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La Stampa, Italy

America Comes to Terms with Slavery



By Gianni Riotta

Behind the revival of emancipation epics is the effort to overcome the anxieties and divisions of the "fiscal cliff" era.

Translated By Linda Merlo

3 January 2013

Edited by Natalie Clager


Italy - La Stampa - Original Article (Italian)

America has just pried its eyes away from the “fiscal cliff.” This is the package of tax cuts and public spending that would have automatically been launched on New Year's Eve if not for the agreement, in extremis, made by Barack Obama, the Senate, the Democratic majority, and the Republican-controlled House.

The agreement is precarious -- the United States could either spend too much in just a few months on welfare and defense, reduce the budget or see their rating sunk by the dour rating agencies -- but at least they haven't fallen into the tax abyss. The philosopher Nietzsche said that when we gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into us. In the case of the “fiscal cliff” America has recognized itself in the crevasse as if it were looking into a mirror. And so it's really curious and interesting that during the Christmas holiday, with the great nation at the brink of fiscal disaster, cinema and culture have returned to question the most tragic moral abyss ever contemplated in the nation's almost two and a half centuries of history: slavery.

The most well-known director, Steven Spielberg, launched his extraordinary film "Lincoln," which is dedicated to the president who won the Civil War and emancipated the slaves. The most unconventional director, Quentin Tarantino, dusts off the syntax of our “spaghetti westerns” à la Sergio Leone, in "Django Unchained," an epic of runaway slaves. And for those who really wish to stare into the faces, and to stare at the torn clothes, at the suffering and humiliation of men, women and children bought and sold as objects in the land of freedom, there are the portraits from “Envisioning Emancipation” -- 150 photographs taken between 1850 and 1940, collected by Deborah Willis and slavery historian Barbara Krauthamer.

Why is America -- on the eve of Obama’s, an African-American, new mandate, with citizens who are the heirs of slaves running newspapers, television, universities, the military, and corporations, and shining in sports and entertainment and lifestyle – why is America deciding to take another look at the moral abyss of slavery? Abolishing the infamy of slavery during the Civil War cost more deaths than all other U.S. conflicts, from the War of Independence to Afghanistan.

The explanation is in the fierce feud that has been working against the country for a generation -- in politics, in culture, in society. The Republican “red” America is the enemy of the Democratic “blue” America; the party of the liberal donkey is against the elephant's conservative party. There's the hostile identity in the new central areas, which are rural and isolated, as opposed to the cosmopolitan and universal tastes along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, in the metropolises.

A quarter of a century ago the scholar Bill Schneider analyzed two counties in California, Marin County and Orange County. Same population, same income, same language and religion, but Marin was progressive and radical, and Orange County was Reagan and moderate. Why? Why is the U.S. divided more over culture than over the economy - in the same social class? Whether they're immigrants or capitalists, ideas and values divide people more than money does.

This is why the Civil War and slavery, the first radical division of the country that had united to rebel against the King of England, make you reflect, and this is why they're relevant today. Spielberg, Tarantino, Willis, and Krauthamer seem to ask themselves and the public: If the country knew how to emerge in solidarity from the Civil War and human trafficking, is it possible now to find solidarity in America in the 21st century? Everyone wonders in his own way: Spielberg is wise, Tarantino is unchained, and Willis and Krauthamer are academics.

The first surprise is the very prince of Hollywood directors, Steven Spielberg: "Lincoln" is a political film, in the noble sense of the genre, from Francesco Rosi to Wim Wenders. In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln, a few weeks away from the victory over the southern rebels, decides to get Congress to approve the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and abolish slavery forever. Lincoln and his former rival (and then Secretary of State) Seward fear that, once the country is reunited after the Confederates surrender, the Emancipation Proclamation which freed African-Americans will be considered an emergency war measure, and the South will devise loopholes to put the former slaves back to work in the fields. Only the absolute protection of the Supreme Charter could affirm freedom for all - at least in theory; in practice it took another century until Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

Lincoln, however, fights the extremists of his party, as the great political leaders throughout time have done. The extremists don't just want to say "no" to slavery, but they also want to quickly affirm equality between the races. It's the noble and right position, but the president knows it will never pass in the archaic America of the nineteenth century. Not even the North, who sent their children to die in order to eliminate the disease of forced servitude, supports the idea that blacks and whites can marry, live together, love each other. Spielberg's Lincoln, however, is a hero, and after a few days, falling, murdered, he becomes a martyr of what our President Napolitano called “good politics.”

Know how to look at ideals just like you look at fixed stars, but navigate with your eye on the unhealthy and treacherous waters of reality. If President Obama had sought the votes on the “fiscal cliff” as Lincoln had done with the 13th Amendment, by buying the necessary votes, one by one, while facing Democratic opposition, websites would be calling for his impeachment and resignation. Linguist Noam Chomsky and director Michael Moore would skewer Obama by calling him “corrupt and complicit.”

When you see "Lincoln," or if you read the historical essay of 2005 which inspired it - scholar Doris Kearns Goodwin's “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” think about politics today, in America and in Italy, think of the lack of wise and astute leaders, of the plethora of noisy politicians, of the artful allegations of corruption launched against the reformists in order to mask old and young foxes. Actor Daniel Day-Lewis's perfect Lincoln, paternal and ironic, deserves an Oscar.

Tarantino comes at the subject in his own way: extreme language, sarcasm, irreverence. It's an approach to history which in “Inglourious Basterds,” dedicated to the Hitler years, misfired. But in the reality of "Reservoir Dogs" and in the saga "Kill Bill" it portrayed the present with frenetic precision. Django is a freed slave who joins a bounty hunter in an American South where everything is gambling and brawls and lawless, loveless violence. It's the Hell of history, matched against Spielberg's Paradise. It's the America of yesteryear fallen into the abyss of the Civil War, and today on the brink of a fiscal and cultural abyss. A country that is lost and cannot find itself again.

That it should be the memory of the spaghetti western, from the school of the star Clint Eastwood who later came to political fame at the 2012 Republican convention – the party that was Lincoln's party -- says a lot about the tortuous paths of history, of freedom, and of America.



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One Response to “America Comes to Terms with Slavery”

  1.  Vote: Add rating 0  Subtract rating 0   krisflow Says:

    I don’t think por­tray­ing slav­ery through the eyes of Quentin Taran­tino means Amer­ica has come to terms with slav­ery. What exactly does it mean to come to terms with slav­ery? Does it mean accept­ing this scar on our his­tory enough to make light of it for enter­tain­ment purposes?

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