“It is implausible to imagine that, were King to be raised from the dead, he would look at America’s jails, unemployment lines, soup kitchens or inner-city schools and think his life’s work had been accomplished. Whether one believes that these inequalities are caused by individuals making bad choices or by institutional discrimination, it would be absurd to claim that such a world bears any resemblance to the one King set out to create.” As The Nation‘s Gary Younge reminds us, today should not be about resting on laurels by any means: There is work to do.
Historian Eric Foner, who knows of what he speaks, fact-checks Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln. I enjoyed the film quite a bit, and would recommend it to all comers, particularly Daniel Day Lewis’s typically amazing performance. That being said, I thought the excessive emphasis on the virtues of compromise in this story was fundamentally wrongheaded.
For one, the death of slavery would never have reached the House floor were it not for several decades of uncompromising agitation by abolitionists. “On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.” As many of y’all know, that’s William Lloyd Garrison in 1831, giving one of the most definitive statements against compromising with an evil like slavery. Point being, compromise didn’t end slavery in America — an abject refusal to compromise did.
For another, as Foner notes, Lincoln had the votes in the next Congress — so there was no real need to compromise in this situation in any case. And besides, is it really a heroic moment for Thaddeus Stevens to be downplaying his commitment on the House floor to basic human equality? Surely, misleading the public about one’s true beliefs in congressional debate is not something we should be applauding. Nor does Washington, now or then, need any more erstwhile reformers who think the right thing to do when confronted with a stand on fundamental principle is to obfuscate and capitulate.
Of course, this nation was founded on compromise — some of them quite repellent, like the Three-Fifths — and the United States wouldn’t exist without it. And at other times, intransigence on principle has lost battles that compromise would clearly have won, such as the stubbornness of Woodrow Wilson dooming the League of Nations to defeat in 1919 and 1920, But the problem with this — mostly contemporary — emphasis on compromise is that it leads the filmmakers to a flawed understanding of the history of this period.
However much research Tony Kushner did on Lincoln here — and the film is indeed very well-written — it’s unfortunately quite clear that he doesn’t know jack about what came after the War. Here’s what he said to NPR on the subject:
“I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of war was a very, very smart thing. And it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn’t take him literally after he was murdered. The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.’”
This, I’m sorry to say, is nonsense. Here, Kushner is blithely reciting a century-old popular myth, perpetuated by the Dunning School and D.W. Griffith, that isn’t just anachronistic and wrong. It’s been widely discredited, by some of the very same authors the film cites as sources.
The noble cause and the Klan did not arise because the North was mean to the former Confederate states. They arose because many in the South refused to accord African-Americans the basic civil liberties for which the war had ultimately been fought. To “forgive and reconcile with the South” would mean acceding to the disfranchisement and general abuse that many whites desired to levy upon African-Americans in the former Confederacy. Indeed, when Kushner’s desired move to “forgive and reconcile with the South” came with the end of Reconstruction in 1877, it was followed relatively soon thereafter by the emergence of Jim Crow. In short, Kushner’s argument here is pure wishful thinking, and it has been exposed as bunk by the last 40-some-odd years of Civil War and Reconstruction histories.
It doesn’t help that Eastwood has yet again opted for the tinkly piano and gray palette that seems to characterize all of his historical pictures. This worked wonders for Letters of Iwo Jima, not so much for Flags of our Fathers and this film. Here, Eastwood has set a story beginning in 1919 — perhaps the most lurid and tumultuous single year for America in the 20th century (I’m only ever-so-slightly biased on this) — and made it look like a drab, washed-out daguerrotype. In that fateful summer, after an anarchist’s bomb blows up the front porch of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house in the ritzy West End of Washington (his neighbors, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, had just parked down the street), Hoover is hand-picked to run the new “General Intelligence Division” of the Justice Department that will bring the perpetrators to justice.
With previous experience at the Library of Congress in organizing information, Hoover soon takes on two key assistants in Tolson (Armie Hammer, once again exuding Ivy League entitlement) and personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, who gets the best of the age make-up), and quickly attempts to make a CSI of the GID. Cut to forty years later, and Hoover — now balding, paunchy, and covered in latex — is obsessively snooping on Martin Luther King and making veiled threats to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy about his brother’s sleeping habits. With our two historical poles established, the rest of J. Edgar flits back and forth in time, telling the story of its protagonist as both a young and old man – Other than these two moments, the film spends most of its time, strangely enough, dealing with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. (In 2004, when discussing The Alamo, I noted how fun it is to cast the story of American history with actors. Let me say that Josh Lucas totally works as Charles Lindbergh.)
