Going Vexed to the Sea

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One of this column’s persistent themes is President Obama’s unwillingness to read a book. If he read any books, he would mention them, but he almost never does. When he tries, he gets the citations wrong.

He did it again, on April 11, when he invoked Ralph Waldo Emerson during some self-defensive chatter about Iran. “Consistency,” he said, “is the hobgoblin of narrow minds.” What Emerson actually wrote was, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Well, who cares? At least the president quoted Emerson. Right — though he quoted without attribution, presumably because the staff kid who gave him the words didn’t know where they came from, either. Otherwise, vain spirit that Obama is, he would have displayed his professorial erudition by saying something like, “As the late Ralph Waldo Emerson so wisely advised us all . . .” But whether he knew the source or not, there’s a big difference between “consistency” and “a foolish consistency.” Reproving the latter makes sense; reproving the former does not.

More revealing, I think, although I cannot prove it, is the change from “little” — as in crass, unspiritual, incurious, imperceptive, conceptually limited — to “narrow.” Obama has spent his whole career battling “bigotry”: narrow-mindedness about race, particularly. He appears to think that everyone who criticizes him manifests this vice. But of the distinction between little minds and great ones, he has no awareness. No little-minded person does. And that’s exactly what he is: crass, unspiritual, incurious, imperceptive, just plain little.

Littleness itself can be neither limited nor confined. It is everywhere around us, even in the regions adjacent to Deep Creek Hot Springs, California. On April 9, in that locale, a mob of cops arrested a man who had stolen a horse. The man had been thrown from the horse and had cast himself on the ground in surrender, but the cops beat and kicked him. For a long time. Some cops who weren’t in the original group of beaters came over and joined the fun. Members of the law-enforcement mob have now been suspended from their jobs, pending an investigation. San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon commented on the posse’s use of force by saying, “It does not appear to be in line with our policies and procedures, at least a portion of it. . . .At the end of the day, it appears to be excessive.”

Of the distinction between little minds and great ones, he has no awareness. No little-minded person does.

Yes, it does. And from an aesthetic point of view, at the end of the day seems almost as bad. The prevalence of that pompous phrase is the measure of how greatly little minds prevail with us. At the end of the day is a small-minded attempt to seem large-minded, above the fray, calm and distanced in perspective, up in the midnight sky. . . . The phrase constantly appears in the pettiest acts of press agentry.

Small minds are, by definition, incapable of understanding how their words affect their listeners. They are also incapable of understanding that the issues of the day haven’t ended simply because they themselves have enunciated a pompous clich√©. Obama, with his prattle of “hope and change,” has yet to see that the slogan was not, in itself, constitutive of hope and change.

Small minds typically try to make the surrounding world seem smaller; they fit better that way. One of their methods is the deployment of a severely limited stock of words to cover widely divergent situations. They assume that if their words don’t vary, the situations won’t either, and they will therefore be on top of them. Thus, segregation can be used to refer both to the legalized racism of the former South and to any population pattern in which one ethnic group happens to predominate. The same moral outrage can then be expressed toward both. A similar trick can be seen withincome disparity — a term that, unlike segregation, had no moral meaning to begin with. No moral lesson can be deduced merely from the fact that some people make more money than others.Yet the notion of an income gap has been used — first by outright demagogues, then by small-minded and incurious folk — as if it were prima facie evidence of a shocking wrong. The result is a morally agreeable simplification of a world that is often difficult for primitive moralists to feel at home in. They are relieved of any need to consider the obvious truth that some people with large incomes got them by crony capitalism or plain crookedness but others achieved them by benefiting large numbers of willing customers. Climate change is an even clearer example of a slogan employed to deceive, yet it evokes genuine hysteria among people whose view of science is so limited as to accept such a term as meaningful.

