'Lincoln' Writer Tony Kushner Responds to Lost-Cause Criticism

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Having read the responses to Lincoln on this blog, Tony Kushner was kind enough to write me a note and request the right to answer them. I eagerly granted that right. Kushner confined his response to the critique I offered here, regarding an NPR interview. He declined to respond to larger critiques of the film, a viewpoint I respect. Were I him, I would hope to do the same. At some point, art must speak for itself.

Here is Kushner's full, unedited response.

If I were to attribute the rise of Lost Cause mythology and the Ku Klux Klan to abuses suffered by the South at the hands of the North, that would indeed be, as you put it, bizarre and preposterous. I absolutely do not believe that Northern abuse or exploitation of the white Southern population after the Civil War was responsible for the birth of the Jim Crow South, lynch law, or the hundred-plus years of racist horror that followed. It was to the African-American victims of this horror, not to their white supremacist oppressors, that I was referring, in the interview, when I spoke of "unimaginable, untellable human suffering."

I was vague and general when I spoke on NPR, which is always a mistake. The specific instance of a failure of compassion toward the defeated Confederacy to which I was attempting to allude in the interview was Congress's decision, in 1866, to fund a massive effort to locate and bury the bodies of fallen Northern soldiers across the battlefields of the Civil War, and not to do the same for the Confederate dead. The government's refusal to help the South in this regard led to the formation of private Southern burial societies. Some of the earliest formulations of Lost and Noble Cause Confederate nostalgia and bitterness can be traced to these groups.

Lincoln's insistence on magnanimity toward the armies of the defeated Confederacy, elevated in the final paragraph of his second Inaugural Address to a universal principle governing human conduct in the face of the unknowability of God's will, strikes me as an idea radical for its time and radical today.

I'm not willing to dismiss the discomfiting possibility that the North's failure to pursue Lincoln's charitable vision of reconstruction after his assassination may have made political solutions more difficult, although of course, we will never know, and that is, perhaps, a subject for another debate. I believe that Lincoln was a moral visionary as well as a peerless politician. That belief should be clear to anyone who's seen the movie, as well as my complete rejection of pro-Confederacy revisionism.

I understand why my careless language on NPR has been interpreted by some as an endorsement of an entirely discredited and pernicious version of the history of reconstruction. Your bafflement at that apparent endorsement implies a degree of respect for me for which I'm grateful.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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