Posts Tagged ‘Abraham Lincoln’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Martin Luther King, a rabble-rousing civil disobedient, is now an American national hero.  This statement is obvious.  It is fact.  But, the lionization of MLK in America today elevates him beyond simply the level of hero. For the vast majority of the country, he is part of a even more exclusive pantheon of great Americans.   Paradoxically, we can see this by the use, and misuse, of MLK’s name and memory.

Watch the news.  Listen to the political talk-show hacks.  Use C-Span to spy on Congress as they argue over some arcane issue.  If Martin Luther King’s name comes up in any of these arenas, it is usually because someone12583152-standard is calling upon his memory to harden their argument into a moral imperative.  Or, alternatively, MLK’s memory and beliefs will be used to differentiate a political enemy’s ideals from those of the great Civil Rights leader. In other words, a sanitized, sanctified version of Martin Luther King has become a political weapon.  ‘What Would MLK say/think about this?” constantly gets thrown out into the public realm, leading to such ridiculously unanswerable questions as “what would MLK think about assault weapon bans?,’ or, ‘what would MLK believe about the Chick-Fil-A boycott’!  The best question, but the one that is never asked is, ‘What would Martin Luther King think about all these ‘What Would MLK think’ queries?”

Though sometimes absurd, or even distasteful, this usage of MLK’s message and life places him into exclusive company.  Only a handful of American historical figures are appropriated by the political left and right in this way. In fact, only the nation’s ‘founders’ are called upon as often as King and his legacy.

FoundersWhen the moniker ‘the founders’ gets thrown around in today’s political culture, it usually refers to a small sampling of men who signed the Declaration of Independence, fought the Revolution, and created the Constitution. Though usually not stated outright, it is safe to assume Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin are the big six.  Though historians will tell you that these men disagreed constantly and vociferously about the the meaning of America, twenty-first century Americans gloss over such complexities.  When ‘the founders’ are spoken of as a homogeneous bunch, it is usually to justify our political proclivities, or attack political enemies.  “What would the founders say about Obamacare?” “What would the founders think about waterboarding?” Picking and choosing the quotes of Jefferson, or Franklin that suit their needs, media personalities and political figures utilize ‘the founders’ to fight today’s political battles.

MLK is now part of this national pantheon. But, in one way at least, MLK is an even more evocative symbol than Jefferson, Adams or Washington. King’s image and visage resonates so brightly not just because of his life, but also his death.  Unlike ‘the founders’, MLK is a national martyr.  He died for what we understand today as being the best of American ideals.  Though ‘the founders’ fought to create the nation, and their lives were often in danger, none of them made the greatest sacrifice for the new republic.  (Of course, Hamilton is the exception. He died a martin-luther-king-jr-in-front-of-lincoln-memorialrelatively young man in a violent manner, killed by Aaron Burr in a duel. But, to our twenty-first century eyes, this death, though romantic, was not for the nation, but only for Hamilton’s individual pride and honor.) Most of the first generation of American heroes passed away quietly in their beds. They had cleared their own, and the nation’s hurdles, while alive.  They lived to see their dreams made real. MLK died before he reached his ‘promised land.’

But, martyrs die so that others may live.  Martyrology means that King’s death caused our collective rebirth. This places MLK in an even more exclusive club.  It could be argued there is only one other member: Abraham Lincoln.  Both King and Lincoln fit the definition of martyrs as they both died so that others could thrive and survive.  Both American heroes foresaw the future far before their contemporaries, and died for this prescience.

As our nation is at fault for the death of these two men, the least we can do is celebrate their births. 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day I watched Saving Private Ryan for the first time in years. I think it is fair to say that Steven Spielberg is America’s most famous, if not most popular director. This is a bit surprising since  Spielberg’s oeuvre the last couple decades provides evidence that he is obsessed with history, a subject American’s are notoriously NOT obsessed with.  Since 1993, he has released films such as Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, War Horse, and Lincoln. Surprisingly, each has been commercially successful.

Indiana_Jones

Raiders of the Lost Ark: What Spielberg does well.