The present period of our political history might be called the Age of Small Minds. Its character is established by the tendency of small minds to turn, not to the cultivation of their own gardens, but to the ruin of others’. A startling example of small-mindedness appeared in the “fraternity rape” scandal at the University of Virginia. The episode, as you recall, began with Rolling Stone’s ready acceptance of allegations made by a woman pseudonymously known as “Jackie.” The story was full of holes, holes that could easily be discovered by anyone who had any perspective on human experience; but many people publicly known as intellectuals welcomed it as proof that universities need to reassert their parental powers and exterminate all forms of social life repugnant to those who think about nothing but sex and gender. That, of course, is one of the most nauseating things about both fraternities and gender fanatics, but few people noticed the parallel.

Obama, with his prattle of “hope and change,” has yet to see that the slogan was not, in itself, constitutive of hope and change.

Jackie’s story, and Rolling Stone’s way of handling it, aroused so much controversy that the affair was investigated by a distinguished team of journalism teachers. Their conclusions about Rolling Stone and the credibility of Jackie’s story were headlined as scathing. They weren’t; the report was as mild as lambs. And at a press conference afterward, one of its authors refused — as did almost all media reporting on the case — to blame Jackie for anything that had happened. She remained the “victim.”

The facts suggested that the real victims were those who had accepted the Rolling Stone story. Well — to revise an old expression — you can’t cheat a large-minded man. But even after the nature of the story was fully exposed, only a few brave souls challenged the bizarrely unjustified extension of victim to anyone who claims, however, preposterously, to be a victim. To the small-minded, we are all victims — we, as opposed to they, the people we don’t like. Those people are the victimizers. So much for the complexity of this world.

The language of small minds is reductive. It is also inflationary. That isn’t a paradox. If you have nothing much to say, no clear conceptions to communicate, you can always make a big noise to cover the nothing in your mind. You can use big words, stilted words, official words. And official words (such as victim) multiply with the multiplication of official jobs, official “duties,” official powers. They grow with the growth of government and the pressure groups that use government as their weapon of choice. Indeed, they precede it. Before any expansion of the nanny state, empty phrases (sustainability, an epidemic of rape on college campuses, the obesity crisis) rain down to confuse the weak and paralyze the skeptical, while clouds of nerve-destroying gas (we are outraged!) are emitted to make a safe zone for the next enlargement of official jurisdiction. The argot of climate change, with its loud but simple-minded equation of change with evil, scientists with grant recipients, doubters with deniers, green with good, has proven especially effective as a weapon of war on independent thinking. Small minds can accommodate only a few big “ideas”; as soon as those are in place, no antagonistic notions can get in. Almost any kind of hooey will be accepted as settled science; any petty nonsense will become a moral compass.

An amusing example appears in an email created by Cylvia Hayes and recovered, with some difficulty, by a nosey newspaper. Who, you may ask, is Cylvia Hayes? You know the answer if you live in Oregon. Hayes is the romantic partner of (former) Gov. John Kitzhaber, who was forced to resign his office because of scandals attendant on their relationship. Not sexual scandals — nobody, emphatically including me, appears to care who is in bed with either of them — but scandals about the influence on state government of an un-official of the state (Cylvia Hayes). This is no place to give details about the collusion of tiny minds that enabled Hayes, a promoter of Green causes, to dominate the politics of Oregon; you can enjoy the story elsewhere. It’s enough to mention that “Kitz” pompously decreed that his girlfriend was the “First Lady” of Oregon, with the unstated but fully intended corollary that she was entitled to be obeyed in all matters, foreign and domestic. A similar pomposity emerged in my town, San Diego, when our now deposed mayor, Robert (“Bob”) Filner, decided that his girlfriend was a “First Lady,” thus adapting to new and very local uses an old piece of silly presidential jargon.

To the small-minded, we are all victims — we, as opposed to they, the people we don’t like. Those people are the victimizers. So much for the complexity of this world.

Anyway, even without the title, Hayes was pompous enough to fill almost any political role, especially when there were issues about her favorite topic, the environment. If you say that phrase in a normal tone of voice, all it means is “whatever happens to be around us.” If you say it with superstitious awe, it means God. Hayes said it with superstitious awe. Any offense to the environment was clearly sacrilege. So we come to the email I promised to discuss.

