Sunday, March 11, 2007

Amazing Grace!

I'm referring to the movie, not to the perennially popular hymn from which it gets its name. Though if you love the song, as I do, that is reason enough to see this movie. It is featured in it at least four times, sung solo, played in the orchestral music track, and finally and most inspiringly, played on bagpipes at the hero's funeral.

Anyone who loves freedom, hates injustice, or wants to think about how a person should go about changing the world for the better, should see this film. It is the story of perhaps the greatest champion of liberty most people have never heard of, William Wilberforce. It was largely thanks to this man's efforts that England became, in 1833, the first nation on the planet to ever make slavery illegal throughout its territories.

The movie is well made and powerful, but it does contain two distortions of history, one innocent and rather curious, the other more understandable and in my opinion not so innocent.

The first was this. The film proceeds as if Wilberforce's great victory, and the culmination of his struggle, was the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. In fact the greatest and most amazing victory was, as I've already said, the abolition, not of the slave trade but of slavery itself in 1933. That was also the year he died. By that time ill health and old age had forced him to withdraw from public life, but he did deserve, and was given at the time, much of the credit for that triumph. The film gives the impression, in a brief epilogue statement projected on the screen, that after 1807 he dropped slavery as a cause and devoted himself to a miscellaneous handful of other, respectable-sounding causes. This of course is false.

That epilogue is part of the other, not-so-innocent distortion. The film-makers insert two or three details into the film that are obviously intended to associate this great human being with their own left-of-center political views. At one point, one character mentions that one of Wilberforce's causes is "free schools," giving the impression that the charity school he helped to found was a tax-supported institution. As far as I know, it was not. In addition, the film says in the epilogue that one of the causes he devoted himself after 1807 was that of fighting "for medical care." The effect is, absurdly, to associate poor Wilberforce, who is long dead and cannot defend himself, with the cause of socialized medicine today.

The fact of the matter is that William Wilberforce was in no way, shape, or form a leftist. He was extremely conservative. He was so conservative he would make Rush Limbaugh look like Ralph Nader. For instance, the most important cause on which he spent his post-1807 efforts was his campaign to force the East India Company to include religious "instruction" in its corporate activities, in order to bring "the light of Christianity" to India. He was that conservative.

I don't blame the makers of this otherwise fine film for omitting this embarrassing fact from their edifying narrative. I would have done the same thing. But there is a difference between omitting a fact and covering it with a politically self-serving anachronistic lie.

Still, there are indeed lessons to be learned from the film, lessons that are still very important today and that can be derived from the aspects of the film, as far as I know the overwhelming bulk of it, that are historically accurate. As Stephen W. Carson points out over at the Mises Blog, they include the following:
  • The abolitionists are radical but patient.
  • Gradualism is not an aid to attaining abolition, it is deployed to slow it down.
  • The fundamental argument is a moral one, based on an appeal to natural law.
  • The abolitionists carefully document and publicize the violence and brutality of the system.
  • Public opinion can win even against massive entrenched interests.
  • War is a strategic obstacle to liberation and a support for entrenched interests.
I would add that there is one more edifying lesson, one that the film slightly obscures by making Wilberforce look too much like "us." Freedom has been won by people who come from many different philosophies, religions, and moralities. Wilberforce's evangelical Christianity is a point of view that many of us think of as repressive. In his case, at least as far as the slavery issue is concerned, it was the opposite. There are many roads to liberty.


Lester Hunt said...

I had not heard of this. What a great cause! The best of luck with it!

Anonymous said...

I think Wilberforce's notion of Christianity was based on the gospel and "loving your neighbor as yourself" and that sort of stuff. I think that's totally different from what today's right wing evangelicals, who apparently only read the Epistle to the Romans and the Book of Joshua, mean by Christianity.