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Jane Ahlin, Published December 08 2012

Ahlin: Trying to find meaning in sea of meaninglessness

One of the first remarks made by people leaving the movie “Lincoln” is a variation of this: “He’d never be able to keep his dealings secret in today’s world.”

And he wouldn’t. Had communicating back then been as instantaneous as it is today, the vote on the 13th Amendment would not have happened.

The rationale publicly put forward by Abraham Lincoln for the amendment’s passage was that a constitutional amendment ending slavery was the best way to end the bloody Civil War – a war U.S. citizens by late 1864 were desperate to have over. Put another way, he did not sell the need for the amendment to the public for the reasons he wanted it passed. Lincoln wanted slavery abolished forever, but he viewed the war’s end as the only workable reason the majority of Northerners would go along with the idea.

He both feared his Emancipation Proclamation did not have enough legal weight to carry it into the future and knew the groundswell of public opinion in favor of the amendment really was fervor for peace, not enthusiasm for the unqualified end to slavery. Consequently, as he pressed for the amendment’s passage, he did not want the legislators to know that the Confederates already had begun seeking peace.

Even way back then, however, enough information traveled around that there were rumors of a Confederate Peace Commission on its way to Washington. To win the vote on the amendment, Lincoln had to dispel the rumors and provide political cover for Democrats and some Republicans who wanted the war to end but weren’t crazy about Lincoln’s grand scheme to give his Emancipation Proclamation the permanence of constitutional law. In fact, on the very day the vote was to take place, rumors of peace envoys from the South erupted on the floor of the House. When the tide seemed to be turning against the amendment, the rumors had to be put to rest.

Lincoln was asked to put in writing whether there were peace commissioners in Washington. He wrote, “So far as I know, there are no peace Commissioners in the City or likely to be in it.”

Here we should pause to call Lincoln’s statement an early version of “what is, is.” Lincoln wasn’t parsing words out of personal embarrassment – certainly not sexual indiscretion that made the phrase famous – yet, his lawyerly answer was big-time fudging the truth, and he knew it. He also believed the 13th Amendment was too important not to bend his own scruples. From our perch in time – almost 150 years removed – we can agree that the end justified his means, even though ridding the nation of slavery did not settle the issue of race. Nothing pointed that up more than our most recent election in which racial politics were more partisan and politically divisive than in decades.

But back to our world of instant communication.

After the immediate post-movie remarks that Lincoln could not have kept secrets had he lived in our times, a question naturally follows: Are we better informed today because of social media and our ability to tweet, text and instant message every moment of the day? Most of us would say we are. Certainly, we know that in other parts of the world, events such as the “Arab Spring” could not have happened without social media’s role in spreading information.

Still, there is a downside to constantly reacting to news – raw news, never vetted or assimilated for understanding, an ongoing, unending bombardment – and sharing those reactions, as if every piece of news were equal to every other. The sheer volume of news available in the omnipresent media, along with the so-called “echo chamber” of sharing items only with like-minded people, work against our ability to separate trivia from knowledge. Our inclination instead is to bounce from topic to topic in a modern netherworld of distraction.

Unlike Lincoln’s time, when information was hard to get, our challenge is to find meaning in a sea of meaninglessness.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.