Continuing my practice of being the last in the land to see certain movies, I’ve just watched “Lincoln.” I put off seeing it because I thought it would be depressing—millions of dead boys, one dead president. It wasn’t what I expected.
For me, perhaps because I am trained as a lawyer and still love legal analysis, it was a lawyer's movie, a forceful argument for how the law moves forward, for how civil society (which depends on the rule of law) progresses. The process is messy, corrupt, virtuous, agonizing and, in the case of the Thirteenth Amendment, triumphal.
We don’t suppose that politics today is as rough and tumble as when Lincoln used his war powers to confiscate Southern slaves and free them and then bought the last few votes needed in the House of Representatives to codify their freedom before, as he feared might happen, the war ended and the judicial branch set aside his Emancipation Proclamation. We don’t suppose Congressmen today want other men to remain in bondage. We take for granted two things many of them (perhaps most of them) feared: suffrage for blacks and women. We are more civilized now.
We are not at war, literally, among ourselves. There is that. But the hostility and contempt endure. We are godless socialists to our political rivals or, from the other point of view, sanctimonious plutocrats. Congress is as contentious and corrupt as ever. The Tea Party wants everyone’s head. There hasn’t been an actual political duel in a while, but I’m sure Mitch McConnell would pull out a flintlock pistol if he could; he probably has one in a trophy case at home. Rand Paul would be happy for everyone in government to just go home.
I get discouraged by the state of politics today. Apparently I need not. If we can survive what Lincoln went through, what he died for, we can survive the current siege of hypocritical filibusters. We can survive the current Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment. We can survive the fiscal imprudence of our big-hearted attempt to give the least among us the dignity of subsistence income, health care and education.
We are not all created equal. Some are born rich, others poor, some healthy, others disabled. Don’t even get me started on athletic ability and musical talent. What we mean, I think, by that wishful sentiment, is that it must not be the place of government to prefer some of us over others, to give advantage to some and impediment to others.
We have not yet achieved the lofty goal of equality, but we get closer with every generation. Like Lincoln’s push for the Thirteenth Amendment, our progress wends its tedious and frightful way around sinkholes of corruption and over barricades of privilege. We press on. We cannot see what lies ahead, as Lincoln reminded us, but we must go forward as best we can. We must gain what ground we may today, remembering who we are and what others before us have sacrificed so that we may have our chance to do better for one another.