LINCOLN: The Movie and a Bit More

I saw the new movie Lincoln a few days ago and recommend it, which probably just puts me at the bottom of  a long list of reviewers who already have.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (Photo credit: casually_cruel)

As a film the only point I wish to make is that Daniel Day Lewis is extraordinary.   For me he carried the movie because he was Abraham Lincoln, the Lincoln that fit images I’ve developed through my reading of several books on the period.   His movements, his voice and his personality all seemed Lincolnesque, aided by a weight loss by Lewis, a perfect makeup job and a good script.

For history buffs like me, accuracy is important and I’m happy to report the depiction is very close to historical accounts, not only to that of A Team of Rivals, its primary source, but other historical accounts as well.  While no doubt most of the lines were created, the lines that are most significant in the movie are actual quotes, not something clever dreamed up by the script writer (*1).   A surprising scene at the end of the movie is more rumored than proven fact, but it has not been disproved, either.

While a character study of Lincoln, the movie is about the passing of the 13th Amendment which cemented into law the freedom of former slaves.  The Emancipation Proclamation had only been a presidential decree applying only to the states that had seceded, so it did not settle the issue and could have been overturned after the war without this amendment (*2).

That’s why Lincoln put so much energy and manipulative skill into getting this past and if you don’t already know, it was an unlikely feat which prompted “twisting arms and doling out projects, dangling offices in front of congressmen to help them make up their minds” (*3).

Watching Lincoln in action reminded me of President Lyndon Johnson who was a master of nitty-gritty politics.   President Obama has not been, but not only has he read Team of Rivals but also chatted with author Doris Kearns Goodwin and other historians about it at a White House dinner.  I do not know how much arm twisting I favor, but I would certainly like to see the President become more directly involved in key negotiations with Congress than he appeared to be in his first term.

The movie could hardly be more timely.   We think of ourselves as polarized these days and we certainly are, but we are not to the point of taking up arms and killing each other.   More Americans soldiers were killed during the Civil War than any other war, close to the number of all of our other wars combined.  And we killed each other.

I think of it as the price belatedly paid for our constitutional solution which established our nation but allowed the preservation of slavery in the process.   From the perspective of that life and death struggle, in which the union did prevail at such a high cost over those who insisted ultimate sovereignty remained in each state, the secessionists of our time seem like children acting out.

Our divisions are not nearly as deep as at the time of the Civil War.   However, we do face huge political/economic problems that do not afford simple solutions, like winning a war.  Complexity combined with misinformation has produced an intractable polarization.  A Gordian Knot.

The irony in all of this is despite the loss of some of our previous economic advantages in the world, we still have many things in our favor if we could only overcome our ongoing political stalemate.   Oddly perhaps, I am reminded of the words of President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression:  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The difference today is the only thing we have to fear is ourselves.


(*1)   For me the most memorable political movie line that was made up by a script writer was “follow the money” in All the Presidents’ Men (1976), about Watergate.

(*2)  The 13th Amendment freeing the slaves is supremely ironic.   Shortly prior to Lincoln’s inauguration, Congress passed a 13th amendment which would have had the opposite effect.   To assuage the fears of southerners, it guaranteed that the federal government would not interfere with a state’s laws regarding slavery.  It lost its chance at  becoming law because the Civil War broke out.

(*3)  As quoted from President Lincoln:  The Duty of a Statesman, William Lee Miller.

A Method to My Madness

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dear Readers,

For most of you, I have no idea, of course, when you began reading this blog and whether you see any rhyme or reason in what I ‘m doing.   Today I’ll try to help with that.  Broadly what I’m about is indicated in In A Nutshell to your  left.   If you read my initial post:  Welcome Aboard – I expand that further and than further still in my HEY! page listed above to your left.

In my initial post I describe my sinking feeling about where we are headed as a nation politically and economically, resulting from various causes:  economic problems, political polarization and the demolition of public trust and the foundations of knowledge through spin, downright lies,  and poor government decisions.

After that, the posts have meandered around a lot, but they have remained within adjacent neighborhoods, in my mind at least.

If we are to save our ship of state, we need to be able to reduce our polarization, so we can actually talk about real solutions to our huge problems.  The other side of that coin is to develop bipartisan efforts, which I mean in the broadest sense possible, not just between the two parties, whose bipartisanship is often at the lowest level, primarily for show and often a bad idea.  This bipartisanship includes developing a deeper understanding of the causes of our ideological conflicts, as suggested by Jonathan Haight and referred to in my post Reflecting on Our Righteous Minds.  Those  with whom we disagree vehemently may not really be such bad people after all.

To reduce our polarization we also need to redevelop trust in common sources of information.  Right now, those on the left have their sources and those on the right have theirs.   “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “but not to his own facts.”  Unfortunately, facts and their relationships are often not clear cut, but instead open to interpretations which themselves are colored by our values.

Beyond honest differences in opinion, are dishonest ones, where facts are manipulated to mislead.  Trust and truth are attached at the hip, but we need hip replacements at this point since political operatives spin truths every which way until they  break both our trust and our confidence that we can discern the truth.

And our media is only theoretically helpful in sorting all this out.   Sure, the internet, etc. gives us access to more information than ever before, but who has the time or attention to sort it all out, except the professional political wonks.  I’m an amateur wonk who spends many hours per week trying to get some clarity, and I barely have a glimpse here or there.  And I have the time because I’m an old bachelor with a slim social life, but what about more regular folks, with rich social lives and families, kids to raise, careers to develop (or maybe these days hunting for any kind of employment)?

So what regular souls have the time?  And our mainstream media  is primarily interested in attracting viewers/readers, which inclines them towards entertaining more than informing (I do a little dance here and there, myself).   The dilemma is you can’t inform someone if you can’t get their attention.  On the other hand, if the attention is primarily focused on entertainment, as might be the case with, say, the Huffington Post, does the attention matter much?

So, my main themes are:   1)  Moving from polarization to bipartisanship 2)  Redeveloping a  common trust in sources of information as being truthful  3)   Battling spin through fact checking services and whatever else we can come up with….  (Glenn Kessler, fact checker for the Washington Post, challenged both presidential candidates weeks ago to each give a 15 minute speech without a single misleading statement.  I think he’s still awaiting a response).

Also,  4)  Reshaping our mainstream political media to offer us much more in the way of insights into our overall situation.  In contrast, let’s say, to their daily obsession of sorting the tea leaves called polls to decide decisively whether Mitt or Barack might be ahead by a  few potential votes  somewhere in America today until the voters change their minds tomorrow.  So stay tuned.   Now that I think of it, maybe my watching TV news and commentary is just a bad habit, for the most part.  Maybe reshaping isn’t the issue, but replacing.

And, last but not least, perhaps foremost of all,  is the ever burgeoning influence of money in politics, but I’ll leave that category alone until I address it in a post some day.

So, I have organized my posts around these  categories just mentioned which are listed in the side bar to the left, along with a few others, such as  amusements.    I view entertainment as our contemporary opium of the masses, and I’m speaking of the middle class masses as well.  I recall a book published in the 1980s:  Amusing Ourselves to Death, which becomes more relevant every day.

Hardly any of us want to think about or talk politics, but when it comes to entertainment, it’s a completely different story.  My post:  Harnessing the Power of Boobs was not irrelevant to politics.   Boob viewing is one form of entertainment.  And like entertainment in general these days, they prompt much more interest than politics.  Not that it’s a fair contest when it comes to boobs, but if politics cannot recapture the interest of millions to the point of at least a fractional amount of the time  we invest in entertaining ourselves, well……..

We might not amuse ourselves to death, but our democracy will die.