As a history teacher, I definitely understand Spielberg’s love of history, and I appreciate that he utilizes his considerable influence to create and produce films about historical events.  That being said, I need to make an unlikely request. He should stop making historical films, and  stick with his true calling:  Fantasies, adventures, and feel good dramas.  His films like Jaws, ET, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Catch Me If You Can and Jurassic Park are great fun, and I, like most people, enjoy them. The issue I have is that the methodology Spielberg uses for such lighthearted fare is the same he uses for his serious historical films.   He directs films about the Holocaust or the Atlantic Slave Trade in an oddly similar fashion to his films about dinosaurs and aliens.  In adventure/fantasy films, his methods work splendidly.  In historical dramas, they are overbearing, saccharine and misplaced.  Here are three examples:

  • Too Much Mood Music: Perhaps Spielberg’s repeated use of overly-emotional music is not that surprising, considering some of his early successes.  Just try to think of a shark at this point without humming the song from Jaws.  The heroic tune for Indiana Jones is almost as iconic.  Of course, in those movies such music works; but in a historical film, music must be carefully selected since it can create quick, and intense emotional reactions that can cloud the complexity of history.  Spielberg evidently can’t help but use soaring, emotive scores for his films, which has the tendency to transform Abe Lincoln into Indiana Jones, or Oscar Schindler into ET.  Spielberg’s music is so sentimental, and ubiquitous, that it becomes overbearing. This is most notable in his 1997 film Amistad, during which the emotional music was almost constantly played during the 2 1/2 hour film.  Each scene of that film had harmonies that pushed your feelings into the director’s desired corridor.  Scene on the slave ship: Ominous music.  Scene in the Supreme Court: Uplifting music.  Such easy emotional ploys simplify the human complexity of the past, creating good and bad guys by use of a melody. (See Lincoln Preview below for a taste of Spielberg’s methods)
  • Misplaced Humor: Spielberg can be a master of understated humor.  In Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum’s sarcastic zingers are worth the price of admission alone.  However, in historical films, Spielberg’s understated, sometimes goofy humor falls flat.  You can see this most clearly in Spielberg’s most critically acclaimed, and serious film, Schindler’s List.  On the whole, the director avoided such moments in his 1993 masterpiece, except for one instance of strange, awkward levity.  Early in Schindler’s List, we see a large number of Jews being forced into the ghetto, while Polish children yell at, and women spit on, them as they pass. One rich Jewish family grabs our attention, since they are so obviously shocked by the hatred they face.  In the next scene, the rich couple settle down in their enforced apartment, and the wife says the housing situation could be worse. The husband screams in reply, “How could it possibly be worse!?!”  At precisely that moment, five or so Hasidim men and women walk into the apartment, each saying hello to the couple one at a time with bows and raised hats.  Up until this moment, the audience had been focusing on this couple’s loss of privacy, freedom and dignity.  After this goofy representation of cultures clashing (rich/poor; non-practicing/Orthodox; Western/Eastern), the audience is transported into a dour ‘Laurel and Hardy’ sketch.
  • Monologue Speeches:  Last November, I saw Spielberg’s Lincoln in the theater. The movie felt like three hours of monologues.  Most characters in the film had at least one emotional, individual speech, while Abe Lincoln had too many to count.   When Lincoln pontificated about slavery or the war, every character in the room went silent, and listened to the wise sage.  No one argued. No one moved. The camera came in close, and the audience was made to listen and learn. Immediately after I walked out of the theater, I just assumed Spielberg had done what so many others had done before: Transformed Lincoln into a brilliant martyr who evidently understood the future of humanity. Part politician, part cherub. But, after watching Private Ryan, I realized Spielberg imparts monologues in most of his serious films.  In Ryan, there were two to three scenes that were blatant examples that had me rolling my eyes. For instance, in the scene linked below, George C. Marshall reassures some of his doubting underlings that American troops must be sacrificed in order to rescue Private Ryan.  Marshall waxes poetic by reading a letter by none other than Abe Lincoln to prove the necessity of a rescue operation.  The music swells, the camera zooms, and we now have our moral lesson.   How predictable. How ridiculous.

So, Mr. Spielberg, I plead with you, focus exclusively on aliens, spaceships, dinosaurs and comic-book archaeologists.

What’s that?  You have plans for an Indiana Jones 5?  Excellent.