Rajpal's Column

20th May 2001

Lincoln's man showcases the great American experiment

By Rajpal Abeynayake
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Stephen Holgate doing Abraham Lincoln may be a little like Ariya Rubesinghe doing Dutugemunu. But, no matter.

Holgate, the director of the United States Information Service in Colombo, played Lincoln in a one-man presentation at the British Council auditorium on Friday.

Theatrically speaking, Holgate did a good job of Lincoln, warts and all, and may be forgiven for "putting words in the mouth of perhaps the greatest of all Americans."

But, he probably did not do all this for the sole purpose of exercising his very considerable thespian talents before a Colombo audience, which had not studied the life of Abrahan Lincoln in history class. 

He wrote the play, and in an author's note states, that "Lincoln and his times shed light… on the still difficult path that present day Americans tread in maintaining the great experiment called the United States of America.''

If Lincoln was the ultimate defender of this great experiment, Holgate is acolyte, several generations removed of course. 

The USIS Director makes one thing amply clear to those who are in some way neophytes to the great stuff of the "American experiment.''

It is that 700,000 Americans died in saving that experiment, during the bloody civil war which Lincoln presided over in his tenure.

It was again under the aegis of the Americans that the subject of a union of states for Sri Lanka was being discussed a few years back, when the incumbent Kumaratunga administration had just introduced the so-called package for devolution. This envisaged the creation of a concatenation of loosely strung – states as a measure for saving the "Sri Lankan union.''

But of course there was no Sri Lankan union, everybody was instantly reminded by somebody bent on striking that discordant note. Sri Lankan states were to be carved out so that they could then concatenate in order to create the "United States of Sri Lanka''. It was not politically viable, and was a retrogressive step that went fundamentally against the natural laws of political science.

But, the discourse was healthy, and there were dissenting views. The American union, which was a perfectly harmonious ingathering of states, was, it was reminded, still torn asunder by a civil war, which Dayan Jayatilleke, strident political scientist and no particular admirer of the great American melting pot, reminded cost "700,000 lives.''

Obviously Lincoln, as portrayed by Holgate, was distraught at the loss of so many lives for the cause of saving the union. But, the historical hagiography of Lincoln was for the fact that he saved the union, and not so much for the fact that he signed the emancipation proclamation and effectively freed the slaves. 

Before he took his first tentative steps to free the slaves, Lincoln addresses what was the first gathering of African Americans in the White House and tells them, more politely of course, that "you should consider carting your collective selves off to some faraway colony so that you could erase yourselves from the face of the Union'', and therefore effectively cause the civil war to come to an end. (Something almost akin, to Bandaranaike's offer, made to the Burghers, after he brought in the pancha maha balawegaya coalition to power. Said he: You Burghers must burgher off to Australia.)

The Burghers were happy to go, but the blacks in America were livid at the proposition. 

At this point, it needs be asked, with all pretensions of unctuous politeness put aside, whether the Director of the American Center portrayed Lincoln as part of his assignment in Colombo? He would probably say not, but that doesn't necessarily detract from the fact that the virtues of the great American experiment was showcased here by the modern incarnation of Lincoln's law partner, the ever inebriated Billy.

(Billy was Lincon's unquestioning admirer, just a few steps removed from being unquestioning factotum. He drank, he slept, and he minded the shop, while the great man led the nation.)

By his juxtaposition of quotes from Shakespeare, Lincoln and whatever he puts in the mouth of the late American President, Holgate shows that in America, they succeeded, almost a 150 years ago no less, in overcoming the baser instincts of human kind. The aberration of slavery was forever removed. The sacrosanct principle of American existence, quoted with such impeccable elan in the one-man show, that "all men are born equal, and are entitled to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness,'' was realized against the nastiest odds.

What Holgate shows, paradoxically, was that Lincoln was above all a pragmatist, and his essential ideal was in preserving the union, to which all other pursuits such as emancipation were collateral and incidental. 

But the union itself is sacrosanct only as an American construct. We here in Sri Lanka, as the discussion at the American Educational Foundation exemplified, would have probably lived with the break-up of the union in the far away continent, if it meant that 700,000 lives were not lost in the bargain.

The entire raison-d'etre for Holagte's presentation, is similarly founded on what are American constructs. Do American Lincoln admirers consider all humans born equal, especially if they are named Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gahddafi? One F. Castro is so unequal, that the there was a great American experiment to wipe him off the face of the earth, in a more permanent fashion that even the way Lincoln tried to make the slaves disappear from American soil. 

Surely, infants in Iraq are not equal either in these days of the great American experiment? Many "Willys'' die of fever in Iraq, and the American President is helpless – not because there were no drugs as in Lincon's son Willy's time. The Americans just don't want the drugs to get there, and don't want the rest of the world to put them there either. All men are entitled to "life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'' Should have known that infants don't count…

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