Wednesday, 29 November 2017

watchmen on the walls of world freedom

With the passing last week of the anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy I was exposed to the undelivered speech he was headed to the Dallas Trade Mart to present. Referencing the Bible passage “for it was written long ago: ‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain,’” Kennedy declares the United States to be “the watchmen on the walls of world freedom” and was to address interventional and containment strategies. One paragraph in particular underscored the relation between rhetoric and action in geopolitics:

I realize that this Nation often tends to identify turning-points in world-affairs with the major addresses which precede them. But it was not the Monroe Doctrine that kept all Europe away from this hemisphere—it was the strength of the British fleet and the width of the Atlantic Ocean. It was not General Marshall’s speech at Harvard which kept Communism out of Western Europe—it was the strength and stability made possible by our military and economic assistance.

Had JFK been able to speak to his audience, one wonders what other memorable phrases his oration might convey. It’s difficult to imagine how far rhetoric has atrophied and one wonders if any crowd would be held respectfully rapt at attention. With so much emphasis on the faulty metrics of GDP—gross domestic product—and how much misplaced esteem that carries it the eyes of others, I came across another set of remarks and while presented to an audience gathered at the University of Kansas four years later—the words seemed yet rarefied and a stranger to the geopolitics of today. Our well-being and good will is still prone to be subsumed with the struggle. Campaigning Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy spoke with aspiration that the wealth and attention gap that threatens to pull the country asunder can be remedied and redressed. Here’s a short selection, with “our Gross National Product, now, over eight hundred billion dollars a year” being a refrain throughout the speech:

I think we here in this country, with the unselfish spirit that exists in the United States of American, I think we can do better here also.

I have seen the people of the black ghetto, listening to ever greater promises of equality and of justice, as they sit in the same decaying schools and huddled in the same filthy rooms—without heat—warding off the cold and warding off the rats. [The preamble of the presentation discussed the abject poverty he witnessed in rural Mississippi and on Native American reservations.]

If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America.

And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year. But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction—purpose and dignity—that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over eight hundred billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product–if we judge the United States of America by that—that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.