I went to see the movie “Lincoln” this weekend and it was very very good. One of the real surprises for me in the movie was a reminder that, despite all the evidence to the contrary lately, politics really is a vast spectrum of individual beliefs and opinions and rarely is anything as simple as yes or no.
Slavery, for example. To me, the issue of slavery was always pretty clear cut. Either you believe that folks of a certain group are less than human and therefore suitable for slavery, or else you believe that they’re folks just like you and me and therefore worthy of the same rights and freedoms as regular folks have. Clear cut, that is, until seeing the movie. (Don’t worry, no real spoilers here.) In addition to these two positions, there are people in the movie who only want to abolish slavery as a form of economic warfare and who don’t really have any thought for the people who would be freed. Others consider slavery to be an inhuman practice but at the same time are horrified at the thought that freed slaves would have equal rights such as the right to vote or to marry someone of a different race. For these people, the practice of slavery is the evil, but discrimination against another race is not a problem at all. Still others view all groups of people equally and who strongly believe that ending slavery is merely a half measure toward giving the freed slaves full and equal status. And obviously there are those who view the slaves as property and not human beings and don’t seem to have any problem with this.
The existence of these diverse views is obvious when looking back with the help of the movie, though I’d never really done so before, and it made me think about the issues that we face today, which are not nearly so clear cut as “can we buy and sell these people as personal property?” Issues like who can own guns, what type they can own, and why do they need them. Or whether or not welfare recipients should be tested for drugs, what happens to them when they are, and what happens to their kids if their benefits are cut off while they’re still addicted. Or what level of health care is a human right, who makes that decision, and how can the whole system be made affordable? These are not nearly as easy as whether or not a person can be property and yet they’re important and need to be solved.
On one hand the movie gives me little hope for the current political climate. If people had such diverse opinions about something as simple as slavery, how can we hope to gain any consensus on the more difficult issues we face? On the other hand, the movie also shows the way out. One character in particular, recognizing that a compromise is the best he is going to get, and realizing that it is better than nothing, embraces that compromise as a step on the path toward his ultimate objective. This spirit of compromise is one of many things that is completely missing in today’s political arena.
Think of the narrow tightrope that the 13th Amendment takes. Slavery is abolished, yet the free slaves gain very few civil liberties and the door is left wide open for another 100 years of segregation. Given all those differences of opinion it’s amazing that the amendment passed at all, but the fact that it did gives me a glimmer of hope that maybe we can figure out a way to start compromising again. This time, though, let’s not wait until after a civil war to do it.