It’s a snarky missive from Hayes to someone in the government of Oregon. In it she demands, with sarcasm worthy of the confessional, “Is there a reason we have regressed to single-sided copies?” Anyone who was so unconcerned with sustainability as to use only one side of a piece of paper had obviously regressed on the evolutionary scale.

Was Hayes making a mountain out of a molehill, a Hindenburg out of a toy balloon? Oh yes. And aren’t trees the most sustainable of our natural resources? Don’t they grow again? And isn’t Oregon, of all places, the land of trees? But that’s the thing about little minds: they see neither the forests nor the trees. More important: they are outraged when other people fail to share their view.

I am not arguing that to be large-minded, you have to possess the right ideas about politics, or economics, or the environment, or photocopying, or the state of Oregon. Or that you have to read books and continually cite them. Probably Cylvia Hayes has read some books, maybe more than President Obama. But there are other considerations. I doubt that John Bunyan read a lot of books, besides the Bible. I suppose he read a lot of bad sermons too. But he had an enormous vision of the world, and of the human soul, and he had the literary integrity that comes from large-mindedness. There isn’t an expression in Pilgrim’s Progress that is cheap or tawdry or inflated or pompously self-defensive. The same can be said of those works of art that are still technically known as Negro spirituals. No book learning there — but no petty concerns or petty expressions, either.

I am no political partisan of either Abraham Lincoln or my namesake, Stephen Douglas. In their works you see a great deal of logic-chopping, prevarication, false charges, faulty extrapolation, and other tricks of the professional political wrestler. It’s the same with Webster, Clay, Calhoun, and the other famous orators of that age — and also, I am sorry to say, with Jefferson, Madison, and other great men of an earlier generation. I am not an admirer of William Jennings Bryan, the late-19th-century purveyor of crackpot Progressivism. But you would need a heart of stone to say that the public utterances of these men, even of Bryan, consisted of big words composed by little minds. No; all the world, the world of great America, is in their words, together with that large and vital and often crazy thing, a notion of how it fits together. Like them or not, their thoughts were big, and their bigness wasn’t the bigness of grandiosity and condescension (“I want to be a champion of the middle class”). It was the bigness of real people, people with intellectual curiosity, with an actual interest in ideas and in the crown of ideas, which is language.

There isn’t an expression in Pilgrim’s Progress that is cheap or tawdry or inflated or pompously self-defensive.

In July 1863, President Lincoln greeted the conquest of Confederate fortresses on the Mississippi by writing, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” It’s a magnificent saying, a saying like the voice of a distant planet, yet the voice of someone who knows what the Father of Waters looks and feels and sounds like, who knows his laziness and his dislike of vexation and yet his need to reach the encircling sea. It’s the saying of a person who knows and cares what a river is, and what its history and its associations have been (“Father of Waters”); a person who thinks it worthy of his job as politician to try to express such things.

What would President Obama have said on that occasion? What would John Boehner’s response have been? What words would Hillary Clinton have found? I could never have invented Lincoln’s words, but I can easily invent the words of his successors on the political stage: “First, I want to say that our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the brave men and women who have been engaged in this conflict with which all of us as Americans have been struggling. We are committed, as a nation, to providing all Americans with the means to live rich, full lives in this great country of ours. The opening of the Mississippi River makes us think and reflect about everything that is truly great about America, which is family and freedom and the hope of a better life for all. I welcome this new opportunity to sit down with the folks in Alabama, and in Georgia, and in South Carolina, and in all the other places where events have happened, recently, that have caused pain to so many of us, and restart our long national dialogue about the values that we share. Together, I think we can work on the root causes of violence, and hunger, and sickness, and disease, and bigotry, and prejudice, and find ways to provide meaningful work, at a living wage, for all Americans. God bless the United States of America.”

Isn’t that right? Isn’t it? And do you ever expect to hear anything better from these people?

/emem




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O Tempora! O Bama!

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For anyone who enjoys linguistic spectacle, who savors both the triumphs and the flops of the American language, there is just too much to savor in the political carnival now going on. You’re reduced to picking a few favorites — but there are so many to pick from.

