Immense Power: An Existential Lincoln

The most interesting scene in Lincoln comes very near the end. It features a man and a woman — to avoid a spoiler, I won’t say who — reading the text of the Thirteenth Amendment by lamplight. Or rather, she is reading it to him. It’s a simple and understated scene, but for several reasons, it would have been inconceivable fifty years ago. It’s Steven Spielberg’s sharpest response to the Lost Cause, an upraised middle finger in the face of anti-abolitionism. (By a racist’s standards, it is literally obscene.) But more importantly, this scene is also the closing bookend to the first major monologue scene Abraham Lincoln gets in the film. That early scene shows the president delivering a sprawling soliloquy to his cabinet, in which he considers — inconclusively — whether issuing the Emancipation Proclamation was actually legal. Together, these scenes wrap the movie in a cloak of existentialism that sets Lincoln apart.

Lincoln publicity photo by David James, released by DreamWorks II Distribution Co.

Lincoln publicity photo by David James, released by DreamWorks II Distribution Co.

Eric Rauchway recently observed that different wars have different purposes at the movies. Films about the Great War are nihilistic. Movies about World War II are existential. Movies about the American Civil War are political, telling a story about emancipation. Rauchway acknowledges major exceptions in each case, but the rule holds in spite of them; in some cases, a film isn’t truly “about” the war in which it takes place. If Rauchway is right, what makes Spielberg’s Lincoln odd is that it pays extraordinarily close attention to the politics of abolition, yet consistently treats emancipation as a process of ethical self-assertion in defiance of apparently hostile reality.

Lincoln, in other words, is a film about conviction, but not about faith. For Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln, amending the Constitution is a leap into the dark.

In the first review I ever saw for the film, Roy Blount Jr. got this badly yet understandably wrong. In Blount’s mind, Lincoln is a movie about pragmatism and compromise. The film suggests, he writes, that “the road to progress … is seldom straight, entirely open or, strictly speaking, democratic.” Blount sees Lincoln’s willingness to travel the crooked paths of a political insider as heroic. Probably Spielberg does too; this film undoubtedly grows from our particular moment in liberal opinion, intervening in debates about populism, bipartisanship, and technocracy. But “progress,” as usual, is a misleading term. It betrays two key elements of this film’s Lincoln’s worldview. The first is his belief in justice; righting wrongs simply isn’t the same idea as progress, and the film’s Lincoln sees slavery as wicked, not old-fashioned. (He doesn’t compromise for the sake of social improvement; he compromises because he’s obsessed.) The second is this Lincoln’s apocalyptic belief in himself.

Lincoln’s Lincoln is desperate. He has one idea deep inside him — “marrow deep,” as he says in another context — that overrides every other. By 1865, it is his reason for existing. Every power he holds, every good he believes in, and now even the perpetuation of the Union and the Constitution, are secondary to the imperative of ending slavery. He doesn’t know what will come afterward for the country. He doesn’t know how former slaves will survive. He doesn’t know, and doesn’t particularly care, what civil rights black Americans will have, or whether they will ever reach full social equality. He simply knows that this thing must be done, and he must do it, and he must do it now.

In fact, every significant character shares in this moral moment somehow. Nobody with deep principles in this film really seems to be known by anyone else. Each of them, instead, has political conviction insofar as he knows himself.

The strongest men of the film — Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, and William Seward — are entirely self-contained. No matter what they are saying at a given moment, almost anything could be happening behind their eyes. Each of the swing legislators in Congress, on the other hand, makes his emotions painfully obvious, and for all of them, deciding how to vote on the Thirteenth Amendment is a process of reluctantly coming to terms with their deepest feelings. Some of them collapse from exhaustion and grief as they vote. Subplot characters also struggle to know themselves. Robert Lincoln, the president’s son, must enlist in the army, even if it destroys his parents, to preserve his self-respect. Mary Lincoln, having lost herself along with her younger son, must face her emptiness and invest herself in her husband instead; in some ways, as a result, she serves as a more forthright voice of Abraham’s authentic character. Even venal, frivolous men like political fixer W.N. Bilbo are useful because they relish and admit their venality.

In this movie, the only people acting out of devotion to rules or constituencies are racists and appeasers. Everyone of character is acting from within himself.

