Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Hollywood Questions the Honesty of Honest Abe: Spielberg's Lincoln

Neither the Left nor the Right are very critical of Mr. Lincoln; rather they both tend to lionize and adopt him as their very own predecessor.  Although the Republican party is right to point out that they have a civil rights legacy that extends all the way back to 1860 from the present time, neither the Democrats nor the GOP are Lincoln's party and Lincoln's legacy is complicated.

Spielberg's Lincoln is a surprise in some ways.  It more or less confronts some of Pres. Lincoln's arbitrariness when it comes to the Constitution, though it doesn't much get into specifics about how Lincoln believes he's fulfilling his oath to protect the Constitution as he engages in sophistry to circumvent the restrictions of the Constitution.  The timing of this is not that surprising since we have a President that is so slippery about his Executive Powers that even Rachel Maddow has reacted with incredulity at his rationalizations ("construct[ing] a legal regime" for prolonged detention being a kind of "ad hoc legal strateg[y]")  ― and yet gets a lot of public approval after running on a ticket to reform executive licentiousness.  Well, Lincoln in the film admits to assuming powers he wasn't sure were given him by the Constitution he swore to uphold, and he explains one of his "ad hoc legal strategies."

 If there is one overriding theme to Spielberg's Lincoln, it is that when the cause is righteous enough, there is no amount of fraud and corruption that is unwarranted.  This is good news to the Left, because they've known for a long time their causes are just that good.  I'm not embellishing about the movie at all.  According to Spielberg's narrative, a movie that ironically has Abe rebuking the Confederate leaders for not having faith in the democratic process, Abe's idea of democracy in action included among other things: (1) lying to Congress and the American people about the purposes and effects of policies, (2) dealing in bad faith with a diplomatic peace mission from the Confederacy, (3) deliberately misleading Congress about diplomatic relations with the South, (4) buying votes through cronyism and cash payouts, etc.   The movie presents all of these things as noble and grand, because they were done for a noble cause.

The ends justifies the means.  This should upset many a liberal, since they believe that whatever may or may not have been achieved in Iraq, the worst thing about it in their opinion was that America and their elected representatives were deliberately misled.   And now we have a President that has said many things indicating that his administration would set a new standard in honesty and transparency.  But Honest Abe was in a real predicament, and where civil rights are concerned, the Executive must take great liberty in construing the Constitution and his duty to that meaning (or to what he thinks it should mean).  As Thomas Sowell says, an activist judge construes the words of the Constitution to mean "what it would have meant had he written it."

  One character even gloats that the 13 Amendment was enacted through pervasive corruption and fraud, and calls himself the "purest man" in Washington in the same breath as congratulating himself for being in on every bit of it.  If this is meant to be accurate, it is apparently not the case that "sunlight is the best disinfectant."

 As in the modern political fantasy The Ides of March, it would seem that the only way to save democracy is through extortion, cover-up, and dirty politics.

 How are we supposed to feel about this?  Many of the Framers of our Constitution believed very strongly that slavery was a moral cancer on society (and I would agree with them), and yet apparently made a deal with the South in good faith.  There was, I believe, a fundamental problem with a "free people" having a social institution that allows people to be born into servitude.  (Of course, I think that there is a similar major "natural rights" problem with at least one modern social institution in America.)  But that the landmark freedom legislation of our nation could only be accomplished through fraud and corruption, treating the Constitution as an agreement that was "made to be broken"...  We may have traded a horrible chink in the armor for one that seems more benign and yet has more potential to destroy the nation in the long-run by preparing us all for fascism.

 Accomplishing social change through illegitimate legislation is potentially just one aspect of Lincoln's legacy.  There is also the expansion of executive powers that the movies refers to vaguely as "war powers," giving the Emancipation Proclamation as the particular example. (The movie does acknowledge that it was a military expediency bypassing due process under martial law.)

 This person's post corrects the "false idea" that Lincoln suspended the Constitution by showing that he instead suspended certain constitutional rights in whatever areas he chose to place under martial law:
In 1862, when copperhead democrats ["Peace Democrats" that opposed secession] began criticizing Lincoln's violation of the Constitution, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus throughout the nation and had many copperhead democrats arrested under military authority because he felt that the State Courts in the north west would not convict war protesters such as the copperheads. He proclaimed that all persons who discouraged enlistments or engaged in disloyal practices would come under Martial Law.   ~ "Did Lincoln Suspend the Constitution"
Not the whole Constitution, mind you (let's not get carried away here), just your Article I Section 9 rights and 1st Amendment rights.  Just the citizen's right to criticize the President he elected.  Just the citizen's right to protest a war.  Hmmm. And liberals think Dubya was a dictator.  Huh.

 I think Wikiquotes cites some correspondence with Lincoln in which he defends his belief in hanging for treason any parents that write their enlisted son to discourage him from further risking his life in the 5-year long bloodbath.  We don't see that in the movie but rather Lincoln compassionately pardoning young soldiers here and there.  Imagine if what happened in Iraq happened on our own soil, with arson and pillaging and rape by federal troops becoming a common occurrence.

 This is not to show that Lincoln was fundamentally a bad man ― someone who simply wanted to be above the law to act on selfish impulses ― but should a leader decide he is above the law simply because he knows that his cause is noble?  I just think if we are really going to try to understand the history of our country and understand Lincoln's legacy, we need to confront what he did and whether that is something that weakened the role the Constitution was intended to play in keeping the states from becoming colonies again.  Do noble leaders need to believe in the rule of law? 

