Man who lived under a rock for the past 50 years gives positive review to “12 Years A Slave”

The WaPo’s Richard Cohen wants you to know that 12 Years A Slave is an extremely important movie because it gives Americans a surprising new message that they need to hear:  Slavery is bad.

I don’t know under what rock Cohen has been living, but the last major American movie to suggest that slaves didn’t have it all bad was Gone With The Wind, which came out in 1939.  Cohen was born in 1948, nine years after Gone With The Wind hit movie theaters.  He presumably graduated from high school in about 1965, by which time the Civil Rights movement had changed America’s racial paradigm.  His education, moreover, didn’t take place in Ole Miss, or some other bastion of Southern-ness.  Instead, he was educated in New York all the way.

Since leaving college (Hunter College, New York University, and Columbia, none of which are known for their KKK sensibilities), Cohen has lived enveloped in a liberal bubble.  He first worked for UPI and has, for a long time, been affiliated with the Washington Post.

Somehow, though, up until he recently saw 12 Years A Slave, Cohen always believed that slavery was a good thing for American blacks.  No, I’m not kidding.  Yes, that’s what he really said:

I sometimes think I have spent years unlearning what I learned earlier in my life. For instance, it was not George A. Custer who was attacked at the Little Bighorn. It was Custer — in a bad career move — who attacked the Indians.

Much more importantly, slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks. Slavery was a lifetime’s condemnation to an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children. Happiness could not be pursued after that.

Steve McQueen’s stunning movie “12 Years a Slave” is one of those unlearning experiences. I had to wonder why I could not recall another time when I was so shockingly confronted by the sheer barbarity of American slavery.

Instead, beginning with school, I got a gauzy version. I learned that slavery was wrong, yes, that it was evil, no doubt, but really, that many blacks were sort of content.

Slave owners were mostly nice people — fellow Americans, after all — and the sadistic Simon Legree was the concoction of that demented propagandist, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Her “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a lie and she never — and this I remember clearly being told — had ventured south to see slavery for herself. I felt some relief at that because it meant that Tom had not been flogged to death. But in the novel, he had.

I have no idea whether 12 Years A Slave is a good movie or a bad movie.  Aside from the fact that I almost never set foot in movie theaters, going only when I need to chaperone children or when friends want a Mom’s night out, I have sworn off most movies, especially Hollywood history movies.

Sure Hollywood occasionally gets history right.  Mostly, though, Hollywood gets it wrong, with the wrongness ranging from Oliver Stone’s delusional JFK, to the old-time biopics that had Cole Porter as a nice straight guy (Night and Day), to the saccharine anti-war stuff of Tom Hank’s war movie Band of Brothers.  Hollywood is never interested in truth and never has been.  It’s selling entertainment with an undercurrent of propaganda.  In the old days, it sold entertainment with a wholesome, moralistic twist.  Since the 1960s, Hollywood’s entertaining versions of history simply hate America, and that’s true whether Hollywood expresses that hatred in booming Technicolor or small nuances in Indy pictures.

Without having seen 12 Years A Slave, I willingly concede that slavery is a bad thing.  It was a bad thing when Pharaoh enslaved the Jews and it was a bad thing when the British and, later, the Americans enslaved the blacks.  It’s still a bad thing throughout the Muslim world where devout Qu’ran followers enslave Filipinos, Christians, blacks, and anyone else unlucky enough to end up in their clutches.

But unlike Cohen, I’ve actually paid attention, not just in school, but in subsequent years, so I don’t need to have Hollywood preach the obvious to me.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • JKB

    One presumes he missed the whole Roots television event back in the late 1970s.  I understand that Roots was found to be somewhat liberal with facts, but, I can’t see how you could watch that and not come to understand slavery is bad.  How could you even watch the movie Moses or read the Bible and not know slavery is bad?   How, no matter how romantic slavery is presented, for dramatic purpose, could one not give enough thought to see slavery as evil.  The loss of freedom, the loss of liberty, the capriciousness of life under a master…?
    Could Cohen have avoided critical thought and consideration of slavery because the truth was to universal?  If the enslavement of Africans in America was evil, that the the enslavement of the millions by socialism cum communism could also be evil?  A truth to terrible to his “elite” world view?  

  • Texan99

    He learned that “slavery was not a benign institution in which benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks.”
    Where did this guy go to school?  Did he watch Schindler’s List and learn that concentration camps were not a benign institution in which industrious Germans taught industrial skills to befuddled Jews?

