“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”
That’s Abraham Lincoln in 1857, from an unpublished fragment he jotted and folded and stored, but never uttered in public. It’s a startling idea about liberty, equality, and democracy worth thinking through in view of our national disgrace in these times.
Having witnessed the death of Michael Brown and the exoneration of his uniformed murderer, Darren Wilson, not to mention the police slaughter of a 12-year old black boy who was playing with a toy gun, you might be tempted to give thanks that you don’t live in those neighborhoods where the cops go to find crime. Which is to say, you might be tempted to console or congratulate yourself for being white.
Think again. What Lincoln is saying here is that liberty can’t survive the eclipse of equality, no matter the cause of that eclipse—race, class, whatever.
Democracy requires both liberty and equality. Freedom is not just the absence of external constraint in the form of state power, as the earnest neoliberals of our time, utilitarians all, would like to think. No, it consists of access to the resources (income, culture, society, education, etc.) that allow you to realize your natural talents, to become the self you imagine before its possibility even appears as a practical question-—it’s the freedom to project yourself into a world that doesn’t yet exist.
So conceived, my liberty depends on yours, because your intelligence is one of those crucial resources to which I need access. I can’t become what I hope to unless you can, too, unless you function not as my secretary, my servant, my slave, or my muse, but as my equal partner in the imagination and the construction of what lies ahead, what we might create. Only then will you and I be free of the constraints that culture, society, and education produce. Only then can we be free of the past.
My liberty requires our equality. My freedom is endangered to the precise extent that yours is—-to the precise extent I can take liberties that you can’t—-regardless of where we live. This is not an ethical principle with no purchase on the real world. It’s just a fact, the underside of Lincoln’s aphorism.
So do feel sorry for all the young black men who have died in vain, and their families, and their friends and their neighborhoods. But do also start worrying about yourself. John Donne was right. That bell you’re hearing tolls for thee.