Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 30, 2012

Kate Masur on Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

Filed under: Civil War — louisproyect @ 7:46 pm

http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2012/11/30/a-filmmakers-imagination-and-a-historians/

A Filmmaker’s Imagination, and a Historian’s
November 30, 2012, 1:58 pm
By Kate Masur

As viewers flock to see Lincoln, and reviewers rave about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, historians are raising different kinds of issues: How accurate is the film’s portrayal of emancipation? What does it leave out? The Chronicle Review asked several scholars to weigh in.

“You gave us the history from which we made our historical fiction,” Steven Spielberg recently told the historians in a crowd gathered to commemorate the 149th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Then the filmmaker drew a distinction. Historians “gather evidence” and produce “diligently reconstructed narratives.” By contrast, he said, “one of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places,” to “enlist the imagination to bring what’s lost back to us.” The “resurrection” of the past by filmmakers, he continued, “is of course just an illusion. It’s a fantasy and it’s a dream.”

Moviegoers and historians alike should pay attention. Spielberg’s Lincoln is a work of art, a film about morality, democracy, and human agency that tells us something about its creators and—since Lincoln will be watched and loved by millions—about ourselves. Like any other movie, novel, or painting, the film ought to be discussed and critiqued. Indeed, it should be subjected to a particularly searching analysis precisely because of its prominence and power.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in the wake of an op-ed I wrote about the film for The New York Times, in which I pointed out the passivity and generic nature of the black characters in the film. I argued that the filmmakers’ “imagination” (to quote Spielberg) was one in which white men gave the gift of freedom to African-Americans.

A rich debate has developed among historians and in the greater blogosphere about this film. Some writers have agreed with my points wholeheartedly, arguing that the film underemphasized the role African-Americans played in influencing the abolition debate in Washington. Others have said that black characters are unimportant to the film’s larger goals. Some critics have claimed that I would only have been satisfied with an entirely different film—perhaps one focused on slaves’ struggle to get free, or on Lincoln’s relationship with Frederick Douglass.

To be sure, I’d like to see more Hollywood films that feature prominent and complex black characters. My point, though, was that the filmmakers’ artistic choices revealed assumptions about black passivity and white agency that are inaccurate, damaging, and difficult to dislodge.

This is not a quibble about facts. Nor am I advocating a politically correct or anachronistic interpretation of history. To the contrary, it is now received wisdom among professional historians that African-Americans—both enslaved and free—were active participants in debates about slavery and race and that slaves’ refusal to stay put or side with their owners had enormous consequences. As Eric Foner wrote in a recent letter to The New York Times: “Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives.”

On the issue of facts, Harold Holzer, an eminent Lincoln scholar, found plenty of scenes that have no basis in the known history. Yet in an article for The Daily Beast, he concluded that, “In pursuit of broad collective memory, perhaps it’s not important to sweat the small stuff.”

I agree. It’s acceptable (even inevitable) that artists depart from the empirical evidence in order to capture something human and profound. But it is also reasonable to point out how a work of art can reveal and reinforce deeply held beliefs and unacknowledged assumptions.

In Spielberg’s treatment, Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade appear to be faithful White House servants who did little more than look after the comforts of their employers. They are archetypes rather than individuals. In reality, Keckley was a skilled dressmaker who had many different clients among Washington’s society women; she led an organization of African-American women that raised money to help needy runaway slaves; and she persuaded Mary Todd Lincoln to donate money to her cause. Slade, for his part, was president of an African-American civil-rights organization whose activities were known to members of Congress and, almost certainly, to Lincoln himself.

If evidence abounds of Slade’s and Keckley’s leadership and advocacy, then why didn’t the film allude to it? Perhaps because the filmmakers did not—or could not—imagine black servants who had lives outside their work and were activists in their own right.

To those who insist that it would have required a PBS miniseries or a wholly different feature film to portray black characters with more complexity and to suggest that African-Americans played a role in their own liberation, I offer the following dreams and fantasies of my own.

Thaddeus Stevens could have talked about politics at home with his supposed  lover, Lydia Smith, who was African-American. They might have discussed the tension between Stevens’s idealism and the president’s pragmatism; Smith could have given Stevens advice about how to handle himself during the House debate over the 13th amendment.

