Steven Spielberg’s White Men of Democracy

25 Nov

Two weeks ago I wrote, “When Steven Spielberg makes a movie about the Holocaust, he focuses on a German. When he makes a movie about abolition, he focuses on a white man. Say what you will, he’s consistent.”

My comment was inspired by historian Kate Masur’s excellent New York Times op-ed, which argued that Spielberg’s film Lincoln had essentially left African Americans offstage or in the gallery. In Spielberg’s hands, blacks see themselves get rescued by a savior who belongs to the very group that has ravaged and ruined them. Just as Jews do in Schindler’s List. The difference is that in the case of emancipation, blacks—both free and slave—were actually far more central to the process of their own deliverance.

Thanks in part to documents from the National Archives that historians began to rigorously amass and organize in 1976—resulting in the multi-volume Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867—students and scholars have come to a completely different view of how emancipation happened. As three of the historians who were involved in that project wrote in the path-breaking Slaves No More:

The Destruction of Slavery [the first essay in the book] explicates the process by which slavery collapsed under the pressure of federal arms and the slaves’ determination to place their own liberty on the wartime agenda. In documenting the transformation of a war for the Union into a war against slavery, it shifts the focus from the halls of power in Washington and Richmond to the plantations, farms, and battlefields of the South and demonstrates how slaves accomplished their own liberation and shaped the destiny of a nation.

Emphasizing the agency of slaves and former slaves does not simply alter the cast of characters in the drama of emancipation, displacing old villains and enthroning new heroes. Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Republicans do not play less significant parts once slaves gain an active role in their own liberation, but they do play different ones. Focusing on events beyond Washington and outside formally constituted political bodies does not excise politics from the study of the past. Rather, it reveals that social history is not history with the politics left out, but that all history is—and must be—political. The politics of emancipation in the countryside and the towns of the South makes more comprehensible the politics of emancipation inside the capitol and the presidential mansion.

Which made Spielberg’s decision to focus on Lincoln and a few politicians in Washington all the more perplexing.

After I posted my comment, the estimable Freddie DeBoer asked me a simple, blunt question: Had I seen the film I was pontificating about? Shamefacedly I admitted I hadn’t. (One of the things I love about Freddie’s writing is how quickly and cleanly he cuts into his opponents. I love it even more when I’m not one of them.) But I promised I’d see the film—in return for Freddie reading some of the historical literature. He agreed.

Last night I saw the film. I’m pleased to admit that I was wrong—but in one of those ways that reveals I was more right than I realized.

One of the points my critics made in response to my original claim—Michael Brendan Dougherty pursued this line most forcefully (on Twitter)—is that the film is a biopic called “Lincoln.” Of course Lincoln is going to be center stage. (To which my exasperated wife responded, “Schindler’s List also has Schindler in the title. So what?”)

But here’s the thing. Lincoln is most decidedly not a movie about Lincoln. The main character of the film is the 13th Amendment—and the politics of emancipation more specifically and more generally. The entire plot revolves around its passage. And what’s most fascinating about the film is that Spielberg, and his screenwriter Tony Kushner, shows that emancipation wasn’t the product of a lone heroic effort by a saintly Lincoln; instead, it depicts emancipation as a collective endeavor.

The film in fact does a remarkable job—this is one of its chief virtues, I think—of decentering Lincoln from his traditional role in our national narrative. Lincoln gets surprisingly little air time in the film. Many scenes are littered with the hapless attempts of three lowlifes—one is played by James Spader—to get lame-duck Democrats on board with the 13th Amendment through promises of sinecures and patronage. In terms of getting the Amendment passed, Lincoln’s role is rather small. He only intervenes successfully in getting two or three votes.

Lincoln is obviously important as a steward and an oracle: one of the other things I like about the film is that it shows what a fine line there is in politics between the prophet and the windbag; Lincoln’s stories and pronouncements often prompt either bemused bewilderment (in the case of William Seward, played by David Strathairn) or frustrated rage (in the case of Edwin Stanton, played by Bruce McGill). But his presidency, as it is depicted by Spielberg/Kushner, actually comports more with how the bloggers over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, and the poli sci literature more generally, understand the presidency: as a radically constrained institution, which is often buffeted by forces it can’t control—in Congress, and elsewhere.

So, yes, Lincoln plays a role in Lincoln, but it’s just that: a role. Seward, Spader and his goons, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), even crazy Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Fields)—everyone has a hand in freeing the slaves.

Everyone, it seems, save the slaves themselves.

For all the decentering of Lincoln, for all the inclusion of multiple voices, the film studiously keeps black people in the audience—literally in the gallery, in one of the closing scenes, or in the bedroom or in the foyer, waiting, watching, attending. Black characters are almost always either looking up at their saviors (even allowing for the fact that Lincoln was tall) or wistfully after their saviors, as the latter depart for the halls of power. It’s true that the film opens with black soldiers telling Lincoln all they have done in the war, and telling him all that he should still do. Mary Todd Lincoln’s black servant speaks up every once in a while, as do some other servants. But that’s pretty much it.

What is so odd about this film—and something I would not have anticipated from Masur’s op-ed—is that it really is trying to show that abolition is the democratic project of the 19th century. Democratic in its objective (making slaves free and ultimately equal) and democratic in its execution, involving a great many men beyond Lincoln himself, and a great many lowly men at that. But it is a white man’s democracy. In the film, in fact, Lincoln tells his colleagues: “The fate of human dignity is in our hands.” Our hands. Not theirs.

The inclusion of so many white players makes the exclusion of black players all the more inexplicable—and inexcusable. It’s just a weird throwback to the pre-Civil Rights era except that emancipation is now depicted as a good thing—just so long as it is white people who are doing the emancipating.

Lest I be accused—as I already have been—of imposing some kind of PC orthodoxy on a piece of mass entertainment, or of applying an anachronistic standard of inclusion to a film that marches under the banner of fidelity to historical truth, let me reiterate one point and add two others. Emancipation was not a white man’s affair. It was a multiracial affair, in which blacks, slave and free, played a central role. Spielberg and Kushner are not being faithful to the historical record; they are distorting it. Not by lying but by constructing the field glasses through which they would have us look at, and misperceive, the past.

Aaron Bady will be blogging about the film too, so I don’t want to steal his thunder. But he’s dug up two interesting factoids that are relevant: First, Spielberg was originally thinking of making a film about the relationship between Lincoln and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This is a topic that has generated a large and growing literature. Spielberg opted not to go that route. Second, though Spielberg chose to base the film on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, he decided essentially to use three pages from the book as the basis of his story. It was his decision to focus on the few months that led to the passage of the 13th Amendment in the House.

These unforced choices—his choices—effectively precluded the inclusion of blacks as political agents in their own right. It was not the constraints of history or genre, in other words, that produced this film; it was the blinkered vision of Steven Spielberg.

And, I’m sorry to say, the blinkered vision of Tony Kushner. If you think my pre-Civil Rights claim above is unfair, consider this statement that Kushner gave to NPR, which Aaron also found and pointed out to me:

The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.

