Goodreads Review: Twelve Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I saw the movie adaptation of this gripping slave narrative on DVD three years after it came out in theaters.

The movie brutally related a terrible, horrifying, heartrending tale of pure injustice. My history teacher said that the movie reminded him of the film “Schindler’s List”, in that he thought it was a good movie, but would never want to watch it again.

Putting aside the movie, the book “Twelve Years a Slave” adds layers of personality to our narrator, Solomon Northup, renamed “Platt” after being kidnapped from his life of freedom in the north and being sold into slavery in 1850s Louisiana.

Northup relates his tale of woe in grinding detail. He relates the general customs and traditions of enslaved blacks, the way of life of a local Indian tribe, and the range of personalities exhibited by his several masters, from the kind-hearted Baptist minister William Ford, to the lecherous and sadistic Edwin Epps.

Frequently given are the full names of persons involved in the events Northup recounts. He wanted to demonstrate that it is a wholly true story. A modern writer would have gotten lost in these details, but Northup’s aptitude for succinct descriptions and biting sarcasm result in a slim read which could be finished in a weekend.

Padding out my edition, which I acquired at a bargain price from Barnes & Noble, are a series of essays. The include an essay by Steve McQueen, director of the 2012 film, along with essays on the subject of slave narratives by a handful of academics.

Unfortunately, I was not able to finish the final, concluding essay in my edition, as I unfortunately misplaced it soon after I had reached that portion. A pity, but I am glad to have read the book at all.

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We Cannot Trust Modern Depictions of the Past. Watch Old Movies Instead.

When it was announced in May that ABC’s Agent Carter would be cancelled, I wondered if it would have succeeded if it had been kinder in its depiction of the Greatest Generation.

The male denizens of 1940s America in Captain America: The First Avenger were heroic stalwarts willing to fight and die for a noble cause.

By contrast, nearly every male character in Agent Carter is a portly desk-jockey with no regard for women. It would almost be caricature, except that the show takes itself completely seriously.

But even a brief examination of a few movies actually made in that era demonstrate a far different world. Women are respected by men as equals, being strong characters in their own right, and are often in positions of authority themselves.

Francis Schaeffer wrote that all art reflects the worldview of the artist. Logically, classic films depicting noble treatment of women in contemporary times are in line with a worldview that endorses such behavior in reality.

In a time when modern period pieces pull out all the stops to remind us just how stupid and backward our ancestors were, a more accurate picture of the past can be found in classic films.

In the 45 minute televised installment that was the pilot episode of Agent Carter, the eponymous heroine, played by Haylie Atwell, struts about post-World War II New York City as a secret agent.

The show takes every opportunity to remind us that all men are fat, lazy, sexist pigs, except for the subservient Jarvis (James D’Arcy).

One handicapped colleague who does stick up for Carter is immediately chastised by our heroine for thinking that she couldn’t fight her own battles. One wonders how exactly Carter wants men to behave.

Another fellow chews out a waitress, stating that the Nazis who put him in a POW camp gave him better food. I found myself contemplating how that rotund gentleman would ever have been accepted for military service.

Agent Carter isn’t the only modern TV show to follow this trend. A Christmas special for the popular BBC drama Sherlock re-imagines the show in Victorian London.

Once again, nearly all male characters are unrivaled sexists. In this take on the 1890s, Women are treated as mere chattel. The episode’s antagonists are a bizarre cult of suffragettes whose murders Holmes justifies in his concluding summation of the mystery.

Contrast this rubbish to the 1957 film Desk Set, starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.

With a tight script and a fun plot by today’s standards, this romantic comedy depicts women working in the offices of a large media corporation on a level equal to that of men and critical to the organization’s function.

In fact, the main conflict within that film isn’t the typical feminist cliche of women being hampered and discriminated against due to their sex. Rather, the conflict arises from the introduction of new technology into the workplace.

Take another film, Deadline – U.S.A. This 1952 film starring Humphrey Bogart shows multiple women not only in positions of power and influence, but almost universally in a positive light.

It features the owner of the newspaper which Bogart’s character runs, an elderly matron. She herself summarizes the problem with many female characters in fiction today, complaining that girls in her day are “all gall and no guts.” There’s also a career woman, a tough reporter and a respected member of the newspaper staff.

Regarding the Sherlock Christmas special, I recall a 1954 American Sherlock Holmes TV serial. In one episode, an English lord’s wife takes the blame for a murder apparently committed by her husband.

This particular husband, however, is not an oafish pig. Rather, he’s a man in a position of power suddenly put in an impossible situation.

Holmes deduces that the murder was actually committed by the lord’s secretary, the wife having taken the blame in order to keep her husband free of scandal in the midst of sensitive diplomatic wrangling.

Both Holmes and the husband commend the woman for her moral courage. In fact, all of the men do so, except for the weaselly secretary, who is arrested for his crime.

This is a very different take on Sherlock Holmes than we have recently seen.

My brief survey of a few obscure films and television programs is hardly comprehensive in nature, but perhaps you’ve heard of this one: Miracle on 34th Street.

This hugely popular film featuring a female lead in a position of authority (Maureen O’Hara) was critically acclaimed when it was first released in 1947. Surely the homogeneously misogynistic world of Agent Carter wouldn’t stand for such a thing!

