March 5, 2007

"Amazing Grace"

Here's an excerpt from my upcoming review in The American Conservative raising some quibbles about this fine biopic about William Wilberforce, who persuaded Parliament to ban the slave trade 200 years ago:

Unfortunately, complex historical stories like this are better suited to the leisurely pace of the television mini-series because a two-hour film has to leave out much. For instance, "Amazing Grace" fails to mention that Wilberforce was a Tory or that his religious enthusiasm was quite unfashionable during the deistic Enlightenment.

Moreover, banning the slave trade in 1807 made the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in the 1830s relatively painless. The West Indian sugar planters had routinely worked their slaves to death and thus needed fresh slaves from Africa to prosper. In contrast, slaves multiplied on the less harsh tobacco and cotton plantations of America, so our slave owners still thrived after Congress outlawed the trade in 1808.

Contemporary audiences so lack historical knowledge that veteran director Michael Apted ("Coal Miner's Daughter") and writer Steven Knight decided that there's no point in even trying to make clear who is whom in the film. For the first hour, for example, no effort is made to explain who Wilberforce's best friend "Billie" is, or why in the world Billie thinks (correctly) that he can become Prime Minister at age 24. He's just some guy named Billie who is Prime Minister for two decades. Explaining that Billie's father, William Pitt the Elder, had been the dynamic Prime Minister during the Seven Years War would only annoy the public, so why bother?

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

According to Wikipedia, Pitt the Elder was not Prime Minister during the Seven Years War, but as Secretary of State for the Southern Department largely responsible for running the war. Complicating the matter is the fact that the official position of 'Prime Minister' did not exist until much later, so for this time frame it is more of a label later applied by historians.

Anonymous said...

Wilberforce must be the first right wing christian in decades not to be portrayed as a serial killer or child molester.

Anonymous said...

The problem with television miniseries is that they are even more subject to political rectitude than are feature films for cinematic release. That offsets any other qualities the extended format offers.

Many salient facts regarding slavery in the US and elsewhere are simply not going to be put on TV. Not for network broadcast and not on most cable channels either.

For years, I've thought that the old concept of the radio serial could be updated for Internet distribution, such as we now have with podcasting. A pure audio format is cheap to produce and distribute and involves the listener's imagination.

A couple of fundamentalist Christian outfits still do such a radio show very effectively, such as Pacific Gardens Mission's "Unshackled". Having spent my teenage years in a home which was a part of Herbert Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God, I've always thought a "bio-radiopic" of Herbert and his wayward son Garner Ted Armstrong's movements would be a good way to tell what is a most interesting story, but one which simply is of no sufficient interest to make a film practical. Garner Ted was thirty years ahead of his time in bringing the same kind of scandal on himself that Ted haggard recently did, but because the WWCG doctrines were whacky but not homicidal or "bigoted", only fundamentalists seeking a "see-what-happens-when-you-reject-OUR-brand-of Jesus" story would find much meat.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the assumption is not that the audience "lack historical knowledge" but that they will know enough about the two Billie Pitts to recognize them. (Coupled with the elitist attitude that if they don't know - "who cares?")

Anonymous said...

It's worth remembering that in 1807 only about 10% of the adult male population had the vote.

Did Wilberforce support the reform act of 1832?

Matthew Dunnyveg said...

Plaudits to William Wilberforce for his part in ending slavery. But to claim there is any nexus between abolitionism and Christianity is in error.

During the debates between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the antebellum United States, it became clear that despite constant mentions of the practice, the Bible in no way condemns slavery, notwithstanding the best efforts of the abolitionists to prove otherwise. After the pro-slavery faction won this debate, many abolitionists went so far as to claim that if the Bible didn't forbid slavery, it was the work of the Devil. More than a few northerners lost their religion over this issue. They placed their liberal politics ahead of their religion.

One of the reasons the Bible doesn't forbid slavery is probably that slavery is a form of bonded labor, and bonded labor comprised the almost universal means of productions in pre-industrial, agrarian societies. To have proscribed slavery, or its kissing cousin serfdom, in agrarian societies would have been tantamount to banning corporations in our day and age. It would have destroyed the primary means of production for most societies.

A second reason slavery probably wasn't proscribed in the Bible is, ironically, for humanitarian reasons. Prisons didn't come into common use until the early nineteenth century. Prisons were developed because many criminals were acquitted. Many jurors were loath to convict as it usually meant some form of severe corporal punishment or execution. By the same token, enslavement occurred most frequently when a victorious army took prisoners. In an era when prisons were a luxury unaffordable in most societies, the alternative to enslavement would have been death.

A possible third reason the Bible never forbids slavery is that since life was so hard in pre-industrial times, civilization probably never would have occurred had the best and brightest been forced to spend all of their time struggling to survive. For example, most of the great minds behind our Constitution and form of government were slaveholders. Cicero and Montaigne hold little allure for people who have to do backbreaking labor from sunup to sundown.

Rather than condemning our forebears, we should be thankful that we possess the technology to render slavery, and most other forms of bonded labor, unneeded and obsolete.

Anonymous said...

Plaudits to William Wilberforce for his part in ending slavery. But to claim there is any nexus between abolitionism and Christianity is in error.