  • JKB

    On the other hand, things were not so terrible that the slaves were not amiable to the Whites even when vulnerable during the war.
    This comes from a book I read when I was about 10 years old.  The memoirs of a Confederate soldier who 14 when he participated in the first full battle of the war.  Written 30 year later, the story does not gloss over the realities of the times.  (Keep in mind, this was written in the 1897)  1861 to 1865 by Captain James Dinkins
    Not only did a large majority of the negroes re- 
    main at their homes, but they took care of the property and 
    families of their owners, raised crops, and did all other cus- 
    tomary and necessary work, just as they had done before the 
    war, when owners and overseers watched over them. These 
    are facts that flatly contradict and give the lie direct to the 
    numerous oft-repeated assertions of abolitionists (slanders on 
    the negroes), that they hated the whites of the South, and 
    only worked for and obeyed them because they were com- 
    pelled to do so. Not only did a very large majority of the 
    negroes remain at home during the war, but after they were 
    made free as a result of the war, and by national and state 
    action, many still remained with their former owners and 
    worked for them for regular wages or **on shares,” and not 
    a few are still doing so. 
    These are facts, and no matter what may be the outcome 
    of the developments of the future, as a race, the negroes, by 
    their conduct and their fidelity in times and under circum- 
    stances that might well have been supposed, would and did 
    put their allegiance and fidelity to the severest test, ekrned 
    and entitled themselves to the kind consideration, the friend- 
    ship, and love of the whites. True, after the war had ended 
    and they became free, their ignorance was imposed upon, and 
    many of them allowed themselves to be duped and misled 
    into a feeling of distrust and a course of antagonism to their 
    former owners, and the whites of the South generally which 
    came very near causing a rupture that must or might have 
    resulted in the destruction of all confidences, the severance 
    of all ties, and creating a permanent animosity among the 
    races. I do not envy the men — the fiends — who could take 
    advantage of the ignorant blacks to turn them against the 
    whites, expose them to the possible dangers and evils of a 
    bloody race conflict. Such men are too mean to live, and 
    they are unfit to die. 
    Fortunately, the negroes discovered the cloven foot of the 
    marplot in time to avert it — and when they withdrew their 
    allegiance, the Carpet Bagger **left the country for the 
    country’s good,” and perhaps their own safety — (I do not 
    quote literally, because it was not their country). They came 
    for spoils, did all the meanness they could, duped and cheated 
    those poor people who had trusted them, and when the 
    ” spoils” ceased to flow into their carpet bags, they returned 
    whence they came, bitter in their feelings, because of the 
    diappointment, then posed in the North as martyrs, and 
     scattered falsehoods against the Southern people. 

  • Ymarsakar

    It doesn’t gloss over the realities of the time? That entire passage is a fiction.
    “left the country for the 
    country’s good”
    The South’s economy never did recover. Partially because Northern investment and money, which was flowing into the South not out of it (there’s nothing you can get from some sharecroppers and people starving living in burned out Atlanta), were rejected because it would disrupt Democrat land ownership and economic control of whites and blacks.
    “and perhaps their own safety”
    This rejection took the form of the KKK, essentially terrorism. Where whites and blacks that would conduct business and political dealings with Northerners or Republicans were killed and hunted down.
    “Not only did a very large majority of the 
    negroes remain at home during the war, but after they were made free as a result of the war, and by national and state action, many still remained with their former owners and worked for them for regular wages or **on shares,” and not a few are still doing so. ”
    This view is only a rosy image of what happens when you condition a slave to obey. From the point of view of white Democrats, slaves were no better than the loyal house pet. It has a place in the family, but not something you trust to vote to leave or become a political representative. The number one Democrat propaganda line about why black Republicans are not to be negotiated with concerning the South’s economic and political future, is that blacks are puppets of Republicans. Thus any black or Republican guy in power in the South is there only because he was installed there by “carpetbaggers”, “Tyrant Lincoln”, and “Northern invaders”. This constructs the moral justification required for public lynching and support of terrorism, much as the demonization of the Tea Party set the stage for the IRS’ physical suppression of them. Al Sharpton goes around talking about the bad things whites do against blacks, like Zimmerman hunting down a black kid. And when people die because blacks “get it done” for revenge, Sharpton wipes his hands clean and looks at you like he’s totally innocent.
    Democrats in general believed this about black Republicans because the Southern culture itself was based upon controlling slaves. The conditioning process for slavery was strong enough that Harriet Tubman carried a handgun expressly to shoot run away slaves that tried to go back to the Master because “freedom was hard and scary”. She could not afford for her Underground Railroad abolitionist contacts to be leaked because some black slave liked the plantation life better than liberty. Got “second thoughts” so to speak. She didn’t use reason, she didn’t hold a debate, she exerted authority. Because Authority was all slaves knew how to obey.
    The entire story is a “gloss over reality”, period. Democrat propaganda affected both whites and blacks in those times. Actually that’s true even today. Propaganda is not a toy to be underestimated and treated like a child’s game. It is more powerful than people want to believe. And slavery conditioning is stronger than people want to believe too.

  • Charles Martel

    Cohen’s memory of having slavery served up to him in school as some benign, rose-tinged thing is one of the biggest straw men I’ve ever seen. Nobody in Cohen’s privileged life would have ever dared suggest such a thing. The man is a fraud.

  • Bookworm

    It occurred to me later, Charles, that Cohen is engaging in a rhetorical feint.  His upbringing ensured that he never heard a good word about slavery.  But he’s assuming that you, his reader, are quite possibly the type of undereducated, racist, deviant idiot who thinks that.  Rather than calling you names, he takes that ignorance upon himself so that he can educate you.

    In other words, he’s not a liar, he’s an arrogant, condescending SOB.

    But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln….

  • LSBeene

    And since Hollywood is oh-so-interested in the truth …

    Where are the movies about slave owning blacks back in Africa?
    Where are the movies about slave owning Mexicans – owning both natives and blacks?
    Where are the movies about the slave trade that was legal until the early and mid 20th century in the Middle East?
    Where are the movies about modern day slavery in many countries and how PC politics forbids us to speak about it?
    They don’t care about slaves of the past or their suffering – it’s about “critical theory” and bashing the U.S.