Lincoln: Politics, Compromise and Little White Lies

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

I’ll be the first to admit that I know very few details about American history – at the very least, any attempt of mine to summarise the few months in 1865 that ended in the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment will not end well. Hence, pardon me as I begin with Jim Beaver’s paragraph at the IMDB:

In 1865, as the American Civil War winds inexorably toward conclusion, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln endeavors to achieve passage of the landmark constitutional amendment which will forever ban slavery from the United States. However, his task is a race against time, for peace may come at any time, and if it comes before the amendment is passed, the returning southern states will stop it before it can become law. Lincoln must, by almost any means possible, obtain enough votes from a recalcitrant Congress before peace arrives and it is too late. Yet the president is torn, as an early peace would save thousands of lives. As the nation confronts its conscience over the freedom of its entire population, Lincoln faces his own crisis of conscience — end slavery or end the war.

I wonder: how many years has it been since the name Steven Spielberg started being associated with ‘sentimentality’, often regarded as one of his greatest sins as a movie-maker? I loved Jurassic Park and the Indiana Jones films as a kid, have always been impressed with how he coaxed a fantastic performance from a young Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun (I…er…don’t remember watching ET), and Schindler’s List, to me, represents really innovative film-making. I mean: a black and white film in the 1990s? Of course, that’s not all that was great about it, but I’ll leave it here. But when the The Thin Red Line trumped Saving Private Ryan in 1997, at least in my mind, it was only ever downhill from there. Peripherally, I’ve already seen others automatically pan his latest effort as another example of American sentimentality – if that’s the right word for it. But that’s not something that I know enough about to comment on.

What stayed with me from the film was a simple, but arguably crucial, message about the nature of politics: that, in any society where strongly supported oppositional views exist, compromise represents the only way forward. Undoubtedly, Thaddeus Stevens and his stringent views on the equality of the black and white peoples of America – and of all others, I guess? – would be lauded by many today, even if he was a little too extreme in some of his other views. Proclaiming something that you do not believe, even for the sake of passing a law that represents the views dearest to you, can only leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth. However, as Mary Todd Lincoln pointedly observed several times in the film, nothing can ever be achieved if you always insist on having it all your own way. As I once read in this book by Kazuhiko Togo, sometimes, you have to be prepared to accept only 49 percent of what you want if you are to gain anything at all. The important thing is to recognise that whilst you may have taken but one step forward, that is one step closer to your goal.

Of course, there are many other sides to politics, some of which were also depicted in the film, echoing the history on which is was based. The wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, and the ‘convenient delays’ to the Confederate Party’s arrival, all represent some of the things that politicians do to achieve what they strongly believe is necessary. Or perhaps what they strongly desire…which isn’t necessarily the best for the rest of us. I’m not arguing that this is something unpardonable; in fact, I strongly believe that democracy is a system that will never enable a society to achieve the best possible outcome – though it’s debatable whether the ‘best possible outcome’ can even be defined, because that is arguably a subjective point. This doesn’t mean that we should give up on striving for improvement; but we do have to be realistic about what we can achieve at any one time.

p.s. Last (incredibly unnecessary) word: boy, was it a shock to me to find out that James Spader was the extremely eccentric W.N. Bilbo…

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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