Saturday, February 23, 2013

Is Your Hate Pure, Or, Out By The Gas Fires From The Refinery

Lincoln is a film about the dirty business of doing the right thing, about the costs, both human and moral, of fighting injustice. Lincoln himself of course ends by bearing some small portion of those costs, though nonetheless greater than any of the other characters the film spends any time with. His historical grandeur, his secular sanctity, is only increased by his nicely self-aware habit of breaking into homespun homilies whenever faced with and resolving political and so appropriately large scale difficulties: it's notable his confrontations with his wife involve no such storytelling; we see he knows it's an act, even if one right at the core of his power, one that he could not avoid, would have used whatever public role he found himself in. That habit of reducing political decisions to the level of folk wisdom seems to me to make it difficult for him to bring to light the tensions involved in the struggle to pass the thirteenth amendment or indeed any attempt to drag a people who cannot agree on what it is towards justice. Folk wisdom does not have room for tragedy, or only at a distance; it smooths and reconciles, does not linger on the path not taken, is not bitter or disenchanted.

For me then, the scenes which best capture the dilemmas the film tries to make real are those when Thaddeus Stevens lies before the House of Representatives about his commitment to equality. To retain the support of moderates, Stevens is forced to pretend that he and other supporters of the amendment do not intend to do more than free slaves, not to allow them to vote for example. Although he pleasingly illustrates the possibility of believing someone entitled to the equal protection of the laws while holding them in contempt by using the leader of his opponents, who has made him tell lies in public, as an example of someone in exactly that position as he ends his time on the floor, his insincerity is obviously difficult for him. None of his usual rhetoric is present: the sentences are short, declarative. Yet when a junior member of his coalition, a nobody he has already suffered criticism from for being willing to work with Lincoln, finds him sat outside the chamber later, and begins to question his performance, he is quick to make clear why it had to be made. The war and its dead, and the futility of accepting only perfection rather than what a coalition can be mobilised behind excuse his betrayal of his ideals. It is a betrayal though, and he knows it. His bitterness is in the speed, the contempt of his reply. That is the dirty business of politics. Lincoln himself is too unworldly to feel those costs, at least in public. Stevens hates, and it is Stevens we are most like. Hate though, like other symptoms of injustice, eats you up. He died not long after the failed impeachment of Lincoln's successor, Johnson, over the Reconstruction.

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