Saturday, June 20, 2009

Lincoln and Slavery

I post this in response to a comment I received on the question of Lincoln's attitude toward slavery. The comment can be found under the blog entitled Future USA.

My response:

I have been a student of Lincoln most of my life, and I can tell you emphatically that he was anti-slavery. He felt that slavery was a sin morally, a crime legally, and a potential disaster economically and politically. The question was how best to deal with it. As a strictly legal matter, the South had the right to hold slaves; Lincoln thus argued, early in his career, for the right of the federal government and the states to limit the spread of slavery. His position, essentially, was that we (the anti-slavery forces and the central government) can do nothing about the slaves where they are, but we can stop slavery from spreading to other states and to the new territories. By doing so, we will both limit the evil, and condemn it to a slow death. He was consistent on this point all through his campaigns for the Senate and the presidency.

If by Lincoln being bi-partisan on the issue of slavery you mean that he was a relativist, that is not true. He opposed slavery, argued that it should be abandoned for moral and political reasons, and did what he felt it was constitutionally permitted to do to speed its demise. But up to the war, the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the slavers' right to own slaves, and Lincoln, and all other elected officials, were obliged to abide by those rulings. Nonetheless, if you read the Cooper Union speech (and I urge you to do so), his most extended and profound pronouncement on the question of slavery, you will see that he understood that the South would never accept a compromise. He states clearly that it is not compromise that the South wants, since they had had many of them; rather, they wanted the North to agree with them that slavery was morally correct, and so should be allowed to exist and to spread. That is why he made the famous House Divided statement: the Union will be either all-slave or all-free, but it cannot go on as it is. The South clearly wanted the Union to embrace slavery and endorse it as a moral right, and with this, Lincoln says, the North could not agree.

He also makes it clear in that speech, through detailed argument, that the Founders overwhelmingly opposed slavery and believed that it would and should end eventually. He also mentions, interestingly, that the words slave and slavery never appear in the Constitution. His point is that the Founders accepted the fact of slavery in their deliberations on forming the Union, and knew that they could not secure the Union without acknowledging and compromising on the question.(This was the origin of the so-called three-fifths-of-a-man compromise, in which three-fifths of the slave population of the Southern states had to be counted in any census. It did not mean that the Founders considered slaves to be less than human; merely that members of the House should be apportioned with the acknowledgment that large parts of the Southern states' populations were black slaves. If this had not been done, the South, with its much smaller free population, would have had virtually no influence in Congress.) But Lincoln is persuasive on the point that the Founders neither approved of slavery, nor did they intend that it be a permanent part of the Union.

It is true that, initially, Lincoln did not forward the war as an anti-slavery struggle, though many in the North did. But Lincoln knew that the huge swell of volunteers who came forward to join the army in 1861 did not do so to eliminate slavery. Indeed, most of those boys had never seen a slave. Instead, they rallied to preserve the Union, and so Lincoln argued for the war initially as a pro-Union, not an anti-slavery, battle.

But by 1864, all that had changed. The emancipation was issued in the Fall of 1862, to take effect on the first day of 1863. By this act, Lincoln was making it clear that the cause of the North was two-fold: to preserve the Union and to end slavery. And he did this because he knew that the first could not be achieved without the second. As you may recall, in his famous letter to the abolitionist publisher Horace Greeley, Lincoln said that he "would save the Union," and if that meant he had to free all of the slaves he would do it, and if it meant that he must free none of the slaves, he would do it, and if it meant that he should free some of the slaves and leave the others as they were, he would do that. "But I would save the Union." (This letter was written before the emancipation was promulgated, though Lincoln had already made up his mind to it. And, in effect, he chose the last course: he freed some but not all of the slaves.)

Thus, he clearly saw abolition as a subset of the larger cause of preserving the Union, which he was bound by his oath of office to do. But in his own heart and mind, he was, and had long been, an opponent of slavery. It is not right, he said many times, that one man should earn his bread by the sweat of another man's brow, and he cited the Bible to this effect.

The Second Inaugural Address is his final statement on the relation between slavery and the war. In it he makes clear once and for all that the war was about slavery as much as about the Union; perhaps, as a moral matter, even more so. In fact, he puts the question in the largest moral context, arguing that God permitted slavery to exist in America as part of His inscrutable plan, and He now chose the eradicate it through this horrible war. It was not man's will but God's will that was behind the war and slavery, Lincoln says, and He now was using one to end the other. This was a courageous and nearly mystical view of the worst war of the nineteenth century, and Lincoln's way of somehow rationalizing it, and its terrible suffering, through submission to the will of God. (As I have said elsewhere in this site, if any modern president were to make such a statement, he would be hounded out of office forthwith.)