I have to confess, I was truly shocked by this comment. Though it points to events after the Civil War, it reveals a point of view that I had thought we abandoned long ago: the Dunning School of American historiography, which essentially holds that Reconstruction was a “tragic era”—and error—in which a cruel and unforgiving North decided to wreak havoc on a victimized (white) South, thereby producing Jim Crow and a century of southern backwardness. When I was in high school—in 1985!—we were taught the Dunning School as an example of how not to do history, a way of thinking about the past that was so benighted no one could possibly believe it anymore.

Yet here we have one of our most esteemed playwrights—a Marxist no less (and whose effort to reclaim an honorary degree from CUNY, which he had been denied, I steadfastly organized for)—essentially peddling the same tropes.

When you have a screenwriter with Kushner’s range of historical vision, and a filmmaker with Spielberg’s gift for compression, it should be possible to make a different film. A truer, better—and, yes, entertaining—film. For reasons I can’t comprehend, they chose not to, opting instead for a 19th century American version of Schindler’s List.

I didn’t like the original. And I’m not crazy about the remake.

Update (8 pm)

Anthony Kammer on Twitter reminded me of this great quote from Stanley Kubrick about Schindler’s List: “Schindler’s List was about 200 Jews who lived. The Holocaust is about 6 million Jews who died.” I’ve never been able to find confirmation for the quote, but it’s so perfect that I had to repeat it here.

Update (9:45 pm)

From Michael Brendan Dougherty (with whom I argued earlier; see above) tonight on Twitter:

After seeing the film, I’m closer to your view than I anticipated. I think you argued better than the other professor.

I’ll admit it: it’s always gratifying to hear this kind of thing. Though I think “the other professor”—Kate Masur—did quite well.

Update (November 26, 12 am)

On FB, Ian Zuckerman brought to my attention this great speech of Frederick Douglass on Haiti.

Speaking for the Negro, I can say, we owe much to Walker for his appeal; to John Brown [applause] for the blow struck at Harper’s Ferry, to Lundy and Garrison for their advocacy [applause], We owe much especially to Thomas Clarkson, [applause], to William Wilberforce, to Thomas Fowell Buxton, and to the anti-slavery societies at home and abroad; but we owe incomparably more to Haiti than to them all. [Prolonged applause.] I regard her as the original pioneer emancipator of the nineteenth century. [Applause.]….the freedom of Haiti was not given as a boon, but conquered as a right ! [Applause.] Her people fought for it. They suffered for it, and thousands of them endured the most horrible tortures, and perished for it.

89 Responses to “Steven Spielberg’s White Men of Democracy”

  1. Decker Walker, Sr. November 25, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    This critique is essentially “They should have made a different movie.’ I don’t read a claim that the film makers left out black people who participated in the scenes that they chose to film, but that black people were doing other heroic things in other places that Corey Robin thinks should have been included. But that’s another film. What the artists intended was to show the political machinations taking place in (segregated, white, political class) Washington at that time. Nothing said in this posting suggests that the film makers did an injustice to historically influential black people who were actually present in scenes like those enacted in the film. If they had decided instead to make a movie that would tell the whole story of Emancipation throughout the country in the manner of a Ken Burns documentary, this criticism would have more bite.

    • Patrick St. John November 26, 2012 at 2:22 am #

      But why are you implying that “They should have made a different movie” isn’t a valid critique in this case? It’s not an either-or between this and Ken Burns, two wildly different chunks of celluloid. Spielberg chose, of the vast historical Lincoln/slavery canvas on hand, to focus on a tiny sliver which just so happens — whoops! — to have only white dudes as key players who hash out the end of black slavery. Even if you limited yourself to only settings in that time period that both involve Lincoln personally and involve some sort of decision-making related to slavery, this film’s content is still a tiny sliver.

      How a filmmaker, especially one tackling history, chooses to bracket what gets in and what doesn’t can be in some situations more important than the action that does end up on the screen in the end, just as we’d be in our rights to critique a widely released blockbuster historical film about a Southern slave-owning family if that movie didn’t actually show slaves beyond a few seconds here or there. “That’s not what the film is about, I just wanted to focus on the family, and they just happened to be 100% white” shouldn’t be a satisfactory defense.

      • Wanda Tinasky November 30, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

        [But why are you implying that “They should have made a different movie” isn’t a valid critique in this case?]

        Well, I would imagine mainly because it isn’t. It’s a criticism that’s at best incoherently hypocritical and at worst extortionate. The criticism’s argument is, essentially, “the true version of history is X. Your film represents it as Y and is therefore inaccurate, biased, and/or racist.”

        Now, there are several straightforward responses to this argument. No film (or any other medium, for that matter) can accurately capture the entirety of an event. Things are always going to be left out. The accusation that the exclusion of one’s preferred narrative amounts to hostility to that narrative is entirely unwarranted. I mean, the movie is about political intrigue at the highest levels of power, which in the 1860’s just so happened – whoops! – not to involve blacks. To imply more sinister motives makes presumptions about the _intentions_ of the storyteller, and in that sense I think it’s very reasonable for the burden of proof to lie with the accuser.

        But I think the deeper response to the critic’s argument is simply: who are you to declare what the ‘true’ version of history is? You claim that it’s X and judge the film’s Y by that standard. But no one can know the ‘true’ version of history. All they can do is choose their own preferred narrative, and whichever narrative they do choose can be guaranteed to ignore some _other_ vital part of history. I promise you that X (ie the Critic’s perspective on the relevant history) isn’t 100% historically accurate either. Choice and filtering are an inevitable part of drawing conclusions from something as vast and complex as American History; to claim that someone else’s filter is “wrong” because it differs from yours is hypocritical and more than a little arrogant.

        And given the nature of identity politics and the economics of racial outrage in contemporary America, I’m far more comfortable trusting the motives of Steven Spielberg than I am of race-bating critics.

      • authorextraordinaire December 1, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

        SO Spielberg, and every other critic who takes the time to compose and post a response with which you disagree is NOT race-baiting” This is particularly obvious to those with certain experiences, like waving the “red-flag.” You are not aware that your choice of the term “race-baiting” in this context displays the bias to which you refer. It’s called “coding.”

      • Wanda Tinasky December 3, 2012 at 9:38 pm #

        @authorextraordinaire:
        [You are not aware that your choice of the term “race-baiting” in this context displays the bias to which you refer]

        You mean a bias against race-baiting? Uh, guilty as charged. Clearly it’s not a bias you share.

  2. Joanna Bujes November 25, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    Spielberg is a polished film maker with very little to say and little insight on history or himself. Take “Schindler’s List,” a revolting movie. It has little to do with WWII. The basic message of the film is that we have a choice between good capitalists and rabid capitalists and that, basically, you’re lucky to have a job. Which is only a half step up from “Arbeit macht frei.” But this was a 90’s film, so the message already felt like received wisdom.

    • insipid November 26, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

      I find your analysis “revolting”. And if that’s the “message” that you got from the film then you’re delusional.