Unless, of course, our television programs have been lying to us.

I have long since resolved not to watch much television in general, or even movies. Modern period pieces are almost always suspect in either medium.

But I will be happy to watch any film made prior to the 1970s. I daresay that people living in those times had a much better perspective on what the world was like in their era than we do today.

Image: Scene from Deadline – U.S.A. – Source: HamptonRoads.com

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Want to Understand How the World Works? Read History!

In a letter to someone asking for a good source of information about politics, Thomas Jefferson once wrote:

“I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.”

In this rather cynical and barbed letter, Jefferson makes several reading suggestions to his correspondent, also giving his opinion on the popular press:

“General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, &c., &c.; but no details can be relied on.”

Jefferson was smart enough to know that newspapers (and their 21st century counterparts) are engines fueled by sensation, wild speculation, and excitement above all else. I don’t believe that much has changed.

Many people my age who go to college enroll in a “political science” class in a misguided effort to gain an understanding of how the world works. In reality, this rather dubious field of study is hardly up to the task. Even the realm of economics falls short.

The best way to understand the way the world works, the way that all of the great men throughout the ages did so, from Alexander the Great to Jefferson himself, is to read history.

History shows how the world works because it shows what happened that resulted in how things are today.

The press is a constant stream of random facts, many of them false.

“Political science” is little more than a term used to legitimize the idea that politics can be reduced to a uniform set of scientific principles. No term should have “science” put after it unless it involves a lot of math.

But history is different. History is the story of the world, the grand, mindbogglingly complex saga of what’s been happening on the face of dear old Earth.

There are plenty of authorities who will say silly things like “History repeats itself” or “History is written by the winners.” Neither of these are true.

But as Mark Twain, another great man from American history, once (but not really) said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

The meaning of these wise words is that there are patterns to be found in history.

This isn’t because there is some inexorable force causing all the events of time to periodically go around the merry-go-round in some fashion or another which we decide to call “history.”

No, it is because history is the unpredictable story of a subject which is absolutely predictable: Man.

Man, mankind, humankind, humanity, is entirely predictable. By this I mean that human nature never changes, one of the only things that can consistently be relied upon.

And inevitably, because human nature is inclined toward evil, history can be very ugly. Conversely, because history is so ugly, it naturally follows that mankind is inclined toward evil. Both statements prove each other.

The point here is that learning history is important, because otherwise you’ll go looking for answers about how the world works from your Political Science 201 professor.

He will proceed to fill your head with nonsense about how human nature is on an upward march toward a classless utopia as envisioned by Marx. Trust me, your instructor’s predecessors have been saying that for the last 125-plus years.

Instead, please turn off the news, politely filter out your professor, and pick up a history book instead.

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Don’t Get Your History from Comment Sections

Shortly before I started this blog, I signed up for a Quora account. On Quora, you can write detailed answers to people’s questions, complete with editing tools absent from standard comment sections. It allows you to find, ask, and answer pretty much any question related to any topic under the sun.

But while this is a useful and fun tool, the information available from Quora is not infallible. Although useful for finding specific and arcane knowledge from people of various walks of life, it shares all the shortcomings of any social media outlet. This includes the tendency of people to give extremely lopsided, ax-grinding accounts of rather prickly issues.

For example, one thread involved a handful of people comparing Winston Churchill to Hitler and Stalin. Comparing just about anyone to Hitler is not new on the internet, but as a lover of history, I found this assertion incredibly asinine. The topic in question involved Churchill’s stance on the British Empire’s rule of India.

I am hardly an expert on Churchill, but I knew enough about history to think a detailed response was warranted. I was fully prepared to do so, except I was out of internet range and my phone was nearly dead, if I recall correctly.

The long and short of it is that I completely forgot about this incident until a few days later, and then got the idea to write this blog post. Mercifully, my now cooler head prevailed and I did not write a reply to that Quora comment.

Nothing I say is going to stop people from getting information online. Plenty of people continue to do so, and I think it’s for the better. More information, true and false, accurate and mistaken, is readily available to more people than at any other point in history. The question is being discerning enough to sort out the good from the bad.

But there is a reason that I prefer books over the internet. It is easier (for now) to qualify the author as a reliable source, whereas on the internet, literally anybody could be writing about anything. Typically, when one seeks an incisive record of past events, they either get a sterile catalog of the raw facts, or else they get a polemic infused with the most virile historical revisionism.

It is absolutely possible to find trustworthy information on the internet. It’s only a matter of seeking out the right sources. It’s no good trying to find a completely “unbiased” account of history, as so many people foolishly yearn for. But it is equally foolhardy to believe that no account of history is to be trusted, from which we get the moronic truism, “History is written by the winners.”

(A more accurate statement would be, “History is written by historians.” Please remind me what Herodotus or Thucydides “won” that made them able to write their historical accounts.)

If you really want to learn the history of Winston Churchill, find an article about him on the internet which has citation notes. Yes, Wikipedia counts. Then find citations which refer to books. Read those books, and then you’ll have a good idea both of what actual historians have to say about Churchill, and you’ll know the context of the hodge-podge of information you read on Quora.

Just don’t, by all that is holy, get your information about history from comment sections, whether on Quora or anywhere else. Even the History Channel is better than that.

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