A Modern Moses

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“Very few men have ever known that men are free.” I thought of these simple words from Rose Wilder Lane’s Discovery of Freedom while watching Harriet, a terrific new film about the remarkable Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery and then returned to the South at least a dozen times to help friends, family, and others escape too. Later, as a scout for the Union Army, she guided troops in their assault on plantations along the Combahee River, where hundreds of slaves ran to the Union steamships and freedom. She is reportedly the first woman to have led an armed assault during the Civil War.

Not every enslaved person wanted to be rescued, however. In this film, after Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) risks being captured in order to bring her own sister, Rachel (Deborah Ayorinde) to safety in Philadelphia, Rachel refuses to go, saying, “I ain’t leaving my babies . . . can’t everybody run!” Tubman can’t understand such an attitude. Isn’t freedom worth everything? Tubman has been quoted as saying, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Tubman and Lane both knew that great truth — it isn’t enough to be free; you have to know you are free.

This film is different from such recent films about slavery as Twelve Years a Slave (2013) and Birth of a Nation (2016), in that the physical horrors of slavery are alluded to but not dwelled upon here. We don’t see the whippings, the rapes, the sadistic torture. While those films are important in telling that part of the story of slavery, Harriet is about the inalienable right to freedom itself, regardless of how one is treated. A well-treated slave is still a slave. As a result, the characters are richer and more complex than they are in the more traditional “blacks are good, whites are bad” movies.

Tubman has been quoted as saying, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

We see the economic panic of plantation owners facing bankruptcy from the loss of their escaped slaves, the quiet aid and personal risk of white abolitionists on the Underground Railroad, treacherous black trackers who earn money by helping to bring runaways back to the south, and the contrast in education and experience between blacks in the city and blacks on the plantation. When a freeborn black woman named Marie (Janelle Monae) tells Harriet she needs a bath after she arrives in Philadelphia (and offers her own tub for the purpose), Harriet responds with dignity, “You’re freeborn. You’ve never known the stink of fear.”

As Tubman returns repeatedly to lead slaves to freedom, angry plantation owners offer a reward for the “thief” they call “Moses,” ironically equating themselves with the Egyptian taskmasters in the Old Testament to whom God demanded, through Moses, “Let me people go.” The allusion is developed in numerous ways, and in one particular scene Harriet motivates her skeptical followers by walking directly into the waters of the river she feels compelled to cross while men pursue them on horseback (though not with chariots.)

One reason for Tubman’s ability to avoid capture was that everyone assumed this “Moses” was a black man or a white abolitionist in blackface. It never occurred to them that their nemesis was an illiterate woman standing just five feet tall who suffered from seizures due to a head injury: she was hit with a metal weight when she was a young teen. These seizures lead her to have “visions” that guide her away from danger and toward safer paths as she conducts her little groups to freedom. She is described by one grateful character as “a woman touched by God.” This suggestion that Tubman was a visionary guided by God has caused many reviewers to pan the movie — not because they disagree with the accuracy of the scenes (Tubman often described the experiences she had during her seizures as “visions from God”) but because these reviewers simply don’t like the idea of God having anything to do with her success.

Angry plantation owners offer a reward for the “thief” they call “Moses,” ironically equating themselves with the Egyptian taskmasters in the Old Testament.

Nevertheless, Tubman believed it, and the scenes are handled well. We see her premonitions as fuzzy, monochromatic scenes that come into sharpness gradually over the course of the movie. God doesn’t speak to her directly, but she sees images that eventually make sense to her. For that reason, it could just as easily be interpreted as her own mind making logical sense of multiple details she has observed. Harriet might have been illiterate, but she was not unintelligent. She could read the sky and was a skilled tracker. To communicate with other slaves without attracting the attention of white overseers, she often sings, her rich contralto hiding her overt message in the covert melody of a folk spiritual. These melodies are haunting and sad, especially when she sings a farewell to her mother in the fields as she prepares to run away for the first time. The moment is heartbreaking yet empowering, and the music is exactly right. Her rendition of “Wade in the Water” is even better.

Tubman interacts with many important abolitionists as she travels in the North; there are cameo appearances by Frederick Douglass (Tory Kittles) in his trademark lopsided Afro, and John Brown (Nigel Reed). Senator William Seward (uncredited) invites Tubman into his home and praises her work. And black journalist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), who carefully records the details of every passenger on the Underground Railroad in order to help family members reunite in the north, becomes a close friend and supporter. It is largely because of Still’s meticulous recordkeeping that we have a reasonably accurate and uninflated account of Tubman’s work. Without him, the numbers she is thought to have rescued might lie in the hundreds rather than a “mere” 70.

Harriet is well worth seeing, as a piece of history and as a piece of filmmaking. It is a fair story, even if it isn’t an entirely factual story, (as no biographical film ever is) and will probably be shown in schoolrooms for many years to come. The story is suspenseful without being gruesome, and the acting is strong without being overbearing. The side story involving the fictionalized black tracker Walter (Henry Hunter Hall) is especially good in that it fits both the biblical allusion and the film’s theme of choice and accountability. The cinematography provides a rich setting for both the escape scenes and the town scenes, and the music contributes evocatively to the tension and the message. Most of all, it is a film that celebrates the inalienable right — no, responsibility   to “live free or die.” As Rose Wilder Lane might say, “Don’t ever forget that you are free.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Harriet," directed by Kasi Lemmons. Martin Chase Productions, 2019, 125 minutes.



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The Last Cargo

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The launch last month of “The 1619 Project” by The New York Times unleashed a barrage of partisan volleys and countervolleys consisting mostly of debatable claims, finger-pointing, and innuendo. It’s predictable for the polarized times we live in. Some of the Democratic presidential candidates are calling for reparations for the nation’s original sin of slavery (were the 360,000 Union deaths not enough?); and we’ve elected a president whom many consider racist — an accusation resorted to glibly, promiscuously, and with a keyword so broadly defined and overused it’s become as meaningless as the word “love.”

The NYT presents the project as an appropriate bookend to the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship, the White Lion, to arrive at the continental US, at Jamestown. But perhaps a more apt bookend might be the arrival of the last slave ship, the schooner Clotilda, in 1859 (or 1860, according to some sources), 240 years after the White Lion docked at Point Comfort in Virginia.

It’s taken quite a while for the Clotilda’s story to air.

Although the transatlantic slave trade had begun in the early 1500s with destinations to the Caribbean and Brazil, the 20-odd Angolans aboard the White Lion — taken against their will — were classified as indentured servants, some of whom later acquired their freedom, as per that definition. Children of those Africans who did end up as slaves were born free — according to the laws of that time.

It’s taken quite a while for the Clotilda’s story to air. Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), whose four grandparents had all been slaves, interviewed Cudjo Kossola Lewis, the second-to-last survivor of the Clotilda, in 1927. She’d trained as an anthropologist under the tutelage of Franz Boas, considered the “Father of American Anthropology,” and this was her first serious project.

Boas had introduced and firmly established the concept of cultural relativity as an investigative axiom: “a person's beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person's own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another.” As a field tool, the concept allowed Hurston to present Kossola’s narrative more objectively, through his eyes. She’d attended Howard, Barnard, and Columbia with classmates Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead (who got a bit creatively carried away with the cultural relativity bit in the South Pacific).