  3. Brahmski November 25, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

    Phone home! With Spielberg it’s always about someone/thing weak and cuddly and out-of-place being rescued by somebody tall(er) and strong(er) and white(r), no? Whether the former is Ben Kinglsey or ET or… (here I must also confess that I haven’t seen *Lincoln* yet, but as your exasperated wife might say, so what?).

  4. Mark November 25, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

    I saw it this weekend. I agree with what I think you’re going for here – not to allow this Stephen Spielberg movie to somehow insert itself as one of the main narratives explaining how slavery was abolished. But by focusing on this single issue and depicting how perilously close it came to failure, I would say that he chose to go after something more related and connected to these times – even if it were by the fuzzy Obama/Lincoln narrative that goes back to Obama’s election and his taking the oath with Lincoln’s bible. It shows Lincoln as a President doing battle with the mechanics of American democracy. His key moment with Thaddeus Stevens, when he implores him to focus on the political issue for-the-time-being and restict his language, along with his expression of doubt about the proclimation in the first place, makes it more a film about getting white men – the only ones in power – to pass the Amendment. To make a move several steps further than they would otherwise be willing to. It was after all an all-white Congress. I know you’re not desputing that point, but again, the Spielberg movie is not the end-all-say-all on this. Notice how even he was afraid to give the “radicals” any perspective (as in the scene when Stevens is scolded for his language by a fellow radical by restricting his speech to “equality under law”). We need a John Brown, Frederick Douglas movie… Spielberg’s just not the guy to make that film.

  5. Paul H. Rosenberg November 25, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    I, too, think it’s tragic that a movie focusing on the Lincoln/Douglas relationship was considered, but abandoned. It could have been genuinely challenging and illuminating. Glad you mentioned this.

    Three quick points: (1) There had already been MANY Holocaust movies before Shindler’s List, so having it focus on a German protagonist was in SOME sense “fresh”, rather than simply reinforcing a dominant focus. This can’t at all be said about Lincoln, which is just more of the same old story we’ve heard before.

    (2) OTOH, there IS something to be said about the earlier film Amistad. There was a LOT more back agency is that film–FIFTEEN years ago–even if the white court system was central.

    (3) It’s not just that blacks were active agents in their own liberation during the Civil War. They were actually crucial in creating the abolitionist movement decades earlier, without which the Civil War would never have occurred. The book Of One Blood: Abolitionism and the Origins of Racial Equality does an excellent job of exploring this, for example. While not germane to the narrower question of a film like this, we really MUST keep in mind that it took tremendous efforts by the black community to break through the bi-partisan, bi-regional consensus on African colonization and force emancipation onto the American agenda. That is the ultimate background to all else.

  6. louisproyect November 25, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    The film’s narrative is based on the scholarship of James McPherson and Doris Kearns Goodwin. The absence of Black subjects flows directly from this “top down” approach. An alternative interpretation of emancipation can be found in Ira Berlin and others more grounded in Marxism. Kushner opted for the first approach since this dovetails with his truly awful shilling for Obama. This is from the NPR interview alluded to in Corey’s very good article (I plan to submit something to Counterpunch this week that addresses the deeper historical issues.)

    DAVE DAVIES: …you, know, it’s hard not to draw a parallel to me, it seems, between the political moment of 1865 and the current one. I mean we’re not at war today – at least not in a civil war – but there is a sense of urgency in our political discourse. I mean the nation is deeply divided. I think both sides in the debate in some respects see the country as at a turning point with the, you know, the core principles of the republic being threatened. Did you think about that as you told the story?

    TONY KUSHNER: Oh absolutely. I mean I consider it a real benefit and even blessing of the assignment of making a movie about Lincoln that I was able to look at the Obama years through a Lincoln lens, which I have found enormously useful. I think Obama is a great president and I feel that there is immense potential now for building – rebuilding a real progressive democracy in this country after a great deal of damage has been done to it. And I think that it faces many obstacles, and one of its obstacles is an impatience on the part of very good, very progressive people, with the kind of compromising that you were just mentioning, the kind of horse trading that is necessary. I mean when you asked earlier if Lincoln – how long had Lincoln been a dealmaker. And I think, you know, there probably is no politician of any competence whatsoever who isn’t good at that, because that’s, in fact, where politics is. It’s not about purity. It’s about compromise and strategy and making things actually happen in real time on this Earth, as opposed to a metaphysical realm

  7. swallerstein November 25, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    I have not seen the Lincoln movie, but I saw Schlinder’s List as a movie about how when things get weird (as during the Holocaust) and the normal criteria of how to be a good citizen are not sufficient, it’s surprising the people who rise to the situation and those who don’t.

    So we have Schlinder, a womanizer, a war-profiter, an opportunist, a heavy drinker, who saves Jews, while the pillars of the community do nothing.

    Hannah Arendt makes a very similar point: that in situations of extreme injustice, those who follow the usual rules (obey the police, follow orders, etc.) end up on the side of evil.

    I observed the same thing during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.

    • Brahmski November 25, 2012 at 3:16 pm #

      So you’re saying Christopher Hitchens was right after all?

      • swallerstein November 25, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

        Brahmski:

        I don’t know what Hitchens said about this subject, but he must have been right sometimes. Even you and I are right from time to time.

      • Brahmski November 25, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

        I was kidding: Because you said “a womanizer…heavy drinker ” was in the right, as opposed to “those who follow the rules.”.

      • swallerstein November 25, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

        Brahmski;

        It’s a good joke, but I missed it completely.

        I even googled “Christopher Hitchens Schlinder’s List” afterward and found nothing relevant.

        The next time I’ll know that you’re the person with the humor based on rapid associations.

  8. jonnybutter November 25, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    I haven’t seen the film either, and will try to resist even though I expect D. D. Lewis to do a good job and wouldn’t mind seeing him do that.

    I understand where CR is coming from on this – that quote from Kushner is WOW – but there’s a also something faintly ridiculous in the implicit expectation of anything but well-made yecccch from Spielberg. You were expecting ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’?! He LIKES being the highly competent hack he is. He’s not so much a visionary director as he is the world’s number one movie buff – even above Scorcese and Tarrantino. He doesn’t make cheesy entertainment because of pressure from the accountants, et. al.; he LIKES cheesy entertainment, the more shameless the better. He is the exemplary Hollywood guy, almost a symbol of Hollywood: technically expert yet superficial and empty.

    • ethan young November 25, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

      Yeah. You got your great white father, loyal sidekick(s), loving but pushy wife, sneering enemies, worshipful servants and irascible frenemies. It’s Warner Bros straight down the line, better than MGM at least. Reminds me of Bogdanovich’s defense of his ‘sassy’ portrayal of a black child in Paper Moon: “That’s how they acted then”… meaning how they acted in films of the period depicted. That’s how film fetishists view the world.

