Did I hear that right? “What is this country going to do for me?”
This is my first blog. When writers blog, it’s usually about writing. I’m electing today to write about character instead of characters.
It was January of 1961 when JFK spoke during his inaugural address, “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” The simple message is probably Kennedy’s most remembered. Quoted and taught in schools ever since, Kennedy was speaking to a nation mired in a cold war turning hot in southeast Asia, beset by a beleaguered and volatile economy, and in violent turmoil over civil rights. The citizen listened and was inspired.
Of course, our problems didn’t disappear. The cold war escalated and dragged on, the economy crept forward, and civil rights issues burden us to this day. Kennedy’s words perhaps didn’t transform the country. What they served was to kindle resolve in Americans from all strata and walks of life. With initiative and pride, the nation answered the departed president’s challenge and Americans walked on the surface of the moon. A “small step” perhaps but America’s confidence in itself and the American Way of Life was restored.
Now, half a century later at a town hall event in California, a woman says, “I’m asking what the country can do for me.” Her words are received with cheers and applause. The words resonate around the room. No one questions the sentiment. No one asks who is this mysterious ‘country’ bearing largess and bounty. A few perhaps, ponder the twisting of Kennedy’s words. How, in five decades, has our national character become so enfeebled the antithesis of the young President’s words can be received with cheers and applause? The American character has undergone a terrible transition.
During Kennedy’s term, the social ills of racism were coming to the fore and another man, Martin Luther King, spoke eloquently of being judged on the content of character. King was speaking of his children and of the future but his words should be applied to our national character as well. What display of character is evidenced by a society grown dependent upon government? This does not nurture character; it suborns it to the point where the recipient will surrender all to secure and advance continuing provision of benefits from faceless government agencies. Eventually, simple existence is considered sufficient evidence of “what you can do for your country”.
Granted, times are tough, jobs are scarce and no country could call itself great by denying a hand up to those going through a rough streak. Contrarily, no country can thrive by perpetual paternalism to its citizens. We cannot continue to grow the rolls of those on welfare with great swaths of families receiving food stamps and school breakfast lunch and dinner. This assassinates character development through generations. It is no kindness and no way to survive as a culture. The Roman Empire perished and Great Britain provides contemporary parallels to the ancients.
Martin Luther King’s memorial was dedicated this week. Kennedy is barely remembered. Today both men would weep for what has become of their countrymen. We should have learned then. If we had I could be writing about fiction instead of bemoaning a national pride off the rails.