Conservative writer and "scholar" James Bowman is angry that Steve McQueen's movie 12 Years a Slave didn't depict happy slavery. Since "contented" arrangements surely existed "here and there," clearly they should be represented in the film! (I can't make this up.)
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James Bowman at The American Spectator is upset that Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave didn't convey slavery in a more positive light.

Clearly calling into question his (self-given?) title of "scholar," Bowman asks: "[The film] expresses a truth about chattel slavery as practiced in the American South before 1865 — [but] does it express the truth?" (source).

Well, no, genius. That's what art does: It represents reality. It is not a mirror image of it.

The truly spectacular aspect of Bowman's argument is that he recognizes the problem of "failing to make the elementary distinction between representation and reality" but then criticizes the movie for not "representing reality" (source). (Am I the only one seeing this? Doesn't he have an editor?")

He essentially explains that because the movie did not portray the happy aspects of slavery it casts a "cartoonishly simple-minded view of the vast and fascinating sweep of the past." In other words: "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" (source). According to Bowman, this one-sided depiction of history is "political propaganda" because it cuts the audience off from "any acquaintance with historical 'reality' not pre-certified as politically correct" (source).

Is he serious?

One of the humans in this relationship is literally owned by the other.

So let's get this straight. Bowman understands that art does not represent reality in a literal sense, but he's confused about why a movie wouldn't represent the "contented" slave and master arrangement that surely existed, "here and there."

Setting aside my fascination with how these people get their writing gigs, I'm going to explain to the imaginary Bowman why a happy representation of slavery is, um, slightly problematic.

Well, let us begin with the fact that even in the most "amicable" slave-master relationship, one in which "kindliness" occurred (in terms of say, what? No rape or beating?), and maybe if the slave and master became "friends," there is one rather glaring problem with this "friendship": One of the parties is enslaved. One of the parties is not free. Shall I say it again? One of the humans in this relationship is literally owned by the other.

So, a "happy" depiction of this arrangement would necessarily assume that this scenario had potential for "contentedness," and that is simply twisted. That's like saying to a battered woman: "Hey but didn't you have any good times? Let's focus on that!" You know, in the interest of accuracy.

To represent slavery as anything beyond torture is to tell the story through white eyes, specifically white eyes with historical amnesia, because they were the only ones for whom this arrangement could ever really equal contentment.

Whose "accuracy?"

The idea that the occasional "happy" or "friendly" aspect of human enslavement should receive equal representation in the arts is disgusting, and reflects a white historical nostalgia beyond comprehension. To represent slavery as anything beyond torture is to tell the story through white eyes, specifically white eyes with historical amnesia, because they were the only ones for whom this arrangement could ever really equal contentment. Let me put this in simpler terms: If the master and his slave were truly "friends," they wouldn't be "master and slave." They would be human and human, hanging out enjoying themselves. To cast an inherently unequal relationship, one that denies a human being his right to life, as "contented," is to tell the story of the one in power, period.

And I thought you were about accuracy, Mr. Bowman?

As shocking as this guy is, what's vastly more shocking is the prevalence of this rhetoric, the idea that "there were good sides to slavery" and "some slaves didn't leave their masters even when given the ability!" Yes. Do you ever wonder why that is? Maybe because they couldn't read or write and had no means to exist financially? But even if a former slave stayed with the family that enslaved him due to genuine love or "friendship," even though I'm sure affection existed in some cases, there is no way to ignore the piercing reality of chattel slavery: Stealing human beings, selling and buying them like cattle, stripping them from their rights to life in every form, all in the interest of money and power. To do so is to tell history through one side and one side alone.

Teach your kids the truth. All of it, even the parts that make us extremely uncomfortable. Even the parts we wish we could forget.

And in this case, if any "side" needs to be told, it's the one involving the horror, because the alternative is frankly insane: "Yeah, we know there was that whole enslavement aspect, but we choose to focus on the happy parts! That way, we can promote a positive depiction of slavery!"

So maybe... what? It can happen again?

Teach your kids the truth.

All of it, even the parts that make us extremely uncomfortable. Even the parts we wish we could forget.

Some things cannot be rewritten. They cannot be cast as "not that bad." They cannot be brushed with pleasantries. They are horrific, and they call into question all that we are as "humans." And it should be so.

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