  9. Jeremy November 25, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    Reblogged this on Merry jeremiad.

  10. goodrumo November 25, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

    Reblogged this on iheariseeilearn and commented:
    “The inclusion of so many white players makes the exclusion of black players all the more inexplicable—and inexcusable.”

  11. diegovela November 25, 2012 at 6:42 pm #

    “Everyone, it seems, save the slaves themselves.”

    There’s another discussion of the Palestinian problem at Crooked Timber.

    • diegovela November 25, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

      Should I have telegraphed the fact that when it comes to Israel, Jews become white?

      • brent November 26, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

        Especially if you’re marxist who’s into identity politics.

  12. AD Powell (@mischling2nd) November 25, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

    Gee, no single movie can cover EVERYTHING! While it seems to be a fashion to imagine that the slaves (NOT synonymous with “blacks”) totally liberated themselves without help from anyone “white,” the truth is that all their efforts would have been for nothing without important and powerful allies (Like Lincoln, etc.) in the federal government.

  13. Sarah November 26, 2012 at 7:47 am #

    I saw the movie on Thursday and I was astounded that Frederick Douglass never appeared. Douglass was one of the most important (and to my mind the greatest) of the mid-19th century abolitionists: a magnificent orator and a brilliant political mind who was not afraid to change his opinions as his ideological viewpoint matured (much like Lincoln himself, no?). Douglass and Lincoln met in 1865 and talked at length about abolition and the black franchise. I know that Douglass is often used as a stand-in for black abolitionists more generally, but in a film that’s all about the multiple strategies that were needed to pass the 13th amendment, I was amazed that he didn’t even get a cameo.

  14. Sebastian Sassi November 26, 2012 at 11:01 am #

    What a stupid critique.

    What, the movie should have included Lincoln’s equivalent of Condi Rice and Colin Powell? His black neighbors? His black advisers coming over for dinner to discuss policy matters? The influence all the politically prominent black folk of his day had on him as they lectured him in the Oval Office?

    Black folk were very, VERY marginalized at the time. Even in the supposedly liberated North. They were prevented from exercising the influence, economic, political, or otherwise, mind you, that we take for granted today.

    Instead of artificially inserting fanciful revisionist characters made up from whole cloth, the filmmakers should instead move on and tell the story of Frederick Douglas or Harriet Tubman.

    Are black folk still marginalized in Hollywood? Sure. But transparently stupid rewrites of history for the sake of appearing that that isn’t the case isn’t the answer. Grow up people.

    • Corey Robin November 26, 2012 at 11:03 am #

      You need to re-read the post. And do a little research.

    • authorextraordinaire November 26, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

      Margaret Mead commented to the effect of a small group of individuals having significant influence in history. In fact, she wrote that it is only by such “marginalized” (your word) individuals or groups does anything meaningful take place.

      Indeed, you are correct that the official impact, that the numerical impact of blacks, slave and free, on the decisions by the free-white men of the official body was apparently non-existent, You’re skimming surface of a bottomless fissure.

      Beneath your static, “Great-man” depiction of history the great unwashed nobodies were the millions of African captives who were , then, living in the hemisphere–north and south, the millions who started the journey to these coasts and died, and effects chattel slavery had, and was having on Europe. I will ignore the devastation to the African continent, its resources and populations that remain, today.

      I find your use of the word “revisionist” distasteful. Because of the historical reality that, “History is written by the winners,” and that it is “The Fable agreed upon” again by the winners, you appear to have little comprehension of the ongoing role and task of scholarship, research, and yes, revision, that leads to evolving knowledge in ALL areas of life.

      There was “one galaxy” when I was a child, “three” by the time I completed an undergraduate degree, and, now, countless “heavenly bodies.”

      Einstein saw no reason in quantum mechanics, either. See Jesse Lemish and current scholars who view history from a number of perspectives, e.g. “the bottom up.” Sorry, I am wasting key-strokes and energy.

    • lechatnoir November 27, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

      yup! you clearly didn’t read the post AT ALL . You just wanted hear your own voice.

  15. Corey Robin November 26, 2012 at 11:07 am #

    Good. Now go away and get some rest. Sounds like you need it.

    • Sebastian Sassi November 26, 2012 at 11:11 am #

      Zing! Two compelling, well thought out, thoroughly-referenced rebuttals that have me quaking in my boots via stunning displays of reasoning, deduction, and forceful rhetorical import.

      Keep up the good work! Sooner or later I’m sure lots of critics will catch on to a movie called “Lincoln” not actually centering on some doofus named “Lincoln” and really being about somebody else as yet unnamed.

      • Patrick C. Irelan November 26, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

        Hah! I enjoy nothing more in comments than feigned intellectualism and empty retorts – they say much about the commentor.

        You have made assertions without substance or support. I had intended to provide links to historical and anthropological articles on the broad-based and long-term contributions of black Americans to the cause of abolition in a foolish (and vain) effort to ease your education on the subject, but I have little faith that you would press pause on your ego for the few minutes it would take to read them. So instead I opted to mimic your excellent style of employing large words and complex sentences in such a way as to convey a message with no practical value.

        As you can see I still need practice.

      • Jeff Carlson November 26, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

        It really does look like you failed to read the post. You could start midway through the second paragraph.

  16. Anthony K November 26, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    I was trying to find a source for that Kubrick line and came across it in this piece on a Holocaust film Kubrick was planning but never made. Apparently the line is something Frederic Raphael, co-author of the “Eyes Wide Shut,” recalled Kubrick saying:

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2011/03/stanley-kubrick-the-aryan-papers.html

    I actually sent it to you not just for the skewed historical view it exposes, but because I read Kubrick as saying Schindler’s List was a movie about a “great” man’s personal inability to feel successful. It points out a Nietzschean theme that I now see in a lot of Spielberg’s work, that the struggle of the individual is far more interesting and important than the plight and struggles of millions. Spielberg’s other WWII movie was Saving Private Ryan.

  17. authorextraordinaire November 26, 2012 at 4:05 pm #

    This great granddaughter of a slave who escaped from a plantation in Louisiana and found the union forces in Mississippi, I claim a perspective. I doubt if a definitive version of anything of the “rage of race” can be thoroughly well-rendered. Those who have the power, also, have the agenda. Yes, I saw the film, two days ago, and almost nothing of it remains in memory. I thought a character portraying Frederick Douglass was one of the guests entering the gallery for the vote. The “blips” of servant/slaves and the chaste kiss by Stevens to his “Lady” near the end of the film are not worthy of the word “cameo.”

    Spielberg shorthands important concepts and expects subliminal conveyance. He is a fair conveyer of “a picture is worth a hundred words”–except, his manipulation is far from superb.

  18. odaraia November 26, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    Regarding the arguments that slaves were active (if not essential) in the struggle for their emancipation, I think Robin Blackburn has also written extensively and persuasively, including delineating links between slavery and capitalism. Haven’t seen the film yet, though I hardly think I will escape my family’s interest it. It’s difficult for me to watch a Spielberg film because he is so manipulative. Would have expected more from Kushner, but perhaps I don’t understand his work enough.

