleslaw @ 3

    My husband commented after the movie that surely if the slave owners saw the slaves as property they would want to treat them well because they were property.

    You made good points. In addition to them, it also depends on how one chooses to see treating someone well. There are some references contemporaneous with slavery that claim indentured servants were treated worse than chattel slaves. If an indentured servant died before hir time was up, the person owning hir debt wouldn’t have lost much of an investment. If xe was very close to hir debt being paid off, the employer would actually benefit by not having to provide the freshly freed servant with a new suit of clothes and payment. And so people believed that, surely, indentured servants would die in their service more often than slaves died prematurely from mistreatment or violence.

    I suspect that racism simply allowed white people to be more sympathetic to any suffering that someone with their skintone experienced. And this, in turn, made it possible for them to delude themselves that they already were treating slaves well.

  22. boyofd says

    Everyone has this covered well, and there’s really not much that should need to be said about how wrong it is. But still, I’d like to make one more point that it looks like the slave narrative he quoted was delivered in the 1930s, and that the speaker must have been really young at the time he was a slave (born in approximately 1852, so he was freed at least by the time he turned 13). This info is in Derbyshire’s post.

    How hard is it to see:
    (1) that slave owners might treat ~10 year olds with less violence than an adult, or might give them enough food to grow up to be big enough to be able to work the plantation/farm?
    (2) that the former slave’s memories at age 80 of stuff that happened at age 10 might not be all that great? and
    (3) that the 1930s were not a great time to be African-American in America, either? I mean, relatively speaking, a former slave might have viewed his time as a young slave fondly because he was able to be well fed and clothed compared to the life he had to forge for himself in a poor, racist, war-ravaged country?

    Finally, I remember a college assignment where we read 2 passages from the same former slave about the process of taking babies from their mothers so they could be sold into slavery. It was remarkable how her telling of the story changed between telling an AA male about it and how she spoke of it to a white reporter (e.g., “The women were screaming and crying, you know how they carry on.”). It is remarkable the difference audience can make, but it is also remarkable that anyone who experienced such horror could, under any circumstances, be reduced to describing mothers losing their babies as “carrying on.”

  23. Chie Satonaka says

    My husband commented after the movie that surely if the slave owners saw the slaves as property they would want to treat them well because they were property.

    Immaterial, because they are still property, no matter how well they are stored or fed.

    I cannot believe that Derbyshire has the fucking gall to bring up this bullshit idea that slaves were treated well so soon after the whole Bashir/Palin debacle. Bashir read an excerpt of slaveowner Thomas Thistlewood, a British man living in Jamaica, who described punishing slaves by having one of them shit or piss into the mouth of the other. Bashir’s point was that Palin’s comparison of the ACA to slavery was insipid and ignorant of the true brutality of slavery, and he was right.

    We know for a fact that laborers of every stripe are treated poorly by their bosses, and that it is still the case to this day. The bosses do not care if they die, because they can easily be replaced by more labor. It has been less than a year since over 1,000 garment workers in Bangladesh were killed when the substandard building they worked in collapsed. It would cost pennies per garment to improve working conditions for these laborers, and yet this won’t happen. Because these companies do not give a shit if their workers die. This happens today, in 2013, and we’re expected to believe that slaves were treated well? BULLSHIT.

  24. kayden says

    If Harriet Walker’s master was so kind, why did that slave run away?

    Derbyshire is an idiot as well as a racist.

  25. unclefrogy says

    I have had conversations with people about racism and civil rights in which attitudes such as displayed here were presented. How could slavery been that bad? It was a long time ago why can’t they just get over it.
    The inherent belief in racial differences as reality even when they believe that they are not racist is utterly .
    In some cases I want to believe that it is an unconscious reaction to the reality of the horror and cruelty of slavery, it is too terrifying to accept so they make up some other reality to believe in . You do not have to go to foreign lands there are cases of slavery that still reach the headlines right here in the U.S. on a regular basis. Human exploitation is universal

    uncle frogy

  26. says

    My husband commented after the movie that surely if the slave owners saw the slaves as property they would want to treat them well because they were property.

    This was mostly true, but “treating them well” usually meant not whipping them to the point of causing permanent damage or risking infection, and making sure they had adequate food. No slave owner could afford not to punish his slaves if they threatened to run away or stop working. The same logic that says one shouldn’t brutalize them also says that one shouldn’t spend one dime more on them than necessary.

    Although rational self-interest dictated keeping slaves alive and with subsistence, there are accounts of slave owners torturing and murdering their slaves, presumably either because of mental illness of just for the heck of it. That’s what happens when people are reduced to property — anything goes.

  27. robnyny says

    It’s also quite possible that the ex-slave is intentionally undercutting his own narrative. Master was kind, except when he beat us savagely

  28. says

    @6:

    [Captain Fitzroy] told me that he had just visited a great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them…whether they wished to be free, and all answered ‘No’. I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he thought that the answers of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything.

    – Charles Darwin The Voyage of the Beagle

  29. says

    Tangentially, i’m getting a little tired of anything with largely visual interest or perhaps niche appeal being described as ”______ porn”. It smacks of pointless elitism and sex phobia.

    there is such a use, but I don’t think it’s elitist or sexphobic, since it’s usually used in positive ways (what it sometimes is is buying into the women=sexless trope, in the sense of “men have porn with fucking; women have porn with food”). That’s not the way Derbyshire is using the term though.

