Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Independence Day!

We finally got around to watching Steven Spielberg's brilliant Lincoln last night, and it was worth staying up for Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal alone -- just awe inspiring to watch, let alone the amazing support from the entirety of the genius supporting cast.

I had thought that I would post a scene from Lincoln this morning, and talk about the importance of conscience and moral compass as a balance to extreme claims of liberty and freedom -- they don't always intersect cleanly on the political and private fields of battle, but it is in the skirmishes that I think we sometimes truly see who we are as individuals and as a collective people in this country of ours.

The thing is, a "government of the people, by the people and for the people" has always been a messy business.

Because people are often stupid and greedy and self-interested above all else.  Despite being established with internal and external checks and balances designed to temper the excesses of individual greed and mendacity, it doesn't always work in the efficient way we might hope:  moving a government filled with just that sort of people and being dragged along by hordes of just that sort of people, being tugged this way and that, day in and day out?  It isn't a pretty business when you peek beneath the tent, as Lincoln clearly showed in the characters played so well by James Spader (as W.N. Bilbo), John Hawkes (as Robert Latham), and Tim Blake Nelson (as Richard Schell),  trying to bribe their way to a legislative victory on the 13th amendment.

For anyone who thinks that our government is currently the most corrupt it has ever been, I say this:  read more history.

It has always been this way, we just have more ways of peeking at the cockroaches these days and exposing them to the light.  Which, by the way, I think is a good thing:  we can always use more sunshine, checks and balances, in my book, but it does make it awfully difficult for deals to be struck when every little nuance is scrutinized to the nth degree...whether this is good or bad in the long run, only time will tell us through history's long lens.

All this to say that in the end, what I kept coming back to in my mind was the birth of this nation, the toil that went into the gathering of a rebellion against Great Britain, and the enormous potential highly personal sacrifices of wealth and lives that were laid on the line by the leadership of the Founding Fathers of this country, and how sad that we consistently fail to live up to the Jeffersonian maxim of working toward "a more perfect union."

The above clip is pulled from the wonderful HBO mini-series, John Adams, which was done by Tom Hanks and some partner production companies (and who has frequently partnered with Steven Spielberg on several historical documentary projects -- Band of Brothers and The Pacific chief among them - to become the nation's historical duo in chief with these sorts of films, I think.  They do a wonderful job with them  -- and rumor has it that a Revolutionary War project may be in the works as well.  Hooray!).

In a good film, you get to see the whole of the person.  With Lincoln, you saw his successes and also his struggles in the competing spheres of his personal and public roles.  In John Adams, you see how Adams struggles with much the same things, just on different public and private issues.  I enjoy a movie where I see more than a cardboard cut-out, but get to dig into the meat of who a character really is, rotten spots and all don't you?

People are complex, and often a marriage of good and bad, virtues and vices, all swirled into one big mass of individual character and folly over time.

What is most interesting is when we somehow manage to find a way to rise up over our vices and follies and find a way to be better than we really are, to push forward something that does good in the face of all of the manifestations of what is the worst among us clamoring for the lesser path.   When we rise above and reach higher, we are so much better together.  Would that we did so more often.

Thinking about how to get us there, to a better path that we can somehow manage to take together despite all of our differences magnified daily a hundred-fold by those who profit most from feeding off that venom and anger?  THAT is a question worth pondering on the date of our nation's founding.

If not for our own sakes, for the legacy and mess that we leave behind for our children to mop up in our wake.

Do yourself a favor:  watch the clip above, and soak in the pause at the end of the vote of ratification on the Declaration of Independence, and feel the momentary terror as the potential consequences of their votes sinks in for each and ever Founder in that room.  It was an enormous moment, and one that reverberates still across the years of history in between then and now.   Read the full Declaration of Independence, and then take a peek at the names of the signatories who put their very lives and fortunes on the line simply by affixing their name to the document in the cause of freedom.

Worth thinking a bit today on how we might live up to that example, isn't it?

Happy Independence Day!

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