He closed with the sentiment: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”
Lincoln did not emphasize the superiority of his own moral stance: The tragic circumstance of the civil war had given him cause to reflect upon how a nation torn asunder because of a moral issue needed to come together once again. No matter how tragic the war had been, it was still important to care for the widows and orphans of the fallen enemy.
This “tragic pragmatism” was not to say that people could not decide for themselves the rights and wrongs of slavery. The shift in Lincoln’s rhetoric was merely representative of the need for humility in politics and morality, and that despite the incompatibility of the respective values, it was necessary, in the interests of the public good, to concede that the other party had the right to voice its own political beliefs, too.
The prerequisite to this is that the candidates in the political arena come armed with their value concepts. Anyone there purely for the sake of winning is entirely lacking in the spirit of democracy. The soul of a democratic republic lies in the rational debate of concrete values, so that people can see how they can strive for ever loftier ideas. It is not founded merely on indulging in the endless pursuit of personal interest or of maintaining your grip on the monopoly of power.
Does Taiwan have a soul of its own? What values are we, as a nation, pursuing? It is OK for values to be diverse, but we must have some. Otherwise, the White T-shirt protests in August, September’s furor over improper lobbying and the shoe-throwing protests that followed Ma like a second shadow last month would have just evaporated into thin air.
Without a value stance, how are we to evaluate what is happening in politics? Without values, we may as well slump into nihilism and consign our democracy to the ground ourselves.
Albie Sachs, a former judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa, is scheduled to visit Taiwan next month. On the eve of the abolition of South African apartheid, Sachs spoke to his colleagues of the importance of not allowing your soul to become as depraved as your enemy’s. The greatest victory of authoritarianism lies not in its continued actual existence per se, but in the ability of its adherents, in the post-democratization era, to corrupt all those individuals who had formerly advocated reform. It is important to remain vigilant at all times, if we are not to forget why we strived for democracy in the first place.
Huang Cheng-yi is an assistant research professor in the Institutum Iurisprudentiae of Academia Sinica.
Translated by Paul Cooper