Friday, December 14, 2012

Lincoln, Slavery and the Historians

This was initially published by the Los Angeles Review of books

One of the most gratifying aspects of Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln has been the debate that its release has generated historians, a debate that is more important than the movie itself.  What were the complex   dilemmas that Lincoln faced as President?  What were the political realities and conduct at the time?  How should we interpret the decisions that Lincoln and others made?  What role did slaves and free blacks play in their own “liberation?”    

So despite the fact that the film focuses on a short period of time in Lincoln’s presidency and deals primarily with the political cut and thrust associated with the passage of the 13th Amendment, there is a real sense in which the film can be described as deeply “philosophical.”  

Lincoln is portrayed as a man of discipline, concentration and energy, all characteristics that sociologist Max Weber defined as part of the serious politician’s “vocation.”  By forging an effective and realized political character - one aspect of Weber's definition of Charismatic authority - an astute politician can change the nature of power in society.   By controlling his all too human vanity, he can avoid the two deadly political sins of lack of objectivity and irresponsibility.   For Weber, a certain “distance to things and men” was required to abide by an “ethic of responsibility” for the weighty decisions that leaders are often required to make.   

Lincoln has always been a man for all political seasons; There is Lincoln the principled politician who believed that war was a necessary and legitimate means to sustain the Union; Lincoln the timid compromiser who as late as sixteen months into the war declared that if he “…could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it”; and Lincoln the reconciling healer of “With malice toward none, with charity for all…” of the Second Inaugural.

Conservative New York Times writer David Brooks argued in a November 22nd column that it was Lincoln’s internal strength and ability to compromise that allowed for the possibility of public good.   For Brooks, the temptations of fame and ideological rigidity are what undermine the average politician’s ability to compromise.   Weber called the losers in that wrestling match with fame, political “windbags.” 

But for liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, it was Lincoln’s principled stand on the 13th Amendment and the need to ban slavery that accounts for his iconic status as one of our greatest Presidents.   In an October 19th piece, Dionne encouraged Obama to “follow Lincoln’s example” by refusing to compromise with current economic and financial injustice.

While most political journalists have viewed the film with an eye towards the current  political stalemate, our most prominent historians have looked for accuracy and context in Lincoln.

To finish reading this essay go to:

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Curious Politics of Beasts of the Southern Wild

The newly released movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, by first-time Director Benh Zeitlin, has received critical praise and garnered prestigious awards on the film festival circuit, winning prizes at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. The attention is understandable; the film is beautifully shot - the characters and story are compelling.  Zeitlin has charmed film fans with his do-it-yourself ethos and his warm embrace of the Louisiana Bayou community where the film was shot.   It might seem churlish to critique this engaging film on political grounds. But since it takes place within a poor and isolated community called the Bathtub on the eve of a Katrina-like storm, it is impossible not to read it politically.

The central character in the movie is a young girl called Hushpuppy. Hushpuppy is a survivor in the Bathtub's squalid world of alcoholism, filth, and outright child abuse.  The adult residents of the Bathtub, including her father, engage in spontaneous celebrations, drink incessantly and grab fish with their bare hands from the Bayou waters.  They are, according to a number of prominent film critics, "free." Writing in the New Yorker, David Denby concluded that the residents of the Bathtub "just want to enjoy, in liberty, their own special existence, which for them provides satisfactions as complete as any they know of."  The reviewer from the New Orleans based Times-Picayune newspaper (the film was shot just outside of New Orleans) asserts that the film portrays a band of "survivors who are willing to fight all day for their right to eat and drink, sing and stumble all night."

While the film centers on Hushpuppy's struggle to survive the degradation that surrounds her - primarily through imagination and her incipient art - this "You've got to fight for your right to party" ethos is also a central theme. Viewers are asked to interpret a lack of work discipline, schooling, or steady institution building of any kind - the primary building blocks of civilization - as the height of liberation. "Choice," even the choice to live in squalor, is raised to the level of a categorical imperative. There is no inkling of the economic and social history of the region that had limited these "choices." We are left with a libertarian sandbox, with a rights-based philosophy gone rancid.

