Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Lincoln, the film, the lawyer and Pakistanis

By Yasser Latif Hamdani

(Some spoilers- beware)

"Lincoln" v. "Gandhi"

A few days ago, I watched Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" starring amongst others the likes of Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. It was one of the most extraordinary films I have seen in my life and what is more is that it wasn't preachy or unrealistic - quite unlike Richard Attenborough's rather mediocre film "Gandhi" which distorted history and presented the subject as an infallible saint instead of the shrewd politician, very capable of cunning and cant, that Gandhi was. Sir Ben Kingsley did a terribly unconvincing job as Gandhi but to be fair that film fails on account of a weak script and the fact that it was naked hagiography masquerading, but failing, as history. On the contrary  Lincoln was a political film about a politician who was human but whose integrity shone through even as he was fighting a grave battle for his nation. Consequently Daniel Day Lewis was superb and masterly as Abraham Lincoln. One reason for this might be that this film itself is for an increasingly aware audience in the information age, as oppose to the naive gaping and ignorant buffoons who crowded cinema halls in the early 1980s (I can only imagine how cinema goers could have reacted without the ability of doing some basic fact checking back then).

Lincoln the Lawyer

One of the things that struck me about the film was that much of Lincoln's achievement was tied in with the fact that he was a lawyer. One particular scene in the film is where the cabinet is discussing the Lincoln's 13th Amendment. After hearing out all sides, Lincoln finally places before his cabinet his own point of view. He starts by recounting an old woman he had defended as a lawyer on the Illinois Circuit and how he had given her a chance to escape. He then goes onto describe with fascinating lucidity how he had confiscated the slaves as property of the South and set them free using his war powers which he admits to having conjured out of thin air. He says that this may give the impression that he agreed with the Southern states that slaves were property, when he says he does not. He then goes on to state the central question of federal v state laws (which was why the US had gone to war with itself). Lincoln says that while he had exercised his war powers and confiscated South's property (which he did not consider property) under a law which applied to foreign powers (when he considered that Southern States were not at war but that only the rebels were at war with the Union) and that he (who believed in state rights) freed the slaves under the emancipation proclamation which essentially overruled the states' laws in the South (which in turn he believed were still part of the Union and therefore the laws there were intact).  He believed that once the war was over the courts would challenge the proclamation, which is why it was necessary to pass the 13th Amendment here and now, to end slavery once and for all.  The film also explores how Lincoln may have extended the war, ordered the heavy shelling of Wilmington and kept the peace delegation from Confederacy waiting, so as to achieve his objectives. Perhaps Lincoln the statesman is at his lawyerly best when he answers the confederacy's peace delegation's question about restoration of the states in time to block the 13th Amendment. As history tells us, Lincoln, the Whig corporate lawyer from Illinois, did not allow the Southern states to block the 13th Amendment.

The 13th Amendment itself - the film shows- was passed through a crass exercise of horse trading, vote buying, bribery and corruption. All this at the behest of the man who was known to be incorruptible or honest Abe as he is remembered. This much Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is made to say in the film, while acknowledging that Abraham Lincoln is the purest man in America. Thaddeus Stevens - the indefatigable crusader and abolitionist - makes compromises of his own, when he backtracks on his rhetoric of racial equality to promote the cause of equality before law and an end to slavery.

For his overriding powers, manipulation of constitutional provisions to his advantage and his ability to forge ahead with controversial moves, Lincoln has been denounced by many in the South and elsewhere as a dictator, a tyrant (that is what his assassin called him) and a threat to democracy. Yet Lincoln understood that in order to protect the constitution, under which he had taken oath, he had to bend a few rules and settle issues, not otherwise settled by putting his foot down. Here Lincoln is very much in the lawyer's mode, arguing his brief forcefully, banging the table when necessary and conjuring law out of thin air.

Lincoln, Jinnah and Pakistan 

Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan and a lawyer, has several parallels with Abraham Lincoln, including the tall stately stature that both men had.  He was known to be the most incorruptible politician in India and was accepted as such by friend and foe alike, including the likes of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru. His honesty and financial probity was beyond question. Like Lincoln, Jinnah led basically a bigoted people not advanced to fully appreciate or understand their leader's ideas.  Like Lincoln, Jinnah had to keep a balance between forces of reaction on one side and radicals on the other, often criticized by both. Like Lincoln, Jinnah put his foot down when necessary and used his powers as Governor General where necessary. The impulse of state preservation, just like Lincoln, led Jinnah to dismiss and override provincial government in NWFP and to coerce the Khan of Kalat, who had been foolish enough to be caught up in a fantasy about independence for his large southern state, to sign a document of accession to Pakistan. Just as US settled the issue of secession once and for all,  the legal position in the subcontinent is that no princely state was allowed to claim independence for itself.  Much like Lincoln, Jinnah the purest man in the subcontinent, had to work with elements and people who were not as pure or of an equal stature. Gentle prodding, nudges, pushes were used to keep Pakistan together at a critical time. All through out this Jinnah's faith in the idea of a constitutional democracy with equal rights and due process for all did not waver.

Indeed that last part is the most enduring point of conflation between Jinnah and Lincoln. Dr. Akbar S Ahmed and Ambassador William Milam have often argued that Jinnah's 11 August speech was his Gettysburg address. I think rather that it was Jinnah's Emancipation Proclamation, the clearest pronouncement of an inclusive democratic and secular polity when people were still not ready. Much like Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens were unwilling to come out and say legal equality equalled racial equality, Jinnah shied away from calling it secularism but he did often say "a rose by any name is a rose".

Pakistan in 2013 is far away from the secular democratic vision that Jinnah placed before the new nation, but then 60 years after the US was still far away from realizing the true spirit and meaning of emancipation proclamation, just as US in 1860 was still far away achieving the basic fundamental principle that "all men are created equal". In fact just like Pakistan, a large portion of the US was still caught up in segregation, Plessey v. Ferguson and discrimination of the worst kind. It took US a hundred years from the emancipation proclamation  to pass the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It took another generation of leaders, this time from within the African American community,  Dr King and Malcolm X amongst others, to finally seize what Lincoln had promised them in 1863 and 1865.

This gives me hope as a Pakistani. In fact it has always given me hope that one day, we too will raise ourselves to those golden glorious words that Jinnah spoke on 11 August 1947.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Be respectful and you shall be heard.