Is there an Abraham Lincoln in the room?


By Dr. Kamal Wickremasinghe

The overwhelming show of strength by the Combined Opposition on March 17 showed the extent of public disillusionment with the promise of Yahapalanaya that has turned out to be worse than an unfunny joke.The protest and events within the SLFP since then prove that President Sirisena is now a ‘king without a crown’ as far as his would-be powerbase is concerned.

The peoples’ justifiable anger over the government’s lack of management skills necessary to run the country was palpable at the March 17 rally; vivid memories of voting on 8 January and 17 August 2015 for promises of a utopia dashed by the government’s appalling inability to manage the truth, the economy, law and order or vital infrastructure appears to have angered the people. The rapidity of the souring of the government’s image among the public since its election is probably unprecedented in the political history of Sri Lanka.

In addition to the day-to-day problems plaguing ordinary Sri Lankans, there appear to be several underlying issues that are fuelling the anger: it is becoming clear that the whole Yahapalanaya movement was a ‘clever’ marketing campaign devised with foreign and NGO help to oust a leader the imperialists failed to get to kneel down before them. People feel deceived by the campaign based on wild stories of corruption and they find the ongoing attempts to implicate the progeny of Mahinda Rajapaksa with some unresolved (alleged) murders, without convincing evidence, plainly ridiculous.

The failure of various agencies created by the Sirisena government to investigate alleged cases of financial fraud or theft by the Rajapaksa government to ‘score any hits’ clearly suggests that the initial charges were bogus or at best, exaggerated. Current activity of these agencies limited to groping for ‘some’ subsidiary charges makes a mockery of Yahapalanaya.

Obviously, such accusations can be made against every politician of every Sri Lankan regime including the present one.Wasting time on such largely contrived charges that are likely to be discarded by a truly independent judicial system is clearly adding to the anger. Ordinary people do not seem to appreciate seeking political revenge at the expense of running the country.

National Security

There have been other reasons, relating primarily to national security, that seem to underlie the public’s concerns: moves to pursue the military forces on dubious war crimes charges, just to please foreign sponsors, have been a bleeding sore on the government’s side; The vast majority of the Sri Lankan public - Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and everyone else - is clearly rejecting the government’s totally irrational and unreasonable attempt to parade the armed forces before kangaroo ‘Tribunals’ to be formed by the UN bodies running a US-Europe driven neocolonialism agenda.The foreign minister’s revolting embrace of the American and other war criminals (of Tony Blair’s and Samantha Power’s ilk) while accusing our own forces has naturally raised the ire of the population.

Quite apart from the immediate political threat the mass disenchantment poses to the UNP-SLFP coalition government, its distancing of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community from the discourse on national security and the much-touted reconciliation initiative is plaguing the government. All government rhetoric and actions on these fronts give the appearance that they are designed to please the minority groups and NGOs that helped it capture power. In effect, the government has been taken captive by those minority interests, posing a grave danger to democracy. (The government has a lot to learn from its masters - the UK, US, Canada and Australia - about the management of minorities in a manner that preserves the hegemony of the numerical majority!)

Moving on to the other major promise of Yahapalanaya, the government has clearly exhibited that it has no idea as to how to bring about reconciliation among different ethnic groups as promised. The program started on the wrong foot with the appointment of Chandrika Kumaratunga - a noxious woman without a reconciliatory bone in her body - in charge. Her so-called ‘reconciliation’ program has not progressed beyond her misuse of a few religious functions of minority communities to vent her ever intensifying hatred of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The government faces the challenge of promoting reconciliation if they intend to stay in power for the next five years - as asserted repeatedly and unconvincingly - in the current panic mode. The future success of the task depends on finding means of managing diverse groups with vested interests towards the desired common goal of a harmonious society. The government and its leaders are dead wrong if they think that this task can be fulfilled by an approach that alienates the most numerically important and influential ethnic group, the Sinhala Buddhists. The government needs to be wary of being held captive to the hidden agendas of particular minority groups with less than honourable brand of opportunistic political activism.

The case of abolition of slavery in America, specifically the manner in which President Abraham Lincoln handled the opposition from most powerful southern slaveholders against ending slavery provides a useful case study the Sri Lankan government can learn from. It is acknowledged that taking lessons from the American experience on anything needs to be done with utmost care to avoid being duped by propaganda designed to spread the so-called "American Values" universally as a means of intervening in the affairs of other countries.

