Then, as now, there was a lot of noise.
There were people who had their own agendas. People who wanted to compromise. People who wanted to explain it away. People who thought there were bigger problems.
One of the most powerful scenes in the history of cinema captures all of this coming to a head. Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln is surrounded by grousing and squabbling cabinet members as he pushes for passage of the 13th Amendment. He slams his open hand down on the table. It buys a second of silence.
“Now, now, now,” he says. “We are stepped out on the world’s stage, the fate of human dignity is in our hands… See what is before you. See the here and now, that’s the hardest thing, the only thing that accounts.”
I think of this scene often, but especially lately. Because there are many people who seem to be unable to do that. Who seem to think the situation we are in follows along the same partisan lines as the rest of the ongoing culture war. There seem to be many people who think there is something to argue about here, that it can be explained away, that this is just an extension of that discussion we’ve been having as a society for some time now about “privilege.”
The fact that my publisher sends me early copies of books before they are released, that’s a privilege. Something I didn’t earn, something that can disappear, something that I enjoy but am not entitled to.
Not being gunned down in the street by hillbilly vigilantes? Not having the life slowly squeezed out of me on suspicion of some minor crime?
That’s not a privilege.
That’s a constitutional right. Actually, it’s more than a constitutional right. According to the Founding Fathers and many philosophers before and since, the rights to life and liberty and property are beyond constitutional: They are inalienable.
The right not to be murdered, to not be harassed by people with guns, to not be targeted, exploited or incarcerated unfairly, to speak your mind, to pursue your religion, for your home to be a safe haven, these are not things that governments give to their people. These are things that God—or generations of evolution and progress—have endowed us with at birth, and we in turn give governments the powers to protect.
All of us.
What you are seeing in the video where a police officer kneels on the neck of a black man crying for air and his mother, what is happening in a video where a black man is strangled to death over selling cigarettes on the street, what has been occurring in my county where Latinos are targeted with ticky-tack traffic violations so they can be detained and then deported, is a betrayal of that compact. It’s a heinous violation of the rights of human beings.
Right here. Within your borders. Filmed for you to watch on your television or phone.
It is essential that you see it this way. Because when you do, you realize that this affects you, it affects everyone. Directly. Urgently.
Black. White. Rich. Poor. Young. Old. Republican. Democrat. Socialist. Idiot. If that’s threatened for one person, for one community, it’s threatened for all people.
I’ll say it again: Not being extrajudicially murdered is not a privilege, it’s not an “exception,” it’s more than a tragedy. To try to categorize it as those things is to woefully fail to describe the injustice that is being done in modern America (and elsewhere). Callous indifference to suffering by the authorities towards minorities or the poor or the voiceless is not just a lamentable fact of modern life, it’s an active crime.
In real life, Lincoln said that if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. If kneeling on an unarmed, compliant man’s neck for nine minutes is not wrong, nothing is wrong. If chasing down someone you think was maybe breaking into a house (not your house, even) and then blowing them apart with a shotgun in broad daylight is not wrong, nothing is wrong. If putting children in cages is not wrong, nothing is wrong. Even if those were the only examples ever, that would be important. That in and of itself would suffice as a major issue that would need to be addressed, before it got worse.
But of course, they are not the only examples.
The moral imperative to do something about it is ancient. Marcus Aurelius wrote two thousand years ago that “you can also commit an injustice by doing nothing.” The Stoics believed that harm to one was to harm all. Martin Luther King explained this idea of sympatheia beautifully. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he said. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
I understand that this might not be what you want to hear from me. I write about self-improvement. I write about philosophy. I write about history. That’s true.
But what do you think the point of the study of those three things are? It’s not so you can make a little more money. It’s not so you can live in your own bubble or have interesting dinner conversations. It’s so you can be better. So you can do the right thing when it counts.
You have to realize that if the state can find ways to deprive someone of their rights, then they can find ways to deprive you of yours. In fact, this is an inexorable law of power, whether it’s held by segregationists or Stalin, bureaucrats following orders or malevolent dictators. When you give power an inch, it takes another. When you allow evil to happen because you are not its victim, it will inevitably find its way to you—or if not you, to someone you love, or to your great-great-grandchildren.
That’s what Martin Niemöller’s famous poem “First they came…” is about. You know it:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Niemöller’s words were not theoretical. He tolerated, even complied with, policies he didn’t agree with. He rationalized them assuming his Christian church would be protected. For a while, it was. But in the end, Niemöller found himself in Dachau, where he nearly died. Someone later asked how he could have been so self-absorbed, so silent when it mattered. “I am paying for that mistake now,” he said, “and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”
Well, here we are, stepped out on the world’s stage again. Can you see that? Can you see that everyone is watching? Can you grasp the here-and-now? Can you feel what is in your hands?
It’s the hardest thing, but it’s the only thing that counts.
Everything else is noise. Everything else is wrong.
Now. Now. Now.