Spielberg's Lincoln

NEW JERSEY - I have yet to see Steven Spielberg's new movie, "Lincoln," and I don't intend to miss it. Whatever his intellectual flaws, Spielberg is a remarkably gifted storyteller. And I would pay to see Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays the legendary president, read from a phonebook. But the cult of Lincoln, which the movie will only add to, is something altogether different.

Lee Siegel,

02 de dezembro de 2012 | 01h00

To get a sense of the degree to which Lincoln is revered in this country, especially by the intellectual class, all you have to do is watch a trailer for Spielberg's movie. Sacred music, rising to an other-worldly intensity, plays throughout. This is the standard background music to any film, fiction or documentary, about Lincoln or the Civil War.

It's easy to see why Lincoln has been elevated to a level of awed admiration reserved for saints, even deities. He removed from American soil the most tragic, unforgivable stain on human history: slavery. And having expunged slavery from the relatively young American republic, he began the long, uphill climb to equality for black people in America. It is difficult to think of Lincoln and not get a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes. The fact that he fought depression all of his life, and was assassinated at the age of 56, only increases the aura of heroic pathos that surrounds him.

Any criticism of Lincoln immediately runs up against his tragic fate as well as his historical accomplishments. A negative response to Lincoln also runs the risk of being associated with a long tradition of Lincoln-hating, still practiced by Aryan groups and other varieties of ideologically committed racists.

Yet what always disturbs me when Lincoln has a revival is this dimension of sacredness to which he is raised. The brute fact is that Lincoln enthusiastically prosecuted a heinous, perhaps unnecessary war. According to a magnificent work of history, "This Republic of Suffering," the Civil War took the lives of more American soldiers-620,000-than all of America's other wars combined until the war in Vietnam, from the Revolutionary War up through the Second World War.

Six hundred twenty thousand dead-and that does not include the number of civilians killed, which historians estimate to be at least 50,000 and probably more And all that human destruction occurred between 1861 and 1865, which is just two lifetimes ago. Few people realize that the Civil War left a permanent scar on the American psyche. America's violence and its penchant for violence have their origins in the Civil War. So does the divide between so-called "red" and "blue" America.

"This Republic of Suffering" was written by Drew Gilpin Faust, who is now president of Harvard. The book is an extraodinary chronicle, from every angle, of the effects that kind of carnage has on the soul and psyche of society. Just as remarkable is one of the conclusions Faust draws from that conflict. The freedom that Lincoln's emancipation seemed to have won was, in the end, elusive. Gilpin writes that "freedom… would prove an unrealized ideal in a nation unwilling to guarantee the equal citizenship on which true liberty must rest… Assumptions of racial hierarchy would unite whites North and South in a century-long abandonment of the emancipationist legacy."

Faust goes on to say that "death itself became war's end, the product of its industrialized machinery; there is no more transcendent or glorious purpose; northerners and southerners lie mingled together, 'fame or country least their care.'" That last quote is from Herman Melville, whom she quotes again: "What like a bullet can undeceive." The butchered men and their loved ones did not enjoy the heavenly background music that accompanies today's invocations of Lincoln's war.

Contemporary thinkers and artists-including Spielberg, apparently-are not yet undeceived. For them, the unbelievable human anguish and loss of the Civil War was "transcendental carnage," to quote an American academic who was, in turn, being quoted in the New York Times. Lincoln is celebrated as an unadulterated hero precisely because he sent hundreds of thousands of men to their death, and to murder legions of other men.

And yet one has to wonder whether the Civil War needed to be fought at all. The North was rich, the South was poor. An agricultural economy built on slave labor was doomed. The institution of slavery would have withered away through attrition. Certainly the North had many economic weapons at its disposal, including boycotting Southern goods. Would 700,000 slaves had died in the process? It seems unlikely, especially since during that time, the North could have escalated all the heroic attempts to liberate slaves from their owners through various types of subterfuge.

Lincoln himself, who according to some accounts, would laugh rather madly on occasion, pursued the war with self-righteous fanaticism. In his Second Inaugural Address, he spoke these cruel, unforgiving words about the war: "If God wills that it continue... until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'" There is something psychologically unstable about such an outburst. To a mother who had lost five sons in the war, Lincoln referred in a letter of condolence to "the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom." The "solemn pride" she must be feeling after losing five sons! The phrase is sanctimonious and revolting. As Melville put it, fame or country was least her care.

I am not saying that Lincoln was not a great president, who led the country through its darkest years. But he was a mortal, and therefore, limited president, who made mistakes, one of which might well have been to destroy the lives of nearly a million people when a more peaceful opposition to the South was possible. I wish, for the sake of a decent future, that his admirers in this country were more moderate in their admiration, and more humane.

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