    Derbyshire is appropriating the definitely negative (and therefore likely sex-phobic) term “poverty porn” (and variations thereof), which was created by people who were sick and tired of having their misery filmed and marketed in fancy-ass nature-documentary style for the edutainment of upper middle class white consumers.

    In general, maybe we should just stop calling everything visual with emotional appeal “porn”; because that’s just weird, regardless of which way you’re using it.

  30. chrislawson says

    I expect what Harriet Walker meant was that the master was kind relative to other masters.

  31. Acolyte of Sagan says

    29.
    kayden
    27 November 2013 at 1:04 pm (UTC -6) Link to this comment

    If Harriet Walker’s master was so kind, why did that slave run away?

    Derbyshire is an idiot as well as a racist.

    The slave didn’t run away, he slipped off an’ hid out in de woods to git out of wuk., which to Derbyshire makes the beating justified. The slave wasn’t trying to run because he was mis-treated, he was hiding because he was lazy, and everybody knows you just gotta whup the lazy outa them.
    Yep, Derbyshire’s a professional ignoramus with a doctorate in ignorance.

  32. says

    Lay off the poor guy – it’s HARD being a Republican these days.
    You have to know when you can express mainstream conservative thought transparently and when you have to hide it, when you can express it but you have to use code words, when you don’t have to use code words…

    Make the right choices and you can be a GOP star, but choose the wrong way at the wrong time and you could lose your job for being too honest at the wrong time.

    It’s a tough gig.

  33. kraut says

    I advocate equal slavery for everybody. I would just buy the guy (even if I had to remortgage my house) and whip him daily for unbearable stupidity, that being an insult to my finer senses.

  34. knowknot says

    Irksome. To some. Slavery was.
    Just look down. Because sometimes you’d better. Our place. Who knew. Not us.

  35. knowknot says

    (butterfingers. copy and paste error.)

    Irksome. Slavery was. To some.
    Just looking down. Because sometimes you’re better off. Our place. Who knew. Not us.

  36. esmith4102 says

    The question is often asked: “are Homo sapiens at the apex of human evolution and will they evolve no further”?
    Observing Derbyshire, I hope the answer is no!

  37. Rex Little, Giant Douchweasel says

    His conclusion? Slavery was “irksome” to some, but there were and are people who “would be happy in slavery.” Not him personally, of course, but other people. And of course it is entirely reasonable to judge who would like slavery best by the color of their skin.

    To be fair, while Derbyshire did say that the people he knows who he thinks would be happy in slavery are white (see the posted link for the exact quote), he never said that whites in general are more likely to be happy in slavery. Or blacks, or any other race.

  38. vaiyt says

    he never said that whites in general are more likely to be happy in slavery. Or blacks, or any other race.
    Which brings us back to: that does not absolve the slaveowners for arbitrarily enslaving people for the color of their skin, therefore his defense hasn’t a leg to stand on.

  39. vaiyt says

    Borkquote got me!

    @Rex Little

    he never said that whites in general are more likely to be happy in slavery. Or blacks, or any other race.

    Which brings us back to: that does not absolve the slaveowners for arbitrarily enslaving people for the color of their skin, therefore his defense hasn’t a leg to stand on.

  40. weatherwax says

    To the argument that slaves were usually well treated because they were valuable “property”: In 1781 the Dutch slave ship Zong made some navigational errors, and the crew feared they would not have enough water to keep the “cargo” alive for the remainder of the trip. If the slaves were too weak they wouldn’t be worth much, and worse, if they died after they reached port they wouldn’t be covered by insurance.

    So, coincidently on the 29th day of November, the crew started throwing the excess overboard. They started with the women and children. A total of 142 people ended up in the ocean over the next few days.

    When the insurers refused to cover the losses, the ship owners sued, and won. When the insures appealed to the Earl of Mansfield, he summed up the first trial by declaring that the jury:

    “had no doubt (though it shocks one very much) that the Case of Slaves was the same as if Horses had been thrown over board … The Question was, whether there was not an Absolute Necessity for throwing them over board to save the rest, [and] the Jury were of opinion there was …”

    (details optained from Wikipedia)

  41. unclefrogy says

    as for treating the slaves well as they are valuable and an important investment. That sounds good and reasonable but it is not how it is practiced. It is possible to treat the “slaves” in a very kind way and provide conditions in which they would gladly work hard but that is expensive. It is at least as expensive as employing free people to do the work if not more expensive. It is possible to get an acceptable amount of work out of slaves by less generous methods if you are willing to resort to the lash and the chain and violence and the threat of violence. You would incur the added expense of an overseer but that expense would be more than made up by the saving from reduction in the expense of the slave It was and is a balancing act about how much deprivation and violence are required to get the desired results out of the operation , profit. While there may have been benevolent slave owners who treated their slaves well at the root is the chain and the lash and the dehumanization of people into wholly owned property of another.
    That is the economy of slavery and is still practiced today in secret of course right here in The United States
    anyone who thinks differently is at heart probably a slaver
    uncle frogy

  42. randay says

    Chie Staonaka # 27. I am surprised you are the only one who picked up on this story. Martin Bashir had nothing to apologize for. Would Sarah Palin prefer trying out water-boarding?

    With Palin it is a variation of the old saying, “shit in, shit out”. “The definition of slavery is to be beholden to a master, and we will be beholden when that note is due,” she said during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” I thought she was beholden to Master Jesus. She goes on to put her kids on the front line and tell her critics to talk to them first. Fine mother she is.

  43. randay says

    If Palin and Derbyshire were honest, which they are not, I would advise them to read “Classic Slave Narratives” edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I checked and it is still available on Amazon.