For something more than half a score of years, I have sought in this column to shed light on public policy issues facing our state. My goal has been not to argue for one side or another, but rather to draw attention to the important facts surrounding them that I believe must be understood and considered carefully if we are to make wise decisions about them.
It is fitting, therefore, to use the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address as reason to reconsider in today’s world the challenge our greatest president set before “us the living” in what is certainly the most profound and eloquent statement of the principles and responsibilities of democracy ever set forth in our nation’s history.
President Abraham Lincoln reminded his audience of 10,000 to 20,000 – most still reeling from the butchery they had witnessed just months before – that our nation was “new,” was “conceived in liberty” and was “dedicated” to a “proposition.” Pretty heady stuff for people traumatized by 21/2 years of unexpected savagery and shattered illusions of quick and glorious victory. And then, after honoring the brave men who fought and died in the test to see if “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure,” he came to the heart of the matter – the test that remained for the rest of us, “us the living.” And that is the test of citizenship.
Yes, Lincoln said, dedicating this battlefield “is altogether fitting and proper.” But that is not the most important thing for us to do. Indeed, “in a larger sense” we cannot do that at all because it has already been done by those who shed their blood here. The task for us “rather” is to dedicated ourselves, “to be dedicated” to “the unfinished work,” to “the great task remaining,” to “that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”
And what exactly is that “unfinished business,” that “great task,” that “cause”?
It is, quite simply, whatever task is required to ensure than “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
It is the task of representing one’s neighbors as a member of a board of selectmen. It is the task of staying up late night after night at planning board meetings to assure that all citizens have the opportunity to learn the facts about and express their opinions on projects that will affect the character of their communities. It is the task of reviewing and voting on school curricula and staffing plans and budgets so that the young who follow us into the rights and responsibilities of citizenship have the best possible education upon which to build their lives. It is the task of thinking and debating with others about health care and tax reform and immigration.
And perhaps most important of all, it is the task of fulfilling all these responsibilities of self-government while respecting the rights and dignity of those of our fellow citizens with whom we disagree. Thousands died and were maimed at Gettysburg because our “nation” could not agree that “all men,” including black men and women brought like cattle from Africa, really were “created equal.” And millions more have died and been maimed in the century and a half since Gettysburg both bringing our founding principle closer to reality here at home and protecting it from attack from abroad.
And yet today, the greatest threat to completing “the unfinished business” that those who have fought “so nobly” from Gettysburg to Kandahar “to advance” comes not from foreign enemies but from those among us who fail the basic test of citizenship – to accept as people fellow citizens of differing opinions. Not a day goes by without a report of a selectman somewhere refusing to speak to another, of people shouting at one another at public hearings, of raising the importance of political victory above that of effective governance. More and more people seem to be coming to the conclusion that government of the people, by the people, for the people means bypassing the established procedures of government entirely and going directly to citizen initiated votes on everything, as if every process of government except the ballot box was corrupt.
And this terminal uniqueness, this sense that the only meaningful definition of “we” is the list of people who agree with everything I want, has generated and is encouraged by an ever louder, ever more obnoxious, ever richer coterie of self-serving media pundits and political attack consultants dedicated not to the marketplace of ideas but to the fun house of circus caricatures designed to find and exploit fear and ignorance.
So today, the “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln called for so solemnly a century and a half ago in a blood-soaked field in Pennsylvania may best accomplished by crossing up the hidden world of “big data” and getting to know someone who isn’t one of your 4,253 “friends” and with whom you don’t already share 34,691 “likes.” In what he called “the larger sense,” the test of citizenship Lincoln put before us is to broaden rather than narrow our definition of “we the people.”
Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at: