POLITICS CHATTER: On Lincoln, democracy, and what Spielberg failed to understand
People & Places

POLITICS CHATTER: On Lincoln, democracy, and what Spielberg failed to understand

The king of England stood on a balcony in Westminster, just outside the city of London, and braced himself against the cold. It was a raw January day in 1649, the crowd was noisy, and only a few people could hear him.

But there was a guy near the king who was writing everything down. With a few hours, the king’s speech was on the streets in primitive newspapers.

It was not the sort of rant that Justin Trudeau or even Stephen Harper would come up with, and it certainly was not the work of a Barrack Obama. King Charles I wasn’t running for anything. In fact, his career was quickly winding down. The words he spoke were his own, not those of a speechwriter. They’re sort of dense and Shakespearean, but after you read them once or twice, you’ll get the drift.

“And truly I desire their (the people’s) liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever, but I must tell you, that their liberty and freedom consists in having of government those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in government that is pertaining to them,” the diminutive, cat-like little sovereign said.

“A subject and a sovereign are clean different things, and therefore until you do put the people in that liberty as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves.”

He finished up, turned, knelt down, prayed for a moment, and a chap named Brandon took one swing of an axe and chopped off his head.

Few politicians are as up-front in their contempt of democracy, and fewer still have the opportunity to speak with the honesty that’s available to a sentient person who knows he won’t have to worry about that evening’s dinner because he’ll be shorter by a head.

But Charles I was a man of his times, and of our times, too: trashing the press, proroguing parliament, getting very heavy with protesters.

Few modern politicians will come out and say the people really have no business being involved in government. A few more will echo the king’s assertion that governments exist to protect people’s property and keep taxes down. But not that many are willing to stick their necks out to make a point.

Which brings us to the Oscars.

Charles I never blubbered through the end of Silver Linings Playbook or wondered why anyone would like Beasts of the Southern Wild. And he most certainly would not have enjoyed Lincoln.

There’s some controversy about Lincoln. A recent, rather catty piece in Harper’s magazine says Steven Spielberg is telling a story that has been told many times, and often better. I don’t agree. I have never seen a movie or TV show that explained how the freeing of the slaves was such a close-run thing, or raised the idea that the Civil War might well have ended with the Union being saved, and slavery surviving.

Most people get the Civil War wrong. It was not a war to liberate African-American slaves any more than World War II was fought to save Jews.

Abraham Lincoln said, over and over, that if keeping slavery was the price of pulling the breakaway southern states back into the Union, he would pay it.

The war was about protecting the Union. Those words have become an empty phrase. But back then they meant something.

And the Civil War was about something else, the thing that lies in the heart of the Gettysburg Address. Everyone’s heard of that short speech – it wasn’t much longer than poor Charles’s last words – but few people have read it carefully.

The address starts with a little history lesson and a very slight side-swipe of the slavery issue. Then it gets down to business: the blood of the Union troops at Gettysburg was spilled so that government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from this earth.

People reading the speech always put the emphasis on the “of, by, for” words. But the real meat of the phrase is in the last six words.

Because in 1863, the United States was the most revolutionary country on Earth. It was the only major power that was a democracy. And it seemed likely to be the last one, an experiment that failed.

France had twice tried to create a democracy between 1789 and 1863 and failed miserably. Britain was partly there, but few men had the right to vote, and power lay in the hands of aristocrats and industrialists. Canada was a little farther along, but most politicians gagged at the idea of true democracy, and they’d crushed democratic rebellions 25 years earlier. The great empires and small countries of Europe were all monarchies.

Revolutionaries in central and South America had overthrown their Spanish colonial masters and had tried to create democracies. All had failed.

There were no democracies in Africa. Or Asia. Or, for that matter, in the Confederacy.

So, in many ways, Lincoln, when he stood on the platform at Gettysburg, was very much alone as the leader of the world’s last democracy. And that’s one thing that Spielberg missed.

It would have been a useful lesson for these times. Democracy is not the natural order of things. Democracy – real involvement by the people in their own government — is not the default position

of governments, even in the West. It’s something that you have to nurture, preserve and, in the most dire times, kill and die for.

That was the ideology that drove Lincoln and made him, when it came to restoring the U.S. Constitution, so uncompromising. I wish Spielberg had understood.