Why Aren't More Liberals Defending 'Lincoln'?

Kicking off our roundtable discussion about Steven Spielberg's film

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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

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."

Here is the intellectual father of modern conservatism, standing athwart history. Black history.

The problem extends back to the Civil War, where conservatives have long enjoyed a cozy alliance with people who insist the Civil War wasn't about slavery, that it was prosecuted by a tyrannical Lincoln, and that black people fought for the Confederacy in untold numbers. It's telling that the Republican Party's idea of an alternative candidate was Ron Paul—the ultimate Lost Causer, who denounces Lincoln as a man who went to war to "get rid of the intent of the republic."

Among historians of the Civil War, the sort of views expressed on the right have zero currency. If you really believe, as Paul does, that the Civil War wasn't about slavery, you should expect about as much respect among the experts of the war as global warming denialists receive from those who study climate change.

Thus the reason I think we don't see more liberals engaging in a full-throated defense of Lincoln is that the opposing view—the one that animates films like the Gone With Wind and Gods and Generals, which animates television shows like Hell on Wheels, which finds people holding Secession Balls and celebrating the attempt to raise a republic premised on white supremacy—has no respect among anyone who's seriously thought about the issue.

Think about it like this. There's been a great debate roiling the academy between people like Sean Wilentz who think we underplay the importance of politicians, and historians who emphasize the actions of activists and radicals. This has been a pretty heated debate, and I think we see it play out in Lincoln. But it's not like Wilentz is trying to "clean" slavery. The role of politicians and radicals in democracy is a legit and interesting debate in a way that debating states rights vs. slavery just isn't.

Conservatives, as they have in other intellectual arenas, have simply fled the field. The result is that when you see a film like Lincoln, what you find is liberals hotly critiquing the film because things that may seem revolutionary in the grand sweep of American politics aren't among people who've spent years thinking about Lincoln's legacy and the Civil War.

I do think that we're missing certain things in our rush to say what Lincoln isn't. As I've said, I think the first and last scene are revolutionary—as are the scenes when the Confederate representatives find themselves greeted by black soldiers. More on that later.

Next: A.O. Scott: "The Underrated Radicalism of 'Lincoln'"