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Guest Voz: Lincoln and the Questions of Our Lives

By Jesse Trevino

Are we fitted into the times we are born into? So asks Abraham Lincoln in the new film that should be required viewing for all – more so for modern-day Republicans than anyone else. The Lincoln in Lincoln is the dream of any Democrat or Republican. A nation so divided as ours is today, riven by intense ideological rivalries and regional, sectional differences, could use an individual who commands the respect of all to ask the eternal question we ask of ourselves with often vague success, How and where do we fit?

Lincoln did not ask the more important question that has dogged humankind since it attained the power to reason, What does it all mean? No, he asked the one that we should be able to answer, for we do have the power to control our lives. Incumbent in Lincoln’s question is the degree to which each citizen and resident of the United States understands his or her responsibilities.

Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Abraham Lincoln in a scene from the Stephen Spielberg drama “Lincoln” from DreamWorks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox.

The reactions to the movie have been multiple and varied. David Brooks of The New York Times thinks the scene in which Lincoln gets down on his knees to stoke the wood in the fireplace personifies his willingness to descend to the baser level of politics to meet his responsibility to save the Union.

Others comment on the enduring power of race to freight the country with a seemingly irreparable affliction. One observer pointed out that grief might have driven Mary Lincoln to madness but her astute, tactical mind proved equal to her husband’s.

The bottom line for me is to consider if the behavior, attitudes and aptitudes of the country’s population today are suited for the challenges we face – are we up to the difficult tasks ahead?

Resolution of the fiscal abyss will not provoke civil war but is not the demise of the climate a greater threat than the demise of a republic? At the very least, do most of us understand the implications of the change in population that the nation is undergoing?

In the film, the southern members of the House of Representatives were not yet ready for the new America upon them – a nation ready to cast aside slavery. They feared a suddenly-expanded population that included suddenly-freed black slaves.

The southern rebels and their sympathizers in other parts of the country were not yet American enough to be un-American, but what of some of their descendants today who want to undo the new America now forming? Restrictions on voting, voter identification laws, voter intimidation, housing laws designed to persecute immigrants – these are the actions of individuals who do not understand that they have not fitted themselves for the times into which they were born.

Laws enacted to damage the new population that already so evidently is forming the next chapter of the American story are today by definition un-American. They offend the concept of America which to the newly-arrived immigrant is an expression of hope – as it was to Lincoln himself.

The good news is that – as the just-past election demonstrated – a good and better portion of the white population of the country wants to move forward as Lincoln did in his day. The strategies used by the modern Republican party, especially in the primary elections, were used to appeal to those not yet ready for – and rage against – the future.

Perhaps it is too easy and simple to say that the 39 percent of white voters who voted for President Obama understand the future. But that is the hope. Certainly it is the hope of HispanicLatinos who are ready for the future. Not so ready is the untold and unknown part of the 61 percent who voted for Mitt Romney.

A more interesting question is whether there is among us another Lincoln, or a near-Lincoln, in and for the new America?

The current rendition of the Republican party hints of none. Lincoln would never have thought that 47 percent of the nation was separate and apart from the other half. That was the whole point of the civil war! Did he himself not come from the 47 percent of his day who lived in log cabins?

Lincoln’s better angels would have not countenanced tax policies that punish the poor and the middle class for the sake of the rich – especially the unproductive rich. And from among Democrats today, can someone rise with the mental toughness to begin to undo their party of special-interests claims that would have offended Lincoln as quickly as the southern contingent did in the House?

Or to better explain that the need for improving groups is to improve the whole? Can anyone in either party incorporate the great diversity of the new America with enough clarity so that the public understands it and thereby all together retain the Union and build a new American century?

Neither a maker nor a taker, as his modern-day party defines the world, Lincoln, above all else, was a giver. A giver of his time. Of his family. Of his intellect. Of his humor. Of his body. Everything he had he gave. He believed in a world of givers.

At great cost to himself, he wrestled with his conscience and accepted that all that was given by so many to save the Union was worth their pain and sacrifice. The great expectation today is that we try to give America more than it gives us.

We cannot be like those too many Americans today who 150 years after Lincoln was assassinated did not prepare to fit in into our times. The question some recalcitrant modern-day Republicans have not answered well looms larger, still, for HispanicLatinos.

Are we doing all we should be doing for the days now upon us, as hour after hour we become – slower than before but still – a larger share of the country’s new demography?

Jesse Treviño is the former editorial page editor of The Austin American-Statesman.

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