When It Comes to Lincoln, We’re Still Virgins

One of the lines of argument about Lincoln that has intrigued me most is this one, which Will Boisvert states over at Crooked Timber:

But the movie’s focus is on…snakey retail politics. That’s what makes the movie interesting, in part because it cuts against the grain of Lincoln hagiography by making him a shrewd, somewhat dirty pol.

Will isn’t alone in this. I’ve seen David Denby, Anthony Lane, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Chris Hayes offer eloquent statements of the same thesis: that what makes Lincoln great is that it shows how his greatness consists in so many acts of smallness. Politicking, horse-trading, compromise, log-rolling, and the like.

What’s interesting to me about this line of argument is, first, that it hardly cuts against the standard historiography of Lincoln. Ever since David Donald’s Lincoln Reconsidered, which came out in 1947, and Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay in The American Political Tradition (1948), we’ve known about this Lincoln. When it comes to Lincoln, we lost our virtue a long time ago, yet somehow, in 2012, we’re all still virgins. (Pace Pauline Kael.)

But beyond the historiography, there’s a larger cultural question: What is it about this country that makes any description of the moral cesspool of politics seem like the  revelation of a brave new truth? Particularly among otherwise sophisticated cultural brokers like Lane et al? I mean these are men steeped in the Western canon; David Denby even wrote a book about that. Yet somehow they’ve never absorbed the lessons of Henry V? Or The Prince? Or Max Weber?

I think it was D.H. Lawrence, in his Studies in Classic American Literature (though my copy is in storage so I can’t know for sure), who first cottoned on to this peculiarly American dynamic whereby innocence gives way to cynicism, without ever achieving anything like a mature and stable or permanent sense of realism. So that every time we stumble across some banal item of reality—Lincoln was a politician! Politicians politick!—we draw back in shock and awe at the haunting truth of it all, as if we had just been handed the tablets at Mt. Sinai. (O’Brien speaks of our “authentic wonderment” at Spielberg/Kushner’s decision to set the saintly Lincoln against “a more detached and analytical surveying of circumstances.”)

Understood in this light, the realism of Lincoln is just the flip side of the hagiography of Lincoln. Only a country steeped in myths of innocence would find the most conventional and boring kind of realism about politics to be the trumpet blast of Truth, Brave Truth.

We see these quicksilver shifts, from innocence to cynicism or realism, in the culture all the time—though sometimes they go in the reverse direction. Think of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, how the wise-cracking cynic Jean Arthur becomes a true believer. Or Dave, where the Sigourney Weaver character makes the same pilgrimage. (Interestingly, in both cases it’s a woman who loses her cynicism and discovers her innocence via falling in love with a man.)

But whether it’s the cynic discovering or recovering her innocence, or the innocent losing his innocence, the story of politics in this country is always the same, toggling back and forth between two positions that are little more than the competing wisdom of juveniles.

It’s basically the truth of the 5 year old set against the truth of the 15 year old. And any time the 15 year old speaks, we’re expected to murmur, in hushed wonder: brave, bold, true, wow. If you’re a 5 year old, I can see why that would be the case. If you’re a 45-year-old, as I am, it’s a bit tougher.  Or at least it should be.


  1. Elizabeth Donahue November 28, 2012 at 9:58 am | #

    Never mind Virgin. You’re obviously no lady since you revealed your age. Hath you no shame?


    • Corey Robin November 28, 2012 at 9:59 am | #

      Pipe down, or I’ll reveal yours too.

  2. david mizner November 28, 2012 at 10:12 am | #

    Well at least judging by Boisvert’s comment, he doesn’t seem to think Speilberg’s take on Lincoln or politics is “interesting” because it’s unique, only that he agrees with the implicit theory of change.

    So the debate here is really about which kind of agency truly gets things done—state action shaped by public sentiment and corrupt parliamentary politics, or self-organized, bottom-up social movements? In emphasizing the former Lincoln isn’t so much an apologia for Obama as a rebuff to Occupy Wall Street….Self-organized marches and encampments and land seizures don’t meaningfully win freedom from exploitation, not in Zucotti Park and certainly not in the Confederacy. A robust freedom has to be enshrined in law, defended by the state, and achieved through messy, meat-and-potatoes democratic politics—exactly the style of agency that Spielberg lionizes.

    It’s a false choice (what influences “public sentiment” if not “bottom up” social movements? LBJ, not the civil rights movement, deserves credit?) that I think even most Obama admirers would reject; but most would applaud the glorification of “pragmatism” and horse-trading at the expense of radicalism and agitation.

    I’m not sure if Kushner and Speilberg set out to make a film about our current moment, but many people are certainly interpreting it as such. How long before one of them argues that Pragmatic Abe would’ve supported a “Grand Bargain.”?

    • agnosticnixie December 5, 2012 at 12:52 am | #

      >messy, meat-and-potatoes democratic politics

      I would assume he should then be in favor of worker councils and popular assemblies, since these tend to be the actual meat and potatoes as opposed to fine-wine-and-dining of backroom republicanism.

  3. jonnybutter November 28, 2012 at 10:13 am | #

    innocence gives way to cynicism

    The two are actually the same thing after the first cycle, since the kind of ‘innocence’ we’re talking about recurs. Can you properly call it ‘innocence’ if it recurs? I don’t think so. (That Americans are obsessed with innocence tells you something about us, but that’s a slightly different story). What you properly call this feedback loop between innocence and cynicism is an expression of the very human tendency to avoid responsibility at all costs for as long as possible. We Americans will avoid things like this, and fiscal responsibility, until we can’t, and then we won’t.

    • Stephen Zielinski November 28, 2012 at 11:05 am | #

      innocence gives way to cynicism

      The two are actually the same thing after the first cycle, since the kind of ‘innocence’ we’re talking about recurs.

      Children can be innocent. Adults? I don’t think so. The innocence found among adults is just a psychological disposition, a reflexive flight into blindness, an attitude impervious to the effects evidence can produce.

      Children can sin, if that’s the best word for it, but can clean off the stain sin leaves behind. Adults just dirty up the bathwater.

      I agree that the innocence found in adults entails an evasion or refusal of responsibility. Cynicism also evades responsibility.

  4. Christopher Coleman (@ccineastnash) November 28, 2012 at 10:24 am | #

    While I certainly agree with your assessment of the naive critical reception of Lincoln (“the trumpet blast of Truth, Brave Truth”), I think it’s a little unfair to extend that assessment to a criticism of the film itself (leaving aside your earlier, entirely justified criticism of the films exclusion of black players in the passage of the 13th Amendment). You argue that the film is just ” flip side of the hagiography of Lincoln.” That is, it replaces the saintly Lincoln with the calculating politician. As an antidote to this “peculiarly American dynamic,” you implicitly advocate for a more mature view of politics focused on a stable sense of realism. At the same time, you criticize the film for being just that–“the most conventional and boring kind of realism about politics.” Do you think the film presents itself as boldly uncovering some hitherto unknown dirty truth about Lincoln the retail politician or is it just the critics who are replaying the classic American narrative of Innocence Lost?

    • Corey Robin November 28, 2012 at 10:49 am | #

      I think the film’s realism is the innocent’s realism. I.e., there are only two choices: either politics is noble speeches from noble men or it’s grubby horse-trading. I think critics think this film is sophisticated b/c it is set at the intersection of both. But that’s hardly sophisticated.

      • Stephen Zielinski November 28, 2012 at 11:08 am | #

        Realism as cynicism vs. Realism as a willingness to experience what is there before one.

      • Jeremy November 29, 2012 at 12:54 am | #

        It’s like the #slatepitch version of history. It centers around a superficially counterintuitive premise (Lincoln could only achieve great and noble ends through base and shabby means) that somehow stands in for a deep, meaningful insight. But largely, it serves to encourage a sort of complacency with the status quo (don’t complain about rotten political compromises, they’re the means that people better than you are using to achieve amazing goals).

      • Joey November 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm | #

        @Jeremy: “superficially counterintuitive premise . . . . stands in for a deep, meaningful insight.”

        Wait…Malcolm Gladwell wrote Lincoln?

      • Bill Barnes December 1, 2012 at 4:58 pm | #

        After finally seeing the movie last night, I am even more dishartened by most of the comments here and on CT, from all sides. For all its sins of omission and occasional mawkish touches, overall the film is a powerful presentation of the moral seriousness, the existential centrality, of politics in certain kinds of historical circumstances. Corey, I just don’t see how you can say that it’s nothing but “there are only two choices: either politics is noble speeches from noble men or it’s grubby horse-trading.” That’s not what I saw or felt – rather it took me back, at least a little bit, to being in the same room with Martin King in Alabama in 1965 – and left me comparing what that was like for me at age 20, with my 20 year old students today, virtually none of whom are registered to vote and all of whom seem to think that all politics is a joke, all politicians, at all times and places, are crooks, liers, bafoons – who look at me as if I were from Mars when I talk about what it was like to be their age in the Sixties.

      • agnosticnixie December 5, 2012 at 12:54 am | #

        It’s very easy to make the fallacy of the golden mean seem profound.

