Wednesday, January 16, 2013
A new Spielberg film lionises him for freeing the slaves. But American historians are now asking: Was Lincoln racist?
He was worse than a racist. His trashing of the constitution showed that he cared only about power. He just used slavery as a pretext to maintain Federal power. In his famous letter to Horace Greeley he admits as much
The film currently taking America by storm begins with a black Union cavalryman pausing from the slaughter of the Civil War to recite the Gettysburg Address by heart as the president who gave it trudges past through the mud.
And it ends with Abraham Lincoln in quiet triumph, his work done in seeing slavery banned throughout the nation, and the Confederacy of the American South brought to its knees.
Breaking off from a discussion with colleagues about giving blacks the vote, Uncle Abe — played by Daniel Day-Lewis — heads off to a night at the theatre with Mrs Lincoln, and a fateful encounter with assassin John Wilkes Booth.
Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s sweeping epic about the 16th President of America’s triumph over slavery, won a commanding 12 Oscar nominations last week and is leading the field for this year’s Academy Awards, with Day-Lewis hotly tipped for the best actor accolade.
Weaned — as every U.S. schoolchild is — on the notion of Lincoln as a towering, morally spotless leader in America’s history, the Oscar grandees are unlikely to vote against it: it seems almost treasonous to stand in the way of this lump-in-the-throat, desperately worthy celebration of the man who has been dubbed the ‘Great Emancipator’.
Unfortunately, say historians, its portrayal of America’s most revered president is about as accurate as the notion that an ordinary soldier could have recited the Gettysburg Address from memory when the speech only became famous in the 20th century.
Not only, they say, has Spielberg’s lengthy drama grossly exaggerated Lincoln’s role in ending slavery, but it has also glossed over the president’s rather less likeable qualities.
Very definitely a man of his times, say historians, Lincoln was — certainly by today’s standards — a racist who used the N-word liberally, who believed that whites were superior to blacks and who, having jumped on the emancipation bandwagon rather late in the day, wanted to pack the freed slaves off to hard new lives in plantations abroad.
To say you might not pick up on any of this from the almost saintly portrayal in the film is putting it mildly. Critics have been mesmerised by Day-Lewis’s compelling performance. Meanwhile, political commentators have even dared hope the film might restore Americans’ shattered confidence in their political leaders.
The film is based on a best-selling biography, Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which Barack Obama has revealed he read during his first term as president.
Spielberg bought the film rights to the book before it had even been finished, and handed it to a screenwriter, Tony Kushner, who considers Lincoln to be the ‘greatest democratic leader in the world’.
It focuses on just four weeks near the end of Lincoln’s life when, in January 1865, he twisted arms and used underhand political tactics to persuade Congress to approve the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, thereby formally abolishing slavery across the nation.
Spielberg's film has been rated highly as cinema, but as history it 'leaves something to be desired', according to historians
Both Spielberg and his screenwriter have insisted this film is the definitive account of the defeat of slavery. ‘We were enormously accurate,’ said Kushner. ‘What we’re describing absolutely happened.’
Sadly, historians have been less impressed than the critics by such assurances. One after another has risked breaking step with national sentiment by declaring that Lincoln wasn’t quite the great liberator after all.
‘As cinema it’s very, very good. As history it leaves something to be desired,’ says Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on Lincoln and slavery.
He said the film severely distorts how slavery came to be abolished by concentrating solely on what politicians were doing in Washington.
For the 13th Amendment, he points out, originated not with Lincoln but with a petition campaign by a formidable group of abolitionist feminists called the Women’s National Loyal League.
Spielberg portrays the president as the devoted foe of slavery, but Professor Foner says Lincoln occupied the middle ground on the issue.
Privately, he expressed his ‘dislike’ for it, but in public stressed that he didn’t want to abolish it, but only stop it from spreading. Preserving the Union, he said in a key speech, was far more important than emancipating slaves.
But his position changed and he hardened in his opposition to slavery, especially after he saw the strategic advantages of freeing the millions of slaves behind enemy lines, many of whom could then come and fight for his Yankee army.
Other historians have taken a much harder line on Lincoln, pointing out his opposition to inter-racial marriage and even to blacks serving as jurors.
Historian Henry Louis Gates has called him a ‘recovering racist’. Other African-American experts on the period agree.
Lincoln told racist jokes, enjoyed black minstrel shows and had no time for the arguments of hardened abolitionists that the races were equal under God.
During a famous 1858 Senate debate, for instance, Lincoln spoke of a ‘physical difference’ between blacks and whites that ‘will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality’.
He went on: ‘There must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favour of having the superior position assigned to the white race.’
As for giving them the vote, Lincoln only saw it as desirable for the more ‘intelligent’ blacks.
Spielberg’s film depicts Lincoln as ready to use every power at his disposal to free slaves, but the reality was that he envisaged a fate for them that sounded little better than their life on the cotton plantations of the South.
He supported so-called ‘black colonisation’, backing unsuccessful schemes to send willing freed slaves to new lives — still toiling in the fields under blazing suns, of course — in countries such as Haiti, Panama and British Honduras.
