“12 Years a Slave,” the “American Spectator,” and the Historical Legacy of Paternalism

A scene from Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, which reminds that slaves were proprty no matter how they were treated, and that was truly awful.

A scene from Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, which reminds us that slaves were property no matter how they were treated.

In the year 2014, most people would agree that slavery was — and is — a very, very bad thing. In an American context especially, slavery and its proponents flouted supposedly sacrosanct ideals such as freedom, equality, and liberty – you know, the really important stuff. Moreover, the “peculiar institution” caused unmeasurable human misery and left a cultural scar on U.S. society that still hasn’t fully healed. So if historians’ work hasn’t been in vain — and I think it hasn’t — then most of us will have long been informed about the nature of slavery and why it was (one of) the greatest atrocities ever committed by the United States.

Few films in recent memory have depicted the horrors of slavery better than Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, a picture based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup: a New York-born free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana for over a decade. McQueen’s movie received widespread critical acclaim from both film critics and historians (a group known to be understandably finicky about how Hollywood depicts the past) and won the Academy Award for Best Picture at the 2014 Oscars.

But alas, James Bowman, culture critic for the conservative American Spectator magazine, has the brass gonads to stand above the consensus and claim slavery wasn’t all that bad, and that 12 Years a Slave should be viewed as “propaganda” because it fails to show any kind-hearted slaveholders or well-treated slaves. In a review for the Spectator that’s one part stupid, two parts asinine, Bowman argues that despite the film’s “considerable virtues,” 12 Years a Slave ultimately reflects “the politicization of historical scholarship in our time” because, maybe, just maybe, there were happy slaves, and director Steve McQueen only shows us the negative aspects of human bondage! I’m not kidding. Here’s the most offensive part of Bowman’s considerably offensive piece:

If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave, as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that Mr McQueen does not want us to hear about it.

You get all that? Bowman accuses the film of being politically correct and reflecting the so-called “Marxist-Leninist war of exploiters against exploited” academic agenda that conservatives are convinced is a real thing. Sort of like the way some people are convinced that they see Jesus in a potato chip. Now, given the pseudo-intellectual flavor of his Spectator piece, Bowman likely thinks that he’s making an original observation. But the thing is, he’s invoking a very old – and very discredited – defence of slavery, and in so doing he’s also demonstrating an odious conservative preference for paternalism.

In asserting that there must have been the occasional “kind master” and “contented slave” – and thus, a good side of slavery – Bowman is echoing a nineteenth-century pro-slavery defense that historians call the “positive good” argument. Proponents of this argument claimed that slavery was a benign institution because white people were the supposedly superior race, and that black people, as members of an “inferior” race, by nature needed the civilizing influence of white guidance. In this view, blacks were to accept their lot as social and racial inferiors in exchange for all the perks that came with white dominance; including Christianization, protection, food, clothing, free room and board, and a very full-time job.

The idea of Paternalism underlay every facet of the “Positive Good” argument. Paternalism is a relationship in which a state or an individual forcefully asserts their will over another person and limits that person’s freewill and autonomy under the pretence that the person being dominated will be better off under the heel of a superior individual. Basically, “paternalism” boils down to the idea that “it’s for your own good,” which was the favored argument of pro-slavery ideologues.

This 1946 Disney film is perhaps more fitting to James Bowman's ideas about slavery.

This 1946 Disney film is perhaps more fitting to James Bowman’s ideas about slavery.

The paternalistic “Positive Good” argument for slavery was most famously articulated by South Carolina pro-slavery demagogue, John C. Calhoun. In an 1837 speech titled (natch) “The ‘Positive Good’ of Slavery,” Calhoun argued that “the present state of civiliza­tion [in the South], where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil…a positive good.”

Other southern pro-slavery advocates elaborated on Calhoun’s basic premise that slavery was good for both those in bondage and their masters. Many cited the bible’s approval of slavery as justification for the institution’s prominence in the Old South. Moreover, southern religious writers claimed that slavery made masters kinder and slaves more obedient through a mutually beneficial relationship that existed only in the bullshitting minds of slavery apologists.