Hurston’s transcription of Kossola’s dialect is inconsistent, slaloming between her efforts at accurate transcription and reversion to more conventional English when the task became overwhelming.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” the book that resulted from Hurston’s interviews with Kossola, remained unpublished until May 2018. Back in 1931, Viking Press rejected it. They would only accept the manuscript if Hurston rewrote Kossola’s vernacular into standard English. They had a point (though not the one I want to make right here). Hurston’s transcription of Kossola’s dialect is inconsistent, slaloming between her efforts at accurate transcription (which she thought essential) and reversion to more conventional English when the task became overwhelming. Additionally, according to novelist Alice Walker’s foreword in the book, “There was concern among ‘black intellectuals and political leaders’ that the book laid uncomfortably bare Africans’ involvement in the slave trade.”

And that’s not the only inconvenient truth buried in Barracoon. Hurston, a black female anthropologist, was an independent thinker. She opposed school integration and programs that guaranteed blacks a right to work. In 1955 she claimed that "adequate Negro schools" already existed. (See John M. Eriksen, Brevard County, Florida: A Short History to 1955, chapter 13; and "Negro Writer Opposes Court Ruling,” Titusville Star Advocate, September 30, 1955, p. 2.) And she was a Republican during the New Deal.

Although John McWhorter, a linguist and Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, has called Hurston "America's favorite black conservative," she’s been more properly characterized as a libertarian by David and Linda Beito ("Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Zora Neale Hurston on War, Race, the State, and Liberty," Independent Review 12, Spring 2008) She was no social conservative and, in foreign policy, was a noninterventionist. And then there are the controversial watermelons.

Although John McWhorter has called Hurston "America's favorite black conservative," she’s been more properly characterized as a libertarian.

Kossola lived life to his own rhythms, tending his gardens and active in his church. To ingratiate herself with him and unlock a volubility concealed behind an apparent reticence, Hurston would bring peaches, hams, and watermelons as gifts. Once they shared an entire iced watermelon, gnawed down to the rind, taking up all their allotted interview time but unlocking a trust and warmth that sealed a lasting friendship. Whether the association of watermelons and blacks’ taste for them already existed is a question best left to pop historians. But Alice Walker in her foreword to Barracoon again picks up a racial trope, “Imagine how many generations of black people would never admit to eating watermelon!”

* * *

Kossola, an Isha Yoruba, was captured in a slave raid by the army of King Glélé of Dahomey (in present-day Benin), which consisted of about 7,000 male and 5,000 female warriors — the renowned Dahomey Amazons. He was 19 and engaged to be married. His village was stormed by the Amazons, all belted with the dangling heads of opponents killed in battle. Kossola reported that they were the equal of any man. The old and infirm were decapitated on the spot (so much for the nurturing nature of the gentler sex). Meanwhile, the male Dahomey warriors were stationed at the gate posts to ambush and capture the fleeing villagers, Kossola among them.

After about four weeks in transit, three spent in a barracoon — a holding cell for newly-captured slaves — the captives were treated to a big feast by their captors: “the people of Dahomey come bring us lot of grub for us to eatee ’cause dey say we goin’ leave dere. We eatee de big feast,” recalled Kossola.

Captain William Foster, owner, builder, and skipper of the Clotilda — which was anchored outside the surf zone (the port of Whydah lacking any docking facilities) — purchased 130 of the captives. He chose equal numbers of males and females. Although offered, he “preemptorily” [sic] forbade their branding. Each captive cost $50 to $60 on the coast but could be sold in Alabama for about $800 apiece (nearly $23,000 in today’s money).

His village was stormed by the Amazons, all belted with the dangling heads of opponents killed in battle.

Foster’s fellow investors in this slaving venture consisted of the brothers Jim, Tim, and Burns Meaher from Maine. The Captain carried $9,000 in gold. The Clotilda was manned by a crew of 12 (all Yankees), including him. Although the importation of slaves had been illegal since 1808, the Meahers, who owned a mill and shipyard, built swift vessels for blockade running and “filibustering expeditions.” At the time, smuggling slaves from Cuba was common practice.

Transporting and loading the captives into the Clotilda through the heavy Atlantic surf required the services of skilled men of the Kroo tribe, men, an ethnic group of independent operators who specialized in negotiating breakers with sleek surf boats. Their skills as mariners were so expert that the Royal Navy enlisted many of them from 1820 to as late as 1924. But Kroo canoes had limited capacities. Kossola, naked and terrified, thought he’d breathed his last. He was the last captive loaded onto the Clotilda.

After 116 of the slaves had been brought on board, Foster became aware of possible treachery involving Dahomans planning to recapture the cargo and holding him hostage. He immediately gave orders to abandon the cargo not already on board “and to sail away with all speed.”

Kossola, naked and terrified, thought he’d breathed his last. He was the last captive loaded on board.

The Clotilda got away, but the next day was chased by an English cruiser on the lookout for slavers. Foster escaped by pressing sail. The slaves down in the hold were in cramped conditions (although they had much more space — five feet of headroom — than many slaves in previous Middle Passage transports) After being kept below decks for 12 days, mainly because of real or false alarms, they were brought on deck so they might limber up. The captain ordered the crew to help them walk and exercise. For the rest of the passage, except for the twentieth day, when another British cruiser was spotted, and near the end, on the approach to Mobile, they spent most of their time on deck — 116 slaves to 12 crew. Only two died. The crossing took 70 days.

According to Hurston, the Clotilda arrived in Mobile Bay under cover of darkness in August 1859 (other sources say July 9, 1860). Fear of discovery and prosecution, and the fact that blacks illegally brought in could not be enslaved, made their sale problematic. In fact, Foster and the Meahers were later tried in federal court in Mobile, though not convicted, for lack of evidence: the Clotilda and its manifest had been burned and sunk, the black captives well hidden. Other sources say they were found guilty and charged heavy fines, which were never paid. The outbreak of the Civil War prevented further pursuit of the case.

Forty-eight of the slaves were secretly sold. The remaining 60 (according to one of the discrepant sources) were divvied up among the principals: James Meaher took 32 (16 couples), Burns Meaher took ten, Tim Meaher eight, and Captain Foster ten. Kossola went to Jim Meaher, where he acquired the name Cudjo Lewis. “Cudjo” was a name given by the Akan people of Ghana to children born on a Monday, while “Lewis” is probably a corruption of Kossola’s father’s name, Oluale, which Meaher had difficulty pronouncing.

The Clotilda was chased by an English cruiser on the lookout for slavers. Foster escaped by pressing sail.

Cudjo reported that they were not immediately put to work; first they were trained by American slaves, who ridiculed the Africans for their ignorance and “savage” ways. He became a stevedore loading wood for Jim Meaher’s cargo boats on the Mobile to Montgomery run. He was worked hard, but praised his master for taking good care of his slaves:

Cap’n Jim, he a good man. He not lak his brother, Cap’n Tim. He doan want his folks knock and beat all de time. He see my shoes gittee ragedy, you know, and he say, ‘Cudjo, if dat de best shoes you got, I gittee you some mo’!’ Now das right. I no tellee lies.