So to summarize: Lincoln was decidedly anti-slavery, though prior to the war, he tried to follow the law as it existed to that point. He was not one of the radical abolitionists, but he argued forcefully that slavery ought to be contained where it was, and not allowed to spread. He emancipated the slaves, technically, as a measure of war, which he had the legal right as Commander-in-Chief to do. Ironically, it was the South that gave him this right. You claim the slaves as your property, he argued, and so, as property of the enemy, I have the right to confiscate them and do with them what I think best to support our effort. And so he chose to free them. Though please note that, in another irony, the emancipation affected only those territories that were then in rebellion against the Union. Thus, the emancipation applied only to those slaves over which the federal government had no control. It specifically excluded slaves in states that had not joined the rebellion, such as Maryland and West Virginia, and parts of states which had already been secured by the Union Army, though Lincoln both urged their owners to free them, and offered to compensate them for doing so. But as the Union Army rolled through the South, it took the emancipation with it, and freed the slaves as it encountered them.

You say that Lincoln remains an important and enigmatic figure, perhaps for you alone. I assure you, you are not alone in this. His importance and the mysteries of his character remain an enigma to all of us who admire and study him.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Future USA

I was thinking today about the future of our country, as I often do. Though I try to avoid making predictions (since they almost always turn out to be faulted), I think I will put down how I see this country going, and what my children and their children may well expect.

Ever since the Civil War, the tendency in this nation has been toward centralization, specifically, the increase in the power and reach of the federal government. The presence of slavery on this continent was even more pernicious than we recognize, for the bloody, protracted effort to eradicate it from our society inevitably meant that the federal authority would have to take to itself extraordinary powers to manage the crisis. To my mind, the Civil War was the turning point in American history. Before it, states' rights were the norm, and most of the power in American governance resided in the states. The Constitution was very specific: Any powers not granted to the federal government by its precepts were to remain with the states. The war changed all that. It determined once and for all that the federal authority was transcendent, and that, instead of holding such power as was not ceded to it by the states, it would forever hold the prevailing power, ceding only such power to the states as it chose.

This was a violation of the spirit in which the nation was created - a direct affront to the vision of the Founding Fathers. The United States was meant to be just that: a union of states, each of which has sovereignty to determine its own destiny, culture, laws and way of life. But slavery, that great evil, made it impossible for the federal government to respect this precept. And so the central authority took upon itself the power necessary to purge our society of slavery, and in the process (as always happens) assumed rights that it never again gave up. (For once a power is taken from the people and given to the government, it is rarely, if ever, returned to them.)

And so, to put it briefly, we decided to choose a society free of slavery over one in which the federal government was limited by the power of the states and of the Constitution. Now it is true that the Constitution was amended after the Civil War to incorporate certain powers into the federal sphere, and it would have been well if the aggrandizement of the central authority had stopped at that point. But the process of centralization had been set in motion by the greatest upheaval which our nation had witnessed, and it continues to this day.

The second milestone in this process of centralization was the amendment, in 1913, establishing the federal income tax. This gave to the growing federal authority a virtually unlimited source of revenue to facilitate the expansion of its power. This amendment was the natural outcome of decades of increasing centralization, for the government could not have supported and expanded its authority without an enormous and ever-replenishing income. The ratification of the sixteenth amendment by the states was the most serious mistake they made since the secession that prompted the Civil War, since, as with the need to eradicate slavery, the income tax virtually guaranteed a perpetual growth in the power of the central government. It is, of course, a matter of no surprise that the income tax has done nothing but increase since its creation, exactly as the size and scope of the federal government has increased.

The third watershed in this process of usurpation by the federal government of individual and states' rights was the New Deal, and again, it arose out of a crisis. The financial collapse that was the Great Depression gave the central government precisely the same rationale for expanding its powers as the existence of slavery had done. And as with the struggle against slavery, the 'progressive' program of the New Deal, while addressing a genuine need for action, served to grow the central government enormously in the name of humanitarian reform. This is the most pernicious aspect of the process of centralization: It is usually touted as a positive benefit to society, redressing social and economic ills and improving the quality of life of the citizens. It is thus difficult for the forces of traditionalism and limited government to combat such measures, as it leaves them open to the charge of being racists or class-ists or retrogrades. (We see this every day in the public sphere at this moment.)

