A space for open discussion and blogging among communists and radicals.
The anti-radical implications of Spielberg's Lincoln
"...the movie Spielberg actually made goes well beyond justifying compromise: it justifies corruption. Lincoln and his men, as they are depicted here, do not merely buttonhole and persuade and deceive. They buy votes outright with promises of patronage jobs and (it is strongly suggested) cash bribes. The noblest law imaginable is put over by the most degraded means. As the real-life Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives, is credited with having said after the amendment was finally approved: “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
"The movie is fairly hard on crusading reformers like Stevens. The great lesson we are meant to take from his career is that idealists must learn to lie and to keep their mouths shut at critical moments if they wish to be effective. Lobbyists, on the other hand, are a class of people the movie seems at pains to rehabilitate."
Note from Mike Ely:
I am, as some of you know, a fascinated student of the American civil war. An army of millions, combining white soldiers and officers with ranks of armed runaway slaves, crushed the slave owners and ended slavery -- in a complex whirl of real politics, broad alliances and bitter waves of battlefield slaughter.
For obvious reasons, I was drawn to Spielberg's film Lincoln -- we saw it twice and will see it again. It is brilliantly written and acted. If focuses on the vivid struggle (inside the U.S. ruling class) over the passage of the 13th Amendment (which embedded the emancipation of slaves in the Constitution.)
But.... it is, when I draw out its intent and modern meaning, a parable of foul compromise and dirty politics (all displayed through a narrative surrounding the most noble legal event in U.S. history). Absorbed as political lessons for today, it is a call for radicals to shut up, to deny their deepest belief (specifically the revolutionary "Black Republican" Thaddeus Stevens shown in a historical photo below), to fall in line with the logic and footdragging of the liberal pointmen, and (in a way elaborated in the following excerpt it is the most startling and unusual attempt to glorify the lobbyists of Washington (in all their dissolute corruption, portrayed as the comic relief by a kind of political fratboy.)
The following appeared in Harper's Magazine February 2013. The first half of this article rakes the awful book "Team of Rivals" by the dull and hopelessly bourgeois historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. And then moves on (on that basis) to tackle Spielberg's on the Civil War (as a celebration of foul "bipartisan" compromises and anti-radical prejudices.
I am only excerpting that second half that deals with Spielberg's Lincoln and Tony Kushner's script.
by Thomas Frank
...Finally Steven Spielberg, that Michelangelo of the trite, signed on to what Goodwin was selling. His Lincolnfocuses very narrowly on a short segment of the book in which the president rams the Thirteenth Amendment — the one abolishing slavery — through the House of Representatives. It’s 1865, and Lincoln has just won reelection. Still, he doesn’t want to wait for a new Congress to be seated: the amendment must be passed immediately. This means winning a two-thirds majority in a lame-duck legislative body that is still filled with his opponents, and the bulk of the movie is a close study of the lobbying and persuading and self-censoring to which Lincoln and his team must descend in order to, well, free the slaves. These are the lessons for our time that Professor Spielberg has plucked from Goodwin’s Lincoln saga.
And upon beholding the film, the men of the middle mind saw the clouds part and the sun shine through. Yet another commonplace had been magnificently reaffirmed — a Triple Crown of banality for Doris Kearns Goodwin! — and this time it was the emptiest D.C. cliché of all. “It’s compromise,” is how Goodwin summarized the film’s message for an interviewer. And the commentariat chimed in unison: Yes! We have learned from this movie, they sang, that politicians must Make Deals. That one must Give Something to Get Something.
[*] And lo! A screening was scheduled for the Senate on December 19. The invitation from Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, who have been at each other’s throats for many years, noted that the film “depicts the good which is attainable when public servants put the betterment of the country ahead of short-term political interests.”
The film was a study in the “nobility of politics,” declared David Brooks; it teaches that elected officials can do great things, but only if they “are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.” Michael Gerson of theWashington Post suggested that members of Congress be made to watch the thing in order to acquire “a greater appreciation for flexibility and compromise.”[*]
According to Al Hunt of Bloomberg, the film shows our greatest president “doing what politicians are supposed to do, and today too often avoid: compromising, calculating, horse trading, dealing and preventing the perfect from becoming the enemy of a good objective.” And here is an exchange about the movie between David Gregory and — again! — Andrea Mitchell, two Beltway Brahmins experiencing a miraculous mind meld on an episode of Meet the Press
Mitchell: Compromise is not a bad thing. And you — you feel that
Gregory: At a time when we so loathe politics . . .
Gregory: . . . so many people in this country.
mitchell: And it’s become caricatured and demonized.
