Wednesday, March 12, 2014

If a Free Society Cannot...

I'm in the midst of Parting the Waters: American in the King Years 1954-63, which is a truly fantastic book that I highly recommend.  It was around MLK Day of this year that I realized I had never read a biography of Dr. King and that this was someone I wanted to know more about.  Interestingly enough (and apparent from the title), Parting the Waters is not necessarily a biography.  The book is a review of "America in the King Years".  Civil rights is in the fore-front amongst similarly divisive issues such as war and peace, communism, gay rights, and good ole Republican/Democrat rope-pulls.

I just finished the part about the 1960 election and JFK's remarkable 1961 inaugural address:

"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." 
- John F. Kennedy

I read that line over a few times.  I had seen it before, but it touched directly on an issue I've been thinking about near constantly in the course of this campaign: what ownership do we take in the society we create?  Kennedy is a good person to remind us of this debate, since as recently as last November Republicans were arguing that he was really "one of them"

It seems to me there are three ways we can look at this:

1) I participate in society;
2) I am a part of society; or
3) I am society.

Each represents a varying degree of ownership and responsibility for the society we enable, foster, and promote.  If a mentally disabled adult sleeps outside due to inadequate social services, we own it.  If a child graduates high school without the ability to read, we did it.  If we spend the remaining years of our generation driving the planet further toward destruction before turning the keys over to our children, we are culpable.

But there are strong voices weighing against collective responsibility and not without reason.  They believe a strong society rests on "personal responsibility" and "independence".  To paraphrase John Lennon, these individuals would say "Society is something that happens to you while you're busy making other plans."  They are firmly in the "I participate in society" camp.  While often characterized as heartless, those who subscribe to this ideology are empathetic to the plight of others, but do not believe collective action, and especially not "government", can cure those ills.

Kennedy's 1961 Inaugural Address is known as one of the best of its kind because it inspired people:

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. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.  

But it came up short.  As Kennedy spoke, lunch counters, malls, and movie theaters were segregated.  There is not one mention of segregation in that speech.  As Kennedy spoke, registrations for black voters were being "lost" and poll taxes were still being used in four states.  There is not one mention of voting rights in that speech.

It seems that the first step in taking ownership of our society is to identify what conditions we find unacceptable.  If this is going to be a goal of our society, we will need to include the voice (and interest) of those who "participate in society", even if their buy-in is not complete.  We should choose our goals "not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!