My wife and I viewed the latest Spielberg film, Lincoln, last evening.
Set in the last few months of his presidency in 1865, in the turbulence of the Civil War, the film focuses on his attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolising slavery in the House of Representatives. Promises of patronage appointments were needed to 'encourage' the last few Democrat hold-outs to vote "yes" on the amendment, succeeding in passing the bill in what today we would call a bi-partisan basis.
The lighting, sound and music, costumes, writing (it is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's exhaustive biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals) and both casting and acting rank the movie as an obvious and legitimate contender for several Oscar nominations. Daniel Day Lewis plays Lincoln, and Sally Field
plays his passionate and devoted wife, Mary Todd.
However, it is the anatomy of the politics that draws attention to the process from this viewer. Lincoln goes anywhere, anytime of day or night to twist arms for more yes votes. He even surprises his agents in their late-night poker game, in some dark and dungy low-ceilinged room, when they have been imbibing and clearly are taken aback and embarrassed by his arrival. He conducts his cabinet meetings with a degree of passion, conviction and authenticity that brings both a dramatic definition to his performance as an actor, and to his capacity to persuade as president. Of course, there are doubters among the cabinet, among his party and certainly among the opposition Democrats. Perhaps Mary Todd's warning that he will "rue the day" if he loses the vote, given her deep and profound fear for her son's safety should the war wound or kill him, after his determined enlistment, haunts his determination, having already lost one other son to death, deeply scarring his wife, and mother of the deceased son.
Kearns-Goodwin's portrait, a century and a half after the events themselves, and after the research and writing and publication of multiple volumes on Lincoln by many historians of considerable repute, continues to add flesh, sinew and insight to one of the icons of American history. His legendary story-telling, often with a twist of amusing wit and told to break the tension of a serious discussion that seemed to be sliding deep into the bog of a wet ditch from which there might be no exit, demonstrated both his human capacity for connecting with other human beings and his wisdom and intuition in his choice of timing.
His explanation, for example, of Euclid's first notion that "things equal to the same thing are equal to each other" puts a kind of rustic, metaphysical, poetic lens to his proposition of abolishing slavery, for his two young engineer aids. John Donne's geometric compass connecting two lovers who have to travel and be apart, but never disconnected, comes to mind. Lincoln's intimate knowledge of the law, and his courage to bend it to the breaking point, without, he hopes, actually crossing that line, lend credence to his unlimited capacity to lead, and to inspire his compatriots. His rough-hewn honesty, borne of hundreds of miles and untold hours of travel, talk, reading and reflecting, from his previous career as an itinerant defence lawyer not only gird his intellect with intimate details of real human lives with real human problems, but steep his soul and spirit in the kind of compassion that rises 'head and shoulders' above the normal, just as does his towering physique and unruly hair. ("My last barber committed suicide and left me his scissors!" is just another moment of his self-defamatory understatment.)
We all know the outcome of the drama, before we enter the theatre; yet we are enthralled by the unfolding of the story, of the human drama that drives the plot forward, through its many twists and turns, mind and heart searching and changing for all the participants, in what was to become a turning point in American history, that even the Speaker of the House wished to join by casting his own vote, in an unconventional move, just because "this is history".
The recent presidential election, in which Mr. Obama was soundly defeated in the 'confederate states' demonstrates how deeply the issue of black-white race relations defines the American culture and world view, a century and a half after the abolition amendment was passed, and after hundreds of thousands of warriors were killed and maimed on both sides of the fight for and against equality. "Food-Stamp President" and "lazy" and "angry" and "detached" and "gifts" to minority voters...these are just some of the epithets pointing to the racial divide that continues to plague the American culture, and American politics, only now it is Republicans who are hurling those daggers at the black president.
Lincoln was murdered while sitting in a theatre, shortly after his political success in passing the Constitutional Amendment abolishing slavery, in spite of the level of hope and promise that his leadership brought to the former black slaves, then referred to as "people of colour" politely, and "nigger"s in contempt and bigotry.
Status, rank and power, in American culture have always had physical definition whether that definition included skin colour, uniform decorations, athletic trophies, graduation degrees, or executive offices, boardrooms, luxurious cars and homes, exotic vacations and "appropriate church attendance" to sanctify the underbelly of "success" and achievement. Grasping some of the metaphors that signify "success" in the material world, has become the mantra of "climbing into the middle class" as a demonstration of some kind of national achievment, along with the parallel of "world dominance" in hard power terms, in geopolitical engagements.
Lincoln's achievement, however, could not then, and cannot not now, be reduced to some baubles, some discounted fifty-inch television purchase on Black Friday, as a sign of the kind of freedom and equality he sought for those living in slavery.
His passionate commitment to fight for the freeing of those slaves, including a war waged for that specific purpose, yields not only lessons of leadership and authenticy for today's political leaders who might seem at times to be flirting with issues of power and equality through tentative debates about deficits and debt, but also a degree of tenacity and drivenness for an honourable cause, the promise of which continues to echo on every street corner in every town and village in the nation today.
It is not mere infrastructure that our forefathers built, (as Rachel Maddow likes to remind us) but a society that stretches, and reaches beyond its myopia, beyond its neurosis, beyond its apocryphal fears and demons and into the heavens of genuine achievment of higher purpose than the mere acquisition of baubles. If it were possible in 1865, what part of reaching and stretching have today's leaders missed, lost, denied, missed in their personal developmental curriculum, or overlooked, in their seemingly ditch-mired debates of "Seinfeld" proportions of nothingness, as some pundits have characterized the recent election campaign.
Or, has the electorate grown so complacent, so over-fed and under-nourished, so catered to and under-delivered on real substance, so cynical and disillusioned that only one person in one thousand read the fine print on most public issues, including the privacy policies of most internet sites.
Is our addiction to sugar, to salt and to processed foods, not to mention the chairs in which we fight our mythical digital battles for entertainment with the proverbial "joy-stick" firmly grasped in our "power grip" so overwhelming that we have lost sight of the difference between what is real and what is illusory, and care only minimally, when, for instance, some politial operatives determined to 'win at all costs' attempt to remove the right to vote from those they know will not vote for their party, and then, WHAM! BANG!...we are not going to let that happen!
Reactivity, however, will never replace pro-activity. The latter takes vision, courage, determination and perseverance; the former, a mere knee-jerk response, once, to demonstrate.
Nations are not built on reactivity but on pro-activity.
It was Martin Luther King who reminded us that "when we have found that for which we are willing to die, we will have found a reason for our lives"....
And no one will ever die shoving a "joy-stick" around in some made-up battle for heroism, on a screen, nor will those playing the games advance beyond the skills necessary to master the 'stick'....and those are not nation-building skills.