And don’t count on the government to rush to join you.
This coming weekend, and the next are gi-hugely (hyperbole – in this case meant to be taken literally – a combination of gigantic and huge) significant for two reasons.
The first concerns the 90th Academy Awards, March 4.
All too often the motion picture industry spotlights in the Oscars what New York Times guest columnist Adam Davidson described as “an absurd spectacle of remarkably successful people congratulating themselves for work that barely nudges at the borders of meaningful human achievement.”
This time however, despite all the glitz and glamour that accompanies the red carpet, this night, March 4, won’t be just another night at the movies.
Nominated for Best Picture is “Darkest Hour.”
“Faced with the momentous choice of continuing to fight or trying to parlay with Hitler,” Winston Churchill turned, of all places, not to his own colleagues in government most of whom were urging a peace treaty; who reacted coolly to his first speech upon appointment as Prime Minister “Blood, toil, tears and sweat”; some of whom were even urging a vote of no confidence.
Churchill listened not to those in the highest places of government but to those in the lowest of places, the people in the London Underground.
Though debatable that this key scene in the movie actually happened, something like it might well have, according to “Darkest Hour” screenwriter Anthony McCarten whose research revealed Churchill would often, during the war, “go AWOL, disappear and pop up somewhere in London with ordinary people, to find out what they were thinking.”
“With the fall of France imminent and the possibility of a German invasion of Britain looming,” Churchill knowing “his decision will affect the entire free world,” he sought out ordinary Londoners to ascertain their will.
Did they want to continue the fight?
“‘The little ships of Dunkirk,’ a flotilla of hundreds of merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, yachts and lifeboats” set sail across the English Channel and were instrumental in rescuing 338,226 Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk where they had been trapped by German forces.
Churchill’s subsequent speech “we shall fight on the beaches”, referring to his own shores should the Germans invade, was a testament to the fortitude, the wherewithal, the pluck of ordinary people.
To whom Churchill had listened.
And to whom – Churchill – the people responded.
Not surprisingly, “Dunkirk” is also nominated for this March 4 Academy Awards “Best Motion Picture of the Year.”
What happened on February 24, at 4 A.M., 211 years ago also changed the course of history.
For much the same reasons.
That very early morning of February 24, 1807, England’s House of Commons, by an overwhelming majority of 283 to 16, abolished the slave trade. They rose to their feet, turned to fellow legislator William Wilberforce, and began to cheer while Wilberforce bowed his head and wept.
So ended a twenty-year fight, led nobly from start to finish by Wilberforce.
And a fight it was, given the government was deeply entrenched in its collective resistance to relinquishing the profits to be had from a most suspect enterprise.
“Any change in the institution of slavery,” wrote historian Kevin Belmonte (“Hero for Humanity”), “would wreck the national economy and the British way of life. Lord Rodney warned of losing commerce to the French. He argued that regulating the slave trade might weaken Britain’s hold on the West Indies. He also said he ‘had never heard of a slave being cruelly treated in all the time he had been in the West Indies and expressed his wish that English laborers might be but half as happy.’”
It is a sad commentary when the top priority of government is the bottom line, especially when that bottom line depends upon the enslavement of people – however popular the program as promoted by the government; however profitable the outcome, the proceeds parceled out to all manner of otherwise revered institutions.
Wilberforce, like Churchill, recognizing government as more of a problem than a solution, less a help than a hindrance, rallied instead ordinary people, calling upon their character, asking them to follow their heart, to act, to respond, to hear the cry of their fellow human beings.
Following the long fight – and it’s always a long fight, hence the reason to choose our cause carefully – the people – common, ordinary people – responded by setting about purposefully championing an incredible array of charitable initiatives by way of voluntary societies.
Following Wilberforce’s lead in believing “that the good obtainable through political means had severe limitations” – and certainly Wilberforce would have known having spent 44 years himself within the House of Commons – the people rose up and “turned the tide of immorality in Britain” writes Belmonte.
“The political good we can do is often too small and even doubtful. Attempts at political reform, without changing the hearts and minds of people at the same time, were futile,” Wilberforce believed.
The people agreed.
Rather than depend on the benevolence or the services of government – not government doing thus-and-so, but the governed – the people, individuals, person by person, one at a time, heart and mind and soul reformed and awakened, rolled-up their collective sleeves and brought about lasting change.
They took upon themselves the mantra, the mantle, the example left them by Wilberforce. Each became themselves “an agent of change and renewal in his or her own right. Wherever they found themselves within society – rich, poor, or middle class – and with whatever gifts or talents they had been given,” Wilberforce had said, “they could and should unite their energies with those of their fellow citizens and follow through on their duty to work toward making the good society.”
And they did.
Inspired by Wilberforce’s emphasis and example, there came together “a vanguard of men and women from all corners of British society who desired and labored diligently to promote moral renewal, the societal benefits continuing for many years after their deaths. It is a matter of history that for two generations at least after Wilberforce, the British character was molded by attitudes that were essentially his” Wilberforce coming “to be venerated as a national treasure.”
“Wilberforce’s life is proof that a man can change his times” one person at a time, each one taking his rolled-up-sleeve responsibility.
So bedrock was Wilberforce’s etched-in-stone and lived-out-in-real-life conviction that he is memorialized by noted historian F. K. Brown as having this legacy: “Britain during the fifty-year period preceding the start of the Victorian era (is appropriately called) the ‘Age of Wilberforce.’”
In a lecture on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., on March 23, 1995, author and social critic Dr. Os Guinness called the Wilberforce ethic “the best model we have for turning around a society and culture.”
It was that very concern for the welfare of others, coupled with the responsibility each understood he had for his neighbor and neighborhood to make a difference, that was the philosophy most responsible for ushering in the Victorian era.
The changes were dramatic, and they included “educating the blind, helping animals, treating ailing seamen, promoting vaccination, and easing the plight of the poor and those in debtor’s prison,” wrote Belmonte.
As a society and culture, we’re there again. Stranded on the beaches, enslaved to someone’s beck and call.
We are in need of that of which General Colin Powell wrote in the Epilogue to his memoirs, “My American Journey.”
“A sense of shame is not a bad moral compass. I wonder where our national sense of shame has gone. How do we find our way again? How do we reestablish moral standards? How do we restore a sense of family to our national life?”
And Powell, who with his wife Alma, created America’s Promise, concluded, “what we have to do as a nation is we have to start thinking of America as a family.”
And if society is to change today – England, America, on whatever shore we stand – we need Oscar-winning performances once again. Leaders – real leaders – listening, and people responding from too-long hidden resources of character and courage.