For the most part, J. Edgar is an innocuous edutainment. But it also has some serious problems, and not just the standard-issue groanworthy biopic tropes like Freudian parent issues overdetermining the subject’s entire life story. (Here, Mom (Judi Dench) is a stern and overbearing sort who forces Hoover to bury his secrets within, even as he’s trying to pry up everyone else’s.) Y’see, it comes out rather late in the third act that Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have attempted to add a Fight Club-ish “unreliable narrator” schtick to the film: The whole time, we’ve been watching Hoover’s sanitized retelling of his own history. But this should-be-huge reveal is underplayed, and thus becomes somewhat buried. And, as a result, people who don’t know anything about the times are going to leave a theater with a very wrongheaded sense of the story.
For example, it’s never mentioned or adequately explained that the 1919 anarchist bombings which open the film only killed two people — one of them the bomber on Palmer’s porch, who either tripped or mis-timed the blast — and that, not unlike recent times, pretty much everything Palmer and Hoover did subsequently in 1919 was a massive overreaction. (Hence, the “Red Scare.”) They show Hoover and a team of G-men knocking down an anarchist printing press in Paterson, New Jersey linked to the bombs, but, with the arguable exception of Emma Goldman’s deportation proceedings at Ellis Island, they don’t show any of the many, many raids that were just glorified fishing expeditions and/or excuses to remove foreign-born potential Communists from American shores.
Similarly, when the film briefly depicts the Centralia Massacre that same year, it shows events in a way that Hoover, and many other Americans, probably saw them — I.W.W. radicals killing patriotic veterans in a turkey shoot. But that depiction does violence to the much more complicated truth of the event, which involved American Legion members deciding first to go march on some radical Wobblies. And you’d never know that the culmination of that day was an I.W.W. member and veteran grabbed from jail by soldiers, beaten, castrated, hung, hung, hung, shot, and shot. Again, Eastwood and Black have written themselves a pass for this, because they hint Hoover is an unreliable narrator at the end of the film. But that lede is buried.
So the history has definite issues, and this same tendency towards whitewashing detracts from the whole film. Granted, given how little we know, the Tolson-Hoover relationship should perhaps be treated with this discretion — although my understanding is they were more conceived of as a couple than this film lets on. (FWIW, Hammer is quite good here despite some unfortunate age-makeup, and a Supporting Actor nod is likely.) But, that aside, and to be blunt about it, sometimes an asshole is just an asshole. One can argue that Hoover had all the reasons in the world to be the way he was — an overbearing mom, a traumatic secret, whathaveyou. But this film spends more time trying to make us feel charitable towards its protagonist than it does putting his behavior in any kind of appropriate context. (For example, why is Hoover obsessed with MLK? Should he be wiretapping him? It’s never really addressed.) Should we feel for J. Edgar, after hearing his story? Perhaps, yes. But we should also leave the theater with a clearer sense of how illegal and often reprehensible his rise to power really was.
“Here was the Delta Republicans’ historic task: negotiating terms of surrender to the Constitution, then reframing that Lost Cause as honorable, the better to preserve their insular plutocracy — perhaps their gravest sin in the first place — in order to integrate themselves more snugly into national and international circuits of corrupt wealth. Haley Barbour, who received his first Republican patronage job in 1970, is a true son of this confederacy.“
In the wake of Haley Barbour’s highly dubious misremembering of civil-rights era Mississippi, historian Rick Perlstein skewers the GOP poobah and presidential hopeful to the wall. “At every important turn in the story, Barbour emphasizes how little he remembers of this most intense period imaginable in his beloved home town — it really was no big deal, he insists…He’s a middle-aged Southern conservative. That is what his job is: to opportunistically ‘forget.‘”
Thanks to one small clerical error, the Memphis Commerical Appeal uncovers the hidden life of famed civil rights photographer Ernest Withers, who apparently doubled as an FBI informant. [Reaction.] “‘He was the perfect source for them. He could go everywhere with a perfect, obvious professional purpose,’ said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow, who, along with retired Marquette University professor Athan Theoharis, reviewed the newspaper’s findings.” Shady.