For a while my favorite performance was the testimony, if you want to call it that, of Kathleen Sebelius, God’s gift to satirists, who on October 30 told a congressional committee investigating the zany antics of the Obamacare website, “Today, more individuals are successfully creating accounts, logging in, and moving on to apply for coverage and shop for plans. We are pleased with these quick improvements, but we know there is still significant, additional work to be done. We continue to conduct regular maintenance nearly every night to improve the consumer experience.”

That was her way of describing the worst disaster in the history of computation. Unluckily for her, the website crashed (for the thousandth time) during the hour of her testimony, a testimony in which she said, “The website has never crashed. It is functional but at a very slow speed and very low reliability.”

 I thought that was hard to beat, but then I discovered Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of something called the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. (Everything is a “center” these days, and every center has as many “services” as confidence men have “angles.” Pretty much the same angles, too.) On November 5, Tavenner let Congress know what her center is doing about people whose insurance plans have been swept away by Obamacare: “This is actually a conversation we're having today. . . . Is there a way we can actively engage to reach out to people who have been canceled?" 

From these heights of metaphor one lands with a thump on the pancake-like flatness of a quickly succeeding passage.

 Rome burned while Nero conversed. “Conversations,” thoughts of “engagement,” and questions about whether there are ways to “reach out” (“actively,” not passively) are good means of wasting time if you’re chairman of the country club greens committee, or if you’re a highly paid bureaucrat who finds that she has nothing to say for herself when the public finally discovers her existence. I’m not sure they do much for “people who have been canceled.” As the Beatles might have sung, “Oh, look at all the canceled people.” 

 Tavenner looked like a winner — until I encountered US Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC). On November 12, Hagan panicked and called a press conference to rescue herself from the Obamacare wreckage (she’s up for reelection next year). Someone asked her to comment on the miserably small number of people signing up for Obamacare. According to Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, this is what ensued: 

“You know,” she replied. “I know the — I believe this coming Friday, those numbers are going to be published and uh, you know, as soon as I see them, you know, obviously it’s, it’s m-much fewer than the administration expected.”

A reporter from the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record asked why Hagan, like President Obama, had told people that if they liked their health plans they’d be able to keep their health plans.

There was a long pause before Hagan responded, then a deep intake of breath. “You know, Doug,” she responded, “the, um” — here she exhaled and paused again — “the way these, the — the regulations and the law, uh” — pause — “came forward recently, I think people were surprised that the, uh, the — the actual original plans would be, um, would be canceled.”

You may say that all politicians would sound like that, if the statements they made were accurately reproduced; and if so, you’d be close to right. Deprived of his teleprompters, President Obama says “uh” about 20 times a minute, up to 40 when he’s agitated (these subverbal attempts to communicate are tactfully omitted from the reported versions). And of course President Obama, and Rep. Boehner, and former Gov. Palin (shall I go on?) often have no more meaning in their utterances than poor Sen. Hagan.

But we mustn’t judge rhetorical effectiveness simply by the content of a politician’s remarks, or noise. It’s charm that counts, and our politicians have little or none of that quality. The “uhs” contribute to the effect, but even a total absence of “uhs” couldn’t make Harry Reid look like something other than the troll who wanted to eat the billy goats gruff. Nor would it turn President Obama into a charming character.

Whatever Obama touches, he disfigures. His speech has as much relation to literature as an advertising brochure.

For some, certainly, Obama has “charisma,” but of charm he is completely destitute. He comes across as a phony and a blowhard, and it’s hard not to see a wide vein of meanness and chronic anger beneath the high-school-principal intonations. When he’s not looking at his teleprompter — when he’s supposed to be conversing with an actual human being — he’s usually gazing fixedly at a point about 12 inches in front of his chest, as if he were studying an invisible set of instructions for dealing with the underclass. This is the antithesis of charm. It’s the kind of thing one expects from bank examiners, experts on epistemology, and actors emerging from a heavy course of anger therapy. Sen. Hagan, by contrast, manifests herself as a hapless innocent, as someone so childish that she calls a press conference to display her knowledge — of a subject she knows nothing about. She’s like a little girl who begs to show everyone how well she can play the piano, without ever realizing that you can’t play a tune without learning the notes. But isn’t it cute, the way she’s trying? Less cute is President Obama.

