Monday, February 18, 2013

This stuff makes me nuts

I did, in fact, like the movie Lincoln very much. I'm not a historian - I don't think I could qualify even as an "amateur historian," but I have been finding reading and listening to American history the past few years both exciting and rewarding. It started with Battle Cry of Freedom and the Civil War remains the part of our history that I keep returning to - it still seems to me the time that defines us. So I was a little sad to think of all of the important parts of the story that got left out, but the thing about movies is that they are very limited. Limited time means limits on what can be shown. But seriously, wtf? Is there any reason at all to actually falsify the historical record when that record is unambiguous?
Joe Courtney, a Democratic congressman from Connecticut, recently wrote to Steven Spielberg to complain that “Lincoln” falsely showed two of Connecticut’s House members voting “Nay” against the 13th Amendment for the abolition of slavery . . .

Courtney is pushing for Spielberg to acknowledge the falsity in the DVD, a quest that takes on more urgency now that Spielberg has agreed to provide a DVD to every middle and high school that requests it.

Tony Kushner . . . completely rejects the idea that he has defamed Connecticut, or the real lawmakers who voted “Aye.” He said that in historical movies, as opposed to history books where you go for “a blow-by-blow account,” it is completely acceptable to “manipulate a small detail in the service of a greater historical truth. History doesn’t always organize itself according to the rules of drama. It’s ridiculous . . .

Spielberg’s production people called the National Archives in 2011 to get a copy of the original voting roll and to plumb deeply into the details of the vote on one of America’s most searing moral battles, even asking whether the vote was recorded in a bound volume or on loose ledger forms. That roll shows that the first two votes cast were “Nays” by Democratic congressmen from Illinois, Lincoln’s own state. Wasn’t that enough to show the tension? . . .

Harold Holzer, a Lincoln historian attached to the film, pointed out the mistake to Spielberg and Kushner . . . But Kushner said the director left the scene unchanged because it gave the audience “place holders,” and it was “a rhythmic device” that was easier to follow than “a sea of names.” They gave fake names to the Connecticut legislators, who were, he said, “not significant players.”

Yet The Wall Street Journal noted, “The actual Connecticut representatives at the time braved political attacks and personal hardships to support the 13th Amendment.” One, the New London Republican Augustus Brandegee, was a respected abolitionist and a friend of Lincoln. The other, the New Haven Democrat James English, considered slavery “a monstrous injustice” and left his ill wife to vote. When he said “Aye,” applause began and the tide turned . . . .

I think Spielberg should refilm the scene or dub in “Illinois” for “Connecticut” before he sends out his DVDs and leaves students everywhere thinking the Nutmeg State is nutty.

Kushner says that won’t happen, because this is a “made-up issue” and a matter of “principle.” But as Congressman Courtney notes: “It was Lincoln who said. ‘Truth is generally the best vindication against slander.’ ”
The part that makes me nuts is, why do we teach our children lies about American history? Why do we teach our children lies about anything, actually? I'm a strong believer that children, depending on their age, are better off with some things simply not discussed until they are older, but flat out lying to them? Nope. A parent commenting on this column said it best,
My son started junior high in the autumn of 1999. For the first time, he studied history in some depth. He'd long had a keen interest in history. In the Spring of 2000, he asked, "Were New Englanders in history really so heroic?

The momentous Vermont Civil Unions debate was unfolding. Rutland Herald was one of the few newspapers on-line at the time. My son liked going to my office when I taught night classes, complete his homework, and surf the web. I showed him the Rutland Herald, told him to watch the story develop, think about the risks pro-vote legislators took, and they'd answer his question for him. Three times a week we talked about it on the drive home. Then the bill passed and Gov. Dean signed it.

He also knew about the threat of the mob to democracy and read how Terry Randall's attempt at mob bullying was thwarted when the Vermont hearings limited testimony to Vermont residents. My son talked about the threats to vote out of office those who voted yes.

In November of 2000, after the Bush theater, I looked up how many Vermont legislators lost their seats. It was 30+. After my son read that, I asked if he understood why New Englanders are considered heroic. He said it was like watching the courage in the Revolutionary War time.

That's what Spielberg and Kushner are stealing with their lazy dishonesty - the courage of a region's culture and the real courage of two Americans - and stealing from each child's parents the lesson that honesty is a foremost value. - Liam Jumper, South Carolina

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