That, and not just marketing, is why this film is called Lincoln instead of, say, Emancipation, even though it doesn’t remotely qualify as a biopic. And it’s part of why the major Lincoln speeches quoted in the film sound false here. “The better angels of our nature” might be consistent with this Lincoln’s ethic; “binding up the nation’s wounds” and “taking increased devotion to that cause” are not. Even a wonderful scene in which Lincoln invokes his love of geometry to assert human equality — a scene based on a close reading of Lincoln’s intellectual influences — is false, for in this scene, the explicit moral reasoning is another façade for Lincoln’s internal struggle to do what he already knows he should. This Lincoln is performing a moral conclusion, not reaching or defending one.

But this version of Lincoln, scripted by Tony Kushner and enacted with astonishing realism by Daniel Day-Lewis, does get close to a very important truth. This is a Lincoln living out the Day of Judgment. Lincoln is a movie about the Civil War as the end of the world. It is full of shadows and silences; we can hear the ticking of clocks in the background of some conversations, and the lamps used in nighttime scenes are so dim that we perceive the moonlit sky as blue instead of black. The handful of battlefield shots look like glimpses of the pit of hell. Lincoln possesses the erratic mental clarity of a man about to go mad. All of this is as it should be. In Lincoln, we get a movie that treats America’s bloodiest war as a nightmare.

But the real Civil War wasn’t just Lincoln’s nightmare. A crucial line that made it into the trailer, “I am the president of the United States of America, clothed in immense power,” has a far different meaning here from what it should have.

As it happens, without making specific plans to do so, I watched Lincoln in a little theater in Center City Philadelphia, on the southeastern edge of Independence Hall National Historical Park. This cinema sits next door to the site of Alexander Hamilton’s house, a few steps away from the plots where James Wilson and Benjamin Rush lived, and within sight of the First Bank of the United States and Carpenters’ Hall, where the First Continental Congress met in 1774. In other words, I stumbled into a showing of Lincoln at the ground zero of American federalism. Perhaps that has influenced my reaction to the film.

In any case, what bothers me about Lincoln is that for all its narrowness of focus on a political process, it hardly ever honestly acknowledges the constraints — whether intellectual, ideological, institutional, economic, or, beyond the walls of Congress, political — that bound its figures. It presents us with a story about man in time, but not man in human space.

This Lincoln certainly does know how Congress works, but the film still treats congressional lame ducks (and a newly reelected president) as momentary gods, free, for a few weeks, to come to terms with their true selves. The film’s problematic treatment of its black characters, none of whom play an active part in emancipation, is structurally just one part of this flaw. Ultimately, there are no voters, petitioners, editors, pamphleteers, or poets — black or white — and no judges, languages, myths, faiths, dreams, or communities. There are no state legislatures taking a year to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment after Congress passes it. In a sense, there aren’t even any congressional radicals spurring Lincoln to act on slavery; the film creates the impression that Lincoln infected the radical Republicans with a sense of urgency, not the other way around. In Lincoln, there are just gods and generals.

For all its attempted honesty about the grubby details of how great events happen, therefore — and for all the strengths that make it possible for me to recommend it to other viewers without hesitation — Lincoln ultimately cheats us out of a better story about justice, or power, or humanity. It doesn’t puncture a national myth about individual freedom or goodness or inexorable social progress. It embodies one. At its core, this is a movie about Americans without an America.


People Who Tell the Truth (and People Who Don’t)

Ark. State Rep. Jon Hubbard (official portrait)

Rev. Jermain W. Loguen (Onondaga Hist. Assoc.)

Down in Arkansas, a state representative named Jon Hubbard recently made headlines when people started noticing that he had called American slavery a “blessing in disguise.”

The claim appears in his self-published book Letters to the Editor: Confessions of a Frustrated Conservative, but you don’t have to buy the book to read his thoughts; they appear on his campaign website.

In an essay posted there, Hubbard writes that “for our brothers and sisters of the black race, as hard as it may be to understand and appreciate, slavery just might have been a blessing in disguise, as well as their most difficult challenge ever. Maybe, just maybe, God had a plan for what he allowed to happen.”