Supporters say he only did it to persuade Congress to agree to freeing the slaves, but new evidence from, of all places, the National Archives at Kew in South-West London, suggests not.
Even after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 — which announced that all those enslaved in Confederate territories would be freed for ever — he approved plans in tandem with the British to set up freed slave settlements in what are now Belize and Guyana.
What really seems to have annoyed African-American historians in particular about Spielberg’s film is its portrayal of Lincoln as the great white emancipator freeing the helpless blacks.
(Curiously, the director got into similar trouble from some fellow Jews over Schindler’s List, about the courageous German businessman Oscar Schindler’s rescue of concentration camp inmates).
‘This is not mere nit-picking,’ history professor Kate Masur wrote in the New York Times. ‘Mr Spielberg’s Lincoln helps perpetuate the notion that African-Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation.’
In fact, not only did 150,000 black soldiers fight in the Civil War, but some freed slaves became crucial members of the abolition groups who were pushing for emancipation decades before Lincoln took up the cause.
Passionate abolitionists such as the freed slave Frederick Douglass, newspaper editor William Garrison and heiress Angelina Grimke were the real heroes and heroines of the struggle to end slavery, but their names are largely lost to history now. They don’t even get a mention in Spielberg’s version of events.
Also absent is Harriet Beecher Stowe, a clergyman’s daughter and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is a fierce attack on slavery and the best-selling novel of the 19th century.
If you are searching for the single person who really brought down slavery in the U.S., say many historians, you need look no further than her.
But with some 16,000 books written about him — including 20 published in just the past few months — Americans remain obsessed by Lincoln. It’s not hard to see why.
‘He saved the American Dream and he lived the American Dream,’ explains one historian, Harold Holzer, who has been involved in no fewer than 42 books on the great man.
Raised in a log cabin in Illinois with very little education, Lincoln rose to the highest office in the land and took the helm of a teetering nation in its hour of need.
And there are few more tragic and dramatic moments in U.S. history than Lincoln’s assassination on Good Friday, just five days after winning the Civil War.
He was undoubtedly a remarkable president who kept the U.S. intact and presided over the end of slavery.
Whether he deserves the unadulterated hero worship of Spielberg’s Lincoln seems rather more questionable.
Don't mention (that we won) the war: British government 'doesn't want to upset Germans during First World War centenary events'
To adapt one of the most famous lines in British TV comedy: ‘Don’t mention that we won the war’.
The Government is said to be against a series of celebratory events for commemorations from next year to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War - in order to avoid upsetting Germany.
War author Sebastian Faulks said the tone of events must be ‘modest, inclusive and reverential of others’ - while a source on the planning team said ministers are keen ‘not to upset the Germans’.
‘Celebration is completely the wrong note, certainly for 2014, although it might be more relevant in 2018,’ Mr Faulks, who wrote the 1993 First World War novel Birdsong, told The Sunday Times.
‘A degree of humility is needed, initially particularly, as this was an avoidable calamity.’
Other committee members believe the Government should commemorate at least one battle to show why Britain went to war - instead of highlighting the slaughter of a war that cost 16million lives.
Respected First World War historian Professor Sir Hew Strachan said the events should be a mixture of victory celebrations and commemorations of lost lives.
He told The Sunday Times: ‘Germany has almost as great a sense of guilt about this war as it does about the Second World War.
‘Therefore we don’t put ourselves in the wrong in German eyes by opposing German imperialism, by opposing the Kaiser’s regime.’
German leaders are scheduled to attend many ceremonies with the Allies – including memorial events to mark the declaration of war in August 2014 and the Battle of Gallipoli in 2015.
The Battle of the Somme will be marked in July 2016 and Passchendaele in 2017, reported The Sunday Times. The events will end with the Armistice Day centenary in November 2018.
Meanwhile the British Commission for Military History wants Andrew Murrison, who is handling the centenary events for Prime Minister David Cameron, to include the Battle of Amiens.
A spokesman for the group of military historians said the junior defence minister should consider the August 1918 battle, which marked the end of the Western Front stalemate.
The BBC has insisted that it will mark the occasion with ‘a wide range of programming’ and it ‘will not be politically correct coverage’.
Mr Murrison would not comment on whether the Government is worried about upsetting the Germans.
"Blackadder" preserves the right of Britons to be insulting: Ministers agree to amend laws after campaign led by Rowan Atkinson
Ministers agreed to scrap a law outlawing ‘insulting words or behaviour’ last night after a campaign led by comedian Rowan Atkinson.
Home Secretary Theresa May announced a dramatic U-turn yesterday saying the government would ditch the contentious words from the Public Order Act amid fears that they are strangling free speech.
The Blackadder and Mr Bean star led a coalition of campaign groups complaining that the legislation has been abused by over-zealous police and prosecutors to arrest Christian preachers, critics of Scientology, gay rights campaigners and even students making jokes.
The government caved in yesterday after suffering a humiliating defeat in the House of Lords before Christmas.
