Recently I saw the Stephen Spielberg movie Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the late President. The film has garnered rave reviews, although some people seem to find it ‘dry’. I found it a fascinating look at the realpolitik behind the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, and signaling the end of the Civil War. Like 1776 (even though it’s a musical) and All the President’s Men, it provides a peek inside the political machinery, even if sanitized and condensed, as Hollywood does to almost everything.

You see ‘Honest Abe’ as a real politician, not above using a little grease for the greater good. What did Lincoln do to end the war that Lyndon Johnson wouldn’t have tried a century later, to stop his own civil war, fought in the steamy jungles of Vietnam? Lincoln was much despised during his lifetime, and the film shows that, as somewhat of a shock to 21st century viewers. Besides the opposition of the Democrats, even many in his own party (and Cabinet) disagreed with him, and his methods. He is presented as always being opposed to slavery, while history is somewhat murkier upon his actual opinion of the subject. I think it fair to say that like many people, he was personally not in favour of it, but accepted it as a possible necessary evil, at least while he was unable to stop it. We may never know for certain.

But what you do see in this movie is a man who uses every method at his disposal to protect not just the Union, but the idea behind it. The government “of the people, by the people and for the people”. We forgive him his trespasses today; would we have done so if he had our technology, our NSA and CIA behind him? Would Abraham Lincoln have sanctioned a Guantanamo Bay prison, where the Constitution is denied? Again, we cannot judge Lincoln by the standards of today, but I would hope with all my heart that he would not. That there were and are lines he would not have crossed.

The Lincoln we see today is largely of our own making, as myth grows and obscures the man, like so many others (Washington, JFK, Dr. King, etc.). The marble image of the Great Emancipator that stares down at us from his memorial in the nation’s capital is a distillation of the best of America, captured in stone. The American Experiment was to show the world that freedom and democracy would free us at last from the grip of the dictator and the tyrant (charges leveled at Lincoln during his time in office). Where men (eventually including men of color, and later, women) would flourish and enjoy the advantages of being allowed to do so, lighting the way for the rest of Humanity. For many years, this was so, even if the backroom politics were not always as noble as our words claimed. I cannot and will not believe that Lincoln was truly a despot, but took the steps he took for good reasons. But there were limits to what he would consider, even if he had the means to do so.

At any rate, he was like I said, an example of what the best of America could be. Bending, but never breaking. His shining example, that guided so many American schoolchildren to remember and follow the virtues of ‘Honest Abe’, carried on through nearly a hundred years of incredible changes, that propelled the United States to the forefront of the world. Our vast landscape enabled a growing population, and natural resources to provide for them. We became a technological giant, and provided a powerful force for good in two World Wars, standing tall against the old Colonial powers, then Fascism, Totalitarianism and doing what we could to help the oppressed and downtrodden, from airlifting food and medicine, to developing vaccines and trying to make the world safer for all. With mixed success.

Eventually, the United States became the empire it never wanted to be, and now we find the population embroiled in another civil war, this time with its own leaders. Political dissatisfaction has never been far from the agenda at any point since before we freed ourselves from Britain; but now it has taken an even uglier turn, as we find ourselves in a world darker than at any time since the 1940’s. The American government routinely spies on its own population, from scanning phone records to illegally hacking into iPhones; anyone who gets on a airplane is considered guilty and subject to humiliating searches by an increasingly incompetent horde of tinpot self-important quasi-Gestapo agents, acting in the name of ‘security’. Orwellian doublespeak echos in chilling surrenders of our hard-won freedoms such as the ‘Patriot Act’. Washington, Jefferson and Adams would recoil in horror if they only knew. This week I read online that according to a recent poll, 63% of Americans would consider torture to be acceptable. I never thought I would ever hear that torture by America would be acceptable. It does not anger me; it makes me sad. So very sad. It is an example of just how far we have fallen.

America was once a shining city on a hill; now it is a derelict slum, decrepit and rotting from the inside out. The 2016 Presidential election will become the most memorable in years, as hard-line right-wingers who think the bible is fact and look with suspicion at anything smacking of intellectualism, battle with the first real ‘celebrity’ to run for President with no real qualifications whatsoever (Ronald Reagan, for all his mistakes, at least was Governor of California before moving into the Oval Office). The current occupant of that office, President Obama, started out with what turned out to be more hope than experience, and the country has never been so split as to his ability to lead (coming from someone who remembers Nixon as well as George W. Bush, that is astonishingly sad in and of itself).

We have become a tatty and embittered people, still scared after the horrific events of 9/11, but unable to find a way back out of the nightmare. Like quicksand, it just drags us farther and farther down. Certainly not the only cause of our malaise (Watergate and Iran-Contra played their part, as well), but that terrible bright-blue September morning provided a opening for those who would choke the life out of our national spirit in order to preserve it, dried and shrived, like a mummy in a museum. I can only think back to Benjamin Franklin: Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

I am not ashamed to admit that I cried at the end of Lincoln; not for the life of the President, snuffed out so cruelly; my tears were for the vast gulf between what Lincoln held so dear, our essential need to do the right thing, versus a populace that would abandon those lofty ideals and stoop to cruel torture of others. Once we were better than that. I fear we are no longer.