A Question for A.O. Scott and Ta-Nehisi Coates

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?


  1. Patrick December 4, 2012 at 1:17 pm | #

    Anecdotally, in an actually generally strong public school system in East TN, we were taught a very whitewashed Civil War. I can no longer remember if it was specifically mentioned that slavery was the issue, but it was frequently mentioned that Confederate Soldiers were “just fighting for their homes” and the Radical Republicans were consistently portrayed as bad guys.

  2. Keith Wayne Brown December 4, 2012 at 2:00 pm | #

    Reblogged this on Reason & Existenz.

  3. Evan Rowe December 4, 2012 at 2:05 pm | #

    While I think it is axiomatic that the “civil war was about slavery”, I think that it’s also not always a clear question. Certainly by the 1840s and 1850s the slave debates had really become the hot button issue. In the north, in my view, it served as an excellent proxy to both mobilize northern voting support for the northern parties, especially the GOP, without having to deliver any serious material power to that base. For the South, the southern elites needed to pull out all the stops to defend the institution. But think about the fact that the North really used the south as its first third world (to dump finished products). Think about the debates over early subsidies and tariff policy from the 1790s through the tariff of abominations. This too was about the basic layout of which distinct economic region would have control. And while the south made it competitive after Jefferson is elected in 1800, certainly by the mid 1930s, after the nullification crisis is over, it’s probably pretty clear that the North is going to continue to dominate the south economically. So I see slavery as THE issue of the civil war–but I also see it as a cosmetic issue or a proxy issue.

  4. escott December 4, 2012 at 2:05 pm | #

    I suggest the Civil War was fought over competing economic systems; the South’s economic system a throw back to aristocratic society before the Industrial Revolution, with wealth tied to land ownership, everyone working for the land holding wealthy. The North’s economic system is the one we live today.
    Even today, aristocratic virtues such as those eloquently argued by Edmond Burke still live in the sentimental lore of the old South: I don’t want to imply those values are inferior to our own cherished progressive values, though the gentlemanly Southern values never attempt to reconcile J R Lowell’s prediction in 1860 on slave labor, “…to reduce the non-slaveholding class to a continually lower and lower level of property, intelligence, and enterprise…”
    Slavery is the great cause of the Civil War in service of the modern economic interests of the North. it was helpful the “civilized world” had already condemned Slavery.

    • robert wood December 10, 2012 at 10:58 pm | #

      I don’t think that the notion that the Southern economic system, particularly the plantation system, really holds up. As Marx notes in a letter from the 1840’s I believe, the industrial revolution was deeply linked to the production of cotton from slavery. Indeed as David Roediger and others have noted many of the industrial structures of the factory (plant having its origins in plantation) have linkages to the structures of surveillance and production relations of the plantation system.

  5. escott December 4, 2012 at 3:14 pm | #

    guess we agree.

  6. louisproyect December 4, 2012 at 4:50 pm | #

    Here’s the deal. Except for Southern “revisionist” scholars and the odd conservative like Pat Buchanan who has argued that the Civil War was not a necessary war, there is almost no support for old school de jure segregation. When Reagan went to a racist stronghold to give a speech, this was not the opening salvo in an attempt to reintroduce Jim Crow. The KKK is not tolerated anywhere in the South, even though there are attempts to keep the Confederate flag flying on some courthouses, etc.

    Instead the real battle of the day is over “color-blind” institutional racism. Blacks are victimized in a system that allows a few to rise to the top, like Barack Obama or some rap musician. Blacks are not prevented by law from living in the Upper East Side by laws but by economic circumstances. The prisons are filled with Black men not because they whistled at a White woman but because manufacturing jobs have disappeared and petty crime becomes a primary mode of production.

    The fucked up thing about this discussion is that it turns back the clock to the 1950s when overt racism was the problem, as if Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg were trying to desegregate the Beverly Hills YMCA. What a joke.

    • Bill Murray December 5, 2012 at 8:22 pm | #

      When Reagan went to a racist stronghold to give a speech, this was not the opening salvo in an attempt to reintroduce Jim Crow.

