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Other people’s misery
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Other people’s misery

In an episode of All in the Family, Edith tries to explain to Mike why Archie seems to resent his son-in-law. “You’re going to college, but Archie had to quit school to support his family. He ain’t never going to be no more than he is right now,” says Edith. Mike gets it, and when he next sees Archie, he wraps him in a bear hug. “It’s all right, Arch,” Mike tells his squeamish father-in-law. “I understand.” The studio audience laughs at Archie’s discomfort, and at Mike’s mawkishness.

I was reminded of the scene when I read Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen’s piece about 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s harrowing movie about the “peculiar institution.” Cohen is getting all sorts of grief for the column, which, like Mike’s hug, plays as a parody of liberal condescension. Cohen praises the movie for helping him “unlearn” a sanitized version of slavery, and appreciate how slavery was an “often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty, and, too often, their own children.”

The Atlantic Wire’s Arit John wonders, hilariously, why it took an NYU and Columbia graduate raised in “the Confederate backwoods of New York City” so long to figure out that slavery was an abomination. “Somewhere in this post-racial country,” writes John, “a man is ironing his Klan gown under a Confederate flag and saying, ‘Well, even I knew that.’”

And yes, there is a quality of faux naivete in Cohen’s column. It asks us to believe that if not for the new film, he might still have regarded slavery as “a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks.” I don’t believe that Cohen was ever taught this. And where was he when Roots first aired?

And yet, in Cohen’s defense, films like 12 Years a Slave often arouse emotions none of us is quite sure what to do with. Confronted afresh with evidence of the human capacity for cruelty, we feel our consciences tweaked, but to what end, exactly?

This is a discussion that has long surrounded Holocaust films, for example. At their best and most effective, fictional films like Schindler’s List can raise public consciousness about the Shoa and reach a vast audience with the “truth” about genocide (complicated by the fact that any scripted movie is really “artifice posing as reality,” to use Sara R. Horowitz’s phrase). Former Gov. Christie Whitman wanted the Spielberg film shown in NJ classrooms; a Jewish educator in Miami maintained that “the lesson of the film is one person can make a difference and change lives.” This approach to the art of remembrance, writes Jeffrey Shandler, “seeks to provide assurance that even if our species is capable of committing such atrocities…people nevertheless can, with ‘proper’ exposure to ‘appropriate’ presentations of the Holocaust, become beings ‘never again’ capable of such a vile breach of the human social contract.”

Of course, not everyone believes film has this power to transform viewers. Screening Schindler to promote brotherhood and fight anti-Semitism represents “the longing for quick and painless solutions to complicated social problems, and a radical confusion between the box-office success of a movie and its capacity to make people re-evaluate their prejudices,” wrote Michael Andre Bernstein.

And yet, what is the purpose of art if not to be, in Kafka’s famous phrase, “an ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us”? In Cohen’s defense, wasn’t it director Steve McQueen’s goal in large part to shock viewers into either understanding or remembering the horrors of slavery? Don’t we keep making Holocaust movies to drive home the horrors of Nazism and the dangers of complacency? Isn’t the “grave obligation of art,” to borrow Cohen’s phrase, “to show us what we look like”?

I’m reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, her award-winning nonfiction account of the Great Migration of blacks from the Jim Crow South to the North and California. Like Cohen, I keep finding myself confronted by the brutality and sheer insanity of the racist South, the shocking violence of lynch mobs, and especially the daily indignities suffered by blacks living under what Wilkerson calls “a caste system that controlled their lives from the moment they awoke in the morning to the time they went to sleep.”

I was taught this in school, I grew up on video of sheriffs turning firehouses and dogs on young protesters — hell, I’ve read and seen The Color Purple. But Wilkerson’s book conveys the madness of segregation with a wealth of stunning detail, sometimes by recounting a southern pogrom, and sometimes by sharing a sentence as simple as this: “It was against the law for a colored person and white person to play checkers together in Birmingham.”

Hers joins a short list of books — Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo are two others — that have made me confront how little I knew or understood about the burdens weighing on others.

Still, I’m not sure what to do with such epiphanies. I probably won’t hug a black neighbor and say, “It’s all right, I understand.” But I feel that a veil has been lifted, and I am not embarrassed to say so.

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