I hear a lot of talk about “American Exceptionalism” but I see little progress in living up to that promise. When I walk the streets in most American cities I see boarded up buildings, people sleeping on street corners, and neighbors turning against neighbors. At the same time, I see glistening buildings that touch the sky, opulent shopping, and clean sidewalks. This dichotomy is a manifestation of a slow rot eating away at the foundation of this great nation.
During times of national tragedy leaders, pundits, and others call for us to re-think old paradigms. This is no exception; I believe Saturday’s tragedy in Arizona has driven a wedge into our national consciousness and has given us a short window to address this duality and the violence that it represents.
This is not a time for politics. This is a time for mourning, reflection, and discourse. This tragedy was neither borne of cross hairs on Sarah Palin’s website, Glenn Beck’s rants, or even the Tea Party’s anger; nor can it be undone by simply mitigating our political rhetoric.
The actions of a lone gunman transcend politics and represent something far deeper and more insidious then any single action, statement, or speech by a self-aggrandizing politician or pundit. This tragedy originates from our country’s unwitting acceptance of violence, the scope of which ranges from children maiming their peers in our schools to the violence that originates from fear, hatred, and deception. Bobby Kennedy, in an address after the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr., speaks to this violence:
[It is] slower, but just as deadly… as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”
Our recent national discourse has focused on “toning down” our political rhetoric. While this would represent progress in American politics, it misses the fact that this nation has fostered an environment that allows fear, distrust, and hate to run rampant through our streets. Apathy, division, and acceptance create a climate where these ills can thrive, and it is incumbent upon each of us to change our own attitudes so that this sickness can no longer flourish. It is not easy to talk about the fact that America’s institutions are failing a vast majority of citizens. Nor is it easy to talk about the fear and distrust that has swept the nation over the last few years. There is neither an easy set of policy solutions, nor words that will allow the President and Congress to immediately undo the destruction that has been wrought over years of neglect. Bobby Kennedy suggested over 40 years ago that we must re-engage with one another:
[We must] remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.”
Kennedy offered us a roadmap and a plea, in the waning moments of his life, to recognize that “Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”
If our nation is to remain great, the wielders of force, fear, and hate must lay down their weapons and remember those who lost their lives in Tucson. In order to end the bloodshed and the slow decay of our society we must accept and recognize that regardless of interests, ideology, race, class, gender, or creed, that those with whom we share this time on earth are our human brothers and sisters. This is about ending the acceptance of violence in our country so that we can end injustice and live up to the promise of our great nation’s exceptional, and humble, beginnings.
Over fourty years ago Bobby Kennedy gave a speech about how we – as a Country – measure our worth. I think the ideas expressed in the speech are of value now more than ever. We currently live in a world where former institutions of American ingenuity are crumbling before our very eyes and people are losing their jobs and savings in the blink of an eye. It is now – more than ever – that we must remember that our worth cannot be measured by dollars and cents. Out true value comes from the strength of our relationships, our families, and our communities.
It is also time for us to remember that by pursuing puntative measures that we hurt ourselves. When we incarcerate individuals for long periods of time, criminologists and sociologists find that when the person released from prison that he or she is more dangerous than ever before. Punishment for the sake of justice is not justice at all. When we target bank executives hateful and slanderous remarks who benefits? When we legislate out of populist rage how does that impact the average citizen? It’s time for us – as a people – to come together and work through the current challenges that we face. We may not agree on every issue, but we can certainly reach out a hand to those who are struggling.
When you pass a serious car accident on the highway what do you do? Do you stop and ask the people what happened? Do you drive by without batting an eye? Or – do you call 9-1-1 for help?
This afternoon, in typical Sunday afternoon fashion I found something incredibly trivial to do with my spare time. So, my girlfriend and I went to redbox and rented Milk. It was a great movie, and somewhere in the middle Harvey Milk speaks about the words engraved in the pedastel of the Statue of Liberty. Below is the full poem, I wanted to post it because I think that it truly reflects not only my own ideals and values, but those of our Nation.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” —Emma Lazarus, 1883
The words “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” particularly strike me. She is not asking for the best of us, rather she seeks those with the least: she seeks those without education, food, money, shelter, or belongings. I fear that sometimes we – as a people – lose sight of these values. I fear that in the current economic climate that we will retreat into hostile populism and persecute those whom we assign some sort of ambiguous blame.
I fear that in the epitaph of human history that when historians look back to the United States of America that those words – engraved into the Statue of Liberty – will not ring true. It is with this fear in mind that I call on all of my contemporaries to demand statesmanship from those whom we’ve elevated to positions of authority and power. I propose that we demand our legislators to act as facilitators and mediators rather than mouthpieces for the lowest common denominator. Instead of telling or legislators how to vote or what they should do on AIG we should engage with them in a dialogue about the most prudent course of action. Let us find a way to include those of us who may lack in material posessions, but demonstrate a wealth of wisdom and compassion far beyond their educational attainment.