      I think it was — reintroducing Jim Crow in terms of voting ID requirements has been attempted with some success for the last 10-20 years and the “Reagan Revolution” was the opening salvo of this.

  7. Roquentin December 4, 2012 at 5:10 pm | #

    While it is true the issue of slavery was the largest impetus for the Civil War, I find attempts to make it seem that racism was merely a Southern problem distasteful. The North certainly was not a bastion of racial equality during that era either. The brutality of the conflict is also important. There has been little mention of Sherman’s March to the Sea, a vicious Scorched Earth campaign. There were earlier posts which made it seem like political moderation in this climate was a terrible thing, but after a war which left about 600,000 dead can you really blame anyone for being squeamish about shedding more blood in the name of cause…no matter how virtuous it was?

    Not only that, what about the New York City draft riots of 1863, which devolved into something close to a race war. Things like this don’t fit particularly well with the idea the North was fighting a war of liberation or at the very least that many of those participating had no interest in dying for such a cause. Saying the Civil War was only about slavery does deserve to be treated with a little suspicion as do self-serving narratives about the role the Union and the North have played in US history.

    • Patrick December 4, 2012 at 7:07 pm | #

      That the North, either during the 19th Century or later has its own legacy of racism (and its own set of benefits derived from the exploitation of Black people, including benefiting from Southern Slavery) is very much true. That doesn’t mean that the war isn’t about the specific institution of slavery.

      It is true that the Union, especially early in the war, was less invested in ending Slavery than the Confederated governments were in keeping it. If keeping the Union intact with Southern Slavery, but without having the war had been on the table, The Lincoln Administration would have accepted that, probably.

      • Patrick December 4, 2012 at 7:10 pm | #

        Sorry Forgot to finish my point.

        The caveats in the previous post don’t mean that the Civil War was not, centrally a war about Slavery. Of course it WAS also a war about economic systems, because the South’s economy was based on Slavery.

      • Brandon December 5, 2012 at 5:28 pm | #

        “Proctor: All right, here’s your last question. What was the cause of
        the Civil War?

        Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter–

        Proctor: Wait, wait… just say slavery.

        Apu: Slavery it is, sir.”

        If you’re trying to sum it it quickly, the proctor’s easily correct.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg December 7, 2012 at 3:52 am | #

      You write, “Saying the Civil War was only about slavery does deserve to be treated with a little suspicion as do self-serving narratives about the role the Union and the North have played in US history.”

      Well, the Civil War was entirely about slavery for the Confederacy which started the war (by trying to seize federal territory). For the Union, the war was not “about” any issue, in any similar sense. It was merely defense against rebellion — the first prerogative of any state.

      Still, the fact that the rebels were fighting *for* slavery lends a very real anti-slavery tone to the other side.

  8. matt December 4, 2012 at 5:44 pm | #

    If you’re collecting anecdotes: at my academic high school in Philadelphia, every year at graduation they sang the Star Bangled Banner …and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I think this was a continuous tradition back into the nineteenth century.

  9. Erstwhile Anthropologist December 5, 2012 at 12:55 am | #

    “Aren’t we entitled to expect a bit more from people as smart and well-financed (and liberal) as Spielberg and Kushner?”

    To answer Kate Masur’s question: yes and no. We *should* be entitled to more, but the realities of implicit bias and institutional and aversive racism make it foolhardy to expect otherwise. Hollywood is still male-dominated ‘white public space’, so Kushner and Spielberg’s evacuation of blacks as agents/Great White Men of History narrative isn’t particularly surprising to me.

    But for me the larger issue is implicit bias and aversive/dysconscious racism, which relates to the above comment by Louis on ‘colorblind racism’. This comment is dissatisfying to me because while it approoriately points to the issue of structural/institutional racism, it absents the aversive/dysconscious racism of individuals. Much present racial discrimination (both positive and negative) is about implicit bias, not simply socio-economic disadvantage (i.e. poverty, lack of education, deindustrialization decreasing high-paying ‘unskilled’ labor). Especially in employment and law enforcement, people are often discriminated against simply because of race/skin color, and treated differently than other similarly situated indiviuals, simply because of implicit race/color biases. Case in point: http://www.theroot.com/views/lighter-skin-shorter-prison-term.

    So we need to put more emphasis on implicit biases, as well as structural and institutional racism, (re)producing racism and/or white-privileged/oriented outcomes. I wasn’t expecting more from Kushner and Spielberg’s simply because of their self-professed liberalism or education, because it’s just not how either implicit bias or Hollywood works–especially not when it comes to producing stereotype-challenging, mainstream black cinematic representations.

    • louisproyect December 5, 2012 at 2:22 am | #

      I agree with this but implicit bias is less susceptible to structural changes imposed by the state. For example, a big blow to racism would be a public works program that paid a decent wage. This measure would allow millions of young Black men and women to enjoy the kind of life-style that auto workers once enjoyed and hence serve to undermine racism. When you have money, you are more mobile and thus less subject to the barriers of ghetto existence. That is the terrible irony of a couple of Obama stooges like Kushner and Spielberg. While likening him to Lincoln, they fail to recognize his failure to make the structural changes that are necessary. Of course, Lincoln’s resistance to radical Reconstruction policies being advocated by Sumner and Stevens does suggest a parallel of sorts.

  10. wufnik December 5, 2012 at 8:33 am | #

    CR–it’s been a while since I read it (and when it was published, for that matter–1979), but Frances Fitzgerald’s America Revised, about how Reconstruction was taught in public schools in the 20th century, bears directly on this. History is whatever the textbook writers say it is.

  11. CJColucci December 5, 2012 at 10:48 am | #

    The Coates/Scott position on Lincoln the movie reminds me of Douglass’s speech on Lincoln the statesman. Judged by the standards of serious scholarship, Lincoln is pallid, conventional, and white-oriented; judged by the standards of Hollywood and the likely preconceptions of the mass audience, which, as commerclal moviemakers, Spielberg was bound to consult, Lincoln is bold and radical.

  12. Upper West December 5, 2012 at 2:23 pm | #
  13. AcademicLurker December 5, 2012 at 3:41 pm | #

    Here’s one data point about how the Civil War is presented in schools (from LizardBreath at unfogged: http://www.unfogged.com/archives/week_2012_09_23.html#012467):

    Back in ’06, I noted that “in liberal NY, we were also firmly taught that it was hopelessly naive to think that the Civil War had much to do with slavery”. Thirty years later, Sally tells me the same is still true: as a matter of standardized test prep, her class has been specifically told that “slavery” is never going to be the right answer to a question about why the Civil War started. The right answers are that the South was fighting for “states rights” and because of tariffs, while the North was preserving the Union. (Some random webpage with Regents’ study questions on the Civil War suggests that her teacher is right in terms of getting good grades on the Regents.)

    Weird, anyway.

  14. Glenn December 5, 2012 at 8:09 pm | #

    The discussion of the day: Humane compensation for all but the people classed as property and justice for slave owners.


    End of Slavery?

    “The President [Abraham Lincoln] urges at great length, what he terms ‘compensated emancipation’ of slavery. He proposes to inaugurate the great jubilee with the year 1900, by payment of the owners of slaves as a mutual concession on both sides, and as a matter of justice to those who are owners of this species of property. It being quite evident that the war between slavery and freedom will continue to be waged with increased vigor, the President hopes to modify its intensity, by fixing upon a certain period, when the institution shall forever cease. He thinks this policy will shorten the war, and secure justice to all concerned; while, at the same, the country will be saved from the effects of violent and sudden changes in its domestic arrangements. This view of the case strikes us as humane, and if the more radical portion of the two sections would but accept it, as a ground of settlement, peace would again bless us; but so intensely bitter have these contending elements become, that we fear no such compromise would be acceptable or satisfactory.”

  15. partisan December 5, 2012 at 11:42 pm | #

    Since tumblr doesn’t appear to have a comments feature, I’d suggest in looking for novels to complement your political theorists, how about “The Man who loved Children” or “The Gold Soldier”? I’m not sure what theorists one would link them to, I just like mentioning them whenever possible. But if you are going to do Hobbes, how about “The Autumn of the Patriach,” or “I, the Supreme.” And if you are going to do Rousseau, how about “The Baron in the Trees”?

  16. wembley December 6, 2012 at 5:31 pm | #

    Re: schools vs. movies: Most people forget everything they learned in school that wasn’t drilled. Pop culture, unfortunately, picks up the slack. I love to learn, I love to read, I’m a political junkie, but what do I remember, history-wise, from k-12? Um… Mesopotamia was… a place… Revolutions only helped the middle class, or so said my most entertaining and engaged history teacher… Masai warriors are from Africa — wait, that’s not even history… yep, that’s all I got. Blue state, rich school district. I suspect my lack of memory isn’t atypical. It’s pretty goddamn sad.

    I’ve seen Birth of a Nation, since I went to film school, which IS atypical; I think most people are getting their view of the civil war and, well, everything, from pop culture. My hunch is that the takeaway, in total, mirrors what The Simpsons gave us — Apu is taking his citizenship test, the question is, “What caused the Civil War?”, he starts talking about how it’s really complicated, the guy monitoring the test says, “Just say slavery.” Slavery as the mainstream answer, states’ rights as the “Here’s what THEY don’t want you to know!” answer. Also, wow, that episode was probably from over a decade ago, and yet, still can’t remember what happened in high school. If I’m not atypical, and I had a good education? We’re all boned.

    • Isaac K. December 9, 2012 at 3:14 pm | #

      Since Corey is wondering what might be taught that is in between the old tragic “brothers” narrative and a modern liberal one, Maybe I can offer some modest insight

      1. My middle-school textbooks in the Texas public school in the late 90’s where I was taught were more complex and in some ways worse than a purely “lost cause” or nostalgia narrative. They portrayed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments as being almost entirely war measures and acknowledged no moral or political basis. Reconstruction in Texas was depicted in near Birth-of-a-Nation terms of ‘chaos’, but without any mention of efforts at racial equality and development.

      2. The “Redemption” , as I recall, had an entire chapter devoted to it and was depicted in positive terms as good citizens overthrowing a corrupt and tyrannical state government. Radical republicans were a faceless mass that had no arguments or positions other than “being tough on the south”. As a strange incorporation of center-left critique, Lincoln was re-portrayed as a moderate who wasn’t interested in abolition, though not exactly a Dixon-type racist. I wonder if this was the strange effect of the blending of the lost cause and some revisionist narratives: Nobody appeared in the narrative as “against slavery”, except African-Americans, and the very historical notion that any white would join in an equality struggle for or with African Americans until the 1960’s dropped out of the civil war narrative. Slavery and bigotry were depicted as bad, but as universal ailments, white people were trapped in their time, so racism was depicted with fatalism.

      3. We were shown Gone with the Wind at the end of the year. It was awful viewing, and surreal in a very racially diverse school. The textbooks got slightly better after I graduated high school, but are on their way to being as bad again, if not worse. For many from where I came from Lincoln is a complete change from their world view, even from the very first scene.

      4. Before this film, most Americans had absolutely no idea who Thaddeus Stevens was, and now he is thought of as both a radical and a protagonist in American history, i think that’s a good thing: http://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=thaddeus%20stevens

  17. M December 17, 2012 at 6:06 pm | #

    Tolstoy was right about history. Everyone is a causative factor, and no one is a causative factor. Wars are too large and complex to be neatly summed by concise claims about motivating forces. “Event X was caused by Y” is necessarily incorrect. All else is poetry and speculation.

  18. Matt Grant February 11, 2013 at 1:25 pm | #

    In elementary school today the Civil War is very much portrayed as a war against slavery. That is the concept that my 9 year-old son carries around.

    On the other note it is conservative to assume that movies are a key mediium by which Americans get their information. Even in a fiction piece the setting of a historical film will be absorbed largely as fact by most audiences.

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