Indelible Stain

The first observation that needs to be made is that Lincoln’s abolishment of slavery does nothing to erase the indelible stain of the blood and sweat of millions of African slaves in American history: their industrial strength and prosperity was built on the unpaid labour of slaves.This history makes American attempts to claim moral guardianship of the world hollow. The objective here is to ‘separate the wheat from the chaff’ in order to extract something that may be useful for local application.

Lincoln’s efforts came against the background of a global trend to end slavery at the end of the 18th century, following the French Revolutionaries in 1789 and the Haitian Revolution that followed (1791 – 1804). The American economy that had depended on slavery for its prosperity since the British immigrant Samuel Maverick landed in Boston in 1624 with two slaves and American traders began bartering slaves for sugar in the West Indies to make rum needed to prepare for the inevitable. But the slaveholding planters who had become the richest in America with slave-produced cotton accounting for 60 per cent of the value of all American exports were resisting.

Declaration of Independence

The history of slavery in America shows that its disgraceful record of hypocrisy when it comes to morality and "values" has not been of recent origin:there were more than 500,000 black American slaves at the time Thomas Jefferson wrote The Declaration of Independence (1776) following the American Revolution for example, proclaiming America’s ideals of freedom and equality as the main reasons for its rebellion against Britain. Jefferson himself owned more than 100 slaves; It took the genius of the British intellectual Samuel Johnson (Dr. Johnson) to raise the pertinent question: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?" The Articles of Confederation (1781) of the first U.S. national government also failed to mention slavery. The ratification of the Constitution in 1787 did nothing to ameliorate the suffering of slaves either.

Slave holders were deeply embedded in the federal government and other structures and they managed the political economy to their advantage:all US presidents from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to the Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant, apart from John Adams and John Quincy Adams, were slave owners. Slave owners also ruled in Congress through the Democratic Party. They also maintained a majority on the Supreme Court. Not many champions of human rights in the developing world trained at the Harvard Law School would probably be aware that it was built in 1817 with money made off the bequest of the wealthy Jewish slave owner, Isaac Royall Jr.The establishment narrative however, replaces this shameful history with the heroic achievements of Abraham Lincoln - dubbed the Great Emancipator - in an attempt to portray America as the leading light of freedom for humanity.

The story goes that Lincoln conducted a bloody Civil War against the slave holding southern Confederated States, won the war and emancipated the slaves with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. None of the assertions in this narrative, of Lincoln being a passionate opponent of slavery, he fought the Civil War for the purpose of Emancipation and his Proclamation freed slaves with one stroke of pen, do not stand scrutiny in the light of facts. In reality, Abraham Lincoln was a crafty politician without any formal education (but practised as a ‘self-taught’ lawyer). He served two terms in the Illinois General Assembly in 1834 and 1841 as a member of the Whig Party, and served one term in Congress in 1846. Later joining the Republican Party in 1856,Lincoln became president of the United States in 1860 and presided over the Civil War that began just one month into his presidency, in April 1861. He won a second presidential term in 1864 but was assassinated on 14 April 1865, just six weeks after inauguration and just five days after the war had ended.

Although the official American narrative that attempts to make Lincoln another ‘American Hero’ the detail of his life story clearly contradicts the public image that has been formed by American propaganda. A more accurate historical view of Lincoln would be of a man no different from the rest of his slave-exploiting white brethren, later transformed by events of history. He comes across as a man who struggled to reconcile the moral obscenity that was slavery with political exigencies of uncompromising slave owners. It is the dexterity shown by Lincoln in dealing with southern slaveholders - the most numerous economically, socially and politically powerful group with vested interest at the time -that becomes his redeeming feature that may prove useful in the Sri Lankan situation.

Born in the slave state of Kentucky in 1809, Lincoln came from a slaveholding background in his extended family, and his wife’s family were slaveholders. His views on race and slavery reflected this close association with slavery: Abraham Lincoln was never an abolitionist. He rejected social or political equality between the races—except in relation to wages.

He viewed blacks as alien people, not an intrinsic part of American society. Lincoln had concerns about ending slavery owing primarily to the possible violation of "property rights" of slaveholders that arose from the legal treatment of blacks as "property" rather than human beings; he proposed to provide federal financing to compensate the slaveholders affected by Emancipation, but not on record expressing the need to compensate slaves for more than two centuries of unrequited labour. He also maintained that slavery was ‘legal’, citing the protection of slavery the Constitution provided through the Fugitive Slave Law (that made harbouring escaped slaves an offence). His opposition to slavery was limited to its extension to the new western territories.

