Noble goals and death tolls: Honest Abe takes a page out of the Shock Doctrine in Spielberg’s Lincoln

I’ve been on an intellectual consistency kick for the last little while, because that’s just the sort of wild and crazy fellow I am. Especially since the US election a couple of days ago, where it looked like Obama might not win the popular vote, which had me wondering how many folks who preached about the importance of the popular vote during the Bush administration would hold the same line when it was their candidate’s legitimacy being questioned. It’s easy to argue something when it helps your guy, and much harder to hold on to that belief when it’ll hurt you.

So here’s a test case: Imagine a president–a Republican president–who brings the US into what many feel is an illegal war of aggression. He uses this war to amass unprecedented power into the executive branch, and to pass legislation that may be unconstitutional under the auspices of war measures, reaching into areas that were technically the domain of the individual states. Knowing that once the war ends his legislation likely won’t hold up to judicial scrutiny, he attempts to modify the constitution. To get the necessary votes in congress, he’s been bribing Democrats with cushy government jobs once their terms end, while also falsely claiming that the amendment is necessary to put an end to the war. He knows it isn’t, though, because he’s aware of a sincere offer for peace negotiations, but is intentionally delaying those talks in order to get his amendment through.

Again, he is intentionally prolonging a war for his own political ends. The question is, how much does it matter what those ends are? Are those tactics inherently wrong, or are they just political tools that sometimes have to be used?

Because, at least in Spielberg’s new Lincoln biopic, those are exactly the tactics the great emancipator uses to get the 13th amendment to pass. It’s hard to think of a more positive end than the abolition of slavery, and it’s easy to buy into the argument that the practice would have continued for decades at the very least if Lincoln hadn’t been, well, flexible when it came to the democratic process. But delaying the end of the war by even a few days when it was killing, on average, 3,000 Americans every week is essentially allowing a 9/11-level death toll for the sake of politics. Is that justifiable?

It’s been a long while since I read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, but if I’m remembering correctly, her argument is essentially that governments will take advantage of extreme situations such as wars and natural disasters to push through extreme measures that they know would never pass in peace time, relying on the people’s fears to keep them from realizing the extent of what’s going on. Spielberg’s film establishes early on that this is exactly what’s happening, with Lincoln’s secretary of state interviewing an ordinary citizen who only supports the end of slavery because her president has told her that it is necessary to end the war. It follows Klein’s method to a tee.

Those methods are easiest to criticize when they bring about results are obviously negative–concentrating wealth and power, dismantling civil liberties–but the real test of one’s beliefs comes when those same methods are used for what seems like a positive end. Very few people believe their goals are evil, after all. So how willing are you to say that the ends justify the means?

PS – If you’re wondering how the movie is, it’s a bit dry in parts and heavy on exposition, particularly in the opening sequences, but Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic and Tommy Lee Jones is even better–expect an Oscar nomination for Day-Lewis and probably a win for Jones. It’s thoughtful, beautifully shot and builds to a satisfying climax, and it’s interesting seeing Lincoln as a lanky nerd prone to tangential stories and weird references that clearly irritate his advisers. So, entirely worth seeing. But if you’re looking for excitement this weekend, I’m guessing Skyfall gives more bang for your buck.

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