Friday, February 13, 2009

Review: "Looking For Lincoln"

The Jess and I spent some time recently watching "Looking for Lincoln", which aired on PBS Wednesday night. I usually reserve my reviews for books, but will begin expanding my portfolio with this TV show.
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates takes the viewer on a 2 hour meditation of Abraham Lincoln and the many facets of his historiography. In producing this work, Dr. Gates adds a valued addition to what I will now refer to as "courageous history". This concept started with my review of "This Republic of Suffering" and introduced the idea of history-writing as a gutsy endeavor where the writer presents a topic in completion, allowing both themselves and the reader/viewer to have their ideas and understanding challenged.
Make no mistake, this is a very difficult and scary thing to do. We find solace in our interpretations of historical events, and will have a visceral reaction when that safety is challenged. Abraham Lincoln is a perfect representation of this concept; the scope of his life and presidency, the complexity and acuity of the issues he faced, and the fact that he was assassinated allow everyone from schoolkids to PhDs to form rock-hard opinions and defensible theories. To support this point, I remind you that 14,000+ books have been written about this one man, and countless other have addressed him.
Like the rest of us, Dr. Gates has his own ideas about Lincoln as "The Great Emancipator", and his journey is on display for all of us to see. In an investigation that is remarkably broad in its scope, "Looking for Lincoln" is strikingly honest in what he finds.
I want to stay faithful to my book-reviewing style wherein I stay away from a blow-by blow description of content, you don't need me for that. This television review shall be approached in the same vein. The program walks through Lincoln's early years, his feelings on race, slavery, and emancipation, the Civil War itself, and the memory of Lincoln today as seen through the eyes of scholars, reenactors, Lincoln Memorial visitors, and members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Before the journey begins, Gates spells out his preconceptions of Lincoln that he's had since childhood, and as he moves through each iteration of his quest, he is very open about how his feelings are challenged, supported, and sometimes changed. He is also exceedingly candid about facts that change his mind and alter his perceptions of President Lincoln.
That, my friends, is gutsy.
Think of what it would take for you to challenge your own conceptions about, well, anything, do it of your own volition, and make it public. Not only that, but to solicit input from those at the top of the field, the general public, and those who's opinions are your polar opposite.
Again, gutsy. That's what it takes to truly learn from the past and apply it to our world. That's what courageous history is all about.

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