Those cruel caricatures — they’re so unfair to Compromise! Clearly someone needed to rescue it from our sneering, cynical idealism.
Had Spielberg really wanted to make an historical epic about compromise, he could have filmed a chapter in the life of Lincoln’s great adversary Stephen A. Douglas, champion of the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas–Nebraska Act. Now there was a bamboozler.
But the movie Spielberg actually made goes well beyond justifying compromise: it justifies corruption. Lincoln and his men, as they are depicted here, do not merely buttonhole and persuade and deceive. They buy votes outright with promises of patronage jobs and (it is strongly suggested) cash bribes. The noblest law imaginable is put over by the most degraded means. As the real-life Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives, is credited with having said after the amendment was finally approved: “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
The movie is fairly hard on crusading reformers like Stevens. The great lesson we are meant to take from his career is that idealists must learn to lie and to keep their mouths shut at critical moments if they wish to be effective. Lobbyists, on the other hand, are a class of people the movie seems at pains to rehabilitate. Spielberg gives us a raffish trio of such men, hired for the occasion by William Seward, and they get the legislative job done by throwing money around, buying off loose votes — the usual. They huddle with the holy Lincoln himself to talk strategy, and in a climactic scene, Spielberg shows us that a worldly lobbyist can work wonders while a public servant dithers about legalisms. Happy banjo-and-fiddle music starts up whenever they are on-screen — drinking, playing cards, dangling lucrative job offers — because, after all, who doesn’t love a boodle-bundling gang of scamps?
To repeat: Spielberg & Co. have gone out of their way to vindicate political corruption. They have associated it with the noblest possible cause; they have made it seem like harmless high jinks for fun-loving frat boys; they have depicted reformers as ideological killjoys who must renounce their beliefs in order to succeed. This is, in short, what Lincoln is about. All right, then: what does it mean to make such a movie in the year 2012?
Tony Kushner, the celebrated playwright who wrote the script for Lincoln, told NPR that the project had allowed him “to look at the Obama years through a Lincoln lens.” As in 1865, he said, there is enormous potential now for “rebuilding a real progressive democracy in this country.” There are “obstacles” to this project, however. And among the most notable ones, in Kushner’s view, are those damn liberals — or more specifically, “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.”
Many observers have described Lincoln as a gloss on President Obama’s struggles with the Republican House of Representatives. The film’s real message, however, is both grander than this and much smaller. It is, in fact, a two-and-a-half-hour étude on yet another favorite cliché: the impracticality of reform.
In truth, though, things are more complicated. Abolition was nine parts grassroots outrage to one part Washington machination. And since the middle of the Bush years, we have been living through another broad revival of reform sentiments. What ignited this revival, and what has kept it going since then, is a disgust with precisely the sort of workaday Washington horse-trading that the makers of this movie have chosen to celebrate. Remember? The Duke Cunningham and Jack Abramoff scandals. The soft-money campaign donations. The lobbyists who wrote the Medicare prescription-drug benefit. The lobbyists who wrote the financial-deregulation laws. The power of money over the state.
I myself think it’s healthy that public outrage over this stuff has simmered on into the Obama years; there’s still plenty to be furious about. The lobbyists may be Democrats now, but they are pulling the wires for the same interests as always. The people who supported the deregulation of Wall Street (or their protégés) are still in power. And even the president’s great health-care triumph was flawed from the beginning, thanks to a heavy thumb on the scales from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.
Maybe complaining about all this is yet another hang-up of the contemporary Thaddeus Stevens set, who can’t see that tremendous victories await if they’d just lighten up about reform. But maybe — just maybe — reform is itself the great progressive cause. Maybe fixing the system must come first, as a certain senator from Illinois once seemed to believe, and everything else will follow from that.
Lincoln is a movie that makes viewers feel noble at first, but on reflection the sentiment proves hollow. This is not only a hackneyed film but a mendacious one. Like other Spielberg productions, it drops you into a world where all the great moral judgments have been made for you already — Lincoln is as absolutely good as the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark are absolutely bad — and then it smuggles its tendentious political payload through amid those comfortable stereotypes.
If you really want to explore compromise, corruption, and the ideology of money-in-politics, don’t stack the deck with aces of unquestionable goodness like the Thirteenth Amendment. Give us the real deal. Look the monster in the eyes. Make a movie about the Grant Administration, in which several of the same characters who figure in Lincoln played a role in the most corrupt era in American history. Or show us the people who pushed banking deregulation through in the compromise-worshipping Clinton years. And then, after ninety minutes of that, try to sell us on the merry japes of those lovable lobbyists — that’s a task for a real auteur.