“Cap’n” Tim’s brother Burns was also cruel, but it seemed to have its limits. Cudjo reported that their slaves worked the brothers’ plantation fields:

Dey got overseer wid de whip. One man try whippee one my country women and dey all jump on him and takee de whip ‘way from him and lashee him wid it. He doan never try whip African women no mo’.

This astonishing account of slave resistance without repercussions is reminiscent of a similar incident reported by Frederick Douglass in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

* * *

Douglass was a proud, headstrong man. Like my brother John, who was drafted for the Korean War — and looking forward to proudly serving his country, only to be discharged for being “temperamentally unsuited to taking orders” — Douglass was not cut out for servitude, though instead of “proudly serving his master,” he just complied with performing his duties . . . as long as he was treated with respect.

As a boy, Douglass had not only been treated well, he’d been taught to read and write. But he ended up with a master with “quite a number of differences” with him. During the nine months he spent with Master Thomas, “he had given me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose.” So Thomas decided to send Douglass to Edward Covey, a man who, for a price, specialized in breaking recalcitrant slaves.

After a series of particularly brutal beatings, Douglass decided — to his own surprise — to fight back.

Covey set about the task with alacrity, putting Douglass to brutal work in the fields: “During the first six months, scarce a week passed without his whipping me.” He was treated so brutally that he admitted that at one point “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me.” But this was not to be permanent.

After a series of particularly brutal beatings, Douglass decided — to his own surprise — to fight back . . . come what may. During a two-hour tussle, Douglass “drew blood” and got, by far, the better of the encounter. Covey retreated. “The whole six months afterward, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger. This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave.” From then on, civility — or what passes for civility in a master-slave relationship — was the order of the day. Douglass performed his duties; Covey let him be.

Douglass’ analysis of the event demonstrates the intelligence and wisdom of this young man. Covey could only go so far. Slaves were extremely valuable property: to render one unfit for service was financial suicide — not to mention that Douglass wasn’t his slave (or that Douglass had seriously beaten Covey).

Mr. Covey enjoyed the most unbounded reputation for being a first rate . . . negro-breaker. It was of considerable importance to him. That reputation was at stake; and had he sent me — a boy about sixteen years old — to the public whipping post, his reputation would have been lost; so, to save his reputation, he suffered me to go unpunished . . . I was nothing before; I was a MAN NOW.

The incident was so pivotal to his life that Douglass filled 11 pages of his first book on it, and 32 in the subsequent autobiography. In contrast (and I digress here somewhat), David W. Blight in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, gives it only two pages and ignores Douglass’ analysis and insights.

Slaves were extremely valuable property: to render one unfit for service was financial suicide.

I suspect an ideological bias, such as surfaces in his introduction:

[Douglass was] a proponent of classic nineteenth-century political liberalism . . . he strongly believed in self-reliance . . . but fundamentally was not a self-made man.

Let’s take a closer look at these assertions. Inserting “nineteenth-century” between “classic” and “liberalism” implies, to these libertarian sensibilities, that classic liberalism was an outdated, even discarded philosophy. But nothing could be further from the truth. Classic liberalism is alive and thriving today. And to say that Frederick Douglass, the epitome of a self-made man, was not a self-made man is to contradict all the evidence contained in Blight’s flawed tome. In at least a dozen instances in the book — instances of Douglass solving problems, escaping bondage, rising to the occasion, creating opportunities, helping others — Blight is unambiguously forced to aver that Douglass was in fact a “self-made man,” using those exact same words (p. xv).

Inserting “nineteenth-century” between “classic” and “liberalism” implies that classic liberalism was an outdated, even discarded philosophy. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Douglass’ examination of Mr. Covey’s behavior is a classic liberal analysis of conduct based on economic self-interest, a perspective that Blight either refuses to acknowledge or completely ignores. It does not fit his worldview, and he refuses to give it air time — in spite of the fact that Douglass’ analysis of the event was a formative experience in his life.

Blight reveals his biases more artlessly whenever he mentions Republicans — never mind that, for abolitionists, Republicans were the only game in town. About the 2013 unveiling of a statue of Douglass in Washington DC, Blight’s introduction condescendingly observes:

Congressional Republicans walked around proudly sporting large buttons that read FREDERICK DOUGLASS WAS A REPUBLICAN. Douglass descendants present, as well as some of us scholars with, shall we say, different training and research, smiled and endured.

Yes . . . that was in 2013. But Blight can’t help projecting modern biases into the past, through subtle wording and innuendo throughout the book, especially when Douglass becomes active in Republican Party politics. This is but one reason why the book was a chore to get through. Blight is no Ron Chernow or Robert Caro.

* * *

But back to Cudjo Kossola Lewis. The Africans were unaware of the start of the Civil War, but when the Union blockade and the surrounding fighting made food scarce, “Cap’n Jim Meaher send word he doan want us to starve, you unnerstand me, so he tell us to kill hogs. He say de hogs dey his and we his, and he doan wantee no dead folks.”

On April 12, 1865, only three days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, but five or six (some sources say four) years of Cudjo’s life as a slave in America, Union soldiers told him he was free. The Africans celebrated by making drums and beating them “lak in de Affica soil.” Their first inclination was to return to Africa: “dey [the Meahers and Foster] ought take us back home.”

When they discovered the cost of such an improbable venture, they nonetheless worked hard and saved their money. But finally deciding that going back to Africa was unrealistic, they deputized Cudjo to approach the Meahers for land to settle on. Tim, the meaner of the Meahers, jumped to his feet and responded, “Fool, do you think I goin’ give you property on top of property? I tookee good keer my slaves in slavery and derefo’ I doan owe dem nothing? You doan belong to me now, why must I give you my lan’?

Union soldiers told him he was free. Cudjo and the other Africans celebrated by making drums and beating them “lak in de Affica soil.”

Notwithstanding Tim’s rebuff, James, the kinder and gentler Meaher, might have helped finalize the deal. The Africans bought Meaher land three miles north of Mobile at Magazine Point, establishing a settlement they called Africatown — but now known as Plateau — in 1866 (the date Hurston provides, but according to Sylviane A. Diuf, in the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Cudjo bought two acres on September 30, 1872 for $100 — or about $2,000 today).

Cudjo became a naturalized American citizen, married, had six children, and became sexton of his church. In 1902, while driving his buggy over train tracks, he was hit by a train and injured. A sympathetic white lady who saw the accident ensured he was well taken care of and told him he had a case against the railroad. Cudjo knew nothing about American law. The lady hooked him up with a lawyer who took on contingency his case against the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. Cudjo won and was awarded $650.

But he never collected. Cudjo reported that after the verdict, a yellow fever epidemic hit Mobile. The lawyer and his family headed north to safety, but on the way the lawyer died. Yet another source (Encyclopedia of Alabama) says that the verdict was overturned on appeal.

Cudjo Kossola Lewis died on July 17, 1935.

* * *

In these times of “fake news,” the publication of Barracoon — finally — should be a breath of fresh air. I say this notwithstanding the fact that while writing this review I discovered so many discrepancies in the account that I’m left wondering how to account for them: a year’s difference in the arrival of the Clotilda in Mobile; the number of years Cudjo spent in bondage; the resolution of Cudjo’s lawsuit; Hurston’s purported plagiarism from earlier sources; and other, more minor controversies. They seem to be endemic to the genre.