The images in the film conjure up a debate about the political potential of the disenfranchised that took place in mid-nineteenth century Europe between Communist Karl Marx and Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.   Marx was skeptical of the political and social potential of what he termed the "lumpen-proletariat," those on the margins of society who lived not unlike the residents of the Bathtub.  They were difficult to organize and incapable of adopting a coherent political ideology. They could, Marx believed, raise a lot of hell through spontaneous outbursts of hopeless insurrection, but they could not build a new society to challenge the dominant capitalist one.  Bakunin, on the other hand, championed the revolutionary potential of the "uncivilized, the disinherited, the miserable, the illiterate" who would eventually throw off their oppressive chains through violent revolt. In more recent times, Bakunin's beliefs were embraced by both Franz Fanon, the widely read French/Algerian psychiatrist and author of The Wretched of the Earth, and New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse who, in the 1960s, extolled the "outcasts and outsiders," the "unemployed and unemployable" as a potential source of redemption from a "one dimensional" exploitative society.  This disenfranchised stratum, according to Bakunin, had not become "bourgeoisified" like organized workers who were beginning to extract concessions from their economic and political rulers.

In an attempt to save the Bathtub from flooding, a small band of residents, seemingly on an anarchistic whim, dynamite a levee.  Hushpuppy, at the urging of the adults, initiates the blast. We are not shown the impact this has on people living on the levee's other side. In another 1960s-era motif, a hospital in the "city" is pictured as a place where you are ignored, "plugged into a wall" to rot. In actual developing countries, one of the first things that rural citizens demand from their "leaders" is adequate health care and hospitals.  But in Zeitlin's film world these basic features of modern life - places where millions of people are actually cared for and healed - are represented as oppressive institutions, places we need to escape.

These images reprise some of the ideas familiar not just to Marcuse, but to writers as diverse as Ken Kesey, Michel Foucault and Christopher Lasch.   Lasch railed against agencies of the state, "professional caretakers," and centralizing bureaucracies that threatened to undermine familial and local commitments and obligations that were essential to a healthy civil society.  The feeling of being disciplined and punished by cold and bureaucratic agents of social control seems to resonate with a good portion of moviegoers, not to mention voters.  What social and psychological storms threaten us so much that even the technology of flood control can seem a "restrictive" interference with our freedom? Has the "State" truly become a self-perpetuating machine of repression, or are the burdens of modernity so inherently alienating that juvenile rebellion feels like liberty?

 In his new book The Age of Fracture, Princeton historian Daniel Rogers suggests that post-World War II American history has seen a "disaggregation of the social" where the broad social contract that had brought more and more Americans into the domain of full economic and political citizenship has dramatically shrunk. We are left with smaller and smaller visions of "community," often being reduced to the level of a single "rights-holding self."  In a sad way, the characters in the characters in Beasts of the Southern Wild are an artistic reflection of this fragmented world.

One of the great psychological insights in Beasts of the Southern Wild is that there is more to us than the environment that supposedly "shapes" us. The creative force is always potentially available, struggling to emerge. At the end of the movie the small band of brothers and sisters who remain in the Bathtub march together along what looks like a cement retaining wall as water laps over their feet. There is calm before the next storm.  One of the marchers carries a black flag (a pirate flag? the black flag of anarchy?) Are they marching to petition the county government? To blow up another levee? To link in solidarity with fellow survivors nearby? It may be that they are merely marching home to have another drink.

For all the creativity and discipline invested in the making of this film, its political message seems dangerously hedonist - an apolitical, individualist hedonism with a tacked-on ending suggesting an incipient social movement.  Beasts of the Southern Wild will undoubtedly and deservedly win a number of Oscars next year.  I'm hoping that its troubling social message won't win adherents as well.

Find links to this article at the Los Angeles Book Review And at Salon -  

Further reading:

Michael Harrington - Socialism - for an outline of the Marx/Bakunin debate within the First International.

Herbert Marcuse - One-Dimensional Man - in the last chapter he makes the argument of how the "elementary force" of the outsiders and outcasts might mark the end of a political period.

Daniel T. Rodgers - The Age of Fracture

Monday, April 23, 2012

Hunger Games - Fascism Playing on all Strings

Winston Smith, the protagonist and dissident in George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, reflects upon the nature of the totalitarian regime of Oceania. "I understand HOW," Smith observes. "I do not understand WHY." Smith saw clearly the mechanisms of authoritarian rule, the brutal means of obtaining and keeping power, but he was mystified by the deeper meaning of the ongoing sadism of the Inner Party elite. He was searching for the purpose, the rationale for power that we call ideology. Ruling groups need to to explain themselves to the people they rule and to bolster potentially lagging psychological and political morale. Winston Smith's question could as easily be asked of the cynical leaders in The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games, as even most adults now know, is a movie about kids slaughtering other kids. The ruling regime is made up of what look like fashionista Fascists, lording it over the masses who seem trapped in Appalachian poverty circa 1930, still dredging up coal to service the decadent city folk. There is no John L. Lewis to help organize them in their own defense. There are however, two young kids who are dispatched to a yearly bloodlust Olympics designed to propitiate the obscure gods of nationalism.