    • jonnybutter November 28, 2012 at 10:58 am | #

      you criticize the film for being…–”the most conventional and boring kind of realism about politics.”

      I would just add that ‘boring’ is precisely the right adjective. What’s maddeningly boring about this kind of realism about politics is that is it both so predictable – like hearing ‘Hotel California’ on the radio for the 203,000th time – and so empty of content.

  5. David Kaib November 28, 2012 at 10:32 am | #

    The constant shifting between idealism and cynicism is how hegemony works – or rather what hegemony is. When a dissident draws on ideals to suggest they aren’t being lived up to, you’re accused of naivete. If you suggest engaging in power politics because that’s what works, you’re attacked as immoral. And many critics will adopt once stance thinking it superior to the other without noticing, as you say, they are part of the same transaction, and as a result it merely reinforces the status quo.

    Our political culture is a endless series of dichotomies that serve to separate what should be connected and conflate what should be understood separately.

  6. normanbirnbaum November 28, 2012 at 11:19 am | #

    Not at all sure….Galbraith, Kennan, Niebuhr, Schlesinger (and Burnham, Dahl, many others) were hardly ethereal in their approaches to US politics…..even the moralists (Macdonald, Mills,hosts of others including Harrington) were aware of these contradictions regards Norman Birnbaum

  7. Thomas Nephew November 28, 2012 at 12:11 pm | #

    Maybe this just rephrases Mr. Coleman’s question, but can you supply an example of a film or novel — American or otherwise — that succeeds in the way you would have preferred “Lincoln” to succeed? Doctorow’s “The March” perhaps? “Little Big Man”? Michener’s better efforts? (All as more social history than ‘great man’ history, at any rate.)

    Your preferences aren’t entirely clear to me at this point — even a setting at the intersection of noble speeches and grubby politics isn’t sophisticated/45 year old politically adult. So then what is? I know you’re kind of scoffing elsewhere at counterpoints that this (political chamber piece drama) is simply the movie that Spielberg chose to make, but it seems like you’re saying it’s juvenile and/or a moral failing not to have made the one you’d prefer. (In this post you talk mainly about its (un)critical reception, but you also say “the film’s realism is the innocent’s realism.”) Those seem like equivalently unsatisfying positions to me.

    I think Aaron Bady’s criticism — which I’d paraphrase as the film not succeeding on its own terms, as a full depiction of how an important political event transpired, one that honors the activism of abolitionists rather than shushing it — is a better one. That seems like a feasible and very important improvement of the dramatic choice Spielberg and Kushner made. You seem to mainly want a different dramatic choice.

    • Corey Robin November 28, 2012 at 12:29 pm | #

      Not true: Aaron’s point is my point. If you re-read my post, I say that what’s truly strange about this film is that it makes a deliberate effort to open up the project of emancipation/abolition to a wider circle of voices, beyond Lincoln himself. It just stops short in an explicable way. It’s not true to its own impulses, and that’s because it’s hampered by the question of race.

      In terms of good films about American political culture, which transcend the naif’s realism:

      Born Yesterday His Girl Friday Taxi Driver The Aviator

      On Wed, Nov 28, 2012 at 12:11 PM, Corey Rob

  8. authorextraordinaire November 28, 2012 at 12:41 pm | #

    I vaguely recall a history professor–maybe a sociologist– lecturing on the lack of a deep tribal memory and myth among Americans due to the polyglot nature of this nation-state’s history. Your perusal on the continuing naivete–I call denial–in this society seems to me, to have a good dollop of this immaturity, a lack of tribal grounding, thus the condition.

  9. ghost of the little valet November 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm | #

    Can’t help but notice that presidential propaganda has been working hard to associate the incumbent president with Lincoln’s prestige. Now, as the chasm gapes wider between that historically-important president and this crooked banker’s factotum we have in Obama, here comes propaganda to make us mouth the slogan that Lincoln compromised, too.

  10. Brendan Walsh November 28, 2012 at 2:48 pm | #

    You are obsessed with this film and peoples’ defense of it!

    From: Corey Robin Reply-To: Corey Robin Date: Wed, 28 Nov 2012 14:31:06 +0000 To: Brendan Walsh Subject: [New post] When It Comes to Lincoln, We¹re Still Virgins

    WordPress.com Corey Robin posted: “One of the lines of argument about Lincoln that has intrigued me most is this one, which Will Boisvert states over at Crooked Timber: But the movie¹s focus is on…snakey retail politics. That¹s what makes the movie interesting, in part because it cu”

  11. Zagrobelny (@Zagrobelny) November 28, 2012 at 3:06 pm | #

    Sometimes a message that you know is one that you think other people need to hear. We might have read The Prince or know about Lincoln and the Whigs jumping out the window, but other people aren’t aware of this. It’s refreshing to see a cynical, politician Lincoln in the work of a idealist popularizer like Spielberg.