Mrs May told the Commons that the word ‘insulting’ would be removed from Section 5 of the Public Order Act, as part of the Crime and Courts Bill.
She told MPs: ‘Looking at past cases, the Director of Public Prosecutions could not identify any where the behaviour leading to a conviction could not be described as “abusive” as well as “insulting”.
'He has stated that the word “insulting” could safely be removed without the risk of undermining the ability of the CPS to bring prosecutions.
‘We will issue guidance to the police on the range of powers that remain available to them to deploy in the kind of situations I described, but the word “insulting” shall be removed from Section 5.’
The climbdown was welcomed by civil liberties campaigners. Tory MP David Davis said: ‘I welcome this sensible decision by the Home Secretary. The only effect of this law was to chill public debate and depress freedom of speech.’
Reform Section 5 campaign director Simon Calvert said he was “very pleased” by the Government’s statement, adding: ‘This is a victory for free speech. People of all shades of opinion have suffered at the hands of Section 5.’
Nick Pickles, director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: ‘It should not be the police’s role to intervene when someone feels they have been insulted and the Home Secretary and her Coalition colleagues should be applauded for accepting this important change.’
Comedian Rowan Atkinson blamed the law, introduced in 1986, for creating an ‘outrage industry’ and a society of an ‘extraordinarily authoritarian and controlling nature’.
The Daily Mail has repeatedly highlighted the most egregious abuses of the old law.
A sixteen-year-old boy was arrested under the legislation for peacefully holding a placard that read ‘Scientology is a dangerous cult’, on the grounds that it might insult followers of the religious movement.
In 2005, an Oxford student was arrested for saying to a policeman: ‘Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?’.
Thames Valley Police said the arrest had taken place because he had made ‘homophobic comments that were deemed offensive to people passing by’.
Gay rights campaigners from the group Outrage! were also arrested under the Act when they protested against supporters of the Islamist fundamentalist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was calling for the killing of gays, Jews and unchaste women.
In a victory for the Mail, the Bill also contains a commitment to shake-up Britain’s lopsided extradition laws.
The legislation says there will be a so-called ‘forum bar ‘which means more suspects are likely to face trial in the UK - rather than be packed off to America.
A hearing will take place before a judge to examine the details of any offence which the Americans want to end in extradition.
If prosecution is possible in both the UK and abroad, the courts will have the power to bar prosecution overseas. This will be done of it is ‘in the interests of justice’.
Supporters believe that - if the ‘forum bar’ had already been in place - Asperger’s sufferer Gary McKinnon could have been spared his decade-long fight against extradition. He was only saved, in October last year, after the Mail’s lengthy Affront to British Justice campaign.
Why praising your child may do more harm than good
Psychologist claims 'empty' comments makes them unhappy
Praising children with phrases such as ‘well done darling’ may damage their confidence, a leading psychologist has warned. Stephen Grosz claims that comments such as ‘you’re so clever’ or ‘you’re such an artist’ could also hinder their future performance at school. He says that such ‘empty praise’ causes children to be unhappy as they feel they cannot live up to the false expectations.
Instead he advises parents and teachers to bestow compliments less frequently and use phrases that congratulate children for ‘trying really hard’.
Mr Grosz – who has practised as a psychoanalyst, a type of psychologist, for 25 years – said: ‘Empty praise is as bad as thoughtless criticism – it expresses indifference to the child’s feelings and thoughts.
‘Admiring our children may temporarily lift our sense of self-esteem but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self.’
He also cites research showing that children who were heavily praised were likely to perform worse at school.
Psychologists from Columbia University asked 128 pupils aged ten and 11 to solve a number of maths problems
Afterwards, some were told: ‘You did really well – you’re so clever.’
But the researchers told the other group, ‘You did really well – you must have tried really hard.’
Both groups of children were then given more difficult questions and those who had been told they were clever did not do as well as the others.
In fact, the researchers found they even tried to lie about their results when asked about the experiment. Mr Grosz has written a book about human behaviour, The Examined Life, which includes a chapter entitled How Praise Can Cause Loss Of Confidence.
He says that when collecting his daughter from a nursery near their home in North London, he heard an assistant tell her: ‘You’ve drawn the most beautiful tree. Well done.’
Later, after she had done another drawing, the same assistant said: ‘Wow, you really are an artist.’
In his book, Mr Grosz writes: ‘My heart sank. 'How could I explain to the nursery assistant that I would prefer it if she didn’t praise my daughter?’
He added: ‘If you go to the local nursery you’ll hear this kind of stuff sometimes mixed in with teaching: ‘‘Oh, your drawing looks so like a Miro, darling’’ [the Spanish painter and sculptor].
‘And so you get this mix of praise and teaching. I find it, to be blunt, aggressive. 'Because it’s saying: I don’t want to engage with you as a person; I want to just praise you.’
Mr Grosz believes that many adults were heavily criticised when they were young and are now anxious to show they are different.
But instead of overpraising children, he said parents should try to build their confidence gently. ‘Just listen to what your child wants to tell you, about what they’re interested in and what they’re passionate about,’ he added.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine). My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here.