The current economic crisis offers to the federal government yet another opportunity to expand its powers, and it has not been slow in taking advantage of it. It may well be that the next few years will represent a fourth major phase in the erosion of individual and states' rights in favor of increasing centralization. The clamor for universal health care has all the earmarks of the righteous fight of the anti-slavery struggle and the New Deal, and anyone who opposes it is immediately labeled as a heartless retrograde. I have little doubt now that we will, in fact, have some form of socialized medicine and health insurance operated by the central government. Perhaps it will not at first be fully centralized, but the movement toward that end will be irresistible. When the president states that the proposed program will be neither a mandate nor a federally-run health care system, he is telling only part of the truth. It may not begin that way, but its natural evolution will certainly be in that direction. And so my first prediction is that, in the lifetime of my children, we will have in this country a single, central, socialized medicine and health insurance system dictated and operated by the federal government.

As with every form of socialized medicine, this will inevitably mean long waits for care and government mandated rationing of services. As a result, I believe that a black market in both care and medicines will develop, just as it did in the old Soviet Union (indeed, we are seeing the origins of this now with the influx of medicines from Canada and Mexico), and like that system, it will be officially illegal but informally tolerated. This black market will be robust though unreliable, but it will be necessary not only to provide needed services, but also to keep pressure off the government system, which would be intolerable without it.

We have already seen the impending nationalization of the banking industry, and it is being conducted, not surprisingly, in the name of fairness and for the good of the average American. And while corporate greed has become disruptive of our economic health, how much worse will federal control prove to be? At least in corporations there is accountability, to the directors, to the share holders, to the employees and to consumers. But in a federally-run economic system, the only accountability will be at the ballot box. And we have seen time and time again how tendentious and easily manipulated that can be. In every poll taken on the subject, voters declare that they are displeased with the direction of the government and the quality of its elected officials, yet overwhelmingly they affirm that they are content with their own representatives. And so, the inability of the electorate to link the behavior of their own officials to the wider condition of the nation keeps the hide-bound denizens of government in office until their rigoring corpses are carted out of the halls of power on a pallet.

And so my second prediction is that, the process already having begun, we will have a centrally-dictated financial system, not perhaps in the lifetimes of my children, but in those of their children. Ours will gradually become a command economy, with such tight governmental control and regulation of the market that the market will cease to be free in everything but name. And, with historical irony, all this will be done in the name of a free and fair market.

Now, these two taken together - centralized health care and insurance and nationalized banking and finance - will be sufficient to render the federal government nearly omnipotent, and something like the absolute master of the states. All power, all financial policies, all personal decisions regarding the quality of one's life, will reside in the central government, which will tout itself as the guardian and guarantor of individual liberties, expressed not as maximum freedom or opportunity, but as fairness and a better quality of life. Our lives will be better, more secure, longer and easier, the central authority will say, precisely because it will have taken to itself near-total power over them. And such power, once given up by individuals and the states, will never be returned. As a result of this near-total usurpation of power, the states will lose whatever sovereignty they may have left, and they will become nothing but quaint artifacts of a bygone era, characterized not by any real power, but merely by cultural diversity and symbolic differences.

From this comes my third prediction. Within the lifetime of my grandchildren's grandchildren, the United States will have become, in effect, a massive dictatorship run from Washington. It will be a new sort of dictatorship; not one lorded over by a single man or woman, or even by a single party, but a dictatorship of bureaucracy backed by technology, in which the titular leaders will be no more than that. If I may coin a phrase, the United States will become a mega-garchy.

The president, congressmen, department heads will be nothing more than managers of this massive bureaucratic system, which will be, ironically, a progressive, left-wing dictatorship, put in place by people who claim to be serving the public interest and combating a right-wing menace, at the very same time that they have stripped our citizens of their birthright as free men and women. In other words, the mega-garchy will be a dictatorship of benevolence, imposed for our own benefit by those who wish to remove from us all risk and initiative, in order to preserve us from ourselves, while concentrating all power in the hands of the central government.

I am tempted to say that I am glad I will not live to see this, but I have too much solicitude for my children, and for their offspring whom I may never see, to take such a passive position. Indeed, if the young men who volunteered to serve in the Union Army in 1861 had taken that position, slavery might have persisted for another fifty years. (Like Lincoln, I am confident that it would eventually have sunk under the weight of its own economic ossification. However, unlike him, since I have hindsight, I think it might have been better to have allowed this process to occur naturally, rather than to have permanently altered the nature of American democracy, while in the process having taken the lives of 612,000 young Americans.) And so I cannot content myself with my own mortality, consigning my descendants to the fate of all those who, as Dostoevsky said, exchange their liberty for bread. For that, in my view, is precisely what we are doing for the sake of a "fairer" financial system and cheaper health insurance and doctor visits, and so on.