  19. bevin November 26, 2012 at 6:43 pm #

    Compare and contrast with Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace.
    Wasn’t the 13th Amendment drafted by Robert Dale Owen?

  20. Jeremy November 26, 2012 at 7:45 pm #

    From Corey’s description, the movie sounds like it’s an improvement, but not nearly enough for the 138 years it’s been, since our conception of Emancipation was this image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Emancipation_Memorial.jpg

    But, really, it’s just a matter of degree between the two. The problem with both is the same problem. And I guess I can say that I’m entirely fine with agreeing that the problem with the statue really is that it should have simply been a different statue.

  21. Seth Edenbaum November 26, 2012 at 10:21 pm #

    Israel is also threatening Mr. Abbas, even hinting that it may give up on him, as he prepares to go to the United Nations General Assembly on Nov. 29 to try to upgrade the Palestinian status to that of a nonmember state. The Israelis consider this step an act of aggression…

    If you want to understand the PLO, it’s right there in that last sentence. If you want to understand Hamas, it’s right there. If you want to understand homemade rockets and suicide bombers, it’s right there. If you want to understand why people mock you for your earnest moralizing it’s right there. Henry Farrell and Chris Bertram! It’s right there. For Duncan Black, “Atrios”, who compared Palestinians to the KKK, it’s right there. Your friends can’t be bigots because they’re your friends, and your friends aren’t bigots. It’s only logical. Your logic is false.

    Read that passage above and again, until it burns its way into your consciousness.
    If you want to claim moral superiority you damn well better earn it. And you haven’t.

    You’re as earnest as Spielberg, and just as self-indulgent.
    my disgust trumps my patience

    For you. For Farrell. For Bertram. For liberals.

    • Corey Robin November 26, 2012 at 11:00 pm #

      I wish I had a clue as to what you were talking about.

    • Seth Edenbaum November 27, 2012 at 8:56 am #

      Comments above by “diegovela” are mine, posting from my mobile.

      You posted this at CT. There it appears as a 2000 word post about our relationship to the 19th century, above a post about about Gaza that’s another example of the same phenomenon you describe.

      It’s a truism that speaking about others without listening to them, we speak mostly about ourselves. It’s a truism that applies to everyone.

      I’d like to see a film about Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown. Lincoln was a liberal who had to be forced to act. But he did. I’m not a moralist. I don’t like lazy moralism.

  22. insipid November 26, 2012 at 10:56 pm #

    I find the whole analysis extremely heinous. First off, the ONE battle sequence depicted in the movie was of black soldiers valiantly fighting. It was placed at the very start of the movie so that this gruesome image lasted throughout. So don’t tell me that Spielberg discounted the contribution of black soldiers, he literally put it front and center.

    Plus, I’m getting tired of this “white savior” meme. It’s a despicable meme that insults the thousands of white men and women that sacrificed and sometimes died for the cause of civil rights. Lincoln was well aware of the fact that pushing for the end of slavery could end his life, yet he did so anyway. Robert Gould Shaw, depicted in the movie Glory, believed in equality to his bones and was buried with his men. Hundreds of white people were lynched in the south because they spoke out against slavery and later for civil rights. White judges were threatened along with their families for enforcing Civil Rights laws. Two white Civil Rights workers were assassinated along with a black man in Mississippi for daring to register black voters. These people should not be snarkily dismissed as “saviors” but honored as partners in the cause of freedom and justice.

    And that’s how black civil rights leaders thought at the time. Frederick Douglas did not disparage Lincolns partnership in the struggle against slavery, he honored it and by his writing, seemed to love Lincoln. Thurgood Marshall did not dismiss the contribution of the white judges that gave him favorable opinions, he honored them. Martin Luther King did not dismiss the contributions of Lyndon Johnson and others that helped, he disparaged those that obstructed progress and organized against them.

    This use of the “white Savior” meme against Lincoln is particularly ironic since there were millions of blacks at the time that literally thought of him as a savior. My biggest complaint of the movie is that it failed to include Lincoln’s visit to Richmond.

    Perhaps Lincoln’s biggest failing as a leader was his near total disregard for his own safety. Upon hearing of the news of the fall of Richmond Lincoln decided he wanted to visit the city and went with an entourage of only seven guards. Needless to say, everyone besides Lincoln was justifiably terrified. Here they were riding into the enemy capitol with an extremely hated- and very recognizable- President. The reason why Lincoln and his men made it out alive was the fact that the former slaves saw him. Upon recognizing Lincoln hundreds, then tens of thousands, of soon-to-be-freed slaves surrounded him, many weeping, many referring to him as Moses, some no-doubt as their savior, one man went to his knees and Lincoln insisted that he should never do that again for any man. And he walked in the heart of rebel territory, in complete safety, surrounded in love and adoration by the people for whom he would later give the last full measure of devotion.

    I wondered at the time why this scene- perhaps the most significant and moving scene of the entire war- was not included in the movie. The scene, in its accurate historical depiction SOUNDS Speilbergian. And yet Speiberg, of all people didn’t include it.

    Why?

    Now I know. If depicting the contribution of a white person towards the cause of equal rights is considered anathema how awful would it be to depict the honest and heartfelt gratitude of black men? Obviously, if you’re to go by the above analysis, the millions of black people that loved and mourned Lincoln at the time of his death were rubes suckered into believing that they should feel gratitude towards a partner that gave his life to ending an evil institution.

    It’s an analysis that dishonors not just Lincoln but the millions of blacks that supported him.

    • louisproyect November 27, 2012 at 9:10 am #

      @Insipid: And that’s how black civil rights leaders thought at the time. Frederick Douglas did not disparage Lincolns partnership in the struggle against slavery, he honored it and by his writing, seemed to love Lincoln.

      Larry E. Nelson, “Black Leaders and the Presidential Election of 1864″

      Some prominent blacks were more critical of Lincoln, and some even with held endorsement. The provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation which freed only the slaves of masters who continued in rebellion against the United States after January 1, 1863, particularly galled Frederick Douglass who said: “I have applauded that paper and do now applaud it, as a wise measure-while I detest the motive and principle upon which it is based. By it the holding and flogging of Negroes is the exclusive luxury of loyal men.” The orator charged that the Republican policy toward blacks was “timid and short-sighted” and that Lincoln lacked moral commitment to the destruction of slavery. In support of this contention, Douglass pointed to Lincoln’s public letter of August 19, 1862, to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. In that statement Lincoln said his objective was to preserve the Union and he would free all, some, or none of the slaves as dictated by that objective. Douglass also cited Lincoln’s message to Congress of December 8, 1863, in which the President referred to emancipation as solely a war measure.

      Among the blacks who doubted the sincerity of Lincoln’s motives was William Wells Brown who perceptively attributed the progress of the Negro since Sumter to the exigencies of war. He said, “The advantages we have so far received have come as much through Jeff Davis as through President Lincoln.” Elaborating on his position, Brown declared:

      “The colored people of the country rejoice in what Mr. Lincoln has done for them, but they all wish that Gen. Fremont had been in his place. And Gen. Butler (having the larger opportunity) has done far more than Fremont. He treated the black man just as he treated other men, and that is what black men want. They want justice. And those who are disposed to do justice to all, are the best persons to manage the affairs of this country.”