Whatever the causes of the discrepancies in Kossola’s story, at least they don’t seem to be rooted in ideological manipulation — a shortcoming that has bedeviled American slave narratives since at least the times of William Lloyd Garrison. Antebellum abolitionists resorted to widespread hyperbole concerning the horrors of slavery in order to convince an ill-informed and often indifferent public.

While writing this review I discovered so many discrepancies in the account that I’m left wondering how to account for them.

Yes, I know, you’re thinking, How can one overstate the evils of slavery? It’s like exaggerating the fires of hell. I don’t know about you, but accuracy works best to convince me about anything. When people resort to lies, or just don’t check their facts well enough, I lose trust, no matter how well-intentioned the narrative may be.

The altering of facts continues to this day. The movie 12 Years a Slave, based on the book by the same title (and reviewed in these pages by Jo Ann Skousen, “A Slave Narrative, and More,” November 10, 2013), contains at least four falsifications, all of which are ideologically based. As Jo Ann points one out:

Some of the vignettes simply don’t ring true, as when the lecherous and sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) whips Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) almost to death because she has spoken back to him. Patsey is his most productive slave. She picks twice as much cotton every day as any of the men do. She is a valuable, unblemished piece of property, even if he doesn’t acknowledge her humanity. It does not make sense that he would destroy such a valuable capital good in a fit of pique.

The movie depicts William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), the slave owner, in quite another light than Northup, the slave (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), described him in his book: “There never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford.”

Only the well-off could afford to own slaves before the war, and they weren’t likely to burn $23,000 for fun.

Falsifications like the one Skousen points out are particularly egregious. Not only do they go against basic economic theory but they paint human nature in the worst light possible.

This out of The Atlantic:

In the film version, shortly after Northup is kidnapped, he is on a ship bound south. A sailor enters the hold and is about to rape one of the slave women when a male slave intervenes. The sailor unhesitatingly stabs and kills him. This seems unlikely on its face — slaves are valuable, and the sailor is not the owner. And, sure enough, the scene is not in the book. A slave did die on the trip south, but from smallpox, rather than from stabbing.

But the worst one, which I haven’t seen referenced, was a passage in the book where Northup is sent on an errand that requires crossing a gator-infested bayou. Along the way, he encounters an alligator, and sweats bullets. In the movie the scene is changed. Instead of an alligator, he encounters two rednecks whooping it up hanging a black.

Please!

The heydays of lynching blacks were after the Civil War, not the 1840s, when slaves were worth about $23,000, average, in today’s money. And though crackers were the foot soldiers of the Ku Klux Klan during and after Reconstruction, only the well-off could afford to own slaves before the war, and they weren’t likely to burn $23,000 for fun.

Barracoon discloses some inconvenient truths, and in doing so, to my mind, enhances the credibility of the horrors of slavery by revealing not just its inhumanity but the glimpses of humanity that at times appeared. Caricatures and satire only succeed with the ignorant and the convinced.

In the movie the scene is changed. Instead of an alligator, he encounters two rednecks whooping it up hanging a black.

And instances of behavior that tempers the conventional narrative of slave societies run through many slave biographies. Besides Douglass’ and Northup’s (dictated, despite Northup’s literacy, to David Wilson), check out The Life of Olaudah Equiano, Prince Among Slaves; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; The History of Mary Prince; and The Barber of Natchez (a free black in 1830s Mississippi).

Perhaps it’s our knowledge of the Holocaust that makes some of us project its atrocities back onto our slavery era. I don’t know. But for now, let’s keep the two separate and not make too many generalizations about universal human behavior. Truth is the best antidote to propaganda, however well-intentioned.


Editor's Note: Review of “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’” by Zora Neale Hurston. Amistad, 2018, 171 pages.



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Ominous Parallels?

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A congressman wrote to a friend about an argument on the floor of the House of Representatives:

I never said a word to anybody, but quietly cocked my revolver in my pocket and took my position in the midst of the mob, and as coolly as I write it to you now, I had made up my mind to sell out my blood at the highest possible price.

An historian described the atmosphere in the Capitol in this way:

Recurrently, speakers lashed out in passages that threatened to precipitate a general affray. . . . Practically all members were now armed with deadly weapons. In both chambers, Senator Hammond said, “the only persons who do not have a revolver and a knife are those who have two revolvers.” For a time a New England Representative, a former clergyman, came unarmed, but finally he too bought a pistol. A Louisiana Congressman threatened to fetch his double-barrelled shotgun into the House. Supporters of both parties in the galleries also bore lethal weapons, and were ready to use them.

I quote from Allan Nevins’ The Emergence of Lincoln (New York, 1950; 2.121, 124), the best study I know of American politics in the late 1850s. The passages I cite refer to events of early 1860. In the middle of 1861, such events and the emotions that accompanied them produced their final effect — civil war.

What produced this expansion of political and military force, much of it permanent, though unimaginable in earlier American history?

Daniel Webster (and many others) had warned that factional disputes, intensified without limit, could result only in catastrophe:

Sir, he who sees these states, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see the heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without producing the crush of the universe. (Speech in the Senate, March 7, 1850)

The warnings were heard and understood; yet, as Lincoln was to say in his second inaugural address, “the war came.”

What produced this awful effect, this war in which a million people perished, and more were dreadfully wounded? What produced this war of limbs hacked off without anesthetic, of towns put to the torch, of economic and psychological devastation on an enormous scale? What produced this expansion of political and military force, much of it permanent, though unimaginable in earlier American history? And what produced the peace that followed the war, a peace in which black people, the objects of the victors’ alleged solicitude, languished in poverty and systematic humiliation, generation after generation? And this sorry peace was inseparable from the war itself.

In the second inaugural Lincoln identified what he considered the causes of the conflict:

Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.

Lincoln’s words impute to the major actors more conscious choice and final purpose than most of them felt. Jostling one another in the pursuit of immediate ends, leaders on both sides employed political methods that were not intended to produce a war, yet turned out to be the best means of doing so.

Let me put it in this way. Suppose you want to effect a violent disruption of human life. Here are some things you can do.

1. Convince yourself that you and your friends are right, entirely, and no one else is right, at all, about anything, thereby creating as many political divisions as possible. Reject any speculation that other people, though wrong, may have serious reasons for being that way.

A flood of propaganda spread the idea that no one who disagreed with the latest version of partisan orthodoxy could possibly have any but immoral reasons for doing so.

2. Try to make sure that the political field is cleared of everyone but deadly enemies.

It is often said, and this is true, that before the 1830s Southerners were in general agreement that slavery was an evil, and many Southerners were more than amenable to limiting and eventually getting rid of it. There is also general agreement that the great majority of Northerners were happy enough to endorse ideas for the gradual abolition of slavery; indeed, every Northern state that started with slavery had successfully ended it. Even in the slave states, there were large numbers of free black people — by 1860, 250,000 of them.

