Friday, January 21, 2011

Today marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, in which he proclaimed that

...the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Most remembered is his appeal to the nation to "...ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

"My fellow citizens of the world," he continued, "ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

Today I read in the SF Chronicle the opinion that "Were it uttered by a modern politician, Kennedy's famous 'ask not' call to service might well be derided as a socialist pitch for more government."

Despite Liz Sidoti's critique, Kennedy was right then, and his words are as inspiring and as worthy today, his message and his entreaty as essential or more so.

Forty-eight years later, President Obama observed in his inaugural address that

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics ... the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

Sadly, Obama misjudged. A short and eventful two years later, the nation is deeply, but one hopes not irretrievably, divided—more than at any time in recent memory. Petty grievances, recriminations and even hostility choke political discourse.

The political controversy may target the details of health care reform and tax policy, deficits and earmarks. We wave our fingers are wag our tongues over which faction is most out of touch with the "will of the people" and which rhetoric is more poisonous than another.

But these are only stand-ins for the real battle. We are fixated on competing ideologies and engaged in an uncivil cold war over the role of government, the meaning of society, and the obligations of citizens: to one another, to their nation, to the peoples of the world, and to the Earth itself.

One side would return us, gleefully, to an era we thought was well behind us: a time of, at best, indifference to our fellows and at worst, bloody tooth-and-claw conflict; of greedy self-interest; and of ideology over pragmatism, charity, and goodwill.

President Kennedy reminded us that, "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." He proclaimed that "civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof... Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us."

Those are words that each of us—and our government—ought to live by. We might begin by acknowledging the truth of the words with which Kennedy began his address half a century ago: that his inauguration marked, "...not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom."

Political victory is impermanent, and triumph not an end in itself. The winner's reward is not permission to impose its will, but a responsibility to govern in the interest of all.

The GOP's proclaimed foremost goal—to ensure President Obama's defeat—is not worthy of us, nor of that party. Its cynical and purely symbolic show of force to undo the long-overdue improvement of our health care system is merely a provocative affront that only panders to extremists, while accomplishing nothing. And its pitiful defense of its more strident members' hostile and hate-inciting rhetoric is an abomination.

In Ms. Sidoti's article, political advisor Mark McKinnon, referring to Kennedy's famous passage, says, "Unfortunately, in today's environment, speeches are more likely to say, 'Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what you can do for your party.'"

I repeat again from Kennedy's speech: "Civility is not a sign of weakness." But, apparently, some believe it is.

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