      • insipid November 27, 2012 at 10:09 am #

        First off, I take notice that you switched topics from the 13th amendment to the emancipation procolomation.

        Secondly there is a vast difference between finding fault with Lincoln’s political calculations- many white and black people did at the time- and dismissing his contributions entirely. Or worse yet, dismissing ALL contributions that white people have made in the cause of freedom for all as cynicial depictions of “White Saviors”.

        Yes, Frederick Douglas found fault with President Lincoln, but he certainly appreciated his efforts.

        From Frederick Douglas’ 1876 speech commemorating Abraham Lincoln:

        http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?documentprint=39

        “Though he loved Caesar less than Rome, though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood; under his wise and beneficent rule, and by measures approved and vigorously pressed by him, we saw that the handwriting of ages, in the form of prejudice and proscription, was rapidly fading away from the face of our whole country; under his rule, and in due time, about as soon after all as the country could tolerate the strange spectacle, we saw our brave sons and brothers laying off the rags of bondage, and being clothed all over in the blue uniforms of the soldiers of the United States; under his rule we saw two hundred thousand of our dark and dusky people responding to the call of Abraham Lincoln, and with muskets on their shoulders, and eagles on their buttons, timing their high footsteps to liberty and union under the national flag; under his rule we saw the independence of the black republic of Haiti, the special object of slave-holding aversion and horror, fully recognized, and her minister, a colored gentleman, duly received here in the city of Washington; under his rule we saw the internal slave-trade, which so long disgraced the nation, abolished, and slavery abolished in the District of Columbia; under his rule we saw for the first time the law enforced against the foreign slave trade, and the first slave-trader hanged like any other pirate or murderer; under his rule, assisted by the greatest captain of our age, and his inspiration, we saw the Confederate States, based upon the idea that our race must be slaves, and slaves forever, battered to pieces and scattered to the four winds; under his rule, and in the fullness of time, we saw Abraham Lincoln, after giving the slave-holders three months’ grace in which to save their hateful slave system, penning the immortal paper, which, though special in its language, was general in its principles and effect, making slavery forever impossible in the United States. Though we waited long, we saw all this and more.

        Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January, 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance which we have heard read today. Nor shall I ever forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the emancipation proclamation. In that happy hour we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness, forgot that the President had bribed the rebels to lay down their arms by a promise to withhold the bolt which would smite the slave-system with destruction; and we were thenceforward willing to allow the President all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty and progress.

        Fellow-citizens, there is little necessity on this occasion to speak at length and critically of this great and good man, and of his high mission in the world. That ground has been fully occupied and completely covered both here and elsewhere. The whole field of fact and fancy has been gleaned and garnered. Any man can say things that are true of Abraham Lincoln, but no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln. His personal traits and public acts are better known to the American people than are those of any other man of his age. He was a mystery to no man who saw him and heard him. Though high in position, the humblest could approach him and feel at home in his presence. Though deep, he was transparent; though strong, he was gentle; though decided and pronounce in his convictions, he was tolerant towards those who differed from him, and patient under reproaches. Even those who only knew him through his public utterance obtained a tolerably clear idea of his character and personality. The image of the man went out with his words, and those who read them knew him. “

        The ending to his oration is particularly appropriate to this discussion:

        Fellow-citizens, I end, as I began, with congratulations. We have done a good work for our race today. In doing honor to the memory of our friend and liberator, we have been doing highest honors to ourselves and those who come after us; we have been fastening ourselves to a name and fame imperishable and immortal; we have also been defending ourselves from a blighting scandal. When now it shall be said that the colored man is soulless, that he has no appreciation of benefits or benefactors; when the foul reproach of ingratitude is hurled at us, and it is attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may calmly point to the monument we have this day erected to the memory of Abraham Lincoln.

    • authorextraordinaire November 27, 2012 at 11:19 am #

      Refreshing it is to read the view of someone who is not totally ensnared in tribal mentality. Thanks for a more holistic perspective. The more limited the view, the more distorted the conclusion.

  23. Seth Edenbaum November 27, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    Douglass on Lincoln: “…though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, ”

    Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greeley
    “As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

    I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

    I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.”

    John Brown. An address by Frederick Douglass, at the fourteenth anniversary of Storer College, Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, May 30, 1881

    “But the question is, Did John Brown fail? He certainly did fail to get out of Harper’s Ferry before being beaten down by United States soldiers ; he did fail to save his own life, and to lead a liberating army into the mountains of Virginia. But he did not go to Harper’s Ferry to save his life. The true question is, Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? and to this I answer ten thousand times, No ! No man fails, or can fail who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause. No man, who in his hour of extremest need, when on his way to meet an ignominious death, could so forget himself as to stop and kiss a little child, one of the hated race for whom he was about to die, could by any possibility fail. Did John Brown fail? Ask Henry A. Wise in whose house less than two years after, a school for the emancipated slaves was taught. Did John Brown fail? Ask James M. Mason, the au- thor of the inhuman fugitive slave bill, who was cooped up in- Fort Warren, as a traitor less than two years from the time that he stood over the prostrate body of John Brown. Did John Brown fail? Ask Clement C. Vallandingham, one other of the inquisi- torial party ; for he too went down in the tremendous whirlpool created by the powerful hand of this bold invader. If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates, places and men, for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia — not Fort Sumpter, but Harper’s Ferry and the arsenal — not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Re- public. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises. When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone — the armed hosts of freedom stpod face to face over the chasm of a broken Union — and the clash of arms was at hand. The South staked all upon getting possession of the Federal Gov- ernment, and failing to do that, drew the sword of rebellion and thus made her own, and not Brown’s, the lost cause of the century.”

    I don’t know what to say when I see yet another white liberal desperate to reassure his friends that he condemns all violence equally.

    Peter Beinart “I’m not asking Israel to be Utopian. I’m not asking it to allow Palestinians who were forced out (or fled) in 1948 to return to their homes. I’m not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.”

    Israel was founded on Jim Crow; it’s gone downhill from there. A racist mini-state, ringed by refugee camps, and defended by earnest liberals in some mixture of tribalism, cognitive dissonance and guilt.

    The question of Palestine is directly related to ML KIng’s disappointment with the white moderate. The question of John Brown is directly related to the question of Hamas.

    The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

    • Corey Robin November 27, 2012 at 9:20 pm #

      Seth, just try to stay on one topic, any topic, for more than a few sentences. You’re all over the place!

      • diegovela November 28, 2012 at 12:44 am #

        You refer to the elision of important figures thought of as politically, morally, linguistically awkward or off-putting. You refer to the brilliant, articulate black leader. I add the white bomb-thrower with whom he was on good terms. Both played a role.

