In this interview with 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen, Steven Colbert finds a way to both playfully diffuse and explore Lost Cause themes related to slavery. At the beginning of the interview he comments, “I’ve heard the move makes slavery look really bad.” Later after sharing that he is from South Carolina Colbert admits to having learned that “I grew up hearing that some slaves enjoyed…the job security…” The audience laughs in response, but they do so unaware of the fact that there are plenty of people who still subscribe to the Lost Cause belief that slavery was benign.
While I suspect that Colbert is consciously referencing the impact of the Lost Cause on how Americans remember slavery, what is hard to determine is whether McQueen picks up on it. One gets the sense that he simply views Colbert’s comments as outrageous.
Interestingly, I have not heard anyone from the Southern Heritage crowd complain about the depiction of slavery in this movie. Perhaps the movie is still in limited release or there is a unwillingness to challenge a film that is so closely based on a slave narrative.
Yes, President Barack Obama deserves some criticism for not attending celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. You can’t spend as much time as this president has over the years identifying with Lincoln without having to deal with questions about why you refuse to attend the sesquicentennial of the most important speech in American history. One of the more absurd arguments (not surprisingly) comes from a FOX News interview with a Wall Street Journal columnist, who actually argues that given the president’s popularity right now it was probably the right decision not to attend. Participation would have just added coal to the fire.
It would be interesting to have poll numbers for Lincoln’s popularity in November 1863. If we follow this argument to it logical conclusion, it is likely that Lincoln himself should have stayed away from Gettysburg altogether. Can you imagine a president so unpopular and still have the nerve to show up at a battlefield in the middle of a civil war to dedicate a new cemetery? [click to continue…]
… 12 Years A Slave earlier tonight. I am still feeling numb and will need to take some time to process my thoughts. I will say that the movie – unlike anything I’ve seen before – captures the violence and brutality of the master – slave relationship as well as some of the more subtle and complex aspects of the slave system. The movie’s depiction of white and black women stands front and center in reference to the latter. Go see it.
Although Lincoln’s prose is magisterial, its might depended in no small part on the ability of the Union Army to achieve battlefield victories in 1864 and 1865. In this case, the pen was only as powerful as the sword.
Lincoln issued a rallying cry on the Gettysburg battlefield in November 1863:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…
The “unfinished work” that Lincoln referred to was begun voluntarily in 1861 when the government and tens of thousands of citizens chose to end the rebellion militarily. Lincoln and others had every reason to doubt as to whether the nation would find the strength in 1863 and beyond to see the “great task” to its successful conclusion? The outcome would ultimately determine whether the dead had indeed “died in vain.”
Is it possible for Americans today to appreciate the sense of uncertainty that hung over the yet-to-be completed cemetery at Gettysburg in 1863 given how disconnected we are from the sacrifices of so many of our military men and women over the past ten years?
To what extent does Lincoln’s hard truth apply to our own wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did these men and women die in vain? Perhaps we shouldn’t look too closely.
Ultimately, Lincoln’s words serve as a reminder of the responsibility of every citizen when our nation utilizes its military and places our fellow Americans in harm’s way.