By and large, even movies I like a great deal do not make me think. The Hobbit,, for example, was great fun, but it did not set me to thinking [save to wonder how they manage to make Gandalf look twice as tall as Frodo -- or, for that matter, how they make Hagrid look so enormous in the Harry Potter movies.] Even a truly lovely film like A Late Quartet, which I adored, and which made me burst into tears at its very end, was not in any deep way thought-provoking.
But I find myself turning Lincoln over in my mind and trying to extract from it lessons for our current situation -- which, judging from the fascinating interview with screenwriter Tony Kushner that Jim put me onto, is very much what the makers of the film intended.
Here, for what they are worth, are some reflections on the present day that were stimulated or reconfirmed by Lincoln.
First, truly great political accomplishments, among which I count the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, require enormous efforts, by countless men and women far from the political arena, to set the stage and create the circumstances that make those accomplishments possible. In the case of Lincoln, it was the actions of several millions of slaves and former slaves that weakened the South's military campaign and made possible the North's impending victory. Without their actions, it is not at all clear that the North could ever have won the war, nor is it clear, even if they had, that the victory would have ended slavery. Once again, let me refer you to Black Reconstruction, in which Du Bois deploys the concept of the General Strike to explain the role of the slaves in the defeat of the South. As I observed in my tutorial on Afro-American Studies, the truly remarkable thing about Du Bois' thesis is that he advanced it in 1935, two generations before the historiographical data required to confirm it would be made available by Ira Berlin and his co-authors [and legions of nameless graduate students] in Slaves No More. Kushner, by the way, in the Bill Moyers interview that Jim put me on to, and which stimulated this post, gets this wrong, specifically denying that slaves or Free Blacks had anything directly to do with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
The lesson for us today, pretty clearly, is that it will take the efforts of millions, or tens of millions, of Americans far from Washington to create the conditions under which Obama and the Democrats can achieve dramatic change.
The second lesson of the movie is that even heroic, epoch-making political action is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," to invoke Thomas Hobbes' classic description of the state of nature. It is genuinely educational to see, in the movie, how corrupt and devious are the machinations by which something of transcendent moral importance gets accomplished in politics. Anyone whose sensibilities are offended by the sight of Obama wheeling and dealing with Boehner or McConnell is just not serious about wanting the world to change.
The third lesson is that in the midst of a dirty, no holds barred political fight, it is very, very difficult to know just what precisely is the most that one can exact from one's opponents. Knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em [to quote a Kenny Rogers classic] is a matter of art, not science, of intuition, not of calculation. It is natural, but I think a mistake, to construe differences of judgment about such matters as evidences of moral failing.
But, to recur to the first lesson, recognizing this character of political decision in no way alters the absolute necessity of mass action in support of goals that cannot, in their nature, be completely achieved. Anyone who knows even a little bit about the promise and failure of Reconstruction, and about the century and more of struggle that was required to realize the dream of genuine liberation, will understand that only by overreaching, by demanding what will not entirely be achieved, can we create the pressure that will allow a Lincoln [or an Obama -- this is the real message of the film] to achieve what can be achieved in the present balance of political forces. My favorite character in the movie is Thaddeus Stevens, not Abraham Lincoln, but if Abraham Lincoln had been a Thaddeus Stevens, the Thirteenth Amendment would not have passed, and if Thaddeus Stevens had been an Abraham Lincoln, it also would not have passed.