Ta-Nehisi Coates is sponsoring a fascinating conversation between himself, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, and historian Kate Masur about the film Lincoln. It’s a real treat to read these three distinct and expert voices engage with each other; I’m eager to hear Kate’s response to what’s been said so far.
Both Coates and Scott bring up an interesting point that I hadn’t really considered about the film: not only how it represents the Civil War as fundamentally a fight about slavery, but also how radical, even revolutionary, that is in the context of American film history. I don’t know a lot about film history, but that makes a lot of sense to me.
But it also raises a question for me. Both Coates and Scott seem to assume—they’re not explicit about this, so I emphasize the “seem”—that movies are the medium of mass culture, the vehicle by which people learn their history. Scott writes:
And I also think that, within the history of American film and of pop-cultural depictions of the Civil War more generally, it is radical in ways that have not been sufficiently noted.
I have no confirmation of this from any source, but it is my hunch that some of the intention in making Lincoln was to offer a corrective to Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, films that are hardly taken seriously as history but that nonetheless still constitute part of the fantasy life of the Republic. You could say that Spielberg and Kushner propose a counter-fantasy.
Coates is more explicit:
Thus the reason I think we don’t see more liberals engaging in a full-throated defense of Lincoln is that the opposing view—the one that animates films like the Gone With Wind and Gods and Generals, which animates television shows like Hell on Wheels, which finds people holding Secession Balls and celebrating the attempt to raise a republic premised on white supremacy—has no respect among anyone who’s seriously thought about the issue.
Think about it like this. There’s been a great debate roiling the academy between people like Sean Wilentz who think we underplay the importance of politicians, and historians who emphasize the actions of activists and radicals. This has been a pretty heated debate, and I think we see it play out in Lincoln. But it’s not like Wilentz is trying to “clean” slavery. The role of politicians and radicals in democracy is a legit and interesting debate in a way that debating states rights vs. slavery just isn’t.
Conservatives, as they have in other intellectual arenas, have simply fled the field. The result is that when you see a film like Lincoln, what you find is liberals hotly critiquing the film because things that may seem revolutionary in the grand sweep of American politics aren’t among people who’ve spent years thinking about Lincoln’s legacy and the Civil War.
Coates says that the wrong view of the Civil War—that it wasn’t about slavery—”has no respect among anyone who’s seriously thought about the issue.” The implication is that the right view is mostly, or even only, held by academics and serious readers.
What both Scott and Coates are leaving out of their account of mass culture is the most common cultural institution of all: the school. Not everyone sees Lincoln, but everyone does go to school. (And as Aaron Bady pointed out to me in an email, how many people have seen Birth of a Nation?) Of course, Coates and Scott aren’t really saying that people only get their history from film, but they are suggesting that film is the cultural medium by which the polity narrates its history to itself. But aren’t schools—public and private— the more likely medium of the mass cultural transmission of history, and a better, or at least comparable, indicator of how the polity understands itself?
And then the question becomes: what are students learning about the Civil War in the schools? Coates, Scott, and Masur agree that the historiographical consensus is that slavery lay at the root of the Civil War. Insofar as history teachers in the schools are trained to some degree in their field, wouldn’t that consensus be taught in the classroom? Found in the textbooks?
To answer this, we’d have to look at state curricula, and as Connor Kilkpatrick pointed out to me in an email, Texas plays an outsized role in creating textbook content. So that’s not promising. And a fair number of teachers, particularly of a previous generation, were schooled in a kind of soft-left critique of the Northern position during the Civil War, which gave the impression that it was all about greedy northern capitalists. In addition, if you read comments threads of many blogs (not the most reliable indicator of mass opinion but still), the Lost Cause theme is out there. Coates has been rightly flagging this crap for years, and it plays a big role, as he says, on the Right.
Still, I’d be curious to find out how the Civil War is taught today in the schools. And here I defer to Coates and Masur, as well as my readers, many of whom are public school teachers who would definitely know a lot more about this than I do.
Because I’m wondering if there isn’t a vast majority—somewhere between the history profession and the Lost Causers that surround the Ron Paul movement that Coates speaks of—that both Coates and Scott are leaving out.
That said, I did overhear this on 12th Street, not more than an hour ago.
So I was telling her about Lincoln, but I didn’t want to give it away and say that he got shot.
Update (1:10 pm)
Well, that was fast. Henry Farrell just sent me a link to this post he wrote last year. Long story short, I’m probably wrong (though Henry doesn’t talk about the schools or curricula).
I became a US citizen yesterday, after spending some time over the previous few days reading the US civics study guide to study for the citizenship exam (since I am a political scientist, it would have been particularly embarrassing for me if I had failed it). For better or worse, it’s hard for me to switch off my inner social scientist. Hence, I started paying a different kind of attention when I read that ‘states rights’ is one of three acceptable answers to the civics question ‘name one problem that led to the Civil War’ (slavery and economics are the other two). My understanding, perhaps mistaken, is that ‘states’ rights’ is typically employed as an explanation by those who would prefer to forget (as Ta-Nehisi Coates notes; also here) that it was one particular right – the right to own slaves – that was what was really at stake in the conflict. The study guide goes on to elaborate that:
The Civil War began when 11 southern states voted to secede (separate) from the United States to form their own country, the Confederate States of America. These southern states believed that the federal government of the United States threatened their right to make their own decisions. They wanted states’ rights with each state making their own decisions about their government. If the national government
contradicted the state, they did not want to follow the national government.
after which it does get into a discussion of the relationship between slavery and economic systems in North and South, and its relationship to the Civil War.
This – of course – was only a very small part of the event in question (and in any event I got asked a completely different set of questions on the day) – but it was interesting. Tests of this kind are a very useful way of gauging what is accepted, and what is not accepted as part of the official national narrative, especially when, as in the US, there is no national history curriculum. I was surprised that this was part of the accepted (or at least acceptable) narrative…
Update (2:30 pm)
Kate Masur has a very powerful response to Coates and Scott.
Tony argues that the film is a “radical” contribution to the film history of the Civil War because it doesn’t trade in Lost Cause nostalgia or the hackneyed idea of the tragic “brothers’ war.” I don’t quite agree with that interpretation. What I want to emphasize here, however, is that by deciding to focus on Lincoln’s struggle to abolish slavery, Spielberg and Kushner ensured that the film would be seen within another history: the history of films about struggles for black civil rights and equality. In that context—with its benevolent white heroes and patient, passive African Americans—the film is decidedly not innovative.
I agree that this is not a reactionary film. It does not repeat many of the historical inaccuracies and white supremacist messages of earlier films about the Civil War. It does not argue that Lincoln was a tyrant or that African Americans were better off in slavery. But isn’t that setting the bar awfully low? Aren’t we entitled to expect a bit more from people as smart and well-financed (and liberal) as Spielberg and Kushner?