Kicking off our roundtable discussion about Steven Spielberg's film
Lincoln is the first major biopic in more than 70 years of the man many consider our greatest president. The result has been a fascinating back and forth among scholars and writers about what the film does and doesn't do, who it portrays and who it doesn't. Last week I spent some time (off-line) with New York Times film critic A.O. Scott debating the film's meaning and impact. We've decided to bring that discussion online and add in some other voices, including historian Kate Masur, who has examined how Lincoln deals with the role of African-American activism at the end of the Civil War.
We pick up the conversation with the following note addressed to Scott and Masur, taking up our conversation from last week. The major theme under debate is simple: Why haven't more liberals defended Lincoln?
Tony and Kate,
Thanks for agreeing to join in this conversation. I want to start with something Tony raised in a previous conversation—the lack of a forthright liberal defense of Lincoln, even though the movie is about the expansion of civil rights to African-Americans, an issue which sits firmly in the bailiwick of liberals. It's true that you don't have many conservatives arguing that black people should have remained slaves. But to the extent that there is any modern tradition of soft-pedaling slavery, it exist almost wholly among conservatives. And it does still exist, by the way
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I actually think this is the root of the problem. The conservative movement in America has always enjoyed a proximity to white supremacy, which many of its more respectable figures must find uncomfortable. But it's not like you can simply write this relation off to fringe groups, or some unreformed anti-intellectual mass. I've always found it rather amazing to hear respectable conservatives pining for the days of William F. Buckley, whom they see as the epitome of the sober conservative intellectual. This is hard for me to take. This is the same Buckley who backed segregation, backed Apartheid, and greeted the Civil Rights Movement by saying, "The great majority of the Negroes of the South who do not vote do not care to vote and would not know for what to vote if they could."