This all takes place in the future of course. But movies and novels that outline a deeply malevolent social future - including 1984 - compel us to question whether a society structured in such a way could ultimately become real. For many viewers, given the intense political debate surrounding the release of the film, some of the more insidious elements portrayed in the film are already with us. Is the ruling group the logical extension of the authoritarian "socialist" schemes of Barack Obama, or are they the one percent gone to seed but with a firm grip on the police and military apparatus?

The themes of youthful violence, ritual sacrifice, manipulation of history and the use of sophisticated media techniques for authoritarian control are not new. In fact, these "themes" are a central part of the lived history of what historian Eric Hobsbawm calls the Age of Extremes - our carnage filled 20th Century.

The heroes of The Hunger Games are sensitive and reluctant killers, thrown into violence through state force and lottery happenstance. The villains (in addition to the obvious adults who pull the strings) are also kids, but ones who relish the mayhem and thrill to the site of blood.

New Yorker reviewer Anthony Lane suggests that the popularity of the movie derives from the fact that teenagers relate to characters that are both important and victims, zeroing in on teenagers psychic wheelhouse. But recent observations by historian Tony Judt add another dimension. In his posthumously released book of conversations, Thinking the Twentieth Century, he reminds us that it was young people who made up a good part of the right-wing and fascist movements that flourished in Europe after World War I. What young people had in common was the belief that they were the ones who would release the "deeper energies" of their respective nations. And for many of them, it was precisely the bloody and deadly aspect of World War I which defined their youth. "Togetherness in conflict," Judt says, "gave the war a very special glow." Similar sentiments about the decisive power of violence were common among left-wing youth as well.

But in The Hunger Games, the dominant power, the real engine of social control is the omnipresent "media." Cameras see everything and television broadcasts everything. These incessant images provide the symbolic framework for interpreting everyday life. In Orwell's masterpiece, as literary critic Irving Howe pointed out, the world is a place where individuality has become obsolete and personality a crime. In The Hunger Games, "personality" is not only manipulated and shaped by the media overlords, but a "winning" personality and a romantic backstory are commodities that provide the potential means of survival for the contestants.

In the classic Fascist mode, both fashion and the state have become fetishes.

Here is Mussolini writing after taking power in Italy:

"Democracy has deprived the life of the people of "style:" that is,
a line of conduct, the color, the strength, the picturesque, the
unexpected, the mystical: in sum, all that counts in the life of the
masses. We play the lyre on all of its strings: from violence to
religion, from art to politics."

It was the typical Fascist strategy, sociologist Michael Mann points out, to merge politics, art and style. In contrast to what we now know about the social and economic interests that backed Mussolini, Hitler and Franco, The Hunger Games remains historically and analytically agnostic. What are the class and social interests of the party oligarchy, or do they even constitute a "party" in the traditional understanding of the word? We don't know because it is not shown. That is why Tea Partiers and Occupiers have both projected their political values onto the movie.

In the beginning there is sacrifice. In the end there is salvation. In The Hunger Games, the state has turned sacrifice into system and routine in an apparent attempt to solidify the nation. In one of the more provocative scholarly treatments of ritual and sacrifice, Rene Girard points out that in the traditional sacrificial ritual, the victim's function is to unite the group against the source of communal strife thereby mitigating the internal crisis that otherwise threatens to tear the community apart. Sacrifice is the source of religion and therefore also of civilization. The "victim" is devoured and then made sacred. New gods are available to worship.

But in The Hunger Games, the sacrificial ritual has become bureaucratized, repeated in the same way year after year. And the regime makes a political or category error. Victims abound but heroes are created too, and sent home to eventually organize a vengeful response. The internal tension - the contradictions of the society - cannot be resolved through ritual sacrifice alone.

It took World War II to destroy Fascism in Germany and Italy. In Spain, it took the death of Franco to precipitate the eventual emergence of democracy. Whatever political tendency the regime in The Hunger Games represents - and the filmmakers undoubtedly know that the more vague the answer the better the box office - it is pretty clear that it too will be destroyed by war. It will be interesting to see what kind of political system inherits the apparatus of what looks like a highly modern but economically distorted state.