Robert Lincoln, strolling around Washington and mulling his conflict with his parents, could have come across a meeting of black activists who, under leadership of the editor Robert Hamilton of New York, had assembled in the capital to lobby Congress for emancipation and equal rights. Some of these men could have been among the group of African-Americans who filed into the House chamber to witness the amendment’s passage.

Keckley, in an effort to get the First Lady out of the house, could have taken Mary Lincoln to a meeting of her relief organization at 15th Street Presbyterian Church, the city’s most prestigious black church, where Slade was also a member.

A Northern black activist or two could have visited the White House to lobby for the amendment or to discuss which Democratic representatives could be persuaded to back the amendment. For that matter, Lincoln could have been shown discussing his dilemma with Slade.

Instead of showing Lincoln interacting with (passive) photographic images of slaves, the film could have shown him meeting actual fugitive slaves who had come into the city. An escaped slave might have described her decision to leave home, her calculus of the risks versus the potential rewards, and her understanding of the war itself. The interaction might have been shown to touch Lincoln emotionally. (As it stands, Spielberg imagines that Lincoln decided to prioritize the amendment over peace talks, not because anyone or any thing persuaded him, but because he meditated on a Euclidean equation.)

None of my fantastical scenes are any less accurate or more improbable than scenes that already exist in the movie. Any of them would have helped suggest that the black characters—though marginal to the film as a whole—had political views of their own. And any of them would have helped make the broader point that African-Americans participated in the abolition of slavery in a variety of ways.

Some critics argue that the film gives us powerful scenes of black men as soldiers and that these sufficiently demonstrate that African-Americans participated in the struggle for abolition. It’s worth acknowledging that there are black Union soldiers in Lincoln, though frankly, it would have been egregious if Spielberg’s vision of the military conflict in the winter of 1865 had not included them. In an appealing example of artistic license, an early scene shows two black soldiers talking with Lincoln and then, with two white soldiers, reciting the Gettysburg Address. I like how this scene lays out some of the stakes and possibilities of that historical moment. And the black soldiers’ speaking parts are probably longer and certainly more interesting than any other lines delivered by black characters in the film.

Another scene in which stoic black soldiers on horseback stare down the Confederate commissioners suggests more, I think, about the commissioners’ horror at black enlistment in the Union army than it does about the soldiers’ own agency. But I appreciate how the scene references the dramatic changes in Southern life that the Civil War would bring.

Even so, the scenes that feature soldiers—including the first one showing intense hand-to-hand combat and the later one in which the audience views, with Lincoln, scores of soldiers lying dead where they fell—mainly function to frame the film’s central concern: political deliberations in Washington. Violence, suffering, and death on the battlefield remind us of the stakes of Lincoln’s decisions and help us understand why he was (according to the film) tempted by the possibility of forging peace without emancipation.

As the political scientist Corey Robin wrote, this film de-centers Lincoln, giving us a cacophony of voices on the subject of abolition, but almost every one of those voices belongs to a white person. It is because the movie’s dramatic tension focuses on civilian life in general and on politics in particular that its creators’ failure to imagine the activities of black civilians is so disappointing.

In the end, Spielberg’s proposition that historians live in a world of facts while artists trade in dreams and fantasies is useful but incomplete. Historians use their imaginations all the time. In fact, some of the best history writing and teaching happens when we insist on exploring how our imagined version of a story stacks up against the evidence of complexity and contingency that we find in the sources. Conversely, of course, it’s hardly the case that Spielberg and Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, don’t care about knowable facts. Why else would they go to great lengths to get their hands on Lincoln’s watch or to record the ring of the bells at Lincoln’s church in Washington?

Perhaps the relationship between evidence and imagination is the crux of the matter. Many readers objected strongly to the assertion that the film could have alluded to African-Americans’ abolitionist activities without diminishing the larger story. There is ample evidence that doing so would have been historically accurate and manageable in a few minutes of screen time. Yet such activities were not part of Lincoln’s world as these readers (or the filmmakers) imagined it.

Spielberg’s remarks at Gettysburg were profound on the subjects of history, loss, art, and memory; it’s clear that he and Kushner have thought deeply about their work and its meaning. But this only brings into relief their blind spots about race. By failing to portray independent and verbally astute black characters—even on the periphery—they ended up making a film that perpetuates the culturally authoritative but historically inaccurate idea that white men alone were the authors of abolition.