It is my sincere belief that it’s time for us – the electorate, the people – to demand that our representatives speak with us rather than to us. It’s time for us to stop quibbling about how we help those in need of substanance and simply do it. We, as a nation, must commit to one another. This will take time, energy, and struggle but I believe that unless we make the commitment now we will lose our soul in the process.
We have a choice, and it’s not just up to those who work in Washington. It’s up to each of us to re-define how we interact with each other, our government, and our institutions. The time has come for us to cease the talk and move into action. Change will not come without action, and action will not necessarily bring about change. Let us pursue those goals that reflect the poem above, let us take in the poor and the weak. Let us take in those who yearn to be free. Let us raise the torch of liberty higher than ever before for the whole of humanity to see. Let us humbly move forward and cease the frivolous bickering of ideology.
The cynical and those mired in the old paradigm will ask “How should do we do this?” My only response is as simple now as it was during the 1990s when Nike first coined the slogan, “Just do it.”
Much like the Pheonix – today – America rose from the ashes as we swore in a new President. Regardless of what you think of the eight Bush years America was – and is – ready for change. Bush’s approval ratings are some of the lowest of any outgoing President – ever. Congress also has a low approval rating right now in the wake of blatant scandal, atrophy, and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).
Today, with the swearing in of our 44th President – Barack Hussein Obama – Americans will finally have the opportunity to see hope and change in action. Throughout the entire day I’ve been hearing from the news, internet, blogs, etc about the historic significance of this event. Yesterday I blogged about my take on the historic context of today’s inauguration. In this entry I don’t want to focus on the historic significance of the event, rather I want talk about the significance of President Obama’s words.
President Obama’s twenty-minute address touched on a series of issues and clearly defined where our new President stands on the greatest issues facing us today. No, he did not lay out any specific policy perscriptions; what he did was attempt to transfer – to us – his vision of America. This speech was the culmination of important moments in his career dating back to when he first stole the spotlight at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In that speech Obama painted his worldview with broad brushstrokes – showing us that he believed in an untapped spirit of possibility and unity that was dormant at the time. In his “Yes We Can” speech he forecefully proclaimed that America was indeed ready to elect an African American President. At the nominating convention Obama cooly stared into the television cameras as he boldly invited his Republican counterpart to bring it on.
Today President Obama told us a little bit more about his vision of America. In the speech he challenged each of us to assume responsibility not just for ourselves but for each other and for the rest of the world. Obama appears to believe that what makes America special is our sense of shared purpose and faith in American ideals. To me, the most telling words of the morning came when Obama quoted George Washington:
At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:’Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].’
This speech indicates to me that Obama believes that in the depths of winter that we will move forward – as one nation – with a common purpose to preserve freedom and opportunity for all. Obama goes on to finish his inaugural by saying:
In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
Obama’s words are significant because they represent a call for renewal. In order to answer this call each of us must act – in our own way – to brave the icy currents of history by hobbling towards the ideals of freedom and equality of opportunity. We may never get there, but each step we take in that direction moves us closer to that ultimate vision that Jefferson glimpsed when he wrote:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Below you will find Obama’s inaugural address in its entirety. Click here for the transcript.
This post is in honor of three individuals whose purposes are connected and whose paths will cross tomorrow. This post is in honor of the MLK, RFK, and Barack Obama.
Nearly forty years ago Bobby Kennedy stood before an almost exclusively African American crowd in Indianapolis and informed them that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. You can see the video below and read the transcript by clicking here.
Now here we are on the fortieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death – the eve of the innauguration of the 44th President of the United States, and the first African American President. Nearly forty years ago Kennedy stood before a crowd and uttered the words:
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.
Forty years later that message has been resurrected by Barack Obama who proclaimed in his 2004 DNC convention speech (which you can watch below)
there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.
Barack Obama has sounded the call – yet again – for each of us to summon our better angels. He has summoned us to have love one another and to treat others as we want to be treated. He has summoned us to look at what unites us instead of what divides us. Obama appeals to a part of our humanity that no individual has been able to reach for forty years. Obama calls for each of us to “be the change we want to see in the world.” He calls us now to action because he knew as Kennedy did that:
Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.
King inspired a nation to Dream. Kennedy dared to bring that dream into reality. Now Obama stands upon the shoulders of all those who came before him poised to move King’s dream closer to reality. Tomorrow at noon Barack Hussein Obama will be sworn in as our 44th President. King’s Dream is still alive and we’re not there yet.
Funny how the conversation hasn’t changed all that much over the course of 70 or so years.
I want to start by thanking everyone for posting their feedback, questions, comments, concerns, etc on The Great Experiment post (below). If you’ve read it and have not posted please feel free to do so – this process of receiving feedback is really important to me.
I leave on a trip to Jordan (yes the country) on Saturday so I will not be updating as frequently between December 20 and 28. When I get back I will synthesize all of the feedback and then post what I have been hearing. Again – thank you and I’d like to leave you with a beautiful quote that I read yesterday. It is the opening of the Mayan creation story:
This is the account of how
all was in suspense,
and empty was the expanse of the sky.