        CT has a link on the sidebar to Juan Cole, the white go-to guy for everything Arab (and Muslim). Why not Jadaliyya? They link to Jacobin, which is a useless rag. The name is a pose. I won’t ask about AbuKhalil. The only links to Mondoweiss come (rarely) from commenters. Any links from Nir Rosen or Helena Cobban probably came from me: her interviews with female legislators in the Hamas government, writings on people-power in Gaza. Anything from MERIP at CT? No.

        What sort of serious discussion of the issues is possible given the exclusion of experts and relevant parties?

        You ask questions about a popular filmmaker’s relation to the past. I ask questions about our intellectuals’ relation to the present.

        Spielberg is a Zionist and an assimilationist. Insecure, arrogant, wanting to be liked. All the contradictions. His “serious” films are his worst.

      • Seth Edenbaum November 28, 2012 at 12:57 am #

        “ask questions about our intellectuals’ relation to the present.”

        No. Just our relation to the present, the need to see what what we want to see.

  24. jonnybutter November 28, 2012 at 7:53 am #

    I stand by my earlier assessment of Speilberg, and of Hollywood in general, but my original comment does skirt the important point prof. Robin is making. Dave from the Crooked Timber thread says it and CR cites it:

    “Kushner doesn’t think he’s written an artistic version of the past,…[he] thinks he’s done good history”

    This really *is* a problem, and for a number of reasons, but chief among them is that what he has written is very *bad* history.

    • authorextraordinaire November 28, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

      Perhaps some people think that anything they conceive can be called “history, without any scholarly, diligent study.

    • carol hayden December 7, 2012 at 1:45 am #

      That’s putting words into Kushner’s mouth. Spielberg refers to the movie as a dream. How can it be historical when they’re making up dialogue?

      • jonnybutter December 7, 2012 at 7:53 am #

        How can it be historical when they’re making up dialogue?

        Are you kidding? I will assume you are kidding.

        And we are putting words into CR’s mouth. The quote above is from a commenter. Kushner’s work could be both an ‘artistic vision’ and good history. Doesn’t sound like it’s probably good history or good art, but I reserve judgement on the latter (theoretically).

  25. Alex Schulman November 28, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

    I think the problem is the silly expectation forced on Spielberg (and perhaps partially, I grant, invited by him) that when he makes a movie about something it’s THE movie about that thing. We should get over this. Schindlers List – not without its flaws! – is a stunning cinematic achievement. It’s not “the movie about the Holocaust.” There is no such movie. Movies aren’t Arendt tomes. You could make a movie where Jewish families show up at Auschwitz and are immediately shoved into the showers, over and over again for hours. That seems to me the closest thing to a movie that would truly be “about” the Holocaust but no one would pay to see it and there is no reason they should.

    Saving Private Ryan – not without it’s flaws! – contains some of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed. What if I said, Who cares?! It just perpetuates the myth that Americans won the war where in reality the Western Front was a sideshow and the Red Army actually beat Hitler.

    There were things about Lincoln I liked and things I didn’t like, including it’s handling of its black characters, but to hold some pre-formed necessity over it’s head, like “This movie should teach people how important blacks were to abolition,” smacks of the socialist realism school of aesthetics. It’s not that much different, structurally, than the right-wing critiques of Munich, which seemed to come from the premise, “If he doesn’t depict the Israelis as righteous heroes and the Arabs as vicious terrorists, he’s a betrayer of freedom.” We start from the premise that “Spielberg is making THE terrorism movie!” move through the requirement that X be said about terrorism, and crank out our evaluation.

    Also I have to say there seems to be a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose aspect to Spielberg in terms of his being the white (and… Jewish?) guy who keeps making movies about “black” topics. I remember Amistad and The Color Purple also inviting “How dare he…” criticisms, but for the black characters that were in them rather than not in them.

    • Corey Robin November 28, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

      This ground has been covered like a thousand times. Don’t have the energy to go over it once more.

    • diegovela November 28, 2012 at 10:59 pm #

      Plenty of Jews said “how dare he!” in response to Schlindler’s List. Spielberg’s Oscar speech: “This is for the six million” The anger in response to that, Amistad and The Color Purple are the same. When we tell stories, we tell our stories. He claimed to speak for others.

      ET is a story of children’s terror among adults. Like Where the Wild Things Are, it’s the author’s story about himself. Shoah is not a film about the past, or about others. Its a film about the filmmaker, the present, and memory. The discussion of Gaza at Crooked Timber is about Chris Bertram, his confusion and his defensive insecurity; moral passivity in the guise of moral superiority.

      In your follow-up you mention Weber, whose politics were grotesque. There is no such thing as “value free science”.

      I posted it before and I’ll repeat it. Oliver Wendell Holmes:
      “His account of the Communists shows in the most extreme form what I came to loathe in the abolitionists–the conviction that anyone who did not agree with them was a knave or a fool.”

      What would Weber say about John Brown, and who should I listen to, Holmes, or Frederick Douglass?

      To understand white people I read white people. No one else understands them so well. When they pretend to speak for everyone I understand them even more.

  26. Seth Edenbaum November 29, 2012 at 9:39 pm #

    UN general assembly makes resounding vote in favour of Palestinian statehood
    Overwhelming majority votes to recognise Palestine as non-member state as US and Israel are left to condemn decision”

    The self appointed vanguard of the white are left in the dust by their kin: the apparatchiks of the corrupt and middling bourgeois.

    • Corey Robin November 29, 2012 at 9:45 pm #

      I’m running out of patience with you. Your gnomic utterances notwithstanding, this is a post about Spielberg, Lincoln, and the Civil War. We’re not taking about the Palestinians or Crooked Timber or whatever your current obsessions are. You’ve thanked me in person for not banning me, but you’re wearing out your welcome here. My hospitality only extends so far. Either try to engage and stay on topic — and writing intelligible prose, with transition sentences, and direct objects of address would help — or stay away. I’m asking you politely; I don’t want to ban you. But I will. So knock it off or you’ll be kicked out.

  27. xoxoxoBruce November 29, 2012 at 11:46 pm #

    The story of the ending of slavery is huge, too big for a single movie without making it a fly over. After Years of struggle, the nation torn apart, all the moving & shaking by the players big and small, it boiled down to the thirteenth amendment. In the end, all the players could only stand by while a few white men in Washington said yay or nay.
    That’s the money shot of the movement, and what this movie was about.

    • Patrick St. John November 29, 2012 at 11:57 pm #

      Bruce, most of Corey’s post was explaining how the 13th Amendment *wasn’t* the money shot of the movement, not by a long shot.

      • carol hayden December 7, 2012 at 1:56 am #

        Except someone disagreed with him.

  28. theresajohannamueller December 3, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    Reblogged this on The Scarlett Feminist and commented:
    It seems a precise and well written analysis of the film “Lincoln”.

  29. teemtwo December 20, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

    Reblogged this on Conservative Calmversation and commented:
    A very interesting criticism of the Spielberg film Lincoln.

