In a wide-ranging and sometimes raucous discussion at UC Santa Barbara’s Campbell Hall, leading American writers Tony Kushner and Sarah Vowell agreed that Abraham Lincoln’s ability to lead the country through the intense divisions of the Civil War era holds lessons for today’s divided America.
Kushner, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln, said the “death of democracy itself” was at stake between 1861–1865. Lincoln, he said, ensured the “survival of the democratic experiment” by showing the country could cohere and that democratic government wasn’t just a “side station on the way to chaos.”
Bestselling author Sarah Vowell credited Lincoln’s “magnanimous” personality and “reason” for his ultimate success in passing the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery, and said his respect for democratic institutions was crucial.
“If we die, we die by suicide, because we stop adhering to our constitution and the rule of law,” said Vowell, summarizing Lincoln’s message in his 1838 address in Springfield Illinois. Vowell wrote 2005’s Assassination Vacation, in which she traveled the country visiting sites related to assassinated presidents.
She has written seven books on American history and culture, including her most recent Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Vowell’s writing has appeared in outlets such as public radio’s This American Life, Salon.com, McSweeney’s and The New York Times. She met with students from the Writing Program and English Department earlier in the day.
Kushner is known for his multi-award winning play and screenplay Angels in America and he also wrote Spielberg’s 2005 film Munich. His recent work includes The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.
The two were visiting as part of UCSB’s Arts and Lectures series Tuesday, with John Majewski, the dean of the Divison of Humanities and Fine Arts, moderating.
“To be a patriot is to follow the laws of the country,” said Majewski, characterizing Lincoln’s view of American institutions.
In response to Majewski’s comment that “Lincoln had less to say about racism than slavery” the two writers agreed that Lincoln was a racist – but that we shouldn’t expect today’s values from historical figures.
“Lincoln was almost certainly a racist,” Kushner said. “Oh, yeah,” added Vowell, who said the president had only one black friend, African-American writer Frederick Douglass.
Douglass had called Lincoln “the white man’s President” in an 1876 speech. “You are the children of Abe Lincoln. We are only the stepchildren,” Vowell said, citing Douglass.
Still, Vowell said Lincoln had an “absolute moral opposition” to slavery, and Kushner said Douglass had called Lincoln’s work “a sacred effort.” Kushner called Lincoln and Douglass “the two greatest writers this country ever produced.”
Kushner said the deaths of 800,000 people during the Civil War was a “holocaustal slaughter” that made radical change possible and led to slavery’s destruction. He said there has long been a “dark, tragic side,” and sense of “fragility” in American democracy that is still true today.
“There is a tension in the system. When it exploded that’s what the Civil War was. That was what Steve Bannon was,” Kushner said. “…Something breaks, and there’s a huge explosion of madness that will blow this all away,” —or not.
He said Lincoln’s era offers the promise that historic upheavals can strengthen the country. He cited the “Me Too” movement and the record-breaking action film Black Panther as examples of social progress during the Trump administration.
“People are responding. Democracy works. We shouldn’t give up on that,” Kushner said.
Vowell, who delighted the audience with comic irreverence, reminded the crowd that deep division and disparity is part and parcel of being American. “We were never going to be Danish,” she said, provoking laughter.
“Who we are is: We fight, we don’t get along, we are a bunch of countries within one country and there are problems with that…when a lot of people who don’t belong together are stuck together,” she said.
Photography by Austin Bernales.