On a handful of screens this week, but opening widely this weekend is Steven Spielberg’s latest film, “Lincoln,” based in part on a book by highly-respected historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Beautifully written for the screen by Tony Kushner, directed by Spielberg, acted by Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and others, it is visually and audibly (original music by John Williams) stunning and, most of all, morally profound.
It is one of those bigger-than-life, historically-based cinematic epics that hearkens back to grand works, the likes of “Gone With the Wind,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Ben Hur,” “Giant,” or “How the West Was Won” that ruled the screen with massive scope prior to the postmodern era.
All that taken into account, including all the speculation that arises about Academy Award nominations and the like, it is another way in which this film marks an important cultural move beyond postmodernism, overriding the prevailing cynicism about matters of moral and national purpose to, of all things, demonstrate the virtues of fighting a good fight to a virtuous moral end within the framework of the American democratic experiment.
We’ve lived too long in this society tacitly accepting the notion that there is no such thing as genuine virtue in matters of public service, or in anything in life, actually. Everything, our culture has taught us since the mid-1960s, is rooted in selfish self-interest, instant gratification and expediency.
Politicians (or, perhaps better put, people who chose lives of public service), we are led to believe, are concerned for only one thing: selfishly perpetuating a legacy (the prevailing narrative about President Obama now), subordinating their office to ego-gratification and related selfish ends and evaluating everything from the standpoint of enhancing chances of re-election.
No doubt, there are such as these. In fact, our political culture nowadays cultivates them. It frequently appears that special interests often select malleable individuals to back for election, preferring candidates who have things to hide in order to better control their behavior through threats and intimidation.
The reason there are so many arch-conservative deeply closeted homosexuals, a veritable epidemic, in public office could be because their special interest masters prefer it that way, favoring those most passionately committed to preserving the secrecy of their double lives, therefore feeling they have the most to lose from disclosure.
The growing climate favoring personal integrity (such as coming out as openly gay) is undermining this particular unsavory tool and opposition to gay rights now is revealed as, “Go back into your closets so we can whip, terrify and control you!”
But contrary to all this, the American system is premised, indeed it depends on, the notion of virtue – that good old-fashioned Renaissance idea – in public service. Erasmus’ The Education of a Christian Prince (1516), a signal Renaissance work disseminated widely in the early days of moveable type to promote virtue over obedience to arbitrary authority as the basis for acceptable moral behavior.
The observation made by President Lincoln in the new movie, the ancient Greek geometer Euclid’s notion that “two things equal to the same thing are equal to each other,” comes right out of the pro-science, anti-superstition Renaissance current explicated by Erasmus and the European Enlightenment that formed the moral and philosophical basis for the American revolution, a very radical, world-changing event, and the establishment of the U.S. Constitution.
The American revolution was grounded in the radical notion of the “unalienable rights” of all, in superseding property as the basis for human rights with the universal idea of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for everyone.
President Lincoln, emerging on the U.S. political scene as a Henry Clay Whig, was morally grounded, in his core, in this tradition, and this informed his dedication to the abolition of slavery.
The postmodern revisionists who dismiss the nation’s Founding Fathers and Lincoln as craven and hypocritical have performed a massive disservice to the very notion of our national democracy, and, by the way, to the truth, in the process.
The best thing about this new film, “Lincoln,” is that it uses sound historical documentation and a magnificent medium to restore the absolutely heroic role of President Lincoln in the preservation of a union dedicated to freedom and opportunity for all.