Nov 29 2012

The accuracy of the elephant’s tail

If you want to make sense of a lot of what it happening in US national politics, I’ve found Chris Hayes’ show Up! to be a consistent source of diverse and thought-provoking analysis. As an avowed and unashamed ‘man of the left’, he manages to break issues out of the left/right divide and instead field panels with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, from a Wal-mart striker to the CEO of Bain Capital. I consider him to be an indispensable voice in political discourse, and his show is a regular watch for me (and when you consider how little time I have to watch TV these days, that’s saying a lot).

One of the things that I like most about his show is that, whether consciously or not, consistently puts people of colour at the table to discuss things that aren’t “the black perspective on” whatever issue is being discussed. It’s a refreshing change from how I am accustomed to seeing black folks being involved in discussions – as though their (our) race was the only relevant topic about which we could speak intelligently. In the face of this unfortunate trend, Chris (and, seemingly, the other producers at MSNBC) books his panels in such a way as to occasionally make white people a minority presence around the table, even when not discussing a race-specific issue.

It is with this in the background that I take issue with a recent segment in which he showered unreserved praise upon Tony Kushner, writer of the screenplay for the movie Lincoln. Chris was glowing in his praise for the script and the movie itself, and Mr. Kushner obviously did not object. The reason why this love-in was so disappointing is because I read a number of the critiques of the film from writers and historians of colour, and they consistently complained that the movie, in keeping with a long-standing Hollywood tradition, almost completely wrote out black people from the story. And so it was with more than a little joy that I saw Chris tweet a link to this article earlier today:

In short, if you widen your field of view, you will discover that W.E.B. Du Bois argued a century ago—and as the historical scholarship has increasingly come to agree—that slavery was already all but dead by the time Lincoln got around to declaring himself an abolitionist, far less because the North gave slaves their legal freedom than because they had already effectively taken it, because it had become the new status quo that would have required force to dislodge. At the end of the Civil War, with the South defeated, the choice for the north was not to end slavery or leave it; the choice was to ratify the fact that it was already dead or to re-impose it by military force.

In short, the idea that the white north “gave” freedom to the slaves draws from and reinforces an attractively simple and flattering myth, one which formed around the old historiography of the period like a noose cutting off oxygen to the brain: the myth that black slaves were rendered passive by their condition, and that—absent an outside force interrupting their state of un-freedom—they would simply have continued, as slaves, indefinitely. It’s only in this narrative that freedom can be a thing which is given to them: because they are essentially passive and inert, they require someone else—say, a great emancipator—to step in and raise them up.

I will not presume or pretend to lecture you on the historical errors in this movie, because a) I don’t know very much about American history (indeed, I’d just be pulling stuff out of the article), and b) I haven’t seen the movie. Instead I will simply strongly suggest that you take the time to read the linked article, because it is not only well-written, but meticulously cited. The part that stands out most strongly to me is this one:

Spielberg and Kushner are interested in a kind of scrupulous (almost farcical) accuracy about things that do not matter, while working very hard to place everything else that was going on in the period—and everything else Lincoln was responding to—off camera. “The nation’s capital was transformed by the migration of fugitive slaves from the South during the war, but you’d never know it from this film,” as Kate Masur points out, and Lincoln’s own servants were leaders and organizers in this community, something of which Lincoln simply could not have been unaware. But the film makes a point of not showing any of this: while the vast majority of the movie takes place in cramped and smoky rooms, even the exterior shots (usually of conversations in moving wagons) show us very little of what was going on in the streets and neighborhoods of Washington (much less what was going on in the South). Which is to say: they give us the illusion of perspective without giving us its substance. They show you the elephant’s tail quite accurately, and then they declare, on that basis, that the entire beast is a snake.

It is one thing for a movie to simply fail to tell all perspectives within a story. After all, history is far more involved and complex than any 2-hour span could possibly reflect in its entirety. My complaint is not that Kushner and Spielberg apparently focussed only on the procedural/political battle instead of telling the story of black abolitionists and slaves agitating for their freedom. That’s an artistic choice – I might prefer the other story, but whatever. No, what concerns me more is the fact that black voices are apparently all but completely absent from the film, but would not have been absent from the conversation that actually happened. This isn’t mere omission, this is excision. And it’s part of a larger narrative that puts black people in the passenger seat of history, waiting to be given rights and freedom by well-intentioned and forward-thinking white men with political power.

