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November 28, 2012

Wishing for a New Lincoln

By Stanley Heller

A review of the new movie "Lincoln", a caution on making false comparisons, and reflecting on what Karl Marx said about Abraham Lincoln

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Imagine, my eyes moist as the U.S. Congress does the right thing. Pride in a U.S. president as he puts the hammer down to get his way.

Not over anything going on today, of course. I was viewing Stephen Spielberg's " Lincoln ". The film centers on just a few months in the fight in the U.S. House to pass the 13th amendment that would abolish slavery. I had not realized how close the issue was. The "Emancipation Proclamation" only freed slaves in the areas under rebellion and might have been overturned by the Supreme Court. Lincoln wanted a Constitutional Amendment to set it in stone and he tried to do it with a lame-duck Congress. He was in a hurry because once the war ended he feared the restored southern state governments would block the amendment.

The movie has been criticized because it makes the struggle seem as if the victory was all due to the efforts of white politicians and ignores all the efforts of abolitionist blacks like Frederick Douglass, the black general strike among Southern slaves, etc. Point made.

Still the movie begins with two black soldiers talking about how after the rebels massacred captured "Negro" soldiers after a battle, in the next battle blacks made sure there were no Confederate prisoners. Thaddeus Stevens, the most "radical" of Radical Republicans, is shown in a very positive light, and at the end of the movie there's a surprise scene of interracial affection. This is not your grandfather's Lincoln.

My trouble is not with the movie or the real Lincoln, but for the people who think what Lincoln was doing in 1865 is directly relevant to what's going on today. The movie is supposedly based on the book "Team of Rivals" by Doris Goodwin, who writes about Lincoln's perfect timing as he waged war and abolished slavery. She argues that immediate application of Radical-Republican ideas might have driven away the border states and led the Union to lose the war. Seems right.

Obama famously said he would model his cabinet and politics after the "team" described by Goodwin. But instead of using presidential power and Lincoln-like brilliant timing to push through something grand and century-defining he rebuilt the Wall Street casino, encouraged the "Drill Baby Drill" carbon criminals, and stood squarely, "unshakably" with Israeli apartheid. Yet, the screenwriter of "Lincoln", the playwright Tony Kushner, has said Obama is a "great president".

Give me a break.

Kushner also told an NPR reviewer that Lincoln would have treated the defeated South in a "humane" way and thus prevented the "bitterness" that led to the rise of the Klan. I haven't heard that dumb-ass notion in 50 years. It's history in the wrong order. The Klan arose right after the Civil War to terrorize the freed slaves so they'd accept "their place" again under white domination. President Andrew Johnson gave the Klan a free hand until he was impeached. Then Reconstruction came in and for a time protected Black rights. It didn't go far enough. It didn't do what the U.S. did in Japan after World War II (and what Thaddeus Stevens advocated), breaking up the large estates and giving land to the ex-slaves so they had the property and the means to resist.

Interestingly enough at the same time Lincoln was wrestling with the 13th Amendment Karl Marx wrote to Lincoln on behalf of the International Working Men's Association. He wrote, "The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world. "

Marx had confidence that Lincoln would reconstruct the American social order to ensure the "ascendancy" of the working class. That was a fair judgment. Lincoln, after all, had just sent General Sherman to burn his way to Savannah. You think Abe would appoint Robert E. Lee to become his Defense Secretary?

Alas, as the U.S. terrorizes the world, festers in inequality, keeps a million Blacks in prison and leads the carbon-burning orgy, there's no Lincoln anywhere on the horizon.



Submitters Bio:

Stanley Heller writes about the Middle East at www.TheStruggle.org. He writes about the economy, teaching, politics and labor at EconomicUprising.com

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