We’re all entitled to imagine how we would make a blockbuster film about Abraham Lincoln—what scenes we’d include and what messages we’d drive home. No one, however, commands the resources, wherewithal, and audience of Spielberg and Kushner. Their power to shape our collective understanding of race and democracy is enormous. Their historical dreams and fantasies matter more than ours. That’s why it would have been nice if they had gotten this part of the story right.

Kate Masur, an associate professor of history at Northwestern, is the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

Paternalism and ass-kissing in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

Filed under: Civil War,Film — louisproyect @ 4:07 pm
Counterpunch Weekend Edition Nov 30-Dec 02, 2012

Horse-Trading Versus Struggle

Paternalism and Ass-Covering in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

by LOUIS PROYECT

Which film about the abolition of slavery was intended to burnish the reputation of a contemporary President? If you answered that it was Spielberg’s lavishly praised “Lincoln”, you were right. When asked in a November 15th NPR interview whether he saw parallels with the Obama administration, screenwriter Tony Kushner replied:

I think Obama is a great president and I feel that there is immense potential now for building – rebuilding a real progressive democracy in this country after a great deal of damage has been done to it. And I think that it faces many obstacles, and one of its obstacles is an impatience on the part of very good, very progressive people, with the kind of compromising that you were just mentioning, the kind of horse trading that is necessary.

But you would have also been right if you guessed “Amazing Grace”, the 2007 biopic about William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian who opposed slavery. Its producer Philip Anschutz, the rightwing billionaire who also recently unleashed the toxic defense of charter schools “Won’t Back Down”, clearly intended to promote the agenda of the Christian right and the Bush administration it supported. By turning the abolitionist movement in Britain into a Church-based enterprise, Anschutz sought to legitimize new missionary operations in Africa all too familiar to people with painful memories of the bible and the gun.

The paternalism embodied in both screenplays transcends narrow party affiliations. It is wrapped up in the idea that “good people” on high delivered Black people from their oppression. The chief difference between the two films is Kushner’s decision to eschew hagiography and portray Lincoln as a kind of down-and-dirty dealmaker. This Lincoln had more in common in fact with LBJ than Barack Obama whose pugnaciousness is most often directed at his voting base rather than the billionaires who financed his campaign.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/11/30/paternalism-and-ass-covering-in-spielbergs-lincoln/

November 29, 2012

“Emancipation without affranchisement was a partial emancipation unworthy of the name.”

Filed under: Civil War,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:29 pm

Michael Vorenberg, “Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment”:

Black abolitionists were even less likely than their white allies to throw their weight behind the amendment. By early 1864 they had begun to shift their attention away from slavery and toward the fate of the freed people. An anonymous black correspondent captured the spirit of much black abolitionist thought when, in January 1864, he complained about two recent antislavery speeches: “We have had enough of politics and slavery-of the latter we are nearly tired to death. We read it, we sing it, we pray it, we talk it, we speak it, we lecture it, and the whole United States is in arms against it. You come to tell us it is dead. Well, if that is so, I thank God. Don’t bother its carcass. Let us improve the living who have been under slavery. . . . Don’t come anymore riding that old weather beaten horse, anti-slavery.”66

African Americans well understood that a constitutional amendment that emancipated the slaves might do little to prevent economic and legal inequality. For evidence of the potential shortcomings of emancipation, black activists had only to look at free African Americans in the North, most of whom were the victims of disfranchisement and discrimination.67 An anonymous black writer derided those who agitated for emancipation, arguing that freedom for the slaves would do little to change the degraded condition of African Americans in general: “The slave bears the irons of slavery; the other [the free black] has been relieved from them, but, enclosed in the same dark dungeon with the former, they are both prisoners.”68 Nor had the military service of African Americans improved their legal status. In April 1863 Douglass had promised free blacks that “to fight for the Government in this tremendous war is … to fight for nationality and for a place with all other classes of our fellow-citizens.” But by the spring of 1864, black soldiers still did not receive the same pay as white soldiers, and Congress had yet to pass an act assuring the freedom of enslaved wives and children of black recruits.69 Far from making the antislavery amendment their primary political objective, black Americans sought empowerment in forms more immediate and tangible.70

