The Morality of Going Halfway

*Spoiler alert from Lincoln... well, kinda.*

Thaddeus Stevens: When the war ends, I intend to push for full equality, the Negro vote and much more. [...] We'll build up a land down there of free men and free women and free women and free children and freedom. The nation needs to know that we have such plans.
Abraham Lincoln: That's the untempered version of reconstruction. It's not... It's not exactly what I intend, but we shall oppose one another in the course of time. Now we're working together, and I'm asking you—
Thaddeus Stevens: For patience, I expect.
Abraham Lincoln: When the people disagree, bringing them together requires going slow till they're ready to make up—
Thaddeus Stevens: Ah, shit on the people and what they want and what they're ready for! I don't give a goddamn about the people and what they want! This is the face of someone who has fought long and hard for the good of the people without caring much for any of 'em. [...]
Abraham Lincoln: I admire your zeal, Mr. Stevens, and I have tried to profit from the example of it. But if I'd listened to you, I'd have declared every slave free the minute the first shell struck Fort Sumter; then the border states would've gone over to the Confederacy, the war would've been lost and the Union along with it, and instead of abolishing slavery, as we hope to do in two weeks, we'd be watching helpless as infants as it spread from the American South into South America.
Thaddeus Stevens: Oh, how you have longed to say that to me. You claim you trust them—but you know what the people are. You know that the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, North and South, unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery. White people cannot bear the thought of sharing this country's infinite abundance with Negroes.
Abraham Lincoln: A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it'll point you True North from where you are standing, but it's got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms you'll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what's the use of knowing True North?

Lincoln (2012)

I love this dialogue from the film! On one hand we have a man whose moral sensibility is way ahead of his time, who knows what is morally right and who is not willing to compromise on the absoluteness of his ideal for the sake of the people. And yet, for that very reason, he does not have the power to change them; he is a 'radical' in their eyes. The gulf between him and the people is too wide for the people to jump over.

On the other hand, we have a man whose moral sensibility is also way ahead of his time, and who knows what is morally right, but who is willing to compromise on the moral ideals he knows to be true to be able to bring to life a part of that moral vision. He cannot make people go all the way, but he is willing to bear the weight, and drag the reluctant, kicking humanity half way, even if that means he himself goes only half way.

What a brilliant portrayal of the moral dilemma! One can wonder which of these is the better way, but I do not doubt that the world needs people of both kinds.

Comments

linda said…
I like this post. I think about this often (perhaps because I am way more like Thaddeus Stevens than I am like Lincoln!) And I routinely point out to all who will listen (and some who won't) that Michael Moore is today what abolitionists were in the early/mid-1800s.