No, I would like to leave to my progeny something like the nation that the Founders wished to be left to me: a nation with a strictly limited central government, wherein real power resides close to the citizens, and in which personal liberty and opportunity are at both a premium and a maximum. But I am not sure at this point what I can do to bring this about: this may be left to future generations to decide.

And so comes my fourth prediction, which is more in the nature of a hope than an expectation: At some point, probably late in this century, the government having become so suffocating of rights and opportunities, so paternalistic in its attitude and maternalistic in its behavior, and the economy having reached the point of utter collapse, there will be a second revolution in America. And that revolution will take as its values the very same values, purged as they have been of racial injustice, that were embraced by the Founders, and enshrined for all to see (who care to read it) in the Constitution. And that, I think, is the great advantage which this second American revolution will have: It will take as its guiding principle the very document which the first one struggled so heroically to produce.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Heartaches 12

It has been some time since I last posted about my heart surgery. It took place on January 6 of this year, to replace a defective mitral valve and perform a double bypass. I was in intensive care for five excruciating days, and remained in the hospital for three or four more. My recovery took about two months.

Now, fully six months after the surgery, I continue to experience aftereffects. The two most troubling are memory loss and recurrent, unpredictable and profound fits of depression. The first is especially annoying in that I always prided myself on the quality of my memory, and because memory is essential to my professional life. My short-term memory is affected the most, but my medium- and long-term memories are also suffering. I will be told something and, a few minutes later, have completely forgotten it. This happens almost daily and is quite debilitating. As for my longer-term memory, while I expected that it would diminish with age, I believe the surgery has accelerated or exacerbated the process. Information which had always heretofore been available to my mind is simply no longer there. And while I can still recite poetry I memorized in high school and college, names, dates, events, and especially whom-I-told-what are just disappearing. I had read in my research on heart surgery that some memory loss is to be expected (they actually give you a drug to induce amnesia so that you will have no recollection of the experience), and that it may persist for as long as a year. We shall see.

The intense depression is a greater problem. I have always been a depressive, but formerly I could anticipate, even predict the episodes, and I usually knew what was causing them. Now, powerful, deep fits of depression come upon me suddenly, without warning and with no apparent trigger, and I am nearly helpless to prevent or manage them. At my younger girl's baccalaureate mass the other night, for example, I was suddenly overcome with a depression so profound that I had to fight tears, and was afraid several times during the mass that I would have to leave. But one has to hold oneself together for the sake of children, and so I managed to get through.

These depressions, which are far worse and more gratuitous than previously, seem now to me to be getting out of control. And while I do recognize the root causes of my chronic depression, the post-surgical depressions have taken on a character which is distinctly different, and much more disruptive. It is almost as though the invasion of my heart has shaken loose demons whose power to haunt I had learned in large measure to control. Without those hard-won restraints, they surge up now in my mind and spirit like killer waves, inundating me and threatening to capsize my sanity entirely. And indeed, sometimes, especially at night when I am alone and struggling to sleep, I feel that I may be headed for a nervous breakdown.

I mention all this not to elicit sympathy, but, rather, as a caution to others who are facing or recovering from heart surgery. The violation (I would even say rape) of your personal integrity is going to provoke symptoms of which no surgeon will warn you, and which no course of care is prepared to address. The surgeons should warn us, however, and our course of care should address the non-physical aftereffects, but until that happens, those of us who undergo heart surgery may find ourselves at the mercy of our minds' and emotions' unfathomable powers of retaliation.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Free-re- 2

I have been asked in response to my posting on the practice of producers demanding free-rewrites why we simply do not refuse to do them. The answer to this question is twofold.

First, refusing to perform free work is invariably met with threats of early termination. In other words, if you don't agree to the free re-write, you will be fired, and another writer brought in to rewrite you. This other writer, presumably, is one who will agree to work for free at the producers' demand.

Second, any writer who acquires a reputation for refusing to perform free work will probably not be employed. And any writer who exercises his right as a Guild member and reports the demand for free work will be blacklisted.

Now this latter point is critical. We are occasionally asked by the Guild whether we have been required to do free re-writes, and then asked to name the producers who have demanded them. And this is where the problem lies. If we report such demands, which violate the Writers Guild's minimum basic agreement with the producers, we will become known as trouble-makers. And trouble-makers are seldom, if ever, hired.

