Why Lincoln matters

I was already going to write about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which I saw last week, and then my friend Chris Berg had a piece on it in yesterday’s Age, in which he compared it with Zero Dark Thirty (which I haven’t seen, although I touched on the controversy about it last month). Berg argues that critics of the Bush administration’s torture program are being hypocritical when they hail Abraham Lincoln as a hero.

Of course Berg is quite right to say that civil liberties need to be defended against all comers. Lincoln was responsible for some inexcusable measures, and a proper biographical study of him (which Spielberg’s film is not) needs to address them. Nonetheless, I think the comparison between the two cases is deeply misleading, for two interrelated reasons.

Firstly, American security policy in the Bush years (and later) had a large number of critics who were not sympathisers with the enemy. Actual domestic supporters of al-Qaeda or Saddam Hussein were very rare. Lincoln was in exactly the opposite position; Union territory was crawling with Confederate sympathisers. The contemporary critics of Lincoln were not impartial defenders of civil liberties: they were almost all, in reality, defenders of slavery.

Berg remarks that “For a long time historians believed there was a militant underground within the North that justified a clampdown on civil liberties”, a notion that is now rejected. But if historians continued believing it afterwards, one can hardly blame Lincoln for believing it at the time.

That’s the point of it being a civil war: the enemy was within, in a way that simply wasn’t the case with recent conflicts. (Bush and Cheney, of course, were obsessed with the enemy within, but as a matter of politics, not security.) That doesn’t justify all of Lincoln’s actions, but it’s a vital part of their context.

Which leads to the second point: the enormous difference in scale of the threats faced. More Americans were killed in a single day’s fighting at Antietam than in the World Trade Centre. Something like 600,000 people in total died in the civil war, without counting the horrendous toll of wounded and prisoners of war, plus of course the millions held in slavery.

It is to Spielberg’s credit that he gives us, in the last moments of the film, that brilliant passage from Lincoln’s second inaugural address:

Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”.

Ideally, one would be able to identify a third difference: that the Bush administration is still a live political topic, whereas the civil war is just history and can be treated with an appropriate historical detachment. That might be true for Australians, but it is clearly not true in the United States.

Anyone who digs below the surface of the modern conservative movement there will discover that one of its main drivers is sympathy with the Confederacy: nostalgia for the “lost cause”, for the good old days of southern gentility, “states’ rights” and – of course – white supremacy. Under its influence, the modern Republican Party has, in a massive historical inversion, become dominated by white southerners.

And there lies the real importance of both Lincoln and Lincoln. Spielberg’s film captures the absolute centrality of slavery to both the war and to Lincoln’s career. Sean Wilentz, reviewing it in the New Republic, said it “ought to remove, once and for all, the lingering stain of the Lost Cause mythology, at least in respectable cinema. It ought to render ridiculous depictions of the Civil War as anything other than a struggle over American slavery and its future.”

Although it avoids any sort of explicit moralising, Lincoln nonetheless tells Republicans that they can’t have it both ways. One day they will have to choose whether they are the party of Lincoln or the party of the Confederacy.

One thought on “Why Lincoln matters

  1. For those who’d like to follow up my assertion that the modern conservative movement in America has been largely driven by white southern race-related grievances, there’s some powerful supporting evidence in an article by Sam Tanenhaus in this week’s New Republic.

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