The exact opposite is more reflective of reality – the African American story is one of struggle against overwhelming odds to push a hostile or indifferent sociopolitical system out of its moral hypocrisy in order to fight its oppression. African Americans were not recipients of history – they were its crafters; a fact that is entirely absent (again, apparently) from Kushner and Spielberg’s film.

There’s one more point I want to make really briefly here, as I am over my word limit at at the end of my lunch break. I once watched a documentary about the Exodus story. Archaeological exploration has shown that there is absolutely no evidence to support the biblical account. There is, however, evidence to support a different (and much more interesting account). It could be that the original Caananite exodus was not Jews fleeing Egypt, but an enslaved group of Caananites overthrowing a brutal ruling class (of other Caananites) and leaving for a fertile area some distance from their former home. After being settled there, they met with a group of migrants who had crossed the desert from Egypt, bringing with them a war god they called Yahweh. The two groups settled together, and their stories mingled to form a new oral history, built on a combination of the two stories. This account was, the documentary said, far better evidenced than the whole “parting of the seas/plague of frogs” account from the Bible.

My reaction was this: that is a much better story than the one I was taught in Sunday school. It’s a story of an oppressed people rising up and taking control of their own destiny. It’s a story of two cultures coming together and forging their differences into a shared identity. It’s a profoundly pro-human story. We should be teaching that instead of marvelling at the “mercy” of a god who slaughters thousands of babies because of the decision of a political leader whose heart was hardened… by that same god (look it up!).

In the same way, the real story of emancipation of slaves in the United States is a much better story when told accurately. It’s about a people with no power who organized, agitated, and took possession of their own freedom. It’s about a people who forced a country to live up to its own vaunted ideals in the face of overwhelming military disadvantage. It’s the story of the powerful actually listening to the voices of the oppressed and fighting alongside them for what is right. It’s so much better than the story of a bunch of pasty white folks deciding to get around to giving freedom to a bunch of mute and eternally-patient black folks.

We do ourselves a disservice by allowing ourselves to believe these histories in which only one group makes decisions. It hurts us all, and we shouldn’t stand for it. I’m glad Chris didn’t.

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  1. 1

    Black voices seemed reasonably well represented in the movie to me. The opening scene of the movie is a black soldier confronting Lincoln on his failure to do more to recognize his rights, and Elizabeth Keckley (Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker) is given a substantial role and at least one key scene. Thaddeus Stevens is a very central figure, and his black mistress is also shown as important.

    But the scope of the movie isn’t really to look at how slavery ended, or making any claim that Lincoln is the prime force for ending it. It’s focused extremely narrowly on how Lincoln got the XIIIth amendment passed by the obstructionist House of Representatives (where it looks like not much has changed since 1865).

    I was wondering if someone was going to open a thread about the movie here on FTB, because I think it’s mostly about posing a question that is a very good one for skeptics to think about.

    Here’s the thing: the Lincoln in the movie is portrayed as being a huge, pants-on-fire liar. He lies to the American people (that passing the amendment will hasten the end to the war), he lies to Congress, he even lies to his own wife. The movie implies that, if he hadn’t been willing to tell all these lies, the amendment would have been defeated and slavery would have remained legal. (I looked at the wiki-article on the WE Dubois book above, and that description didn’t seem to support that “slavery was all but dead” — I think it’s reasonable to guess that, without the amendment, the southern states would have figured out some way of re-instituting it in some form.)

    Just after I saw the movie, I heard a quote from an anti-abortionist “I don’t have time to fact-check this email before forwarding it, if forewarding it might prevent someone from having an abortion.” So he was explicitly saying it was ok to lie to further a good cause. So was it ok for Lincoln to lie in his good cause, but not ok for this anti-abortionist? Is the only thing that’s important whether the cause you’re lying for is actually just? Or shoud we condemn Lincoln for doing the right thing with the wrong methods, regardless of the outcome?

  2. 2

    I’ve always liked this post as an antidote to the “Lincoln didn’t really care about slavery until it was convenient” argument:

    “But the entire point of the Republican Party was to break the hold of slaveowners over the national government at the cost of provoking sectional conflict. There was a whole other political party—the Democratic Party—organized around the principles of white supremacy and sectional accommodation and it’s a party Lincoln never belonged to.”

    The link has a good summation of Lincoln’s unanimous siding with anti-slavery groups and policies.

