Archive for the Lincoln’s Birthday Category

Secession Talk on Lincoln’s Birthday

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Lincoln's Birthday with tags , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln.

How sad Lincoln would be to know that 152 years after his death, the country would still be divided, and for reasons not too different from those of his own time. The dynamic is different now of course. Today we find ourselves in a situation not unlike what might have occurred if the Confederacy had won the Civil War, or if, through some electoral fluke, some Southern fire-eater had become President of the United States. So extreme are Trump’s views, plans, and (so-called) policies that millions of Americans, in fact a majority of them, are incensed at the direction the country is taking. And (for the most part, half-jokingly) once again many people talk about secession. For, as in the past, superficially at least, the nation’s political divisions appear to concentrate along sectional lines, with the largest dissatisfaction with Trump occurring on the West and Northeast coasts.

This isn’t the first Northeast secession movement, by the way. New England Federalists were very strong for secession, culminating in the party’s Hartford Convention in 1814. They wanted to end the War of 1812, they were against trade embargoes, they were unhappy with the addition of Western territories through their opponent Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, and they wanted to repeal the 3/5 representation clause in the Constitution, which they felt gave undue political weight to the South. Moderates carried the day, of course, else today we’d be talking about a very different Civil War. At any rate, now folks in the Blue States are hopping mad. All by itself, for example, California has a GDP equivalent to that of France, and yet it finds itself bowing to the political will and inclinations of Mississippi.

And so we have proposals such as the Calexit, and a similar one in the Pacific Northwest, and my personal favorite, a New England Independence Campaign (I might improve upon that proposal just a tad by including Eastern New York, including NYC, Long Island and parts of the Hudson River valley. New York was part of the short-lived Dominion of New England during the years 1686 to 1689.). Then there’s the most all-encompassing plan, which would include all of those regions and attach them to Canada, thusly:

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You may look at the above and say, “What about Washington, DC?” If you do, you’ve probably never lived in the Northeast. People who’ve lived in New York or Boston or Philadelphia don’t need Washington. It’s never really felt like our capitol. In fact, New York City briefly WAS the American capitol. Washington was built where no city existed in order to placate the South. So: West Virginia and Arkansas, Washington is our gift to you.

There is a larger problem, however, and I hope you’re ahead of me here. Our crazy plan would leave some very good friends out in the cold, in particular cities like Chicago, New Orleans, the Twin Cities, Austin etc etc etc, scores of them. More than this — I have friends in every Red State who live in the RED part of their state, who would be left high and dry from such a plan. You could say, “Join us in our new Blue country!” But that wouldn’t really be an answer.

Our divisions are only sectional in the crudest of possible terms. They emerge only when we cut the nation into majority voting blocs. But there are dissenting minorities in each bloc. And as I wrote about a bit in this earlier post, this has ALWAYS been true. It was also true during the Civil War and the Jim Crow era.  The Blue States have always contained plenty of racists; and the Red States don’t just contain many good people, which is just a kind of platitude, but they also contain people who are working against racism and other social ills, just as in historical times they contained people who were working against slavery and Jim Crow. Some southern regions and towns protested involvement in the Civil War. Some states were about equally divided on this issue (Eastern Tennessee, like West Virginia, was pro-Union). When I was researching my grandmother’s home town, Monteagle, Tennessee, I learned about the Highlander Folk School, an activist training center for labor and Civil Rights founded during the Great Depression. It still exists as the Highlander Research and Education Center.  As politically progressive a place as you can imagine, located in the Smokey Mountains. Or Atticus Finch, the hero of Harper Lee’s Alabama novel To Kill a Mockingbird, based on her real-life father.

I think most of us are just letting off steam when we joke and daydream about getting our revenge through secession. But mere territorial solutions are NEVER the answer. Look at Israel and Palestine or India and Pakistan. Making a boundary, building a wall won’t prevent violence where people are existentially divided. And pinning the whole burden of change on others prevents you from doing the work on yourself that needs doing. Where intolerance exists, somehow, to steal a phrase from Rodgers and Hammerstein, they’ve got to be taught. The prospect is so hard I don’t even want to think about it. Cutting and running is a lot easier. But I’ve been to Kansas. I love Kansas, you know? I don’t want a divorce. I want to figure this thing out and mend the heart of America.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois

Posted in AMERICANA, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Lincoln's Birthday, Movies with tags , , , on February 12, 2013 by travsd

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Today’s the birthday of our greatest President.

TCM ran Abe Lincoln in Illinois last night, an adaptation of the Robert Sherwood play. Raymond Massey (who created the role in the original stage production as well)  comes close to being the best Lincoln interpretation (including Daniel Day-Lewis’s), both bumpkin and genius, ugly, strange, moody, funny and charming all at once. (Others from the classic studio era who made the brave attempt were Walter Huston and Henry Fonda. Ruth Gordon is tremendous as Mary Todd Lincoln. Watching her in her youth it’s easy to see why she had such a difficult time with her film career. She was obviously an excellent actress, but diminutive and a bit strange looking. She was easier to slot into Hollywood’s cookie cutter system as a little old lady. Charles Middleton plays Lincoln’s father who promises that young Lincoln will become a poet “Over my dead body!”. Gene Lockhart is a bloviating Stephen Douglas and the always terrific Howard De Silva plays a rough-housing rival from Abe’s frontier days.

Sherwood’s script coheres nicely by the end, focusing entirely on the formation of Abe’s character (ending with his departure from Illinois to start his Presidency), although it relies a bit too much on overly expository dialogue and facile quotation — common foibles in biographical playwrights. And we don’t get a clear sense of WHY Lincoln cares about the slaves. Who put the thought in his head, or the sentiment in his heart? Seems to come a bit out of nowhere.

Is there a definitive Lincoln script or performance? In my view, not yet. My thoughts on three other film versions (including the recent Spielberg one) are here and here.

Abraham Lincoln (As Seen by D.W. Griffith)

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Hollywood (History), Lincoln's Birthday, Melodrama and Master Thespians with tags , , , , , on February 12, 2012 by travsd

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Today is the Great Emancipator’s birthday. In honor thereof, we present one of our favorite movies, D.W. Griffith’s beautiful, bizarre Abraham Lincoln, one of only two talkies that he made. I find the slow pace of it dream-like and enchanting. Walter Huston is extremely weird as Lincoln, Una Merkel is in one of her rare serious roles as Ann Rutledge, and Jason Robards, Sr. (dad of the Jason Robards we all know) plays Lincoln’s law partner Billy Herndon. After the sins of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith had a lot to atone for, and to his credit he spent a lot of time trying to do so, notably in the follow-up epic Intolerance (1916), and in this hagiography of Abe.  If you don’t dig the weird pleasures of this movie, you’re just too damn impatient.

Also, for your reading pleasure, might I recommend Carl Sandburg’s multi-volume Lincoln biography. I tackled this monster when I was about 19.  Naturally, 80 years of subsequent scholarship have overridden some of the facts. But I’m of the view that some people deserve hagiographies, and for me Lincoln’s very near the top of that short list.

Happy birthday, Abe!

For more on early film history don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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