  12. swallerstein November 28, 2012 at 3:27 pm | #

    The United States has a very bloody history (Viet Nam, Hiroshima, imperialist interventions in Latin America, Iraq, Afghanistan, support for Israel, Guantanamo, not to mention genocide of Native Americans, slavery and segregation) and so in order to justify itself and maintain a sense of self-worth, it has to overdo the note of innocence. Otherwise, the United States would sink into a sea of guilt and would either have to “behave” better or openly recognize that they are an agressive imperialist power.

    Now, a small country, say, Denmark, does not have much power to do harm in international terms and so has no need to exaggerate the note of innocence in order to sleep well at night.

    At times, the reality of power works its way into consciousness (kind of like Freud’s unconscious drives forcing their way into the ego) and the U.S. glorifies its “realism”, cynical realism, as is said above, but that does not last long and the mechanisms of repression lead us back to the myth of our innocence.

  13. Philip Wohlstetter November 28, 2012 at 3:56 pm | #

    I think it’s time to move beyond hagiography or revisionism and grasp how to use Lincoln to destroy or, more realistically, corrode the Right. Because for a significant core of the neo-liberal Right, Lincoln is viewed as an American Stalin, that is a Statist, a big government guy. Anti-Lincoln texts such as The Real Abraham Lincoln by Thomas Di Lorenzo put forth this line. Di Lorenzo, an economist at Loyala, not a historian, embodies some interesting elements on the right: he’s a senior fellow at the Mises Institute and, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an important ideologue for the Neo-Confederate movement. Di Lorenzo calls Lincoln “a paragon of wickedness, a man secretly intent on destroying States Rights and building a massive federal government.” So here we have Austrian Economics hand-hand with racist history. Even neo-cons prefer the bloodthirsty Churchill to Lincoln when they’re looking for an example of leadership during wartime, even though Lincoln was a far better supreme commander than Churchill. They can quote Churchill’s view of the Palestinians or Gandhi to support their own. One of the signs of Obama’s un-Americanism for the right is to have removed a portrait (or bust?) of Churchill that Bush had placed in the White House. There are many other elements of Lincoln that are unassimilable to the Right. His actions in the Trent Affair, for example, which so impressed John Stuart Mill. After an American ship illegally seized Confederate diplomats on the high seas, Lincoln ordered them released and allowed them to proceed to England to purchase warships. His logic: if America is on one side and justice is on the other, I shall always choose justice. When is the last time in this America-right-or-wrong century that a President argued that? And what about his idea about following “the better angels of our nature”? Which implies that America actually has a worse nature that it could follow, another heresy since it’s now an article of faith that America, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, has a fixed nature that is eternally good and any actions which seems to violate this (giving away all one’s children for adoption, as Rousseau did, or torturing at Abu Ghraib) have just been misunderstood. (Was it Bush who said “That’s not who we are.”). Lincoln’s words, particularly Gettysburg and the Second Inaugural, are weapons that can still be used to brand the Right as un-American. Whatever their intent the words do promise democracy and assign slavery as the cause of the Civil War. We may have wished Lincoln was Frederick Douglas but we can work with what he was.

  14. wembley November 28, 2012 at 4:55 pm | #

    this peculiarly American dynamic whereby innocence gives way to cynicism, without ever achieving anything like a mature and stable or permanent sense of realism.

    Human nature, babe.

    • David Kaib November 28, 2012 at 7:40 pm | #

      Human nature – the laziest explanation of all. Always and everywhere, it is simply an assertion.

      • Fred Mogul November 29, 2012 at 7:11 pm | #

        This is an even lazier explanation: um, y’all realize this is Steven Spielberg and Hollywood we’re talking about here, right? You know: the place where John Williams scores tell you when and how to emote? How much political and psychological insight, how much poetry and transformative drama and big-A Art, do you expect? Tony Kushner complicates the dynamics far more than they would be otherwise, but it’s not like he’s written two three-hour plays for a sophisticated theatrical audience here (or is likely to ever again). Call it the, um, soft bigotry of low expectations, but to me, the crossroads of a 5-year-old’s wonder and a 15-year-old’s cynicism is a relatively sophisticated juncture compared to most of what comes out of Hollywood. So it’s melodrama, but at least it’s melodrama with some spectacular acting, some nice cinematography and a few novel twists and turns in plot and character. That’s entertainment!

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