“[W]hen I told Dr. King I was leaving the show, I never got to tell him why, because he said, ‘You can’t.’ He explained to me just what I’ve just said. ‘Here you are on the command crew in the 23rd century, fourth in command, while we’re marching in the streets for equality.’” Nichelle Nichols, a.k.a. Lt. Uhura, relates the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Trekkie.
“I can’t think of a surer way to lose both our national soul and the struggle against terrorism. Yes, Mr. Gingrich and Ms. Palin, there’s a cultural-political offensive afoot to undermine our civilization. And you’re leading it.” Slate‘s William Saletan reviews the current GOP jihad against a potential mosque near Ground Zero (not to be confused with the mosque that’s already been there for 40 years.) But, on the bright side, at least now we know not to take the ADL seriously anymore. (See, by way of contrast, J-Street’s statement.)
“Now if I were a gambling woman, I’d wager that most Americans today are not seething with unspoken rage at Thurgood Marshall. And I might wonder at the wisdom of blaming him for what ails this country in the summer of 2010.” Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick reports in from Day 1 of the Kagan confirmation hearings, where the Senate GOP are now earnestly trying to rewrite the history books on Justice Marshall. (Apparently, Orrin Hatch is even hemming and hawing about whether he’d even confirm Marshall now. You stay classy, GOP.)
“Mr. Byrd…said he had no illusions that his oratory was going to change the outcome of the final vote. So why was he on the floor day after day? What was he accomplishing? ‘To me, that question misses the point, with all due respect to you for asking it,’ he said. ‘To me, the matter is there for a thousand years in the record. I stood for the Constitution. I stood for the institution. If it isn’t heard today, there’ll be some future member who will come through and will comb these tomes.‘”
Senator Robert Byrd, the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, 1917-2010. Known as a fierce defender of Senate prerogative and a legislator with a penchant for pork, Senator Byrd, we all know, held some indefensible positions in his day. But at least he got on the right side of history before his time came. Rest well, Senator.
“‘The whole thing that made me a star was the war,’ Ms. Horne said in the 1990 interview. ‘Of course the black guys couldn’t put Betty Grable’s picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine.” Lena Horne, 1917-2010.
“The opening of ‘Dog Day’ is about what Sonny lost, and the rest of the film is about how he lost it. This sequence is about the necessity of recognizing and appreciating the beauty of life itself. A better tribute to Dede Allen’s artistry is hard to imagine.” Groundbreaking film editor Dede Allen, 1923-2010.
“‘If the times aren’t ripe, you have to ripen the times,’ she liked to say. It was important, she said, to dress well. ‘I came up at a time when young women wore hats, and they wore gloves. Too many people in my generation fought for the right for us to be dressed up and not put down.’” Matriarch of the civil rights movement Dorothy Height, 1912-2010.
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability,
but comes through continuous struggle.”
“It’s worth remembering how Vincent Canby began his review on June 30, 1989, in the New York Times: ‘In all of the earnest, solemn, humorless discussions about the social and political implications of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, an essential fact tends to be overlooked: it is one terrific movie.’“
In The Root, Henry Louis Gates reflects on the 20th anniversary of Do the Right Thing, and checks in with Spike Lee on the film. “None of us back then could possibly have imagined all that has transpired for our people, and for this country, in the intervening two decades: a black prince and princess so elegantly sitting up in the White House, and their very first date was in a movie theater in 1989, watching–what else? Do the Right Thing.“
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” Happy 200th, Mr. President.
“As easy as it is for those of us who are white to look back and say ‘That’s a terrible statement!’ … I grew up in a very segregated South. And I think that you have to cut some slack — and I’m gonna be probably the only conservative in America who’s gonna say something like this, but I’m just tellin’ you — we’ve gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told ‘you have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant…And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.” Jeremiah Wright is defended by a brother from across the pew, Mike Huckabee. Gotta say, I don’t agree with basically any of Huckabee’s policy positions, but, he can be a seriously likable guy at times (even if he did fold a defense of Falwell into his remarks.)