Further Reading:

Rene Girard - Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World

Irving Howe - 1984: History as Nightmare - In Twentieth Century Interpretations of 1984 (Edited by Samuel Hynes)

Constantin Iordachi - Comparative Fascist Studies - New Perspectives

Tony Judt - Thinking the Twentieth Century (with Timothy Snyder)

Michael Mann - Fascists

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Irish Beckett

In the play Waiting for Godot (now running at the Mark Taper Forum), Samuel Beckett's best known work, the main characters Vladimir and Estragon are stuck in a ruined landscape where they bicker, contemplate suicide and observe a ritual of degradation performed by two visitors, Pozzo and his underling Lucky. They wait for the mysterious Godot who just might deliver them from their tedious repetitions. The literary critic Vivian Mercier famously quipped that Waiting for Godot is a play in which "Nothing happens twice."

Godot was written during the winter of 1948-49 in French and in France - Beckett was born in Ireland but lived in France from 1937 until his death in 1989 - but was not performed on stage until 1953 at a tiny Paris theater. During intermission at one performance, well-heeled but irate attendees got into a fight with the play's supporters.

With its themes of futility, master-slave domination and unfulfilled hope, none of the early theater journalists suggested that audiences would be in for "A great night out." But a number of them did observe that in a counter-intuitive way, the humor of the play defeated its grief. Godot is a much a Laurel and Hardy knockabout - complete with the comic use of bowler hats - as it is a play set on the edge of an existential abyss. It's possible that Beckett actually believed that there was nothing funnier than unhappiness.

Godot eventually made Beckett famous worldwide and the play itself became a secure part of western literary culture. Academics have scoured the play for symbolic references, obscure philosophical sign-posts and clues to its geographical setting. Literary critic Hugh Kenner suggests that the burned-over landscape, the anxious waiting for people who never show and the "Gestapo" tactics that Pozzo visits upon Lucky are all a somewhat abstract version of Nazi occupied France. Beckett worked with the French resistance, humbly referring to the labors that could have got him executed as "boy scout stuff." Other scholars insist that the play's setting is "nowhere," emphasizing the universal themes that transcend any particular time or place.

James Knowlson, Beckett's authorized biographer, aruges that whatever academic strip-mining that is applied to the play, the world and feel of the characters is "unmistakably Irish." Vladimir and Estragon remind Knowlson of the Irish tinkers and beggars of John Millington Synge's plays that influenced Beckett. The Irish writer and scholar Declan Kiberd places Beckett's tramps within the tradition of the 17th century Irish wandering poets, victims of the collapse of the old Gaelic order. In this analysis, Godot represents the historical and political amnesia that afflicts an uprooted people.

Just this week in an Irish Times on-line discussion, the question was put to readers if they would move again to another country given the economic circumstances. The so-called Celtic Tiger collapsed, the result of a massive banking failure and obscene real estate speculation. Judging from the posted responses, this St. Patrick's Day the Irish are ready to move again in search of opportunity.

A dominant preoccupation in Irish literature involves leaving from and returning home. In the 19th century, of all the ethnic groups that arrived in America, it was the Irish who were least likely to return to their homeland. This sense of exile and alienation, the struggle for recognition and a sense of self and the acknowledgement that "home" is a place that can sustain as well as restrict, are central themes of the Irish literary diaspora. "If it is suicide to be abroad, then what is it to be at home. A lingering dissolution," says a character in Beckett's 1957 radio play, All That Fall.

Beckett left home following his mentor James Joyce. Like his characters Vladimer and Estragon, he determined that there was no home to return to. The two tramps are prisoners in a world they did not create, and perhaps prisoners of the theater itself. "All theater is waiting," Beckett told his biographer, a key element in creating dramatic tension. In this sense the audience is in prison too, waiting for "something" to happen and questioning, as early attendees apparently did, whether they should get up and leave. We stay, as Irish theater critic Fintan O'Toole has pointed out, because hope triumphs over experience.

St. Patrick's Day in the United States is known as a day of drinking and revelry. There is no point in being too sanctimonious about this for despite Beckett's reputation as a recluse, he was notorious for drinking binges with friends and his appreciation of Irish whiskey. So this Saturday I'll be at the Mark Taper Forum - waiting.

Here is a link to the Los Angeles Review of Books where the article first appeared. Please check out the site.

Further Reading:

John Harrington - The Irish Beckett

Hugh Kenner - A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett

Declan Kiberd - Inventing Ireland - The Literature of the Modern Nation

James Knowlson - Damned to Fame - The Life of Samuel Beckett

Vivian Mercier - Beckett/Beckett - The classic study of a modern genius

Fintan O'Toole - Critical Moments