As a politician, Lincoln never had concrete plans to end slavery prior to winning the presidential election of 1860 under the Republican ticket. He proposed ‘gradual’ freeing of slaves over a 35 year period, subject to the freed slaves agreeing to leave the United States - a view referred in political parlance of the time as "colonisation." An antidote to official propaganda on Lincoln can be found in the book "Forced Into Glory" by Lerone Bennett Jr., which paints him as a supporter of slavery and an inveterate racist.

Lincoln faced momentous southern reaction to his (and the Republican Party’s) election in 1860. The southern states threatened to secede despite Lincoln’s assurances that he would uphold the Constitution and allow slavery to continue. But, in early February 1861, the southern slaveholding states organised themselves into the Confederate States of America. On 12 April 1861, just six weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration, rebels opened fire on Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina beginning the Civil War.

A robust myth perpetrated through American propaganda suggests that Lincoln primary Civil War objective was Emancipation. Evidence clearly points to Lincoln’s commitment was to preserve the American Union in the face of secession by the Confederate States: he had declared in his inaugural address given on 4 March 1861: "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." The heart of Lincoln's address was a lengthy repudiation of the right of secession as claimed by the southerners. He maintained the same stance in a letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, a newspaper that supported the anti-slavery movement in 1862. Lincoln wrote: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others along I would also do that."The fate of slavery however, became inextricably linked to the military outcome due to the Confederacy’s dependence on slave-produced food, slave labour to build fortifications, and as soldiers. Lincoln dealt several blows to separate slaves from the Confederates.

Emancipation Proclamation of Lincoln did not free the nearly four million slaves with a stroke of his pen as American propaganda suggests: Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on 22 September 1862 - in the face of imminent defeat, dressed as an ultimatum -as war tactic;It was a threat to the Confederates to end the fighting and rejoin the Union by 1 January 1863 or to free all slaves in the rebellious states. Lincoln’s real objective was to incite the slaves fighting under the Confederacy’s banner. He followed it up with the establishment of the United States Coloured Troops regiment to accommodate the defecting slaves, ending the Army’s Apartheid on black soldiers. By the end of the war, over 200,000 African-Americans were serving in the Union army and navy. The final Emancipation Proclamation issued under war powers,on 1 January 1863, formally ended slavery but without practical effect. Slavery was formally abolished only in December 1865 when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.

Following the war victory and the securing of a second term of presidency, Lincoln’s outlook had changed dramatically. In his second inaugural address of 4 March 1865, Lincoln asked the nation to confront the legacy of slavery and the requirements of justice to redress its injustices. The war, he said, might well be a divine punishment for the evil of slavery and God might will it to continue until all the wealth the slaves had created had been destroyed. Lincoln reminded Americans that violence began not with the Civil War in April 1861, but had been preceded by 250 years of the terrible violence of slavery. At closing, he set the tone for his plan for the nation’s reconciliation, healing and Reconstruction.

Nearly 200 years after the Civil War ended, the continuing racial inequality in America gives lie to the idea that the Civil War gave birth to freedom, as Lincoln claimed at Gettysburg. The main consequence of Lincoln’s preservation of the Union has been the building of an "empire of liberty"that Thomas Jefferson cryptically alluded to expanding in the name of spreading freedom.

Looking for lessons in the American slavery story, the first observation that needs to be made is that Lincoln was a politician rather than a hero. As a Republican leader, he worked to have the party focus on a compromise -- opposition to the expansion of slavery rather than on Abolishment-- and put aside more morally upright, but divisive questions that would endanger its success. Yet he maintained a core belief in the injustice of slavery.

Lessons of possible value to the Sri Lankan situation come from Lincoln’s deft handling of slaveholders’ fears in order to maintain the integrity of the American Union, moving slowly on the front of Abolishment. His election and early first presidency speeches were aimed at assuaging the slaveholders. His framing of the Civil War primarily as a measure vital for maintaining the Union is interpreted by some historians as a deliberate attempt to avoid inciting the powerful vested interest group further.

It is in this area the current Sri Lankan government appears to lack acumen and sensitivity: they need to recognise that there can be no reconciliation without the active support of the group of more than 70% of the island’s population. Their current rhetoric and actions sound hostile to that segment. They need to carefully revise their American-driven current model of reconciliation to ensure any degree of future success.

Sri Lankan political leaders need to appraise Max Weber's famous 1918 essay "Politics as a Vocation"that introduced the concept of "responsible realism"as the tool of political leadership: the politician must be devoted to moral causes, yet attentive to prudent responsibility.

Sri Lankans may have to look hard to find a Lincoln in the room.

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