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one…
I can no more disown [Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love…
The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow…
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time…
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own…
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”
In the wake of the Wright controversy, Sen. Obama delivers a thoughtful and nuanced speech on race in America. Video below:
Now, on one hand, I sorta wish Sen. Obama had never had to give this speech, that we were as far along with regard to race in this country as it had first seemed after Iowa. That being said, since events of recent days in particular have suggested how far we still have to go on the racial recrimination front, this speech was both a necessary and important one. It’s been garnering rave reviews across the political spectrum, and I’d throw my hat in there too — my main quibble with the address is that Obama wrote it himself. C’mon, Sen. Obama, think of the speechwriters. When political leaders write speeches as memorable and moving as this one, it’s going to put a lot of people out of work!
Seriously, tho’, I thought the address moved beyond soundbites to give a substantive and nuanced view of race in America, the type of which we haven’t heard in this country from a politician in a very long time. (I particularly like the Faulknerian flourish on the legacy of history.) And it — in true Obama form — showed that the Senator has an understanding of the grievances on both sides of the racial divide, and went out of its way to establish that Ferraro and Wright were two manifestations of the same intrinsic problem. Like TNR’s Michael Crowley, I am somewhat concerned about whether the nuance of his message will come through to undecided voters, once the Hardballs, Hannitys, and Blitzers are done with it. Still, today’s address was the type of leadership moment that I frankly can’t see either Sen. Clinton or Sen. McCain providing, and it showed once again how much our country stands to gain by electing Sen. Barack Obama our next president in November. Black, white, latino, or asian, leaders this wise, intelligent, thoughtful, and inspiring do not come along often.
“This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.“
Breaking news! As an eagle-eyed commenter at TPM discovered, it appears one Frederick Douglass, an orator of some repute in the African-American community, and one whom Senator Clinton has called “one of my heroes” and “a great American,” actually despises our great nation, and has given public remarks filled with hate-mongering toward patriotic Americans.
I for one was planning to vote for Senator Clinton, but now I am very concerned. She should reject and denounce this fellow Douglass immediately, although it may be too late. After reading this, I totally feel Clinton is not proud of America and I fear where she would lead this country.
Update: All kidding aside, Sen. Obama gave some eloquent remarks on the politics of division in Indiana today, citing RFK’s elegy for MLK in Indianapolis. “I just want to say to everybody here that as somebody who was born into a diverse family, as somebody who has little pieces of America all in me, I will not allow us to lose this moment, where we cannot forget about our past and not ignore the very real forces of racial inequality and gender inequality and the other things that divide us. We have to come together. That’s what this campaign is about. That’s why you are here. That’s why we’re going to win this election. That’s how we’re going to change the country.”
“Since the birth of our nation change has been won by young presidents and young leaders who have shown that experience is not defined by time in Washington and years in office. It is defined by wisdom and instinct and vision…The only charge that rings false is the one that tells you not to hope for a better America. Don’t let anyone tell you to accept the downsizing of the American dream.” Barack Obama picks up a few more endorsements in Sen. John Kerry (and more importantly, his voter list and organization), South Dakota Senators Tim Johnson and Tom Daschle, and Congressman George Miller (which some see as a nod from Speaker Pelosi, although Pelosi clarified again today that she plans not to endorse anyone.) In the meantime, while a new poll has Obama up 12 in South Carolina (not that polls mean much anymore, of course), South Carolina’s leading Democrat (and my old congressman) Jim Clyburn still hasn’t officially picked his candidate. “Clyburn, continuing to be coy about his endorsement, often tells reporters that he’s made up his mind, but never offers a name. Most signs, though, point to Obama.”
Update: “To call that dream [of an Obama presidency] a fairy tale, which Bill Clinton seemed to be doing, could very well be insulting to some of us.” No official word yet, but Clyburn suggests again he’s leaning Obama now, in part because of the Clintons’ dismaying behavior in New Hampshire. Speaking of Senator Clinton’s enthronement of LBJ as the civil rights ideal: “‘We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics,’ said Mr. Clyburn, who was shaped by his searing experiences as a youth in the segregated South and his own activism in those days. ‘It is one thing to run a campaign and be respectful of everyone’s motives and actions, and it is something else to denigrate those. That bothered me a great deal.‘”
Update 2: I posted more about Clyburn’s remarks — and Clinton’s view of history — here.
The 2007 Pulitzers are announced: Cormac McCarthy wins the fiction prize for The Road; Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 takes non-fiction; Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff win the history prize for The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, and Debby Applegate’s biography The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher wins in that category. Congrats to all.