    One thing that must constantly be remembered in discussions of the Civil War, is that from the very instant Pickett was knocked back, the South and its sympathizers have waged a PR war trying to obscure the realities of the conflict. US Grant, for example, has been attacked mercilessly and only recently has his presidency been reevaluated. Contrary to what I learned in school, he was among the better presidents in our nation’s history, not a corrupt drunkard.

    “The exact opposite is more reflective of reality – the African American story is one of struggle against overwhelming odds to push a hostile or indifferent sociopolitical system out of its moral hypocrisy in order to fight its oppression. African Americans were not recipients of history – they were its crafters…”

    I can’t comment on whether black Americans were excluded from the movie, I’d need more specific claims about how they were excluded to evaluate them properly. It’s worth pointing out, however, that in 1860 there were 4.4 million black Americans, only 500,000 of whom were free. The rest were slaves.

    They simply didn’t have any means of fighting against the white power structure, and I don’t think it’s condescending to argue that whites were required to end slavery. That’s not to claim contributions from African Americans were irrelevant, but free black Americans were such a tiny minority and the bulk of the population was so thoroughly subjugated that it really was a sort of Holocaust situation: revolt from the inside was incredibly unlikely.

  3. 3

    When Lincoln said early in the war that his primary goal was to preserve the Union, and that he would do so without freeing the slaves if that was what it took — at least according to the movie’s portrayal he was, once again, LYING. As I said in #1 above, the movie portrays him as a pants-on-fire liar who was willing to prevaricate to any length to achieve the goal of ending slavery. There is a line to Thaddeus Stevens to the effect that he just said that to get the border states to join the Union side, with the strong implication that he never really meant it for one second.

    Regarding #2 above — I remember when I studied the Civil War in elementary school in the 70s, we had a debate on whether the cause of the Civil War was economic, political, or based on slavery. I was on the slavery team, and it was understood that we were supposed to lose, because the war was “really” fought over political and economic reasons, and slavery was only a pretext. In the same class, we learned that the magnanimous Democrats were trying to heal and rebuild the country during reconstruction, but the wicked Republicans wanted to punish the Southern States for rebelling. It wasn’t until much later that I learned about how the Republicans were trying to thwart efforts to reintroduce slavery through the back door by any means possible.

    I learned all this in Ohio. So apparently the Southern efforts to rewrite history were widespread.

  4. 4

    I view Lincoln’s general behavior in close to the same way I look at moral thought experiments: you are captured by a cruel dictator. He walks you to the town square where you see a line of 20 villagers. The Dictator says, “shoot one and I’ll let the other 19 live. If you refuse, I kill them all.” What do you do?

    This is meant to stress our intuitions about consequentialism and utilitarianism, but they’ve always seemed like silly tests to me. It’s an extreme situation and the behavior of people in extreme situations tell us very little about general life.

    Thus, while Lincoln took actions that in a vacuum could be wrong–suspending Habeus Corpus, lying…–given what was at stake, I find his actions totally justified. Again, we’re talking about slavery. Slavery. If lies need to be told to end slavery, tell the lies. It’s a situation where history judges the actions, and Lincoln has been retroactively proven correct.

    The distinction between “things Lincoln says” and “things Lincoln did” is a great indication that he was playing a political game in order to achieve important outcomes. We can only hypothesize about what would have happened had Lincoln been radical from his inauguration on, but his life’s politics involved ending slavery, and he ended slavery.

    The bottom line is that the Civil War could have been avoided if either side had capitulated on slavery. The South refused and was willing to send hundreds of thousands of people to die to keep slaves; Lincoln refused and was willing to send hundreds of thousands of people to die to end slavery. History shows that the end of slavery was something worth dying for.

  5. 5

    Doesn’t appear to be much interest in this subject, but I thought I’d leave this link. It deals more specifically with ways black characters could have been included, and how specific characters were treated less than thoroughly:


    I agree with the representation of the radicals. They were just 100% correct on everything, save political expediency (and that is just a counterfactual, it’s not as though they were wrong).

    Coates is always great about reinforcing the point that there was absolutely no way to avoid or end the War sooner that didn’t involve letting the South keep some measure of slavery. Just about every moderate effort was tried (compensated emancipation) and failed. Perhaps an earlier realization of the degree to which the entire conflict was 1) about slavery and 2) specifically about white supremacy, the North would have been more prepared for the conflict and the War would have been more decisively settled.

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