independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Eoghan Harris: Lincoln and Orwell warn us that words are weapons

GEORGE Orwell died 69 years ago next Monday. In Politics And The English Language he asks us to be alert about the way politicians abuse words, writing: "Political language is designed to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

The Government's cheerleaders in the media should take Orwell's warning to heart. Especially when building up expectations of manna from Europe. The game of deal or no deal is going to end badly if it turns out there is nothing much in the box.

Just as guns are the weapons of war, so words are the weapons of politics. Like all weapons, they must be kept in good working order. Which is why I am looking forward to the words in the film Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln could use simple words to cast a spell on a child, never mind a nation. At the age of 12, I would gather a captive audience of brothers and sisters and recite the Gettysburg Address. I still have it by heart.

Mind you, that's no great feat of memory. The famous speech is only 272 words. But what words. Gary Wills in his classic study Lincoln At Gettysburg convincingly claims that these words created a "cosmic nationalism" that shaped America.

Lincoln saved his greatest words for the moral challenges of the civil war. His belief that slavery was a "vast moral evil" shaped his second inaugural address. Some of his successors can look small in that mighty shadow.

* * *

Barack Obama borrowed Lincoln's fame to boost his own status in his second inaugural speech. He metaphorically rode to renew his oath of office in a Lincoln. He even took the oath on one of Lincoln's old bibles.

Pity his preppy speechwriter, John Favreau, didn't draw on the Bible to lift Obama's speech above the banal. Clearly deaf to its clunky cadences, he told the leftish Huffington Post: "It was one of the hardest speeches I've written."

Hard to hear anyway. It was full of flaccid sentences with vapid verbs. "For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they've never been self-executing." Self-executing sums up the speech too.

But American liberal cheerleaders, like Irish liberal cheerleaders, love politically correct prose. Chris Matthews, the MSBNC host, gushed: "Reminds me of another second inaugural – Lincoln's."

Matthews must suffer from a lack of historical proportion as well as a tin ear. Obama's speech was about current and ephemeral policy issues. Lincoln's Second inaugural dealt with the timeless struggle between good and evil, especially the evil of slavery.

The best line of Obama's speech was partly borrowed from Lincoln's second inaugural address. "Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free."

Lincoln's words are weightier. "Yet if God wills that it (the civil war) continue until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

An old Hollywood screenwriting adage says "Show, don't tell." So I'm going to take that advice. Compare the last lines of Obama's and Lincoln's second inaugural addresses.

Obama: "Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom. Thank you, God Bless you, and may He forever bless these United States of America."

Lincoln: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds. . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations."

* * *

Naturally I am looking forward to the film Lincoln. Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day Lewis have a hard act to follow. John Ford's 1939 masterpiece Young Mr Lincoln, with Henry Fonda in the lead, is Ford's finest film and cuts to the moral core of Lincoln's life.

So far I have read no reference by Irish reviewers of Lincoln to Ford's Young Mr Lincoln. Ford's film has been neglected in America as well.

This contrasts strongly with its status in Europe. The French director Bertrand Tavernier describes Young Mr Lincoln as "worthy of Plutarch".

In some ways Young Mr Lincoln may have been the victim of Ford's success. In 1939, Ford made three great films, touching on three different periods of of American history: Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr Lincoln and Stagecoach.

With luck Lincoln will lift the profile of Young Mr Lincoln. RTE could help by running it on the back of the publicity for Spielberg's Lincoln. Irish audiences would then see why Young Mr Lincoln set the bar for Lincoln films higher than most directors can hope to clear.

Ford was suffused by the spirit of Lincoln. Peter Bogdanovich remembers him in old age speaking of Lincoln with "such an extraordinary sense of intimacy in his tone. . . that somehow it was no longer a director speaking of a great president but a man talking about a friend".

This may account for Ford's astounding ability to translate Lincoln' language into film. Lincoln's speeches were influenced by sources as diverse as scripture, Shakespeare, Greek classics, American transcendentalism and the cemetery movement. All five elements can be found in filmic form in Young Mr Lincoln.

From the start Ford finds images that give us insights into the formation of Lincoln's moral character. As Lincoln lies by a river, his long limbs propped high against a tree, scratching his leg steadily, we can feel him soaking both the civil law and the moral law deep into his system.

Ford finds myriad ways to show the layers of meaning behind Lincoln's simple words.

At one point, the young lawyer says laconically: "People used to say I could sink an axe deeper than anybody they ever saw." But Ford's sombre shots of Fonda's face show the marks of a moral axe as well.

The final scene of Young Mr Lincoln shows the future president walking away from us to his destiny: a darkening landscape where lightning crackles, foreshadowing the fearful civil war ahead and releasing the anger against slavery that sleeps behind Lincoln's calm façade.

Politics is a noble calling. But only if the politician has moral clarity. Like Lincoln in Ford's film, a politician must be ready to say: "I may not know much about the law, but I know what's right."

Sunday Independent

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