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More on Lincoln, with Corey Robin and Aaron Bady

November 26, 2012

First with Robin

If you’re feeling too lazy to read his write up, here are some of Robin’s important points (quoted, paraphrased, and slightly emended):

First, I agree with the Robin’s observation that the film’s central character—in spite of the title—is the 13th amendment. Lincoln is very important to that story, but he’s decentered, as Robin notes.

Second, getting the 13th amendment passed is a community effort, but the slaves’ role is underplayed/ignored. Robin, however, provides us with historical evidence (documents compiled into a book) that argue to the contrary.

Third, because of this omission, Spielberg (and his screenwriter Tony Kushner) tells us an inadequate story of democracy. He missed a chance to teach us more about our political process to tell us, in essence, a story that will please what my grandfather (Sevy) called “liberal do-gooders” (esp. white ones).

Fourth, to make matters worse, Spielberg apparently thought about doing more—about including Frederick Douglass.

So there you have number of Robin’s points. I agree with most of them. That said, I still think the film is worthwhile. It can be a fine teaching tool. But, like most films used for teaching, it will have to be deconstructed, discussed, and patched.

Next with Bady

Bady does an excellent job moving between the past, the film, and present-day political issues. Here are most of his points (quoted, paraphrased, and emended):

(1) The movie’s aim to be “real” is, ironically, airbrushed itself (“instagrammed,” if you will?).

(2) Bady’s biggest point is that the movie strains against left-wing radicalism in particular. I’ll come back to this via Bady’s own points.

(3) “A radical and revolutionary change must be placed in the hands of a compromising moderate.”

(4) Bady refers to DuBois’ argument that slavery was already dead by the time the CW started. “The choice,” then, “was to ratify the fact that it was already dead or to re-impose it by military force.”

(5) We must get beyond the “fact” that slaves and blacks were “passive and inert” in the emancipation effort.

(6) “Spielberg and Kushner are interested in a kind of scrupulous (almost farcical) accuracy about things that do not matter, while working very hard to place everything else that was going on in the period—and everything else Lincoln was responding to—off camera. …[The] big-picture perspective is carefully absent, displaced by an obsessive focus on political minutia, a claustrophilic aesthetic, and the usual hagiography of Lincoln.”

(7) “The filmmakers…wanted to make a polemical point about moderation over radicalism, and I think they picked the story [Goodwin’s v. Foner or DuBois or others] they wanted to tell because it seems to support that position. …After all, getting the radicals in line is important in the political arena because it allows moderates like Lincoln or Obama to operate through consensus. …The film’s treatment of Thaddeus Stevens is perhaps the most revelatory, and the clearest demonstration of how the movie disdains and diminishes the importance of principled radicalism. ”

(8) “Spielberg’s Lincoln is strikingly consistent with The Birth of a Nation’s image of Lincoln, a fact which should sound as bizarre as it is. As Eric Foner has observed, reconstruction was an “unfinished revolution” precisely because people like Stevens didn’t get their way in the long terms, because a revolution was eventually turned into reconciliation between Northern and Southern Whites and African-American freedom was abandoned.”

(9) And here’s Bady’s finale: “If Spielberg had made a movie about reconstruction, it would be difficult to find many heroes, certainly not any who were compromising moderates. Thaddeus Stevens would die not long after engineering the impeachment of Andrew Johnson (for working against Radical Reconstruction, essentially) and the story of black freedom after Lincoln’s death is pretty grim, for nearly a century. And this isn’t a movie about black freedom at all. Apparently, an earlier version of this film would have been based around Lincoln’s relationship with Frederick Douglass, and I’m very sorry that Spielberg instead chose to make a movie praising exactly the type of political compromises that would destroy and delay so much of what Lincoln had begin to create.”


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  1. Paul permalink

    Thanks Tim,

    I think Bady’s analysis, though just in many ways, misses the point as it regards Lincoln the politician. David Donald in “Lincoln Reconsidered”, has pertinent essay called “Getting Right with Lincoln” in it he says:

    “It is difficult to imagine anyone in the 1950’s asking: ‘What would Charles Sumner do if he were here today?’ One reason is that it is perfectly simple to ascertain what Sumner would do. Perhaps the secret of Lincoln’s continuing vogue is his essential ambiguity. He can be cited on all sides of all questions. ‘My policy, ‘ he used to say, ‘is to have no policy.’
    A moralist may deplore Lincoln’s noncommittal attitude, but it should be remembered that this fundamental opportunism is characteristic of major American political leaders from Jefferson to FDR. Our great Presidents have joyously played the political piano by ear, making up the melody as they went. At only one time have rigid ideologists dominated our national government-the Sumners of the north, the Jefferson Davises of the south- and the result was near disaster. Today badly frightened if well-intentioned citizens are calling upon historians and teachers to draw up a rigid credo for Americanism, to teach ‘American values.’ To do so is to forget Lincoln’s non-ideological approach. In our age of anxiety it is pertinent to remember that our most enduring political symbolism derives from Lincoln, whose one dogma was an absence of dogma.”

    I haven’t seen the movie but my expectations are low because movies don’t do history very well. They can complicate but they can’t explicate, it takes too long and people don’t want movies for that purpose.


  2. Paul: Thanks for passing along the quote from “Lincoln Reconsidered.” This debate about whether more is accomplished, in a democracy, through ideology or the lack of it (i.e. compromise and pragmatism) has been going on for some time in American historical literature. It’s a worthy debate. And well said on the complicate-not-explicate function of film. The need to entertain speeds things up too much for explanation. – TL


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