Yet 30 years of being labeled enemies by both the partisans of slavery and the partisans of abolition progressively immobilized the ordinary, mildly well-intentioned middle range of public opinion. A flood of propaganda, emanating from each camp of zealots, spread the idea that no one who disagreed with the latest version of partisan orthodoxy could possibly have any but immoral reasons for doing so. Of the thousands of low points in this supposed dialogue, I will mention one — the political emasculation of Webster, formerly the North’s most admired public figure, at the hands of his fellow New England intellectuals, for the crime of supporting the Compromise of 1850. Thus Whittier, the supposedly gentle Quaker poet, depicting Webster as Satan in hell and Noah in his drunkenness:

Of all we loved and honored, naught
Save power remains;
A fallen angel’s pride of thought,
Still strong in chains.

From those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!

Then, pay the reverence of old days
To his dead fame;
Walk backward, with averted gaze,
And hide the shame! (Whittier, “Ichabod”)

Note the instructive tone, the ecclesiastical certainty (“the soul has fled”), the moralistic comments and commands. These methods, though repulsive to almost everyone, are necessary to your purpose. You cannot be too self-confident when affixing the mark of Cain. Guard yourself: you must never become conscious of the irony involved in damning people while pretending that they are only worth ignoring.

Leaders on both sides employed political methods that were not intended to produce a war, yet turned out to be the best means of doing so.

3. Once you’ve converted potential collaborators into scorned opponents, and multiplied those opponents, do your best either to silence or to enrage them. Southerners were better at this than Northerners. In the South, the mails were censored to prevent dissemination of anti-slavery opinion, and mobs were formed to rid communities of people who gave signs of being anti-slavery; in ten Southern states, the Republican Party wasn’t even on the ballot. But in the North as well, jurists, writers, and teachers were targets of political correctness. Mobs were raised against “agents of the South,” non-abolitionists were purged from Protestant clergies, and politically active people were hounded into choosing between an official Democratic Party, directed by an incompetent president, which insisted that the Kansas-Nebraska Act be renounced and reviled, and a rising Republican Party, which insisted, for opposite reasons, that the Kansas-Nebraska Act be renounced and reviled.

4. Turn marginal positions into moral and political tests. The great issue of the 1850s was the question of whether slavery should be permitted in the Western territories, where no one but wild fanatics had ever believed that slavery could subsist. The North nonetheless demanded that it be banned by act of Congress, and the South nonetheless demanded that it be promoted by act of Congress. Sectional moralists indignantly rejected the Kansas-Nebraska idea, once favored by the South, that the question be left up to the people of the territories. Here was an issue of no practical importance, but it became the test of political viability. Emphasizing politically marginal questions makes it certain that marginal politicians will rise to the top; and if trouble is what you want, these people will give it to you.

5. Try to win, not by debate, but by definition; this is what “principled” people do. To the South and its friends, Republicans were always Black Republicans; that’s what they were. To radical Northerners, all proposals from south of the Mason-Dixon line were by definition products of the Slave Power, which was attempting to spread chattel slavery throughout the North, and ultimately to rule the Western hemisphere. It followed that useful proposals, such as gradual emancipation, which had attracted great sympathy on both sides of the Ohio, were by definition entering wedges of the opposition’s Satanic schemes, to be rejected out of hand.

Emphasizing politically marginal questions makes it certain that marginal politicians will rise to the top; and if trouble is what you want, these people will give it to you.

6. Do your best to promote identity politics — the quest for power considered as a right derived from group membership. Southern partisans applauded the Supreme Court’s bizarre decision in the Dred Scott case, asserting that the Constitution governed everyone but protected only persons of non-African descent, while the cultural leaders of the North assumed that the Constitution was of no effect whenever it contradicted the will of God, which was effectively the will of Northern clergymen.

7. Render yourself blind to your own hypocrisy. The goal of hardcore abolitionists was (hold on to your hat) the secession of the North from the South, an act that would relieve the North of any possible association with slavery. To say that this idea expressed maximal concern for the tender consciences of abolitionists and minimal concern for the welfare of the slaves would be a pathetic understatement. As documented by such historians as Edward Renehan (The Secret Six, 1997), few abolitionists (John Brown was an exception) had any respect for actual, living African-Americans. Distinguished leaders of the abolition movement spoke of them in terms I do not wish to quote. Most hardcore abolitionists were also pacifists, advocates of “non-resistance.” Yet when secession happened, they became fervent advocates of violence as a means of crushing the other section’s suddenly illegal and immoral rupture of the union. Southern publicists cultivated a similarly gross hypocrisy — a growing emphasis on the Christianizing and civilizing effects of slavery, amid increasing attempts to criminalize the education of black people and curtail their practice of religion.

8. The fact that you can’t perceive your hypocrisy doesn’t mean that other people can’t; to prevent its public disclosure, you must therefore remove from positions of influence everyone who sees you as you are. Any pretext will do. You can follow the example of the religious proponents of slavery who removed honest preachers from the pulpit, as punishment for being divisive. Or you can take your cue from the religious opponents of slavery, who attacked all who differed with them as foes of Christian love.

Few abolitionists had any respect for actual, living African-Americans. Distinguished leaders of the abolition movement spoke of them in terms I do not wish to quote.

9. Flirt with, encourage, and finally idealize violence. In 1856, Charles Sumner, Republican of Massachusetts, delivered a speech in the Senate that was so insulting to a Southern senator, a person who had aided and befriended him, that Stephen Douglas, listening, muttered to himself, “That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool.” The candidate for other damned fool was Congressman Preston Brooks, Democrat of South Carolina. He didn’t try to kill Sumner, only to humiliate him, but he went to the Senate chamber and assaulted him with a cane. Once he had started, he became more enthusiastic and wounded him so badly that he might have died. The response of Southern partisans was to celebrate Brooks’ achievement, often with souvenirs of model canes, as if caning your political foes were an act of Arthurian virtue. In 1859, John Brown’s attempt to abolish slavery by inciting a servile insurrection — a campaign in which the first enemy slain was Heyward Shepherd, a free black man — sent Emerson, Thoreau, and other Best People of the North into paroxysms of idolatry. Their celebrations of Brown were immediately followed by a wave of Southern lynchings of people erroneously suspected of being in league with him. The participants seem never to have regretted their mistakes; it was all in a good cause.

When things have gone that far, what’s left but war? It’s true, few people, North or South, black or white, wanted a civil war; comparatively few people in the South actually wanted secession, and none of them would have wanted it if they’d had enough sense to visualize its consequences. But when zealots who hold political power cannot stand to be in the same room with one another, except when they are armed — physically or rhetorically — with weapons of destruction, the only choice remaining is the choice between peaceful dissolution and civil war. And few people of that kind will settle for peaceful dissolution.

Once Brooks had started, he became more enthusiastic and wounded Sumner so badly that he might have died.

So much for the events and feelings of the mid-19th century. Do they have anything to say to us, about our own time?

You can answer that question as well as I can. The idea of “ominous parallels” is basically a joke — nothing is really parallel in history, and the most ominous thing about purported parallels is probably the strength of people’s belief in them. But alleged parallels can suggest real similarities, however distant — and important dissimilarities, too.

