The right side of history

I recently attended a screening of Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Lincoln. Readers of my blog will know I occasionally pen reviews of films. I do not wish to do so today. (About Lincoln I will simply say it was excellent, and to see Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of the 16th US President alone well worth the price of admission.) Nor do I wish to add my voice to the chorus of academics who have already pronounced upon the American Civil War, Lincoln’s life and Presidency, the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, or, above all, slavery in America. I do not pretend to have the scholarly knowledge of such subjects to do so wisely. I simply wish to speak plainly and personally about rights, human dignity and the extraordinary opportunity sometimes afforded to legislators now and in times past, in this country or any other, to choose upon which side of history they wish to stand.

As the lights of the theatre dimmed, the movie about to begin, I noticed my former Member of Parliament, Ray Simard, take a seat in the row behind mine. Quickly, the movie stole my attention—and held it captive for nearly 3 hours. It was not until the lights had again come up, the credits rolling, that my thoughts returned to Mr. Simard. Alas, by the time I had again turned around, he was no longer in the theatre. I was left to wonder what he, once a legislator himself, made of the movie—so much of which examined the rough-and-tumble nature of politics, the compromises people of principle must make to advance the causes closest to their hearts, and, most importantly, of the extraordinary opportunity afforded the members of the 38th Congress of the United States of America to vote on something as monumental as the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which sought to ban slavery.

Would he have considered his work as meaningful as those members? His service to country as important? I know not. I do know, however, the politicians of today do not seem to enjoy the same reverence as their cousins of generations past. Indeed, I would not be surprised if many, perhaps even most Canadians considered the work of their parliamentarians ineffectual if not outright inconsequential today.

One only has to watch Canadian parliamentary proceedings on CPAC to see what a shambles our House of Commons has become. Contrast the near-empty chamber of today with the swollen House of Representatives of the 38th US Congress; today’s galleries, too, empty but for the hacks minding their masters below. Worse, robust debate replaced with vapid rhetoric; conviction replaced with careless recitation.

And then I rememebered: Ray Simard, not unlike the members of that US Congress so long ago, was afforded that rare, once-in-a-generation opportunity to speak and vote upon a matter of human rights and of fundamental human dignity. Bill C-38, more commonly known as the Civil Marriage Act. He, too, had the chance to choose upon which side of history he would stand. Would it be on the right side, or the wrong? To push onward in that long, blood-stained journey to ensure human rights and dignity includes all peoples, like those who are gay and lesbian? Or to stand in resolute opposition, putting his “faith” in the afterlife ahead of the lives of so many in this one?

Ray Simard stood on the wrong side of history. So, too, did another 132 Members of Canada’s 38th Parliament. Too many, swearing allegiance to an imaginary God and purportedly guided by the compassionate, loving teachings of Jesus Christ, failed to grasp how history would remember them: not as pious servants of their faith, but cowardly bigots, misguided by hatred and fear.

Abraham Lincoln, as Spielberg’s movie alludes, was by no means a perfect man. His views about black people still, tragically, a product of the time in which he lived. He was, however, reasonable enough to see the injustice and utter inhumanity of enslaving an entire people, denying them freedom and dignity simply because of the colour of their skin. Had he been alive today, perhaps Honest Abe would have equally agreed it indecent and inhumane to deny two consenting adults, gay or straight, the right to have their love recognized by the state, and that that love hold no less value because both adults happen to be men or women.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter what Abraham Lincoln would have made of gay marriage—but it did matter what the Members of Canada’s 38th Parliament made of it. Some, in their wisdom, and their sense of equality and justice, rightly did what courts—not unlike States were already doing in America in the 1860s—had already begun to do: make right, not with a god, but with the people of their country.

Yes, history is written by the victors. There is no denying, though, the march of progress: while it has been difficult, unsteady, too slow for too many, it marches forward in that noblest aim: that all people, men and women, of every skin colour and creed, age, income, education, gender and sexual orientation, may live—and soon, I hope—die with dignity.

Dignity. There can be none when freedom and equality are denied. All must have it, and until that day we walk on.

There will be opportunities in the future for legislators not unlike Ray Simard to choose upon which side of history they wish to stand. They would be wise to respect history, read it, then think long and hard about how they wish to be remembered by it.

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