Saturday, November 20, 2010

Celebrating November 22

Monday is November 22. That month with that date next to it always appears as dark, sad, searingly so. It is the date which needs no explanation to almost anyone who lived through it and, amazingly, of little significance to everyone else. It is the date on which Everything Changed.

People who missed the brief Kennedy administration often think that those of us whose political awakening took place then, tend to romanticize the era or the President. Others feel that by discussing his personal failures or even a few political ones, they can bring a perspective to the period that many of us are said to deny.

Both miss the point. What the Kennedy administration means are not its accomplishments, though there were many, including the prevention of nuclear annihilation. Is there anyone who thinks that the Cuban missile crisis would have ended the way it did had Richard Nixon been seated in the White House in October, 1962?

Though saving the planet was a good day for him, and us, the President told us on the day he took office that what we were undertaking was not something that could be measured simply by day to day accomplishments:

All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

President Kennedy stood, for so many of us, for a new way of thinking about this country and our place in the world. That was his lasting legacy and it survives in our dwindling number despite the assault on its underpinnings from the moment Richard Nixon took the office, through the disgrace of the the Bush-Cheney period which presented an image of this country directly opposite from that of President Kennedy.

Yes, the Kennedy administration was about romance; and what is wrong with a romantic view of our place in the world? What is wrong with with setting this as a goal?

and if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.

We could achieve real greatness, he told us, but not by watching him wrestle with Congress:

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need--not as a call to battle, though embattled we are-- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"--a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.

Many Americans have been brainwashed by the cynicism that settled on our country when, in the extremism of the time, with echoes of newspaper columnists, and other political commentators in print and broadcast media, calling the President a traitor, suggesting that members of the Supreme Court be hanged, and threatening violence, Lee Harvey Oswald did what others talked about.

But it was not just on inauguration day that President Kennedy spoke to our better angels:

What is the issue which divides and arouses so much concern? I will take a case which may be typical, a family which may be found in any part of the United States.

The husband has worked hard all his life and he is retired. He might have been a clerk or a salesman or on the road or worked in a factory, stores, or whatever. He's always wanted to pay his own way. He does not ask anyone to care for him; he wants to care for himself. He has raised his own family, he has educated them--his children are now on their own.... He has twenty-five hundred or three thousand dollars in the bank. And then his wife gets sick--and we're all going to be in a hospital, 9 out of 10 of us, before we finally pass away, and particularly when we're over 65--now she is sick, not just for a week but for a long time. First goes the twenty-five hundred dollars--that's gone. Next he mortgages his house, even though he may have some difficulty making the payments out of his social security. Then he goes to his children, who themselves are heavily burdened because they're paying for their houses and they are paying for their sicknesses, and they want to educate their children. Then their savings begin to go.


We are concerned with the progress of this country, and those who say that what we are now talking about spoils our great pioneer heritage should remember that the West was settled with two great actions by the National Government; one, in President Lincoln's administration, when he gave a homestead to everyone who went West, and in 1862 he set aside Government property to build our land grant colleges.

This cooperation between an alert and Progressive citizen and a progressive Government is what has made this country great--and we shall continue as long as we have the opportunity to do so. ...

All the great revolutionary movements of the Franklin Roosevelt administration in the thirties we now take for granted. But I refuse to see us live on the accomplishments of another generation. I refuse to see this country, and all of us, shrink from these struggles which are our responsibility in our time. Because what we are now talking about, in our children's day will seem to be the ordinary business of government.


First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again. I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal.

Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions -- on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace; no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process -- a way of solving problems.

With such a peace, there will still be quarrels and conflicting interests, as there are within families and nations. World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor, it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. And history teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever. However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors. So let us persevere. Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable. By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all people to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly towards it.


The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?...

We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?...

We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame, as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right, as well as reality.

It is to the everlasting shame of our nation, that it took President Kennedy's death for the country to take the steps he said we must, but those steps led inexorably to the election, so many years later, of the next president who was a member of the Democratic President, but not for the south. The election of President Obama made it appear that we could resume the course set for us by President Kennedy, but the rot that had accumulated in our political system in the interim, with one president forced to resign and another impeached, has brought us to a point where a new Kennedy administration seems well beyond out reach, while the evil noise that killed him has come raring back.

But there is reason for hope; there has to be. The muse named Regina Spektor will issue a live album and DVD on November 22, meaning that, for the first time in memory, this blogger will not dread the date. A ghost she has conjured up tells us (though not on the CD/DVD to come out this week) that

people are just people
they shouldn't make you nervous
the world is everlasting, it's coming and it's going
if you don't toss your plastic
the street won't be so plastic

and, in the same song, that

well maybe you should just drink a lot less coffee
and never ever watch the ten o'clock news (especially Fox)

which seems like a good idea, except that we have a president who says things such as

We welcome all the time championship sports teams to the White House to celebrate their victories. I thought we ought to do the same thing for the winners of science fairs and robotic contests and math competitions -- because those young people often don’t get the credit that they deserve. Nobody rushes on the field and dumps Gatorade on them -- (laughter) -- when you win a science award. Maybe they should. (Laughter.)

So I got to meet these incredibly talented and enthusiastic young men and women. There was a team of high school kids from Tennessee that had designed a self-powered water purification system....

The last young person I spoke to was a young woman from Texas -- she was 16 years old. She was studying biology as a freshman, decided she was interested in cancer research, so taught herself chemistry during the summer; then designed a science project to look at new cancer drugs, based on some experimental drugs that are activated by light. They could allow a more focused treatment that targets the cancer cells while living, healthy cells remain unharmed.

She goes on to design her own drug; wins the international science competition. And she told me that she and her high school science teacher are being approached by laboratories across the country to collaborate -- (laughter) -- on this potential new cancer treatment. This is a true story -- 16 years old, taught herself chemistry. Incredibly inspiring.

And at a time of significant challenge in this country -- at a moment when people are feeling so much hardship in their lives -- this has to give us hope for the future. It ought to remind us of the incredible potential of this country and its people -- as long as we unlock it; as long as we put resources into it and we celebrate it and we encourage it, we embrace it.

so, yeh, let us begin.

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