At the very time that Congress was poised to debate the emancipation amendment, African Americans tended to look at three other objectives as more likely to secure permanent freedom and equality. The first of these was equality before the law – not merely equal pay and equal treatment in the military, but equal access to civilian institutions such as courts and public conveyances. “We at the North are contending for and shall not be satisfied until we get equal rights for all,” the prominent attorney John S. Rock told a black artillery regiment in May 1864.71 By 1864 black lobbyists already had persuaded Congress to pass laws allowing African Americans the right to carry the U.S. mail and to serve as witnesses in District of Columbia courts. African Americans now took aim at the all-white streetcars in the district. While black newspapers remained relatively silent on the amendment in the early months of 1864, they gave much publicity to the initiative of Major A. T. Augusta, a black army surgeon who tried to ride in a streetcar but was forcibly removed. Augusta’s efforts spurred Charles Sumner to introduce a bill in the Senate to desegregate the street-cars.72 But Frederick Douglass still feared for the future of African Americans, because he saw “looming up in the legislation at Washington in almost every bill where rights are to be guaranteed and privileges secured, that the word white is carefully inserted.”73 Douglass’s apprehension was justified: most of the black initiatives for civil rights legislation met with success only after the war was over.

Along with civil rights, blacks held dear the goal of economic self-sufficiency. From their experience as free but economically oppressed laborers in the North and South, those African Americans free before the war knew that emancipation did not necessarily lead to unimpeded economic opportunity. The abolition amendment might still leave African Americans as something other than free agents in the labor market. As the veteran abolitionist James McCune Smith predicted, “the word slavery will, of course, be wiped from the statute book, but the ‘ancient relation’ can be just as well maintained by cunningly devised laws.”74 Thus African American reformers focused their efforts less on the antislavery amendment than on measures promising more palpable forms of economic security. The editors of the New Orleans Tribune, for example, suggested the formation of labor courts, modeled on the French counseils de prud’hommes, composed of government-appointed officials and representatives of employers and employees.75 In their plea for courts of arbitration, the editors revealed the great extent to which African Americans, while embracing much of free-labor ideology, rejected that strain of it that envisioned labor and capital working out equitable arrangements organically, without government intervention. Eventually, the movement for an institution regulating relations between freed people and former slave holders was fulfilled – but only partly – by congressional legislation creating the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was proposed in early 1864 but not passed until 1865. By concentrating their efforts on that legislation rather than on the antislavery amendment, African Americans revealed their preference for explicit rights for free labor over a constitutional decree against slavery.

A sophisticated system of labor regulation such as the editors of the New Orleans Tribune envisioned certainly had its appeal to African Americans, but even more popular was the method most commonly asserted by blacks as the truest path to economic self-sufficiency: land owning. “When the plantations of the South shall be parcelled out to the hardy sons of toil who have made them, under the system of slavery, what they are,” exhorted one African American writer, “… war shall cease in our fair land; prejudice shall die by the force of a just moral sentiment; the descendants of Africa shall no longer be despised because God has been pleased to make them black, but . . . they will be received on the broad principles of their manhood.”76 The plea for land for the freed people arose everywhere – from the freeborn editors of the New Orleans Tribune, from the former slaves in the South Carolina Sea Islands working under new, northern planters, and from northern legislators like George Julian and Thaddeus Stevens.77 For many blacks as well as whites, land redistribution was a solution to a problem of class more than race. Reformers of all colors carried on the antebellum tradition of promoting land distribution as the key to what Lydia Maria Child termed the “individualizing of the masses.”78 The absence of any explicit promise of land for the freed people within the antislavery amendment gave black Americans another reason to regard the measure as insufficient.

Of all the reasons African Americans had for concentrating their efforts elsewhere than on the antislavery amendment, the most important was the absence of voting rights within the measure. Whereas the notion of an antislavery amendment captured the attention of northern white editors, jurists, and politicians, the question of black suffrage, even more than the issues of civil rights and land and labor reform, dominated the rhetoric of African Americans.79 “Emancipation without affranchisement,” wrote the black editor Robert Hamilton, was “a partial emancipation unworthy of the name.”80 Frederick Douglass all but ignored the proposed amendment during late 1863 and early 1864 because he believed that only suffrage would provide African Americans with the power necessary to make themselves truly free. As Americans began considering the merits of the proposed antislavery amendment, Douglass advised them to strive “not so much for the abolition of slavery . . . but for the complete, absolute, unqualified enfranchisement of the colored people of the South.”81 The amendment was for Douglass an abstraction, a promise of freedom with no teeth, whereas the right to vote translated into real equality.

