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Ask Not

November 20, 2013

This week marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination. Media commentary has mostly been about the remarkable oratory of the first and the national and personal tragedy of the second.

Kennedy was a pretty remarkable orator himself. He was well read, in both modern and classical literature, and he surrounded himself with a number of similarly well read advisors, most importantly Ted Sorenson, his special counsel and speechwriter.

I have always thought of JFK’s inaugural speech as one of the great inaugural speeches, although I admit the probability of bias from growing up in the ’60s, that most optimistic American era, the very apex of the American Century. Kennedy’s inaugural speech was masterfully optimistic; Kennedy framed our direst challenges as great opportunities and solemn honors. Kennedy rendered the real possibility of nuclear war thus: “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.”

But what is most memorable to me about the speech is its muscular call to collective action, both domestically and internationally. Over and over again, Kennedy called for unity among allies: “United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do—for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.”

Kennedy called for international collective action against poverty – twice in general terms, and once in “our sister republics south of our border.” Kennedy cast the fight against poverty as the duty of a democratic society, including specifically the well off in that society: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Kennedy concluded his appeal for American unity with the speech’s most familiar and enduring passage: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy made clear that by this request of his fellow Americans he meant to ask for “high standards of strength and sacrifice.”

Well read as he was, Kennedy certainly intended the echo of John Donne’s most famous line, “Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Kennedy’s “ask not” echoed Donne’s “send not,” not only in its grammatical construction but also in its moral concept of mutual obligation among people, and obligation of individuals to the collective society.

The notion that any moral obligation runs from people to government has become somehow anti-patriotic, at least among the modern Right. And the notion that moral obligation might run from the wealthy to the poor has become apostasy. Today’s Right regards wealth as not just hard-earned and well deserved success, but also as manifestation of moral superiority, as if by Calvinist predestination. The morally superior bear no obligation to the poor, whose material poverty manifests their moral poverty.

If the wealthy are deserving and the poor are undeserving, then the proper role of government is to reward the deserving and punish the undeserving – or at the very least, to avoid punishing the deserving and rewarding the undeserving.

I doubt any politician today would dare to challenge Americans to sacrifice for their country. Kennedy began his inaugural by observing that much had changed in the 185 years after America’s founding. Today’s Right, with its “every man for himself” ideology, brings home how much has changed in the 53 years since our president called on us to work in common cause for a world without war or want.

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From → All Posts, Obama 2.0

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