  30. Erstwhile Anthropologist January 1, 2013 at 9:09 pm #

    The recent Feminist Wire and Ishmael Reed critiques of Django Unchained (links below) reminded me of this post on Lincoln, which I also read as in conversation with Corey’s recent posts on Jefferson, especially given this line by Ishmael Reed (which also gestures to Corey’s recent post on Jacobin magazine, and the spectral presence of CLR James’ Black Jacobins and the security threat slave uprisings have played in shaping current state-sponsored security regimes rooted in historically-sedimented practices rooted firmly in the antebellum period):
    “Judging from his letters, the revolt in Haiti scared the blank out of Thomas Jefferson and his friends.”

    http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/12/28/black-audiences-white-stars-and-django-unchained/

    http://thefeministwire.com/2012/12/django-unchained-a-critical-conversation-between-two-friends/

    Taken together (Corey’s posts and the two links above), they all raise provocative questions about who gets to represent ‘the national sin and shame’ of slavery, how it will be represented, and the ways in which even projects by liberal white male directors are still shackled, pun intended, by ongoing race/gender/color inequalities (i.e. bell hooks’ ‘white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’) and longstanding Hollywood conventions which privilege white/male perspectives and stories.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Steven Spielberg’s White Men of Democracy « Corey Robin | I am … a Revolutionary! - November 25, 2012

    [...] Steven Spielberg’s White Men of Democracy « Corey Robin. [...]

  2. Lincoln – worth seeing | Monastic Musings Too - November 26, 2012

    [...] Steven Spielberg’s White Men of Democracy [...]

  3. The Zombie Dunning School - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money - November 26, 2012

    [...] comment on it directly for now, but I can say that this Kushner quote that Aaron Bady [via Corey Robin] found is…not [...]

  4. Thoughts on Lincoln (the film) « Thinking Through History - November 26, 2012

    [...] desired to go tit-for-tat with the silly buffs. – TL Updates: Check out Corey Robin’s long reflection here, and Aaron Bady’s here. Both aim for deeper analysis and criticism. – [...]

  5. More on Lincoln, with Corey Robin and Aaron Bady « Thinking Through History - November 26, 2012

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  6. And Even More Monday Links « Gerry Canavan - November 26, 2012

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  7. Spielberg’s Lincoln Movie: Yet More White Saviors? :: racismreview.com - November 26, 2012

    [...] Political scientist Corey Robin has a very thorough review and analysis of issues in and around the new Spielberg movie, Lincoln. It focuses on the political machinations in regard to the thirteenth amendment, which officially ended slavery — which was a or the major foundation of the US economic and political system for well over half this country’s history. I have not yet seen the movie, but according to Robin and others, it is another “white savior” movie: [...]

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  9. Spielberg's "Lincoln" and Its Critics - NYTimes.com - November 29, 2012

    [...] balance of provisional cynicism and ultimate idealism into sharp relief. To its various detractors, this narrowing is a betrayal of the true story of emancipation, which was actually settled on the [...]

  10. Movie Response: Lincoln | ambiguouslyethnicgirl - November 29, 2012

    [...] to feature a problematic white-savior trope (the most well-articulated points I’ve seen are here). I wish I were more articulate than Corey Robin, but – alas for me and, perhaps, for any of [...]

  11. Lincoln: Art and Politics « Jeffrey C. Goldfarb's Deliberately Considered - December 3, 2012

    [...] but because the battle somehow didn’t engage as the ghetto scene did, critics, Kate Masur and Corey Robin, among many others, have noted that African Americans appear in the film merely as on-lookers in a [...]

  12. A Socialist in Canada » The great uncompromiser: Review of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln - December 4, 2012

    [...] preclud[ing] the inclusion of Blacks as political agents in their own right,” [3] and for teaching “that radical change comes about by triangulation, by backroom deals, and by [...]

  13. Lincoln: or, A Very Important Film by Steven Spielberg - December 5, 2012

    [...] also agree with Corey Robin that more could have been done to show the active role African-Americans played in ending slavery. [...]

  14. ‘Lincoln’ versus history: Screening out the past - December 7, 2012

    [...] one by Aaron Bady (“Lincoln Against the Radicals“), the other by Corey Robin (“Steven Spielberg’s White Men of Democracy“) – help lay the groundwork, working on the interface of how and why in the movie [...]

  15. Cercle La brèche - January 31, 2013

    [...] [3] http://coreyrobin.com/2012/11/25/steven-spielbergs-white-men-of-democracy/ [4] [...]

  16. Lincoln el inflexible | Amauta - February 14, 2013

    [...] [3] http://coreyrobin.com/2012/11/25/steven-spielbergs-white-men-of-democracy/ [4] [...]

  17. The Oscar for race consciousness goes to… | Threads - February 20, 2013

    [...] … Beasts of the Southern Wild. This film was aesthetically beautiful, and the young Quvenzhané Wallis (six years old at the time of filming) is a phenomenal performer. At nine years old, she is the youngest actor ever nominated for an Academy Award. Even though feminist scholar and activist bell hooks gave the film a negative review, I still think it does a decent job of highlighting the moral multidimensionality of a historically marginalized group of people. (At least, it does a far better job than Lincoln, which only has a handful of people of color (POC) actors in the movie…and they barely have any lines in A STORY ABOUT SLAVERY(!!!). For shame Spielberg, for shame.) [...]

  18. The Oscars and human rights | Talking rights - February 25, 2013

    [...] Ross Douthat did a very good summary of the debate, and linked to Corey Robin’s “Steven Spielberg’s White Men of Democracy,” which argues that the fight for the 13th amendment was a collective effort  – but of [...]

  19. Partido Obrero Socialista » Lincoln, la esclavitud y la guerra civilTextos de ALAN MAASS Y CHARLIE POST - February 27, 2013

    [...] 3/ http://coreyrobin.com/2012/11/25/st… [...]

  20. Lincoln: jusqu’à ce que chaque goutte de sang jaillie sous le fouet soit payée par une autre versée par l’épée (Not perfect but important: Spielberg’s film reminds us that Lincoln was first and foremost a politician) | jcdurbant - March 10, 2013

    [...] [3] http://coreyrobin.com/2012/11/25/steven-spielbergs-white-men-of-democracy/ [...]

  21. Lincoln: or, A Very Important Film by Steven Spielberg - June 19, 2013

    […] also agree with Corey Robin that more could have been done to show the active role African-Americans played in ending slavery. […]

  22. The Public Professor - November 20, 2013

    […] Meanwhile, City University of New York Graduate Center Associate Professor of Political Science Corey Robin doesn’t address Zelikow’s piece directly, and also isn’t anywhere near as polite as Gutting in assessing the film.  Rather, he thinks Lincoln is about thirty years behind academic scholarship in its understanding of slavery’s end. […]

  23. Lincoln (2012), Steven Spielberg | Du Cinématographe - May 22, 2014

    […] The representation of the African-American is quite strange: as some have noted (here, here or here), in the movie they play only a minor role that do not correspond to their real one in […]

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