When I compare 1860–61 with 2018–19, one dissimilarity seems especially important: the difference in intellectual culture, historical knowledge, and capacity for complex political thought between the leaders of then and the leaders of now. Seward, Lincoln, Crittenden, Davis, Benjamin, Douglas, Stephens, Houston, and immediately before them, Webster, Benton, Clay . . . We can discuss their delusions, their false perspectives, their sacrifices of long-term to short-term benefits, their strange errors of judgment. But please show me a list of equally intelligent, capable, knowledgeable, or even personally interesting political leaders in America today.

You can’t? That’s what I call ominous.




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The Bears and the Bugs

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James Bowman is a good writer, and he wrote a very good article about the recent British elections for the June issue of The New Criterion, which is a good magazine. In that article there are a number of memorable observations, such as the idea that politics is usually and traditionally a matter of “the orderly management of the hatred between social factions.” I’m not sure that’s strictly true, but it’s certainly relevant to the current state of American political affairs. It’s also well phrased. I like reading Bowman’s stuff.

So it’s a sad indication of the state of our language that even such a good writer as James Bowman should refer, in the same article, to “the problem that eventually sunk the [British] Labour campaign.” Sunk? The past tense of “sink” is “sank.” “Sunk” is the past participle. Bowman doesn’t know that?

But oh, what a small thing! Why pick on that?

I’ll tell you why. Look at it this way. You go to a picnic, and just when everyone is having fun, a troop of bears comes out of the woods and eats ten of the children. It may be the first time it ever happened, but it shows that you have a bear problem. Neglecting all caution, you turn up at the next picnic, and there are no bears. But the mosquitoes drive everybody crazy. That shows you have a mosquito problem. It’s not as bad as a bear problem, but it’s bad nonetheless.

If you have kids, ask them whether they’ve ever learned the verb forms in school. You’ll find that they haven’t — and neither have the professional writers.

This column is usually occupied with bear problems. This time, let’s think for a moment about mosquito problems, such as the difficulty that many professional writers of English have in getting nouns to agree with verbs. It generally doesn’t keep you from understanding what they mean, but it’s . . . annoying. And unnecessary. Thus, on August 19, CNN finally raised its eyebrows about Mrs. Clinton and reported, “There have been a constant stream of stories about Clinton's emails for the better part of five months.” I’m glad CNN isn’t ignoring those stories (provided by other news organizations), but can’t it make its subjects and verbs agree? “There have been a stream”? There have also been blunders.

Another mosquito problem is the one I started out with — the inability of English speakers to remember what strong verbs are like. A strong verb is any that does not create its past and perfect forms with an -ed ending. Originally, Indo-European verbs were strong. Then the –ed form became influential (“productive,” as the linguists say), partly to assimilate borrowings of verbs from foreign languages. It was easier to use, so it spread to other verbs. But strong verbs still sound, well, stronger, and they are very useful in poetic and generally emotive language. It sounds better to say, “She strove to succeed” than “She strived to succeed.” It would have sounded still better if Tammy Bruce, one of America’s most cogent spokesmen for liberty, hadn’t told Fox News (August 15), “Carly Fiorina has weaved that fact into her presentations . . .” Tammy! I love you! But haven’t you heard of that word woven?

The hitch is, you have to know what you’re doing. Imagine that! You actually have to know that a person not only strove to succeed, but having striven, he sang his heart out. These days, however, he will have strived, and it’s an even chance that he sung his heart out, while the hearts of his enemies sunk. It’s more than an even chance that he had fit himself for his role. Here is an opposite, though not an insuperable, problem. Fit is a normal weak verb; it’s fit-fitted-fitted. Strange but true. This doesn’t mean that last week somebody (in San Francisco, it would be hundreds of people) shit on the doorstep. Shit is still a strong verb; somebody shat on the doorstep last week — and isn’t that a more forceful way of describing it? People spat in the subway, too.

Experience has convinced me that at least seven of the Muses have left the university, and the other two have been beaten into nescience.

Why can’t people keep this in mind? Why can’t professional writers (distinguishing them, for the moment, from actual people) figure it out? Well, if you have kids, ask them whether they’ve ever learned the verb forms in school. You’ll find that they haven’t — and neither have the professional writers. If your kids are troublemakers, get them to ask the English teacher what the past tense of fit may be. Or shit. Then they can ask the teacher whether he has ever read the King James Bible. And if he hasn’t, they can ask him how he ever got to be an English teacher. Should be interesting.

Moving on from the inevitable after-school detention, oft visited on the overly articulate . . . You can tell that people aren’t reading anything, let alone the King James Bible, when their spelling reproduces what they hear, or think they hear, not what they’ve read. Witness the non-word alright. This has been with us for quite a while (which doesn’t make it good — remember the Dutch Elm Disease). It’s the product of people who have never seen all right in print, or if they have seen it, have never wondered whether those two mysterious words could possibly have the same meaning as the things you see on post-it notes: “Henderson party: parking in Alley alright tonite.” In this never-saw-that, never-noticed-that category you can also file all those people who write things like, “Invitees can signin for the conference now” and “To hookup/test software, turnoff browsers, then turnon.” I’m quoting the kind of communications I get in my academic email. Experience has convinced me that at least seven of the Muses have left the university, and the other two have been beaten into nescience.

Of course, reading is no longer a prerequisite for writing of any kind, even professional writing about professional writing. Consider an article in The Wrap (April 6) about the aftermath of (or “fallout” over) Rolling Stone’s smear story on a University of Virginia fraternity. The article cited an observation by Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren (whose own English is pretty good):

The Fox anchor invoked a former president’s infamous phrase to tie a bow on Rolling Stone’s missteps: “As Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust but verify,’” she told TheWrap.

If you read books, and you notice what you read, you know that infamous does not mean famous — no, not at all. And if you enjoy reading books, you usually have some interest in noticing how authors get their effects. A person rattling along in conversation may say, “Our first idea went flat, but that’s all water over the dam,” and this may have some effect. But it won’t work in print, because people who read actually have to take a moment to look at what they’re reading. If they’re conscious (which admittedly, many “readers” are not), and they see the word missteps, they probably picture steps, going the wrong way. They won’t worry about the picture of a magazine making missteps; they’ll accept that as a little imagistic oomph. But when you ask them to picture somebody tying a bow on missteps, they won’t do it, because they can’t do it. It isn’t colorful; it’s stupid. The best audience, the audience most likely to appreciate an effective use of language, will move on from trying to picture the bow to the easier task of picturing the author, smiling with self-satisfaction after having, shall we say, tied that metaphoricbow on his misstep.

Anyone familiar with letters written by average Americans a hundred and fifty years ago knows that they tied a lot of those bows. They also wrote alright, very frequently, and worse things, much worse things, all the time. And anyone who has read a typical sermon or political address from the same period can see how many lofty phrases could be expended on practically nothing. The difference between that period and ours is that back then, nobody mistook average, unmeditated English for anything you’d want to use when you really got serious. People expected serious writing to be literate. Literacy was something they not only appreciated but enjoyed. Perhaps they even overenjoyed it.

