Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Real Thanksgiving

“Lincoln,” Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Tony Kushner, 2012

Any reader of this blog knows that I pay particular attention to the U.S. Civil War.  Understanding the forces that led to that war allows you to ‘look under the hood’ of subsequent events.  So, being this is a film review, I’ll just say what is expected - “See This Film.”

In this film a trifecta of cultural heavy weights is taking on the last year of Lincoln’s life, as he attempts to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which would outlaw slavery.  Steven Spielberg, the ace of ‘big picture’ crowd-pleasers; Daniel Day Lewis, one of the top actors in the U.S., and Tony Kushner, a gay leftist, whose pretty-much Marxist play “A Bright Room Called Day,” I reviewed below; all combine to deliver a vast political punch.  Kushner, unlike most American writers, actually understands the political issues around the passing of the 13th Amendment, and this comes out in the film’s intricate dialog and situations.  People who see in this film a reflection of, and meditation on the present state of the U.S. Congress and presidency might not be imaging things either.

Spielberg applies his gargantuan mainstream film skills into making a film that is already the front-runner for Oscar.  Daniel Day Lewis, who carried 2007’s great adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s “Oil, in the film “There Will Be Blood,” plays Lincoln as a joking genius, who doesn’t have a bit of frivolity in his considerable body.  Lewis seems a bit young at times, and less austere than the mythological Lincoln we all carry around with us, but is probably the most arresting cinematic Lincoln ever.  Sally Field, of “Norma Rae” fame, has been rescued from oblivion to play his wife, in a powerful performance.  And Tommy Lee Jones is the great surprise, escaping the ridiculous world of the “Men in Black” to play Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the radical Abolitionists in Congress.

The play centers around attempts by the Congressional Democrats in the North – the right-wingers of their time – to continue slavery and stop the war on any basis whatsoever.  And, in opposition, Lincoln’s intention, after his re-election, to get rid of slavery as a permanent legal measure, prior to the end of the war.  Lincoln understood that slavery had been suppressed only as a ‘war measure’ when the “Emancipation Proclamation’ was issued, and could possibly be reinstituted after the war's end without the 13th Amendment. 

In the end, Lincoln relies on, let us say, various subterfuges, his own 'big muddy feet,' and the political dynamism of Stevens and the Abolitionists to cut through the moderate Republican opposition and the violent Copperhead reactionaries of the Democratic Party. Of course, like nearly all American histories, it is told from the individual 'great man' point of view.

A key contradiction, of course, is between the Abolitionists and Lincoln, who was to their right.  In a critical scene, at least for leftists, Stevens and Lincoln meet and Lincoln criticizes Stevens for advocating the end of slavery right at the start of the Civil War.  This would, according to Lincoln, have allowed the Border States to go with the Confederacy, and might have broken up the Union coalition too.  Stevens has no response to this statement in the film except sheepishness.

Might I, as a dialectician, make one.  The existence of the Abolitionists actually made Lincoln himself possible.  Lincoln is a what you might call a 'synthesis' between the Abolitionists and the slavers.  Without a strong Abolitionist movement, Lincoln would not have been elected twice, nor would he have been able to pass the 13th Amendment.  Nor, in a certain measure, would the Union have won the Civil War, as the Emancipation Proclamation forestalled international support for the slaver Confederacy, and also allowed the Union Army to enlist tens of thousands of black soldiers and spies in the cause.  Stevens should have said, “Mr. Lincoln, with all due respect, you would not be sitting here today without me.”

Lincoln was the most clear-eyed representative of northern capital - and a big friend of the railroad titans.  He understood that slavery was incompatible with a modern capitalist economy, and also that the southern landowners had to be integrated into the governing class as quickly as possible.  And that is what happened.  The success of Reconstruction actually was not a part of this vision, though it was a part of the radical Abolitionist vision.  So, in a way, the continuation of Jim Crow for 90 years was the legacy of Lincoln's centrism.

Of course, this relates to the present.  In our present great battle, which is now not about chattel slavery but wage slavery, there is no independent radical mass movement in the country or the Congress dedicated to being anti-capitalist, or even anti-war or anti-corporate.  The one that existed for a time, Occupy, was undermined by the Department of "Homeland" Security and the Obama administration.  Which is why Obama will never even be a Lincoln or a Roosevelt, in spite of the reams of liberal hogwash hoping for this that predated his 2008 election.  Mass movements make history, not just ‘great men.’  Without the former, there is no latter.

(Reviews of other Civil War books - “Last Battle of the Civil War?”, “Why the South Lost the Civil War,” “County of Jones,” “The Bloody Shirt,” “Appomattox,” are below.)

Happy Thanksgiving!  Originally, this day became a national holiday not to ‘remember’ the couple years of peace between Native Americans and Puritans so long ago, but as a Thanksgiving dedicated to a victory of the Union in the Civil War.  The proclamation was issued not soon after the Union victory at Gettysburg.  The fact that this origin is covered up again shows the political strength of the Southern aristocracy to this day.

It was declared October 3, 1863, by Abraham Lincoln, ending… “… in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

Red Frog
November 22, 2012

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