To explain, Hubbard writes that the descendants of slaves were eventually blessed because “they would one day reap the reward handed down to them by their brave ancestors: that of being an American.” Hubbard contrasts black Americans’ living conditions in the modern United States with the conditions he believes they would face today as “African tribesmen living in grass huts and constantly searching for their food,” whose “existence and lifestyle … has been almost unchanged since the beginning of time.”

As cartoonish and condescending as Hubbard’s historical claim is, it’s presented as the meditation of a Christian who believes that God can use any sort of horrible event for good. To the extent that Hubbard is simply saying that God moves in mysterious ways, then, he isn’t necessarily endorsing slavery itself as a good thing. Unfortunately — and maybe to the surprise of nobody who knows the American South — that’s not all he is saying.

The problem isn’t simply that Hubbard seems to think that Africans all wear grass skirts and dance around pots of boiling missionaries all day. That would be bad enough; it’s just an updating of what slavery’s defenders said in the nineteenth century.  No, Hubbard doesn’t stop there.

On Hubbard’s website, the essay on African slavery is followed immediately by an essay on “the legacy of the Baby Boomers.” Tucked into that essay in a bizarre paragraph (highlighted in yellow for reasons that are not clear) is this thought about public education:

The integration of our public schools was a major challenge that was designed to close the gap between blacks and whites in the area of education. After the initial shock of this decision, it was understood that by bringing blacks and whites together into a common school system, it would eventually be a good thing for everyone. One of the stated purposes of school integration was to bring black students up to a level close to that of white students. But, to the great disappointment of everyone, the results of this theory worked exactly in reverse of its intended purpose, and instead of black students rising to the educational levels previously attained by white students, the white students dropped to the level of black students. To make matters worse, the lack of discipline and ambition of black students soon became shared by their white classmates, and our educational system has been in a steady decline ever since. This is not a racist statement, but a valid and realistic evaluation of what has actually happened to our schools. One totally unexpected result of public school integration was that along with the decline in educational achievement in this country came a dramatic rise in crime over that same time period. [Emphasis added.]

It’s hardly necessary for me to point out that any claim requiring the clarification “this is not a racist statement” is almost certainly a racist statement. That said, I can’t find a way to read that paragraph as anything but a qualified (actually somewhat cowardly) but firm endorsement of racial segregation. To remove all doubt, Hubbard even tells us that the reason school desegregation was a bad thing is that black students infected white students with their laziness.


To their credit, Republican leaders in Arkansas (for Hubbard is a Republican) are anxious to avoid the taint of his racism. Arkansas GOP chairman Doyle Webb said that Hubbard’s remarks on slavery “were highly offensive to many Americans and do not reflect the viewpoints of the Republican Party of Arkansas.” Webb also, however, said that state Democrats’ efforts to capitalize on Hubbard’s indiscretion were “distractions.” (Hubbard, for his part, has accused Democrats of “Nazi-style political intimidation.”)

Unfortunately, the understandable fury over Hubbard’s relatively innocuous “blessing in disguise” line is obscuring the practical depth of his evident racism.

Hubbard’s belief that school desegregation led to the academic ruin of white children is part of a complex of ideas that have led him, as a state legislator, to sponsor a Birther bill, English-only bills, a bill making it a felony to harbor an undocumented immigrant, and a bill diverting some public-school funds to homeschoolers. And his book Letters to the Editor claims that immigration, “both legal and illegal,” threatens to overwhelm Western countries —  due to overpopulation that will lead to “planned wars or extermination” that “will at some point become as necessary as eating and breathing.”

It’s possible to support each of those initiatives or ideas without being a racist. But that’s pretty clearly not what is happening in Jon Hubbard’s case.

Anyway, to get back around to what this post was supposed to be about when I started it, I’d like to direct your attention to something the excellent Ta-Nehisi Coates posted this week: “The Hyperlinked Ballad of Jarm Logue.”

When I saw Coates’s post, I sat up straighter. For two years, I lived a few hundred yards from a neglected little wedge of public land called Loguen Park, in the city of Syracuse:

That strip of land is how I first learned about Jarm Logue, a.k.a the Reverend Jermain Wesley Loguen, escaped slave and all-around abolitionist badass.

