by Miryam Gordon -
SGN A&E Writer
GUIDING LIGHTS NETWORK
Eric Liu served in President Clinton's administration as both a speechwriter and policy wonk, and then came out Seattle way to work at RealNetworks. Here he founded the Guiding Lights Network, which 'specializes in the art of the gathering, creating experiences that spark civic imagination and social change.'
How does it do that? With an annual conference called Citizen University, this year's edition of which happened on March 23, mostly at Seattle Center's Fisher Pavilion. It concluded with a panel discussion about President Lincoln at SIFF Cinema Uptown in Queen Anne. Luminaries from many arenas came for the discussions and workshops during the day, including Nick Hanauer, with whom Eric Liu has written a book, The True Patriot, on the topic of 'progressive' patriotism. Other CU participants included TV journalist Lisa Ling and MoveOn.org co-founder Joan Blades, the latter of whom conversed with Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots on 'How to Talk With the Other Side.'
The focus was on how to be a 'great citizen,' mostly by participating in civic discourse and acting together to create change. The evening culminated in a panel discussion titled 'Standing Tall: The Lessons of Lincoln.' Tony Kushner, historian Karl Weber, and Yale University constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar spoke, with Liu serving as moderator.
Kushner, just in case you might-might-might not know his name, is already considered one of the great writers of the 20th century for his epic six-hour play Angels in America, which focused on the AIDS epidemic in a way that theater had really not yet plumbed. Most recently, he collaborated with Steven Spielberg on the movie Lincoln.
Since Kushner's nomination for an Oscar as the writer for Lincoln, he's been terribly busy and getting a lot of attention. Liu told a Seattle Met interviewer that he also is a Lincoln fan and said he was drawn to the movie and to inviting Kushner to speak because 'Lincoln embodies this combination of patriotism and a tragic sensibility that I think Kushner embodies and captures in his work. That's why a lot of what we try to do at the conference isn't jingoism. Our country, warts and all, is what we've got, so let's figure out for all of its tragic flaws how we can show up and make it just a little better.'
A GREAT INFLUENCE
With great anticipation, SGN attended the evening panel. After a wonderful musical composition performed by Paul Rucker and a young woman from 826 Writers who described her Pakistani background and the freedom she has that her grandmother could not imagine, Liu began by asking the panelists how Lincoln had influenced them.
Kushner described growing up in Louisiana within a family that was unlike his neighbors, both politically and culturally. 'When I was five, my father read me [Lincoln's] second inaugural address, and I remember how moved he was,' he recalled. Many people in Louisiana and elsewhere in the South wouldn't even carry $5 bills because of their 'hatred' of Lincoln, he said, but he 'saw that the federal government works - big government works. Poverty programs worked.'
Weber said, 'I discovered Lincoln's great use of language in my 20s. Here was a man with enormous power as president, and a deeply committed artist of language. Lincoln strove to heal with language, during the divorce of two halves of the union. I think Lincoln believed that we desperately need one another.' If the North and South were to split, he said, Lincoln believed we would become impoverished in that separation.
'HE THE MAN'
Amar opined that we need to understand that 'we live in Lincoln's 'house' - the reconstructed constitution that fell because of slavery and was reconstituted.' For any serious constitutionalist, 'he the man,' Amar said of Lincoln.
Liu asked Kushner about his process in writing the movie, to which Kushner replied, 'I started by saying 'no' for six months to Steven [Spielberg]'s request that I do it. I knew that the administration of Lincoln was too packed with remarkable people and events. And Lincoln was a genius, a word I use sparingly ... one of those people who did a number of things that don't seem within the capacity of people to do. Shakespeare and Mozart and people like that.
'If the task of a screenwriter is to explain how people do things, you fail in the attempt,' Kushner continued. 'Then ... I began to understand the depth of Lincoln's accomplishment and the vastness of his moral and politic vision. Doris Kearns Goodwin [author of the main text used, Team of Rivals] said [to me], 'When I started writing Team of Rivals, I didn't know if I could do it. But you'll never regret the time you spend with Lincoln.' I said [to Spielberg] I just want to do the last four months' of Lincoln's life, Kushner recalled, and the director agreed.
Amar said, 'Time spent with Lincoln is really well-spent. Some heroes disappoint you the more you know, but the more time I spend with him, the more I admire him.'
'Lincoln affected the people around him in the same way,' added Weber. 'His rise to power was swift and he was disliked and disrespected. The team of rivals he brought into his cabinet thought he was a country bumpkin and [they would] run the country. And they came to realize that he was the biggest among them. Not only did they respect him but they came to love him.'
WHY SO FEW BLACKS?
The conversation continued on many aspects of Lincoln's presidency and even some disagreements among the panel of educated Lincoln fans. Allowed a couple of questions from the audience, Tony was asked about what some see as a defect of the film: that few African-American characters were included, and none of major import.
Tony said, 'I have complicated feelings on African-American representation in it. I didn't want to create a fantasy version of what happened. My ambition [was] that it had to say most powerfully that government is not a bad thing; a lack of laws is not freedom, it's anarchy. And the greatest president was a big-government tax-and-spend liberal. I believe in this very deeply.
'The federal government was entirely white and male. This [film] wasn't about the end of slavery; it's about the end of slavery by means of bribable politicians ... and I thought that was a story worth telling. I could have pretended that [Black abolitionist] Frederick Douglass was in the White House advising him. [But] I felt I needed to tell what happened. These limited guys who had little relationship to slavery did this immensely important thing. [I] hoped that people could understand the very specific story we were telling. And we rely on the audience to know it's a fictional film. You should never read just one history. You should read 50, because they're all going to make mistakes.'
Eric said, in closing, 'Any time we tell a story of who we are, we're making a claim of what we want this country to be. One of the ways we're citizens is we tell our own story.'
It was a wonderful conversation and you would do well to attend next year's Citizen University. Find out more at www.guidinglightsnetwork.com.
Share on Facebook
Share on Delicious
Share on StumbleUpon!