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Sunday, December 30, 2012


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.


Charles said...

Mr Denby's recent review of Lincoln in The New Yorker is also worth noting:

It's not Mr Lake on Sansho:, 

but it's very good.


Kevin said...

Actually, there was a kerfuffle a couple weeks ago in the Important World of Political Theory and Friends about the way the film dealt with race. Perhaps you'll find it of interest?

Here are some links: (plus, a lot of it happened on Corey Robin's facebook page, as is wont to happen, haha)

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

I totally agree with everything you have said about Lincoln. I really think that Kushner was attempting to draw a comparison to today. Two key allegories come to mind:

One is the idea of "timing". Lincoln knew that he had to push for the 13th Amendment at that specific time -- against the advice of his cabinet. Not earlier, not later. Kushner compares this to Obama's stance on gay marriage. Before Obama was elected president, Kushner knew that Obama was privatly supportive of gay marriage -- he just could not declare it politically. When the time was right (before he was re-elected), Obama declared his (historical) support for gay marriage. Now, some people might argue that Carter should have stood up for gay rights back in the 70s because it was the right thing to do. But, that would have been political suicide, since the majority of the electorate were not ready for it. Like it or hate it, representative democracy requires patience.

The other allegory is that of Thaddeus Stevens with Ted Kennedy. In the film, Stevens states that he had fought his whole life for equal human rights. His major compromise was to state that all humans are equal under the law -- but not born equal. It was a statement that was contrary to his belief, but he issued it nontheless in order for the 13th Amendment to pass. Think here of Ted Kennedy who spent his entire political career working on a comprehensive heath coverage plan. From the early 70s to 2008, he chose the right moment to push for it with Obama. Did it achieve everything he wanted? No. But it is bringing us just that much closer to a just and sane society.

Professor Wolff, I think your statement, "I have never been a fan of Lincoln," is characteristic of most leftists (including myself). Lincoln was not a radical or a leftist. He was a reformist (a dirty word for most hardcore leftists and revolutionaries). But his reforms changed the nation.

I think back on your explanation of how political change takes place: not by leaps and bounds but increment by increment, piece by piece. I think that is what Lincoln tried to do, and it is what Obama is trying to do now. Right?

-- Jim

Chris said...

And Obama just caved on the debt ceiling. How can we spin that to take all the blame off of him?

Jim said...

Chris –

To be blunt, I think in these discussions that you actually miss the whole goddam point. What the hell do you expect? The United States is a capitalist country through and through. The Office of the President is by its very nature an immoral position to hold. In other words, you can’t be a thoroughgoing moral actor in that office and expect it to work. Look, as a Marxist, I have zero illusions. I don’t understand why we can’t constructively talk about the way representative politics actually functions in the world without repeatedly falling back on the inherent immorality of the entire process. We can have these same discussions about monarchy or authoritarianism or the parliamentary system – none of which hold a mandate on morality. No one is suggesting that! Did Obama actually “cave” on the debt ceiling? That’s the nature of (limited) representative democracy – get used to it. Work for reform, or start the revolution. To be sure, I am the last person who would seek to provide “spin” to take the blame off Obama. Quick question: if you go the revolution route, how many people do you think will sign on?

-- Jim

Chris said...

Jim, Obama had a perfect play. Had he gone over the fiscal cliff, come 1/2/13 he could have introduced a bill through Harry Reid asking for tax cuts for 98% of the population (i.e., everyone but those earning above $250,000). This is what progressives were asking him to do. The Republicans would then be faced with the issue of voting against tax cuts, which they wouldn't do en masse, and the tax cuts for the rich would be maintained.

So revolution and all that talk is divorced from the perfect poker play Obama had. I'm aware we aren't living in a revolutionary moment. As usual, no matter how stern Obama's promise, no matter how much progressive and electoral support he has, he will quail, on every last principle we ever thought he possibly believed in (He just reauthorized NDAA!). I mean to compare this guy as some beacon of change, while he's authorizing the kidnapping of American citizens, and reissuing warrentless wire taps, and assassinating Americans, it's just mind boggling. C

Chris said...

p.s. this sets the tone for the next 4 years. Anyone that thought Obama's second term would be a radically progressive regime, since he has no more ties, has now learned Obama 2.0 is the same crappy software as Obama 1.0.