“This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.” Ground is broken on the new MLK memorial, to be “built along the edge of the Tidal Basin, midway between monuments to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. It will be the first on the Mall honoring an African American and the first that does not memorialize a president or a war hero.” Great! As I’ve said before in this space, I’m all in favor of adding more historically-themed monuments to the Mall, and a tribute to Dr. King seems a particularly worthy addition to our nation’s central gathering place.
“‘I gave blood,’ Mr. Lewis said, his voice rising, as he stood alongside photographs of the clash. ‘Some of my colleagues gave their very lives.‘” Publicly embarrassed by their recent lapse into old-school “massive resistance,” (and no doubt chagrined by their dismal poll numbers), the House GOP get their act together enough to pass the Voting Rights Act extension 390-33, after giving fringe right-wingers the chance to vote up or down on a few poison-pill amendments. (All failed, thanks to the Dems.) Still, several southern conservatives are not appeased: “One of the 33 holdouts was Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.). ‘Some politicians in Washington wouldn’t dare vote against this bill because they’d be lambasted by the media and liberal interest groups.’“
Did White House officials steal a file on John Roberts’ affirmative action record from the National Archives last year? “This investigation is unresolved and the file is still missing,” says a new report by the Archives Inspector General, which Tim Noah dissects over at Slate. (Hmmm…was it reclassified, perhaps?) Still, according to the report, a White House staffer was the last person known to have the file, and “[t]he report’s findings contradicted the assertions of Archives officials, who said last August that an attendant had been in the room at all times and that the lawyers had been separated from their bags.” The mystery deepens…
“When you have a deep enough infection and you just open it up a little bit and let air get to it to heal over, it will come back. It will keep coming back until you open it up and you let it heal from the inside out.” The city of Waco, Texas attempts to come to terms with its local history of lynching.
“‘Obviously, it’s a very difficult issue and evokes a lot of emotions,’ Feingold said in a telephone interview yesterday. ‘I think it’s something ultimately that people throughout the country will accept, but it’s not an easy issue.’” Unlike many of his Dem colleagues (and potential rivals in 2008), Feingold comes out for legalizing same-sex marriage. “Feingold noted that removing the prohibition against gay marriage would not impose any obligation on religious groups. He indicated that no religious faith should ever be forced to conduct or recognize any marriage, but that civil laws on marriage should reflect the principle of equal rights under the law.“
“In his conversation with Robert Kennedy, King refused to heed an appeal for moderation: ‘I am different from my father. I feel the need of being free now.’ This impatience for freedom, acted out by the courageous young Freedom Riders, helped propel a reluctant America at least part of the way down the road to racial justice.” In the same NYT Book Review as the Brinkley piece posted on Monday, Columbia’s Eric Foner favorably reviews Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. And, also in history news, the AP profiles historian, Dylanologist, and recent Bancroft winner Sean Wilentz. “There isn’t much that’s gone wrong with the country’s institutions that a good election can’t cure. Or a few good elections. So I have a kind of willful optimism.“
“If you are going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh. Otherwise they’ll kill you.” This savvy George Bernard Shaw quote introduces Kevin Willmott’s razor-sharp documentary-satire C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, which opened at the IFC Center tonight (followed by a Q&A), and, by that measure, Willmott’s film is a rousing success. At times both blisteringly funny and quietly devastating, C.S.A is a take-no-prisoners alternate history of our Confederacy — Yep, the South won — done in the style of Ken Burns’ The Civil War (or Andy Bobrow’s Old Negro Space Program), right down to bizarro versions of Shelby Foote and Barbara Fields. Punctuated throughout by offbeat television commercials that are eerily similar to today’s TV, C.S.A. is one of the best (and most ruthless and unflinching) satires I’ve seen in some time. And it illuminates a central fact often obscured in so many Brother-against-Brother tributes to America’s bloodiest conflict (as well as drek like Gods and Generals): The Civil War was begun and fought over slavery. In the words of C.S.A. Vice-President Alexander Stephens — in his inaugural address, no less — the Confederacy was founded “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery –subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.“
To kick off its conceit, C.S.A requires that you make two leaps of logic from the history of the Civil War: First, that, after the Emancipation Proclamation is issued, C.S.A. Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin managed to convince England and France to join the war on the side of the Confederacy. (This was less likely, I think, than the film makes it out to be. Popular support in England — who had abolished slavery in 1833 — was pretty clearly on the side of the Union, particularly after Lincoln’s Proclamation, and “King Cotton diplomacy” just wasn’t going to work when England and France could import cotton instead from India, Egypt, and other waystations in their respective empires. And, even if the European powers had recognized the CSA, which they might’ve done had the South won more battles, they weren’t about to send troops across the Atlantic to fight on the side of slavery without severe popular repercussions.) Second, and more unlikely, is that, after capturing Washington DC, the South managed to subdue and annex the entire North, leveling Boston and Philadelphia (a la Sherman’s March) in the process. Even despite the Union’s hold on the Mississippi in the Western theater, the South might well have won the war, if Northern public opinion had collapsed in 1863 and 1864 (As it was, timely Union victories — and particularly the fall of Atlanta — buoyed Lincoln’s reelection.) But, had that happened, IMHO, there would likely be two nations uneasily living side by side for decades to come, as you find in Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain series.