I do not recall during the recent strike (of which the Guild continues to boast) that the issue of free re-writes was ever mentioned, let alone negotiated. This represents just another aspect of the destructive failure that was the strike. While the Guild was militating with much bravado for a 'window' in the third year of the contract, and other such abstruse concessions, nothing was said or done to prevent the producers demanding that Guild members work for free. Yet I dare say that the amount of income lost to writers through producers' polishes probably cancels out any gains which the Guild secured. In the example which I cited in the previous post on this subject, we lost over three weeks of work, that is to say, of income, in the course of a writing job that should have taken about ten weeks. That is a net loss of thirty percent, in time and money. And I doubt that the Guild can boast that it managed to wrestle gains of more than thirty percent in any aspect of the contract obtained by a strike that cost us nearly six months of work.

I am sure that there are several ways in which the Guild could redress the free re-write problem, and I would be grateful to hear any suggestions on this point. One solution which has been proposed to me, however, seems fairly straightforward. It is this:

Every time a Guild member signs a contract with a producer, the terms of that contract should be filed with the Guild. Then, every draft written by the member should be sent to the Guild, which could track compliance with the number of steps contracted for. Thus, if the writer's contract specifies three steps, and four drafts are submitted, the Guild would have de facto proof of the demand for free work, and could move quickly to stop it. It would also have an ongoing record of producers who violate the Guild's rules. And instead of writers being blacklisted for refusing to perform free work, it is the producers who demand it who can be held to account, publicly if necessary.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Free re-writes

The scabrous practice of demanding free re-writes, which is the bane of the existence of the Hollywood screenwriter, is alive and healthy. I have pointed out before that the Writers Guild has failed miserably to stop this odious practice, and as work has become scarcer, money tighter, and production focuses more and more on fluff and nonsense, producers seem emboldened to increase their demands for free work. I would think it is a rare industry in which senior executives are not only asked to work for free, but are expected to do so without demur. So it is in the film business.

Some years ago the Guild filed a lawsuit in an attempt to put to an end to what is euphemistically called 'producers' polishes,' but their legal strategy was as bizarre as it was ineffectual. As I recall it, they argued before the court that the producers were de facto agents of the studios and therefore could not demand free work on the studios' behalf. This skewed and largely irrelevant point of distinction was dismissed by the court, and the lawsuit fell apart.

What the Guild should have done, of course, is argue that no employer has the right to demand free work from an employee who is under contract, and use threats to enforce the demand. This would have been a simple argument to make, could be understood by anyone (gaining sympathy from the public), and would have, in fact, addressed the real issue, which is that producers, with a stranglehold on any given project, are guilty of the crime of extorting work from writers; not that they are agents of the studios. The Guild's lawsuit having failed, it will probably be years before the issue is joined again in the courts.

Meanwhile, the producer's polish has become so ingrained in the business that no one, neither producers, writers, directors, studio executives nor agents, even gives it a second thought. We all just accept that, having turned in a first draft, we writers will be expected to re-write our work for free, before the second step of the contractual process commences. Now, lest those of you outside the industry conclude that a producer asking for a few small alterations, the change of a word or two, is innocuous, let me relate some of my own recent experiences.

On one script, we signed a contract for a two-step deal. This means that we contracted for, and were to be paid for, a first draft and one re-write. In fact, on this two-step deal we ended up doing fourteen steps, which means that we wrote twelve drafts of varying significance for free. On another recent script, we signed a three-step deal. After the first step, the producers demanded a free re-write, and refused to pay us until we had done it. Our agents insisted that we be paid, arguing that the producers had no right to hold our payment hostage. The producers agreed to pay us what they owed, on condition that we committed to the free step. The first draft took us about five weeks to write; the free draft took three and a half weeks. And for those three and a half weeks' work, we were paid nothing. I could go on and cite many other examples of this abuse; in fact, we have encountered it on almost all of the scripts we have written. Suffice it to say that the producers who have honored their contracts and paid us for every step we wrote can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Perhaps you understand now my frustration with the Writers Guild, which is so very careful of the rights of gay and lesbian writers, of Latino and handicapped writers, of aged and black writers, and so on in its manic pursuit of political correctness, but ignores the fundamental rights of all writers: to be paid for their work, not to have the minions of production change their work without their knowledge or consent, and to have the integrity of their work respected by the very people whom the Guild cannot persuade or compel to respect us.