In 1850, President Zachary Taylor was held in contempt by other politicians for his lapses from standard grammar. Compare President Obama, who is lauded by the political class as a great public speaker, despite his refusal to master the like-as distinction, his success at filling sentences with uhs and ums (sometimes 30 to the minute), and his constant attempt to reach the sublime by talking about folks and dropping his final g’s.

It’s hard to say whether this year’s presidential candidates are better or worse with language than he is: are rotten apples worse than rotten oranges? Some are more literate, but is there one of them, any one of them, whose speeches you want to hear, as opposed to reading the one- or two-sentence news summary? Trump, I suppose — but that’s because it’s fun to hear him abusing the other candidates. The format of his speeches, if you want to call it that, is exactly the same as the others’: he makes a series of 50-word declarations, apparently unconnected with one another, “highlighting” the positions — or, more accurately, the slogans — he wants you to remember. In this sense, there’s not much difference between Trump and those two yammering old coots, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (who are just as abusive, but stupefyingly dull at it).

Compare President Obama, who is lauded by the political class as a great public speaker, despite his constant attempt to reach the sublime by talking about "folks" and dropping his final g’s.

Nor is this merely a problem of politics. When Clinton and her surrogates claim that Republicans are trying to block healthcare and are waging war on women’s health, when Sanders and his gang of Post Office retirees announce that, because the government takes no action, women are paid only 78% of what men are paid, there’s also a problem of language. If you saw that in a book, you’d be shouting at the page: “What do these words mean? Are Republican mobs blockading hospitals? Are all the statisticians lying? Are women paid $78,000 for the same jobs for which men are paid $100,000?” If the author didn’t explain his statements, you would dismiss the book as incomprehensible. You wouldn’t think, “Ah, that’s interesting — here’s the slogan these people are pushing today. Must be because of that poll about women going Republican.” You wouldn’t think, “Good move! Sanders is playing to the welfare crowd. He’s prying them away from Hillary.” You’d think, “This is a bad book,” and that would be the end of it.

This defines the difference between normal readers and members of the political class. One group is jealous of its intellectual health and safety; the other doesn’t mind going to a picnic and being bitten by mosquitoes or gnawed by bears. In fact, it prefers that kind of picnic.

On March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster gave a speech in the United States Senate. It was about an issue of great importance: the attempt to reach a compromise between Northern and Southern claims to power. But although people could have read a summary in the paper next day, and it was at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the Senate chamber, the place was packed. Ladies stood for three hours to hear Webster’s remarks — because that was the length of his speech: three hours and 11 minutes. Webster closely reviewed the long history of legal provisions and political negotiations regarding the status of slavery. He analyzed the geography of the western United States, assessing the possibility that slavery might become a paying proposition there. He reviewed his own history of opposition to slavery. He then considered what would happen — indeed, what did happen — in the event of a Southern secession.

Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffing the surface! Who is so foolish, I beg every body's pardon, as to expect to see any such thing? Sir, he who sees these States, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without causing the wreck of the universe. There can be no such thing as peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility. Is the great Constitution under which we live, covering this whole country, is it to be thawed and melted away by secession, as the snows on the mountain melt under the influence of a vernal sun, disappear almost unobserved, and run off? No, Sir! No, Sir! I will not state what might produce the disruption of the Union; but, Sir, I see as plainly as I see the sun in heaven what that disruption itself must produce; I see that it must produce war, and such a war as I will not describe . . .

Many people hated Webster’s speech. It earned him the scorn of powerful voters in his own state, agitators against compromise. Yet its words were continuously informative. They were continuously interesting. They were continuously entertaining. They were, by the end, exciting. They weren’t talking points. They weren’t spin. And they weren’t three hours and 11 minutes of subliterary, unorganized sounds.

The ability to give literary interest to political words wasn’t confined to the greatest orators. Even Warren Harding, who is, perhaps unfairly, regarded as a mere politician, a nothing among statesmen, had that ability. On May 14, 1920, Harding outlined his political program:

America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality. . . .

Out of the supreme tragedy [of the Great War] must come a new order and a higher order, and I gladly acclaim it. But war has not abolished work, has not established the processes of seizure or the rule of physical might. Nor has it provided a governmental panacea for human ills, or the magic touch that makes failure a success. Indeed, it has revealed no new reward for idleness, no substitute for the sweat of a man’s face in the contest for subsistence and acquirement.

For the past 95 years, Harding’s reference to “normalcy” has been panned by the intellectuals. A few dispute his use of that word instead of the normal “normality.” More, alas, sneer at his idea that war, revolution, and the ambitions of the progressive state should not be regarded as normal parts of the American condition. You can judge between Harding and his foes. My point is that Harding, known as one of the weakest of presidents, could deliver a speech that has approximately 100,000 times the word power of any contemporary political communication. He knew that big things come of small — that “dispassionate” is a valuable word, although you see it only in serious books, and that it presents an interesting contrast to “dramatic”; he knew that a sentence containing not one but eight sharp but serious conceptual distinctions can be a contribution to thought and argument, and certainly to literary interest.

You want a good meal? Here it is. Bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado. Ketchup and mustard on the side. Fries, fruit, cottage cheese . . . right there at the end of the table. Rather have the roast beef? We’ve brought that too. This is survival food. No bugs, no bears.

So, how do I get to that picnic? Easy — all you have to do is read.




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Not Our Fight

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Excuse me if I sound insensitive, but the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane by Russian separatists in Ukraine is none of our business. It wasn’t our plane, it wasn’t our country, and it isn’t our fight. Moreover, only one passenger was remotely American (I say “remotely” because he held dual citizenship and had lived in the Netherlands since he was five). So we should just keep our noses out of this one. We don’t need to impose sanctions, beef up our military presence, or drive the price of oil down in order to destroy the Russian economy, as some have suggested.

While it is a terrible shame that anyone should be killed in an accident, that’s all this really was: an accident. What seemed to be a Ukranian military jet turned out to be a passenger plane, and the shooter pulled the trigger before making certain of the target. When our troops make that kind of mistake, we call it “friendly fire,” and because it isn’t an intentional act, we hand out some medals to the victims and let the shooter slide.

Am I the first to ask the unspoken but obvious question: Didn’t they know they were flying over a war zone? Didn’t they know that Russian separatists had been shooting down Ukranian military jets for weeks? Hours after the accident, commercial airlines began diverting their flight plans around Ukraine; a map released today shows almost no planes above that country. Seems to me they should have made that adjustment as soon as the fighting broke out in Ukraine. I’m no fan of Putin, but if I were holding anyone responsible for this terrible accident, it would be the air traffic controllers and flight plan originators who allowed commercial jets to fly over a war zone.

Again, if my remarks seem insensitive, I apologize. Not one of the people on that plane deserved to die; the grief of their families is deep, and their deaths are unwarranted. But I would rather cry over 300 people killed in an accident than worry about thousands of additional soldiers sent to police the area. This one simply isn’t our fight.




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Lincoln: A President Lies, and People Cheer

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Abraham Lincoln is one of the most complex presidents in American history. For over a century he was revered as our most important president, after George Washington. Recently his star has been tarnished by questions about his motives and tactics. Most Americans are surprised to learn that Lincoln was a Republican, because Democrats today love to accuse Republicans of racism. Nevertheless, it was the Republicans in Congress who supported the 13th Amendment, enfranchised the slaves, and squelched states' rights, while Democrats remained firmly on the other side of the aisle. Was Lincoln a forward-thinking civil rights advocate who restored a nation to wholeness, or was he merely a politician playing the race card to win the war and create a whole new constituency of former slaves?