Coates does a great job telling Loguen’s story, using Loguen’s own words (always the best way). What really stands out in Loguen’s account is his defiance. He refused to bow, not just to the literal torture of slavery (seriously — go read about the sadism he endured), but to all economic and political ideas that would tend to ratify his enslavement. For example, in a letter to his “owner’s” wife, he scoffed at the idea that stealing a horse to escape from slavery made him a thief, and he mocked the idea that he owed a debt of compassion or gratitude to the slaveowning Logue family.

Indeed, Loguen, a Christian preacher, was condemning all attempts to use sentimentality to deny the reality of the injustice done to him:

Nevertheless I am indignant beyond the power of words to express, that you should be so sunken and cruel as to tear the hearts I love so much all in pieces; that you should be willing to impale and crucify us out of all compassion for your poor foot or leg. Wretched woman! Be it known to you that I value my freedom, to say nothing of my mother, brothers and sisters, more than your whole body; more, indeed, than my own life; more than all the lives of all the slaveholders and tyrants under Heaven.
You say you have offers to buy me, and that you shall sell me if I do not send you $1,000, and in the same breath and almost in the same sentence, you say, “you know we raised you as we did our own children.” Woman, did you raise your own children for the market? Did you raise them for the whipping-post? Did you raise them to be drove off in a coffle in chains? Where are my poor bleeding brothers and sisters? Can you tell?
Who was it that sent them off into sugar and cotton fields, to be kicked, and cuffed, and whipped, and to groan and die; and where no kin can hear their groans, or attend and sympathize at their dying bed, or follow in their funeral? Wretched woman! Do you say you did not do it? Then I reply, your husband did, and you approved the deed — and the very letter you sent me shows that your heart approves it all.
American freedom still requires us to value justice, mercy, and inconvenient honesty above self-interest.

Things That Are Kind of Banned

According to the American Library Association, this is Banned Books Week. From now (actually yesterday) through Saturday, we get to celebrate press freedom by, for example, ostentatiously reading naughty books. It’s my kind of subversion — theoretically shaking the roots of authoritarianism and ignorance, but really just giving me a good excuse to read things with squelchy bits.

I have mixed feelings about the origins of Banned Books Week. Keeping certain books away from children may be problematic, but it’s simply not the same thing as adult censorship. So I’m never very impressed by the ALA’s lists of “challenged” books, which inevitably are full of angsty teen titles that some parents just don’t want stocked on low shelves next to The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System. Still, there are greater forces at work in the world, and sometimes there isn’t as much distance as I would like between a lovingly nervous parent, a nondenominational loon trying to rid the world of the Expelliarmus charm, and a cultural fascist ordering a man’s assassination for writing an otherwise unremarkable book about immigration. There’s easily enough real book-banning in the world to justify having a fun little anti-censorship holiday.

So today I’m trying to decide what book I should read this week to celebrate. The ALA’s dorky lists of most-challenged books don’t impress me. (Gossip Girl? Please.) I’m leaning more toward titles with a hardcore burn-all-his-writings-and-kill-his-entire-family sort of vibe. But I’m open to persuasion. Here are some of the tools I’m using to brainstorm:

  1. The Index. Where else to start but the Index Librorum Prohibitorum? Maintained by the Catholic Church between 1559 and 1966, this list is Christendom’s gold standard for banned subversive ideas. The last edition, published in 1948, is available here. Voltaire On Toleration, anyone?
  2. Banned in Boston. Who needs popes and councils when you have Brahmins? Long before their mayor tried to silence Chick-fil-A, the descendants of the people who exiled Anne Hutchinson were notorious for suppressing books on the grounds that they were the least bit interesting. Perhaps this would be a good week to read Faulkner, Hemingway, or Dreiser.
  3. The Great Postal Campaign. In the 1830s, southern postmasters, with the blessing of Postmaster General Amos Kendall, systematically denied antislavery writers the right to circulate their ideas in the mail. The censorship intensified in response to the American Anti-Slavery Society’s direct mail campaign, but it really began in 1829, when David Walker’s magnificent Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World terrified white southern officials. But just about any antebellum antislavery work would qualify for my attention as something that white Americans, feeling guilty and expecting a race war, found bannable.
  4. Nobel Prizes. As it turns out, there’s a pretty high correlation between winning the Nobel Prize in Literature and having your work banned somewhere in the world. Maybe it’s time to read Herta Müller or Doris Lessing.

What else should I be considering as I make up my mind today?