There are four types of rhetoric in which he habitually indulges, and none of them is even mildly amusing, let alone endearing:

1. The “soaring” mode that even his supporters now derisively call “the hopey-changey thing.”

2. The false-plebeian style that he uses in exact proportion to his slippage in the polls. This style, or pretense at style, consists largely of dropping final g’s, saying “a whole buncha” instead of a number, and referring constantly to “folks.” In that speech he gave at Boston, the one in which he tried to save his lie about Obamacare by claiming he had always told people “you can keep your insurance . . . if,” he said of his failed healthcare scheme, “We’re just gonna keep workin’ at it. We’re gonna grind it out.” That might be charming if the accent weren’t so obviously faked, if “grind it out” meant anything under the circumstances, and if he (“we”) were actually doing any work, as opposed to golf.

3. The paranoid style, in which he unmasks the monstrous forces scheming against his official program, the “some people” who “don’t want it to succeed” and therefore, magically, keep it from succeeding. Evidence? Most of them voted against it!

4. The cold, haughty, you’re-so-dumb-you’ll-just-have-to-believe-this, lie-flinging mode. “I was not informed directly that the website would not be working, as [sic] the way it was supposed to,” he said on November 14. Wait. What do you mean? Do you mean that you didn’t know? That nobody ever told you? No, they didn’t. They didn’t tell me directly. Now go away.

Of course, when people insert “directly” into a sentence like that, you know they’re trying to deceive someone. You also know that the someone is not going to be you; almost anybody (most certainly including you) can catch on to the fact that “directly” means “I hope to fool you.” Indeed, the trick is so obvious that only a fool would use it. Obama himself has recognized that people might possibly think he’s a fool — and by recognizing the possibility, he has tried to eliminate it. “You know,” he said on November 14, “I’m accused of a lot of things [there’s that paranoid style again] but I don’t think I’m stupid enough to go around saying this is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity a week before the website opens if I thought that it wasn’t going to work.” But either he is stupid enough to keep telling obvious lies or he is stupid enough not to insist on being informed directly about the stuff he seems to be lying about. Take your pick; either way, he’s stupid enough.

The mystery to me is why people ever thought there was any force or meaning in Obama’s verbiage. At its best, it was just the same awful guff that politicians are always dishing out. In his second inaugural address, where he might have been expected to be on his best behavior, he made such sparkling utterances as:

We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. [A fresh thought, that.]

This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. [What happened to changing when the times change?]

My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together. [Damn! And here I was just about to seize it myself. I guess I’ll have to wait for a consensus to emerge.]

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. [Note: not just to some posterity.]

My selection of these idiotic sentiments is as close to random as selection can get; the speech is all like that, although sometimes Obama decides to give you something extra special in the way of metaphor. This attempt always fails. One example may suffice. After quoting the Declaration of Independence, Obama says, “Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” What in the world can those words signify? Picture words, words that have meaning. Now picture bridging that meaning. Huh? Already it makes no sense. But then we’re supposed to picture the bridge as the realities of our time. And this journey to do something with the realities of our time is never-ending? It’s going to last forever? No, it’s all too much for me.

From these heights of metaphor one lands with a thump on the pancake-like flatness of a quickly succeeding passage. This one is about the great discoveries that “we” have made during “our” history: “Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.” Gosh, really? Schools and highways? Glad we determined that requirement.

I have little sympathy with the worldview evoked by President Kennedy’s inaugural address, but it is a work of literature — not great literature, but certainly very respectable. Anyone who, having read that speech, turns to Obama’s reinaugural remarks will be struck by the attempted resemblance. But whatever Obama touches, he disfigures. His speech has as much relation to literature as an advertising brochure. Indeed, it was written for the same purpose. The only literary excellence that Obama ever showed was his curious refusal to speak at Gettysburg on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s speech. There’s just one way to explain it. Obama thought he could top John F. Kennedy, but he feared he couldn’t top Abraham Lincoln, and for once a kind of humility came over him. It’s too bad, because that speech would have offered a lot of entertainment.

