A few weeks ago, I went to see “12 Years a Slave,” a movie retelling the harrowing experience of Solomon Northup, a free man from the North kidnapped and sold into slavery for the agonizing twelve years referenced in the title. I found it a somewhat difficult film to review, in the same way that some very effective horror movies are tough to review: is anyone going to truly enjoy the experience of watching it, and are they really meant to? The craftsmanship and acting in the film are excellent, particularly Chiwetel Elijofor, who provides the only truly uplifting moments in a relentless dirge of horror by delivering some memorable speeches about his refusal to submit to despair.
Evidently the movie was charged with megatons of social and political significance for some viewers, as it led to a bizarre exchange between liberal Jonathan Chait (who claims to have been so utterly destroyed by “12 Years a Slave” that he couldn’t sleep) and conservative Quinn Hillyer. Hillyer writes at National Review of how Chait, still gripped by the feverish delirium of hatred he contracted in the movie theater, put him “on the psychiatrist’s couch, while he probed my psyche for latent racism:”
He wrote of a paragraph of mine published right here at NRO that “most African-Americans, and many liberal whites, would read Hillyer’s rant as the cultural heir to Northup’s overseer: a southern white reactionary enraged that a calm, dignified, educated black man has failed to prostrate himself.”
A host of oh-so-clever caveats followed, but only after the smear’s impression was indelibly branded on my forehead. Accusing me of “wrapping [my]self in a racist trope,” he wrote quite falsely that I was guilty of “the freighted connotation of calling a black man uppity.” (Actually, I had called Barack Obama “haughty,” which has significantly different connotations.)
Hillyer goes on to cite what he describes as his “bona fides on race” – which is, to some extent, playing the defensive game that scurrilous accusations of racism are meant to make us play. When the tsunami force of the allegation comes crashing in, we must grab whatever bit of resume we can find to prove we’re not monsters, and hope it’s good enough to keep us afloat. In Hillyer’s case, he was expected to demonstrate that he’s not a slaver, deep in his heart of hearts:
One might understand why I could be expected to take particular offense, therefore, at Chait’s attempt to use me as a race-issue piñata. Despite all his disclaimers that he feels “highly confident” (note the element of doubt he inserts, a step down from feeling “certain” that I oppose slavery) that I abhor racial discrimination, it is a far different thing to accuse somebody of garden-variety insensitivity than it is to do so specifically in the context of calling him a “cultural heir” to a brutish overseer guilty of “horrific torture.”
So what did Hillyer say in the “rant” that got him pegged as the intellectual heir to brutal plantation owners? Why, he was writing about Barack Obama’s scandals and abuses of power, and the failures of ObamaCare, as he was rolling through a troubled second term. “And all the while,” Hillyer warned about the President, “he will be demonizing Republicans and conservatives, lying about the Right’s actions and motives while hoping to goad Republican leaders into errors or exploiting the growing fissures between tea partiers and the GOP ‘establishment.'” That’s assuming Obama’s loyal squadron of volunteer assistant demonizers, like Jonathan Chait, don’t staple devil horns and barbed tails to all of his critics before the President gets a shot at them.
We’re all familiar with the dreary use of “racism” as an all-purpose shield against criticism of Barack Obama. Chait takes it to comical excess by explicitly comparing Obama to Solomon Northup and putting a metaphorical whip in Hillyer’s hand. You’ve especially got to love the little non-caveats about Chait’s confidence that Hillyer probably doesn’t want to enslave anyone.
This is actually just the latest permutation of a technique very popular on the Left, going back to the totalitarian nightmare states of the 20th Century: the classification of dissent as a pathology. No one can disagree with them in good faith; you’ve got to be either crazy or evil to disagree with an officially recognized Great Man of the People. When they’re not busy slinging false allegations of racism, Obama defenders are fond of portraying his critics as either tools of the Evil Rich – a narrative they deploy less often when their man is trying to point to booming Wall Street stock trades as evidence that his economic policies are working – or purely insane creatures who hate equality and progress just because.
And there are always these nasty little attempts to psychoanalyze the dissenter, climbing inside his skull to find out what really motivates him, sussing out the hidden racist code words littering his every pronouncement. Cable network MSNBC specializes in this – there are days when they do little else. Everything from the city of Chicago, to the game of golf, has been identified as racist code by MSNBC guests or their approving hosts. For some reason, the recent assertion by Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC that the term “ObamaCare” was “conceived by a group of wealthy white men who needed a way to put themselves above and apart from a black man” was the last straw for some observers who have long indulged far more offensive rhetoric from the left-wing network.
Charges of racism serve three purposes for the Left: they suppress dissent through intimidation, they make it unnecessary to respond to whatever the illegitimate critics are saying, and they make liberals feel very good about themselves. They’ll never tire of replaying a historical narrative that portrays them as the ultimate evolution of human intellect and moral sensibility, weeping giants who stand over the ruins left by their inferior, primitive ancestors.
In truth, it will prove very difficult to purge racist thoughts completely from the minds of fallen mankind. That includes the members of politically favored minority groups, who are quite capable of harboring racist thoughts and engaging in hate crimes. What we should seek in the meantime is a society that venerates the ideal of equal treatment and opportunity for all… a difficult case to make when much government policy depends on treating people unequally, in some cases because they belong to the “wrong” race. The high-minded intentions of such policies do not alter their essential character.
We also aren’t going to make progress into a post-racial world if our culture insists upon dwelling on racial grievances, or pretending that no real progress has been made since 1965… or 1865, for that matter. The Left’s insistence on wallowing in the past is an insult to everyone who is doing better, especially when they start accusing white people of holding dark fantasies about reinstating slavery.
What was the George Zimmerman drama about, if not crawling through one man’s skull in search of buried racism sufficient to indict him as a hate-filled murderer… or, failing that, to portray him as the instrument of a fundamentally racist society that wants to shoot young black men for sport? Not just the trial, but the entire social convulsion around it, was a massive exercise in psychoanalysis. It’s not healthy that we are prone to such spasms, or that our culture is shaped by people who would deliberately provoke them for political profit.
I’ve never seen anything that resolved lingering issues of real racial tension faster than getting people to work together. Prejudice thrives on distance; get to know people personally, and it has a way of evaporating. It’s not universally effective, but it works more consistently than anything else. A free society filled with voluntary cooperation for mutual benefit finds its way to the kind of harmony that cannot be imposed, especially not when we’ve made as much progress toward that goal as the United States of America has… whether we want to collectively admit it or not.
Along those lines, for those looking to learn a few lessons from the grim history covered by “12 Years a Slave,” you might consider that such atrocities are impossible to perpetrate without government power. The government of the era did more than merely tolerate slavery. It was an indispensable partner in maintaining the institution, which relies upon force to keep its prisoners – the kind of force only government can exert. Solomon Northup’s ordeal did not end because everyone realized that slavery was horrible; it ended because the proper paperwork to prove he wasn’t a slave was finally processed. He is escorted from a field where others still labor in bondage, and will do so until the government of their region loses a war.
In the end, only the power of government can either preserve freedom from the depredations of crime, or suppress it through tyranny. No sword has ever held two sharper edges. We do ourselves no favors by indulging any ideology that places the hands holding that sword beyond criticism.