Steven Spielberg's ambitious Lincoln tries to answer some of these questions. It is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005), a book that focuses on Lincoln's conciliatory spirit and determination to work with cabinet members he selected from among those who had opposed him in the 1860 election. This forgiving nature is what I admire most about Lincoln. His beatific "When I make them my friends, am I not destroying my enemies?", said in response to those who wanted to continue punishing the South after the war had ended, is a quotation that guides my life.

Lincoln is so determined to see the 13th Amendment pass before the war ends that he resorts to corruption and deception.

The film, however, focuses less on conciliation than on politics as-would-become-usual. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) works relentlessly to shepherd (some would say "push") the 13th Amendment through Congress in the waning days of the Civil War. Support for the amendment, which would outlaw slavery, was divided along party lines; Republicans favored it, but did not have enough votes to pass it, and Democrats were against it.

Although many Americans were ready to end the buying and selling of slaves, few were ready for further developments that might proceed from abolition. "What would happen if four million colored men are granted the vote?" one cabinet member asks rhetorically. "What would be next? Votes for women?" But Lincoln knew that his war-weary citizenry would do anything for a truce, even grant equal rights to former slaves, so he convinces them that ratifying the amendment would force the South into surrendering.

Lincoln makes a compelling argument for why the Emancipation Proclamation was only a stopgap wartime measure. Ironically, slaves were freed under a law identifying them as "property seized during war." The Emancipation Proclamation did not actually end slavery; in fact, it had to acknowledge the property status of slaves. Since rebels residing inside the southern states were at war, not the states themselves, after the war ended state laws would still be in force, including laws permitting slavery, or so he complains. A constitutional amendment would be necessary to end slavery for good. Lincoln claims that southern voters would be unlikely to ratify such an amendment, passing it and ratifying it before the war ended was essential.

The movie’s position on this seems strange, given that, as losers in the war, all state officials under the Confederacy would be turned out of office, with no legislative authority. Once the South surrendered, the Union lost no time in selecting new officials who would make and enforce new laws. In fact, Lincoln’s program for reconstruction was to install governments in the Southern states that would ratify the amendment, and this policy was followed by President Johnson.

Nevertheless, Lincoln is so determined to see the amendment pass before the war ends that he resorts to corruption and deception. He enlists a group of unscrupulous patronage peddlers to promise political jobs and appointments to lame-duck Democrats if they will promise to vote for the amendment. They add piles of cash to sweeten the deals, and the votes start piling up too. The group is headed by a bilko artist with the unlikely name of "Bilbo" (James Spader). All of their scenes are accompanied by comical music to make us laugh at their outrageously funny and effective techniques. Aren't they clever as they connive to buy votes?

In addition to buying votes for his amendment, Lincoln also resorts to outright lying. When Jefferson Davis sends emissaries to discuss a negotiated peace while the amendment is coming to a vote, Lincoln knows that some of his "negotiated support" is likely to change, and the amendment is likely to fail. Consequently, he sends a letter denying any knowledge of the peace delegation from Richmond, even though this is clearly a lie. He sends this note with a flourish and a chuckle — and the audience in my theater cheered. I was disheartened that they didn't feel the same shame I felt when I saw a president of the United States deliberately lie to get his way. But I wasn't surprised. It's what we expect today.

In case you haven't noticed this yourself, I will spell it out: the tactics for pushing the 13th Amendment as shown in Spielberg's Lincoln are almost identical to the tactics used by Obama to pass his healthcare bill. Each was sponsoring a highly controversial bill with far-reaching consequences; each had a Congress divided along party lines; each used high pressure arm-twisting, political patronage, and outright lies to accomplish his goals; and each met vociferous opposition after the bill was passed. Why? Because they both chose expediency over integrity. Persuasion and education were needed, not force and deception. When expediency rules, tyranny reigns.

What I have written here makes the film seem much more interesting than it actually is. My thoughts about writing this review kept me engaged; you probably won't have that advantage. Daniel Day-Lewis creates a masterfully crafted Lincoln and deserves all the accolades he is gathering for the title role. But it is not a very engaging movie. Playwright Tony Kushner, who wrote the script, is more comfortable writing for the stage, and it shows. The pacing is ponderously slow, and the script, though elegant, is dialogue-heavy. In short, the film is all talk and no action. That's OK for a 90-minute stage play, but not for a three-hour film on a gigantic screen. I'm also skeptical about his accuracy, based on the biases that appear in other works.

When expediency rules, tyranny reigns.

There is also surprisingly little dramatic conflict for a film that takes place during the height of the costliest war in our history. We see the effects of war in the form of dead and mutilated soldiers, but we never see examples or effects of slavery; in fact, all the black characters in this film are well-dressed and well-spoken, and except for the soldiers, they sit and socialize with the whites. If a viewer didn't already know the history of slavery in America, he would have to wonder, what's the complaint? On either side? Moreover, the "bad guys" are being invaded by a superpower, while the "good guys" are lying and buying votes. So how does that fit our usual expectation of heroes and villains?

I'm also offended by the deliberate racebaiting in this film, and indeed in several films and Broadway shows I have seen in the past couple of years. Why is it OK to add "for a white person" (followed by self-deprecating chuckles and head-nodding from the audience) when describing someone's physical appearance or personal attributes? I thought we gave up saying "for a [colored] person" long ago. Haven't we finally come to a place where we can just stop noticing race and gender? Why do pollsters and educators continue to divide people by ethnicity? It's time to just burn that race card and bury it. Economics and education are at the root of inequity today, not race.

Lincoln tries to be an important film, and in one respect it is — as a cautionary tale for today. But it falls short — even though it's way too long.


Editor's Note: Review of "Lincoln," directed by Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks Pictures, 2012, 149 minutes.



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Hell No, I Won't Go to Libya

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I've declared myself officially neutral in the Libyan civil war.

"Yeah? Well, who asked you, anyway?"

But that's my point. I believe that someone in America should admit his ignorance about which side of the Libyan conflict is good for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. My guess is: neither. It also makes me feel a little strange, just listening to phrases like "a U.S.-provided no-fly zone in Libya." I can't help thinking that there must be a reductio ad absurdum in there someplace.

And speaking of reductios: have you noticed the peculiar behavior of Western correspondents who actually get anywhere near a battlefield in Libya? Every one of them is a huge propagandist for Qaddafi's foes — as, of course, they have a perfect right to be — yet many of their reports from the front sound like this: "Rebel forces are right ahead, hidden behind the ruins of that sentry post, hoping that Qaddafi's air force won't find them there." "Rebel leaders are marshalling their forces ten miles down the road, hoping to hold the city, but without much ability to do so, since they have only two tanks at their disposal." "The latest air strike came 500 feet from the rebel fortification, over on the left, about 50 feet behind that hill. Another strike would wipe them out, if the planes took better aim."

If these are the rebels' friends, I wouldn't want to be the rebels.




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