Even a total absence of “uhs” couldn’t make Harry Reid look like something other than the troll who wanted to eat the billy goats gruff.

Given the glaring weaknesses of Obama’s prose, it is shocking, almost horrifying, that both his friends and his adversaries keep paying tribute to it. His critics, astonishingly, condemn him for his inability to live up to his rhetoric. Here’s Obama foe Rich Lowry, writing in National Review Online: “The launch of HealthCare.gov should cast a shadow over the stirring passage in the president’s second inaugural address where he spoke of how ‘we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government.’” Pardon me — harnessideas? Technology to remake our government? This stuff is “stirring”? It’s barely intelligible. Before we harness those ideas, do we have to brush them and feed them and make sure they’re well shod? Is that something Obama neglected to do with his healthcare “ideas”?

The biggest contribution that Obama has made to stirring the linguistic pot has been the license he has given to other people who think it’s cool and smart to enact the role of political used-car salesmen. They don’t understand how funny they are. And the comedy leaks from the op-ed page into the news reports. Consider the following from Reuters (Nov. 19):

The rollout of Obama's signature domestic policy has hurt the popularity of the initiative, but the decline has been fairly modest, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Monday.

Forty-one percent of Americans expressed support for Obamacare in a survey conducted from Thursday to Monday. That was down 3 percentage points from a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken from September 27 to October 1.

Opposition to the healthcare law stood at 59 percent in the latest poll, versus 56 percent in the earlier survey.

In other words, once you’ve fallen down the first 56 steps, the next three are only a modest reduction in altitude. After you’ve passed the landing on the 50th step, it’s hard for anything to do much more damage to your unpopularity. But wouldn’t it be funny if you thought you could talk your way upstairs?




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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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You Didn't Build That Bridge, Mr. President

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I was so distracted by the president's demeanor as he was reproaching the business community that his words didn't quite register. I had to go back to read what he actually said, and it was worse than I thought:

“If You’ve Got a Business – You Didn’t Build That! Somebody Else Made That Happen.”

Well, apparently it bears repeating: When I, an entrepreneur or businessman, start a business, it usually takes years of persistent work before there is any return on investment: contrary to what you may have heard from modern-liberal bureaucrats, you cannot succeed in business without really trying. I suppose it's true that such an endeavor wouldn't have succeeded had I not been standing on centuries of mercantile tradition and experience, or for that matter had I not had electricity and running water. But that is only to state the obvious.

What, then, was the president getting at? Besides belittling the aspirations of the business class, what was the subtext of his remarks? That government provides the conditions for a civil society that make entrepreneurship possible? I think we already knew that. Newsflash, Mr. President: to the extent that I contribute to the commonweal, pay taxes, keep abreast of the issues, and vote, I am a member of that government. In other words, the agent or silent partner of my labors, the "somebody else [who] made that happen," was me.

Pericles is always relevant in this regard. In his funeral oration, as presented by Thucydides, he said,

Here each individual in interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics — this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.

Perhaps this is what Lincoln was also getting at in the final flourish of the Gettysburg Address: "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

There has always been some mystery surrounding his use of the words, "of the people." It is obvious that a government by the people is one run by commoners (as opposed to the landed aristocracy), and that a government for the people is one devised for the benefit of everyman (not just a hereditary class of kings or oligarchs), but what exactly did Lincoln mean by a government of the people?

I believe he recognized that insofar as we work, pay taxes, stay informed, and vote, we are not simply passive participants in the democratic process, but constitutive of democratic government itself.

So why do politicians insist on the obsolete dichotomy of government and governed? Is it because the citizenry need leaders to translate their will into effective policies? Or is this an elitist plot to exclude everyman from the esoteric operation of government? If the latter, I have a few words for you prodigies of incumbency occupying the plush seats of government: you didn't build that bridge or that superhighway. Somebody else made that happen.




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