For example, in an 1851 essay titled The Duties of Christian Masters, the Rev. A.T. Holmes wrote that “the master should be the friend of his servant” because “friendship implies good will, kindness, [and] a desire for the welfare of him for whom it is entertained.”* Holmes then asserted that kind, Christian masters were a boon to slaves. “The servant, under such a master, knows his condition, and understands that, while he is restricted to certain privileges and required to perform certain duties, he is not held in subjugation by an unfeeling tyrant, nor driven to his work for a heartless oppressor.”* With those types of assurances in mind, it’s a wonder more black people didn’t submit their resumes to the slaveholders’ HR department! 

Indeed, Holmes argued that slaves got real benefits from being dominated by masters who acted as both protectors and teachers. “The servant should feel [sic] that the superior wisdom, experience, power and authority of his master, constitute his [the slave’s] abiding security,” Holmes wrote.* Moreover, the good Reverend also claimed that masters should act as teachers to their slaves because “ignorance, in a peculiar sense, attaches to the negro.”* Of course, education shouldn’t extend to stuff like literacy, knowledge of Enlightenment law, and biblical stories like the Exodus, because then slaves might get the idea that they were entitled to basic human rights and start getting all uppity, which would be bad for slavery’s PR as a “benevolent” institution.

And so, when James Bowman of the American Spectator insists that films like 12 Years a Slave should, in the spirit of avoiding political correctness, depict “a kind master or a contented slave” to show that slavery wasn’t all that bad, he is, whether consciously or unconsciously, referencing the exact same argument that slavery apologists used to justify human bondage in the Old South. Bowman essentially claims – as did pro-slavery ideologues – that benevolence softened an institution otherwise predicated on the most extreme form of paternalism. Yet while this argument is wholly repugnant, it’s not unexpected given that paternalism is central to conservative ideology.

The Americcan Spectator's James Bowman. To prove his point about slavery, he's willing to auction his freedom off to teh highest bidder - provided that said bidder treat him kindly.

The American Spectator’s James Bowman. To prove his point about slavery, he’s willing to auction his freedom off to the highest bidder – provided that said bidder treats him kindly.

I’ve already detailed the common ideological threads that link the paternalistic slaveholders of the Old South to modern-day conservatives in a previous post, which you should read – right after you finish this post. But it bears repeating that paternalism is essential to conservatism. As Corey Robin observes in The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, “conservatism is about power besieged and power protected.”* As an ideology, conservatism acts to defend the power of the ruling classes in both public and private spaces against “the agency of the subordinate classes.”* Throughout history, the subordinate classes have risen up against their rulers in the name of labor rights, feminism, abolition, and other like causes; and in each instance, conservatives have fought back under the banner of submission for the lower orders; agency for the elite.*

Conservatives believe that those in power (a group that, not coincidentally, includes themselves) are by nature superior to, and know what is better for, the people in subordinate positions. Conservatives are consummate paternalists. This is why they favor the power of employers over organized labor; it’s why they’re hostile to women gaining reproductive rights over their own bodies; it’s why they once argued that whites were permitted to enslave blacks, and it’s why James Bowman can find a supposed silver lining in the horrors of slavery. Conservatives have historically defended the agency of those in power, and they continue to do so today.

It isn’t that James Bowman supports slavery; rather, as a conservative, he can’t understand why paternalism is antithetical to freedom. He’s incapable of comprehending the full meaning of slaves’ status as property, and that as such, no amount of kind treatment could mask their inherent status as human beings deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by self-interested paternalists. A person who is under the total control of another person can never be truly free, regardless of their material conditions.

Thus, what Bowman laments is not the end of slavery itself, but American culture’s gradual rejection of paternalism – the idea that underpinned slavery – as an acceptable condition in society. If and when paternalism ever goes the way of the dinosaurs, you can rest assured that plenty of other conservatives will lament the triumph of an “exploiters against exploited” worldview: after all, if paternalism goes, so goes the power of the exploiters.

* See Reverend A.T. Holmes, “The Duties of Christian Masters,” in Paul Finkelman, ed., Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003), 103, 104, 105.

* See Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 28, 3, 7.

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