Ok, all that history geekery notwithstanding (which is somewhat unfair to the movie — it’s an alternate history satire, after all, which also explains the more recognizable battle flag replacing the official Stars and Bars on the moon and elsewhere), once you make the conceptual leap that the Confederacy managed to win the war and annex the Union, the rest of C.S.A is remarkably well-thought-out, and at times even scarily plausible. Like Jeff Davis, Lincoln is captured trying to escape in costume (on the Underground Railroad) and sent to Fort Monroe — Here, it’s dramatized in the 1915 D.W. Griffith film, The Hunt for Dishonest Abe. While the South contemplates various “Reconstruction” plans to reintroduce slavery to the North (and Nathan Bedford Forrest reenacts Fort Pillow over and over again), William Lloyd Garrison leads an abolitionist/transcendentalist contingent to Canada. Rather than the Chinese Exclusion Act, the C.S.A. passes a “Yellow Peril Mandate” providing for the enslaving of Chinese laborers. And, as in our world, the nation comes together again to fight a (here much broader) Spanish-American War.
As we get to the 20th century, C.S.A. continues to adroitly riff on American history. Audiences swarm to the Civil War musical, A Northern Wind. (“You tried to take my blacks, But I still want you back.“) In WWII, the C.S.A. plays nice with Germany while despising Japan. (Thanks to the service of Judah Benjamin, Jews can still live in the Confederacy, provided they stay on their “reservation” in Long Island.) Eventually, an armed, highly defended border — the “Cotton Curtain” — descends between Canada and the C.S.A., and ’50′s Confederates scour the nation for the “Abs” (abolitionists) in their midst. Later still, slave riots break out in Newark, Watts, and elsewhere in the turbulent ’60s, as many white Confederates reconsider slavery (due to global sanctions, give or take South Africa) and women begin to demand the vote.
Equally as nimble as the mirror-image counterhistory of the CSA are the many commercial breaks throughout the fake documentary, with ads that are both jaw-droppingly brazen and laugh-out-loud funny. (You can get a sense of this from the trailer — Think Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, itself an excellent satire, to the nth degree.) They range from fake ads for unfortunately real products (Darky Toothpaste, Coon Chicken Inn) to all-too-possible modern innovations — The Slave Shopping Network, a LoJack “Shackle”, a Claritin-ish drug to treat drapetomania (the runaway disease “discovered” by Dr. Samuel Cartwright in 1851), a COPS-style show called RUNAWAYS, etc. etc. As you can see, this is withering stuff, and some might find it in horrible taste. But, there’s method to CSA’s madness. As I noted before, we tend to do a pitiful job of facing up to slavery, America’s Original Sin, and for ninety hilarious, cringeworthy minutes, CSA forces us to look the peculiar institution square in the eye. If we’re serious about our proclaimed role as a Beacon of Freedom to the world, that’s something we need to start doing a lot more often. (But, don’t worry — C.S.A. sweetens this tonic with quite a few laughs.) At any rate, if it’s anywhere near you, definitely go check it out.
“Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated.” Coretta Scott King, 1927-2006. Said Rep. John Lewis today, ““She was the glue that held the civil rights movement together.“
In related news, a site is chosen for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (at 14th and Constitution NW, near the Washington Monument.) As I argued before, some museum along such lines on our nation’s Mall is long overdue.