The loudest calls for black suffrage came from free black communities in the South, most notably from the African Americans of New Orleans. In February 1864 white voters in Louisiana elected a slate of Unionist candidates pledged to statewide emancipation. The constitutional convention scheduled to meet in April would definitely outlaw slavery, but many of the state’s African Americans demanded as well an extension of voting rights to people of color. Northerners watched and debated among themselves as New Orleans residents took up the issue of voting rights. Leading the movement for an expanded franchise were two prominent free men of color from the Crescent City, Jean-Baptiste Roudanez and Arnold Bertonneau, who toured the North in the spring of 1864 to stir up support for their cause. They came to Washington and presented Lincoln with a petition demanding black suffrage signed by over one thousand African Americans.82 Lincoln was impressed. The day after the meeting, he wrote to the newly elected Louisiana governor Michael Hahn suggesting that intelligent African Americans and black veterans be allowed to vote.83

The struggle for equal suffrage, which yielded little in the way of actual legislation until the last months of the war, revealed the extent to which African Americans initially – and perhaps correctly – mistrusted the anti-slavery amendment. They were not interested in “authoring” the amendment, for the amendment lacked the explicit political rights that they thought necessary to end slavery. White politicians might contend that slavery was abolished once the Constitution said so, but African Americans tended to follow Frederick Douglass’s decree that “slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”84

November 27, 2012

Frederick Douglass on Lincoln

Filed under: Civil War,slavery — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

From the September 16th 1864 “The Liberator”:

The secessionist newspapers in Great Britain are publishing with exultation a letter recently addressed by Mr. Douglass to an English correspondent, who had assisted to send out a box of clothing for the use of distressed freedmen in the District of Columbia. The following is an extract from that document:

 The more you can say of the swindle by which our Government claims the respect of mankind for abolishing slavery—at the same time that it is practically re-establishing that hateful system in Louisiana, under General Banks—the better. I have not readily consented to the claims set up in the name of anti-slavery for our Government, but I have tried to believe all for the best. My patience and faith are not very strong now. The treatment of our poor black soldiers—the refusal to pay them anything like equal compensation, though it was promised them when they enlisted; the refusal to insist upon the exchange of colored prisoners, and to retaliate upon rebel prisoners when colored prisoners have been slaughtered in cold blood, although the President has repeatedly promised thus to protect the lives of his colored soldiers—have worn my patience quite threadbare. The President has virtually laid down this as the rule of his statesmen: Do evil by choice, right from necessity. You will see that he does not sign the bill adopted by Congress, restricting the organization of State Governments only to those States where there is a loyal majority. His plan is to organize such Governments wherever there is one-tenth of the people loyal!—an entire contradiction of the constitutional idea of Republican Government. I see no purpose on the part of Lincoln and his friends to extend the elective franchise to the colored people of the South, but the contrary. This is extremely dishonorable. No rebuke of it can be too stinging from your side of the water. The negro is deemed good enough to fight for the Government, but not good enough to vote or enjoy the right to vote in the Government. We invest with the elective franchise those who with bloody blades and bloody hands have sought the life of the nation, but sternly refuse to invest those who have done what they could to save the nation’s life. This discrimination becomes more dishonorable when the circumstances are duly considered. Our Government asks the negro to espouse its cause; it asks him toturn against his master, and thus fire his master’s hate against him. Well, when it has attained peace, what does it propose? Why this, to hand the negro back to the political power of his master, without a single element of strength to shield himself from the vindictive spirit sure to be roused against the whole colored race.”

UPDATE:

He did not have much use for the Democrats either. From an 1864 speech to an abolitionist convention in Syracuse:

“From this party we must look only for fierce, malignant, and unmitigated hostility. Our continued oppression and degradation is the law of its life, and its sure passport to power. In the ranks of the Democratic party, all the worst elements of American society fraternize; and we need not expect a single voice from that quarter for justice, mercy, or even decency.”

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,976 other followers