18 September 2012

Spielberg's Lincoln & Academia's Call To Worship

Y'all recall how professional historians constantly poke fun at the heritage folks for having an emotional - almost childlike - connection to history; particularly when it comes to Confederate heroes? How the heritage folks foolishly make saints out of Lee and the boys? Recall how much academic historians and the history "pros" in the blogosphere condemn "celebratory history?" Remember how they constantly remind the rest of us how objective and purely cerebral they are when it comes to American history? Remember how they scoff at the notion of a "pro-Union" vs. "pro-Confederate" perspective when it comes to objective analysis?

Well, well, well, how things have changed - or have they? Maybe the criticisms were all phony to begin with. Or maybe they've had a "rebirth" since news of Spielberg's new Lincoln film came out. I discussed this some in a previous post here.

Once more, some academic historians and professional history bloggers provide us with a teachable moment. Two recent posts from Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory focused on Spielberg's upcoming movie about Abraham Lincoln. (See here and here.) The childlike giddiness is palpable - pretty much identical to what we saw from many who were anticipating (and saw) Gods & Generals. With my opening paragraph in mind, consider some of the commentary and responses in these posts:

My only concern is that it may turn into hagiography, though no one might deserve it more than Lincoln.

I’ve been saying for a month that this is going to be the Passion of the Christ for historians. Blocks of seats bought by academics and us browbeating our non-historian friends into seeing it again with us.

When I first read the hagiography comment, followed by comparing Lincoln (at least indirectly), to Christ I thought - "this has got to be a ruse, these folks are intentionally jerking someone's chain to get a reaction." But, no, they're quite serious. This is amazing. I had to pick my chin up off the floor.

Of course, Levin had to take the opportunity to slam Ron Maxwell and Gods and Generals as "juvenile."

This movie has the potential to supplant Ron Maxwell’s melodramatic and juvenile movies, which are commonly tossed about as the best in Civil War era movies.

Yes, Maxwell's movie, (which one of America's greatest Civil War historians, James Robertson said was "the best he'd ever seen") is "melodramatic" but bestowing sainthood on Abraham Lincoln and comparing him to Jesus Christ is, well, purely academic.


And we also gotta couple of . . .

I'm stoked.
Non-emotional, of course.

And Lincoln scholar Brooks Simpson chimes in with this preemptive strike:

I expect the loudest protests to come from people who will readily damn a movie they will never actually see.

That could be, but I wonder why Professor Simpson doesn't seem to have a problem with other folks who will readily praise a movie before they actually see it? So, it's ok to praise it before you see it, but not ok to damn it before you see it? Interesting. Again, double standards.

And on Brooks Simpson's post on the same topic, one commenter wrote:

Well, I guess I’m a sap, but I got the lump in my throat AND tears in my eyes on this one!
Now, let's be honest - what do you think the responses would have been on these same "objective" blogs if similar comments would have been made about Gods & Generals and Lee and Jackson? Again, these are the same folks that constantly impugn and besmirch the Confederate heritage crowd for similar statements in regards to Confederate heroes.  Yes, I can see them now - eyes rolling and an avalanche of "moonlight and magnolias" jokes.

What's really odd is that some poor unsuspecting fella wandered into one of Kevin's posts and offered a not-so-often discussed aspect of Lincoln's faux Sainthood - his flaws. This actually added another dimension to the discussion. Tsk, tsk, tsk - don't bring reality and complication to Father Abraham. Kevin responded with:

Thanks for the oversimplified sketch of Lincoln.

What!? Over-simplification was already taking place: Lincoln deserving Sainthood and a Christ-figure. Talk about being upside down and 180 degrees out of sync! Good Lord. Yet these same people demand that one always bring up slavery and oppression when discussing the character traits of Lee and Jackson, but don't you dare do that with Lincoln. That's blasphemy. No, it's rank hypocrisy and political correctness on steroids.

Actually, the truth is, academia and the educational establishment believe they are allowed to have their heroes - whether it's expressed by teacher's unions celebrating with an image of Che Guevera emblazoned on a t-shirt while marching in protest with communists, or whether it's expressed with giddiness over a Hollywood Lincoln movie that's not even been released yet, that kind of "celebratory" history is just fine and dandy. Am I the only one who sees the double-standards? Perhaps these folks view themselves as so intellectually and morally superior to the rest of us that they view their "celebratory" history on a whole different level and, therefore, acceptable. Elitism on parade.

But Southerners who have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy? No, no, no - those folks are emotional and immature in their admiration for the heroic qualities and bravery exhibited by everyone from the dirt-farmer private (my 3 great-great grandfathers) in the CSA, to men like Robert E. Lee & Stonewall Jackson. Yes, these "neo-Confederates" are to be made fun of and looked down upon by the purely detached, objective, cerebral "professional" historians - all the while their favorite popular Civil War magazines rake in money from advertisers selling Mort Kunstler (who they also routinely poke fun at) paintings of Lee and Jackson and Confederate Santa Clauses by the Bradford Exchange to that same "neo-Confederate" demographic.

Sweet, huh?

Now, in regards to Spielberg's film, I'm sure the acting and cinematography will be excellent. Spielberg is, without a doubt, a creative genius. His most recent film, War Horse, was one of the most entertaining films I've seen in a very long time. I loved it. But ignoring what will intentionally be left out of the Lincoln film (Lincoln's own racism and such), I'm sure it will, nonetheless, be praised and slobbered over by the Lincoln cult. I'm also sure scores of college professors will make it part of their classroom instruction - probably mandatory viewing.

Even so, I honestly don't have a problem with historians who participate in celebratory history and, to use their own words, "hero worship" - even though I may, at times, disagree with their perspective. I can at least understand the admiration for Lincoln. I was a great admirer myself at one time, until I began to read more about him and got beyond the "oversimplified sketch of Lincoln." But my problem isn't with the admiration, but with the rank hypocrisy and double-standards of his admirers.


Anonymous said...

I certainly appreciate all the recent links to my blog, but I really don't see the reason to get so bent out of shape about my post about the Lincoln movie. It simply comes down to the fact that I am excited about a Spielberg movie. I would be just as excited if he chose as his subject Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, or even black Confederates for that matter. As you say Spielberg makes awesome movies and I am looking forward to finally being able to reference a potential Civil War blockbuster w/o feeling embarrassed.

If I was still living in Charlottesville I would even suggest that we take our wives out on a double date. :-)

Kevin at Civil War Memory

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Kevin - you're welcome. We do agree on Spielberg - as I said, he's a creative genius and I would have to assume the Lincoln film will, in regards to cinematography, meet expectations. But, that being acknowledged, my criticism stands.

Thanks for the kind thought - though watching it on DVD where we could stop and rewind and have some discussion about various scenes would be even better.

Thanks for the comment.

kindredblood said...

I am stoked about the Lincoln movie. I was also stoked about Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. Still like Gettysburg, but I have explained numerous times why I am no longer stoked about G&G. I think they should have done a movie on the War or Lee or Jackson, but trying to do all three just did not work. However I still watch it and use parts of it in class.

Still stoked about Lincoln but it will have to be good...if not...no more stoked!

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Corey - I'm letting you back in to comment on probation. Be nice.