Well, evidently there is some nexus, because Wilberforce and others argued from a Christian viewpoint. But we can agree that it's not a necessary nexus.

It would be interesting to know the history of the abolition of slavery within Christendom. For instance, I read that it was outlawed in Britain in 1102.

Anonymous said...

It wasnt just Christians who argued for abolition,ya know! Many many rabbis demanded an end to the lucrative slave trade! Cuz there faith tells them to! Why there was...uhm...uh...and of course,lets see...uhhhhhh...there was that book...or was it a pamphlet? Something about slavery is not good? The Not Good book? Uhhhh...hmmmmmm,I'll get back to you! :) PS:An extended miniseries on slavery=a brilliant idea! Start with the Arab trade in Africans in the 12th century,or whenever;proceed century by century.

Matthew Dunnyveg said...

The Bible does mandate that slaves, and almost everyone else, be treated humanely. But if you're saying I'm in error, I think it's only fair to ask you for some chapter and verse citations condemning slavery. (Hint: they aren't there.)

Slavery only existed sporadically in Christian times in Western Europe, and slaves were normally captured in wars of conquest. Manumission was also very common. Slavery was more prevalent in eastern and southern Europe. But by far the most common pattern was Moslems from north Africa raiding the coasts of Southern Europe, where they captured an estimated one million slaves.

By far, the most common type of bonded labor was serfdom. The difference between chattel slavery and serfdom is that an individual owns slaves; serfs were considered to be part of the land. But considering that the nobles at a minimum controlled the land, they controlled the serfs.

Matthew Dunnyveg said...

Mr. Randall, I will also challenge you: give me a citation from either the Bible or the Talmud that unequivocally condemns slavery. You can't do it.

Some of the biggest slaveholders in the South were Jewish; Judah Benjamin comes to mind. Additionally, in the book of Deuteronomy, God actually commands Jews to enslave the Canaanites.

Anonymous said...

give me a citation from either the Bible or the Talmud that unequivocally condemns abortion

It's a case of applied ethics. As for Mr. Randall, I fear you miss his point.

Matthew Dunnyveg said...

You're right; the Bible doesn't mention abortion, but it does speak at length about murder and homicide. The early church fathers, as well as the traditions of the Catholic church, unequivocally condemn abortion, a treatment slavery never got.

Yes, after rereading Mr. Randall's piece, I would agree with you that I didn't read it properly. Then again, it's lacking in clarity. I'm still not sure exactly what his point is.

Anonymous said...

The early church fathers, as well as the traditions of the Catholic church, unequivocally condemn abortion, a treatment slavery never got.

Mainly true, but with important exceptions:

Anonymous said...

Aristotle said that some people are "natural slaves," in that they are not capable of taking care of themselves. This was the unanimous opinion of most of the world, as a shocked Ottoman sultan said when the English proposed he abolish slavery.

Now that there are no slaves in the world, there are still people who can't take care of themselves. The lucky ones continue in useful labor, but many others waste their lives in resentful uselessness. The liberal Mommy State helps by giving handouts to help these ignored people feed themselves.

The evil is slavery is that many born to de facto imbeciles are quite talented, and that talent can go to waste. Theoretically, a free labor market allows these people to rise to their natural level of aptitude. (Whether theory and reality jibe is another question).

The evil of non-slavery is that helpless people are left to fend for themselves, or at least quietly survive far away from the sight of high-minded rich liberals. Many of these people become very frustrated and angry at the "system" that seems to "deny" them by failing to take care of them and make them useful. Hence gangsta rap.

So were those high-minded English abolitionists really so wise? Wealthy and capable people think the "every man for himself" individualism is liberation, but in fact it is the opposite for many people. On the other hand, maybe with time these people will raise themselves up. Rome wasn't built in a day.

Anonymous said...

Some people ARE slaves. Should we let them be who they are? Or should we disguise them into something they are not, to our detriment?

The modern litmus-test for sanity.

Matthew Dunnyveg said...

Trilb: I'll have to admit I wasn't aware of the stated position of St. Augustine on abortion. And considering the position of the Catholic Church on this issue, I need to do some research on that. But it is congruent with parts of the Bible. I don't have a Bible in front of me, but the closest Biblical reference to abortion I know of is out of Exodus, and goes to the effect of: there is a set penalty for the murder of a wife, but if only her unborn baby is killed, it is up to the father to set the penalty. It is a double-standard on lives that should ostensibly be valued equally. I do know that Christianity in general was very much opposed to abortion until the great grandchildren of the radical abolitionists took over the churches in the 1960's.

Mr. MacDonald: I like the way T.S. Eliot replied to Aristotle: Aristotle said some men are fit only to be slaves, and that is true. But no man is fit to be master.

My point is that when we ascribe arguments to authority, we must be cognizant of what that authority is about.

I agree with you, the abolitionists were bad news. They were the first radical egalitarians. And even the worst forms of chattel slavery pale in comparison to what radical egalitarian notions wrought in the twentieth century.

Anonymous said...

Pitt, although often referred to as a Tory, always considered himself to be an "independent Whig" and was generally opposed to the development of a strict partisan political system.

I was going to post something about confusing Whig Billie with Big Willy, but I don't think I'll bother now.

Anonymous said...

For an alternative view, see Michael Hoffman III's review, Amazing Disgrace.