Talk of secession reveals lingering rift

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Coming so closely after President Barack Obama’s re-election, Steven Spielberg’s magnificent movie “Lincoln” invites comparisons between the political struggles of the Great Emancipator and those of America’s first black president.

Focusing on the 16th president’s efforts to abolish slavery via passage of the 13th Amendment, the film details Lincoln’s efforts to corral a bitterly divided, amoral and impolitic Congress. The parallels between Lincoln’s times and ours surface subtly in out gay writer Tony Kushner’ screenplay, which glimmers with nuggets of irony.

The political rhetoric of 1865 was every bit as vitriolic as today’s – even without the help of Fox News and right-wing hate radio. Then as now, the Bible was used to justify institutionalized prejudice. Bigots repeatedly invoked the “natural order” as evidence that all humans are not created equal and therefore have no right to equal treatment under the law.

During the 2012 presidential election, old, white, straight conservatives aimed their spurious reasoning at the same people targeted in 1865 – those who defy their backward social traditions and their interpretation of God’s will. Like today’s political right, they fought the creation of an inclusive society that offers equal opportunity to all, and they strove to disenfranchise the dark-skinned and the economically disadvantaged. 

The Democrats represented the far right in Lincoln’s time. Other than that, little has changed. The former Confederate states remain among the nation’s poorest, unhealthiest and worst educated. Religiously inspired bigotry still spews from the pulpits of those states, now known collectively as the “Bible Belt.”

The most haunting parallel with Lincoln’s times can be seen in looking at a map of the former slave states, which is almost identical to an electoral map of the 2012 presidential election.  Perhaps it is no surprise that a number of the former Confederate states have collected hundreds of thousands of signatures petitioning to secede from the United States. Apparently missing the irony, many of the states that collected the most signatures receive a hugely disproportionate amount of money from the federal government compared with what they contribute.

The Civil War was the deadliest conflict in our nation’s history. An estimated 620,000 soldiers died from combat, accident, starvation and disease. But significant numbers of people in the former Confederate states would gladly take up arms again to fight against supporters of the nation’s first black president, whom they’ve spent the last four years demonizing as everything from a Hitler to a communist dictator.

The movie “Lincoln” reminds us how far our nation has come in a relatively short time – from the institutionalized slavery of black people to a government led by a black president.

But leaving the theater is a depressing return to reality, to the realization that the political contours of the nation hardly have changed and white rage continues to smolder – now against an even broader array of people.