 In the movie, the film presents various ideas about the relationship between the amendment and the War.  One of them is the idea that abolition would stop the fighting.  This hard to take seriously.  People were certainly demagogued this way and that back then, but I don't think the low information voter was quite so "low information" to believe that one.  The South had already gone their separate way.  A 13th Amendment was the equivalent of telling the South, The thing that you were most concerned about is now a certainty.  Talk about burning your bridges politically.

 The movie shows people wondering if the 13th Amendment as a political stunt to get the Confederacy to negotiate. Well, in terms of the movie, Lincoln doesn't intend it as a stunt, but it boggles me how this could be confused for something that would bring them to the bargaining table.  The story goes, the secession occurred because the South lost confidence in the Union's commitment to states' right and didn't believe the Corwin Amendment would be ratified.  So how is proceeding (rushing, in the movie) with the Abolition Amendment (essentially the anti-Corwin Amendment) going to convince the South that a peaceable solution is possible?
Sometimes, Loewen said, the North is mythologized as going to war to free the slaves. That's more bad history, Loewen said: "The North went to war to hold the union together."Pres. Abraham Lincoln was personally against slavery, but in his first inaugural, he made it clear that placating the Southern states was more important. Quoting himself in other speeches, he said, "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." Abolitionism grew in the Union army as soldiers saw slaves flocking to them for freedom, contradicting myths that slavery was the appropriate position for African-Americans, Loewen said. But it wasn't until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 — which left slavery intact in border states that hadn't seceded — that ending Confederate slavery became an official Union aim. 
#5 of Busted: 6 Civil War Myths http://www.livescience.com/18863-civil-war-myths.html
Elsewhere I have seen quotes attributed to Lincoln in which he acknowledged that he could not have waged his war were it thought in the North he was doing it to free the slaves.  So was the justification for the War a retroactive justification?  Or is Lincoln to be commended for hoodwinking the people of the North into fighting for a cause for which they wouldn't have been willing to die?

 If it is true that keeping the union together was a priority for Lincoln (as he often averred in public), why would he sabotage the peace process?  The movie doesn't try to address the question of whether this was ever a priority for Lincoln.  But the movie does seem to suggest the familiar narrative:  Lincoln intended all along to free the slaves and was a master politician in getting the country to accept it.  Strangely though, he is very eloquent in his First Inaugural Address regarding his commitment to the Union, the clear constitutionality of slavery, and his having "no objection" to the Corwin Amendment (guaranteeing the states' rights to determine their own slavery policy).

 The following summary seems consistent with other accounts of the strange circumstances of the ratification of the 13th Amendment by several of the conquered states.  (Huh?!  How did that happen?)
Before the Civil War, abolitionists like Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison conceded that the Constitution protected slavery, but denounced it as a pact with the devil that should be ignored. When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — 150 years ago tomorrow — he justified it as a military necessity under his power as commander in chief. Eventually, though, he embraced the freeing of slaves as a central war aim, though nearly everyone conceded that the federal government lacked the constitutional power to disrupt slavery where it already existed. Moreover, when the law finally caught up with the facts on the ground through passage of the 13th Amendment, ratification was achieved in a manner at odds with constitutional requirements. (The Southern states were denied representation in Congress on the theory that they had left the Union, yet their reconstructed legislatures later provided the crucial votes to ratify the amendment.) .  ~ summary by Constitutionolatry
How does an Amendment get legitimately passed and ratified with the Executive branch intervening in process by which each state has its representation in the decision?  Spielberg's movie makes it sound like Lincoln only needed the votes of the non-seceded states to ratify, but several rebel states somehow tipped the scales for ratification. How did that happen?!  Did it have to do with military pro tem governors and stocking ad hoc legislatures with non-dissidents?

 This Hollywood script is a story that undermines its own triumph.  To make a country rip itself a part to achieve something other than the stated aim, to circumvent democracy with "anything goes" politics, in the name of democracy.  We had to destroy "government by the people" in order to save "government by the people."  But the lesson of the movie is clear: If the cause is noble and just enough, there is no end to the corruption and subterfuge that should be employed in its name.  Absolution is total.  Do our leaders believe this?  And if so, what is the real story behind what they are telling us?

 The lesson is taught so well in this movie.  What could be a more noble and just cause than circumventing the hindering restrictions of the federal government's essential contract with the people of the States (something that the link above refers to as a "pact with the devil") in order to stop the barbaric policy of people inheriting a life of servitude by birth?  This was an abhorrent institution.  It is so abhorrent that it rightly disturbs us.  If it is so abhorrent that it requires an undemocratic solution, a weakening of the republic, how do we differentiate between those things about which We the People should be lied to (for the greater good) and those that we shouldn't?  When is darkness the best disinfectant and when is sunlight?  Or are sunlight and darkness merely equal means to a noble end?

  On a side note, I was annoyed that in the first 30 minutes, the script was shy about connecting the word "Democrat" with slavery, and instead had the phrase "conservative Republican" repeated many times in explicit connection to lack of support for abolition. Hmmm. What's going on there?  Seems like the low information voter is being spoon-fed familiar phrases for effect.  Elsewhere (and later) the film tries to be very nuanced in its handling of the Democrat-slavery connection: A Republican Congressman denounces the Democratic party as having gotten away from its Jeffersonian roots (as though Jefferson's states' rights views were somehow unpopular in the South), emphasizing that a political party changes over time.  Read: <<Don't judge the Democratic Party by what happens here, even though it largely fought civil rights well into the 1960s.  Believe that the Democratic Party has once again become Jefferson's party.>>  (Not.)  


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  2. An interesting article here about Lincoln's foray into Big Government and whether it compares to the 20th century progressivism. Not sure it makes its case that well--maybe more a matter of degree than a qualitative difference?
    Was Lincoln the Father of Big Government?