Words that echo

I recently came across a speech delivered by Robert F. Kennedy at the Univeristy of Kansas in March 1968.  The following quote from that speech struck me as almost eerily relevant to the situation in which the United States currently finds itself.  I would add that if you changed just a few words, a few place names, it could just as aptly apply not to one nation, but to the world, to humanity as a whole.

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 $800 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.

Recent and ongoing upheavals lay bare the cold facts of monetary wealth: it is precarious, fleeting.  But in its presence and absense alike, life does and must go on.  The constant, foundational aspects of reality remain unmoved.  Perhaps this, then, is the perfect time to question our focus, our values, our goals.  What matters?  What do we care about?  What are we doing about it?

I don’t quite know what else to say, except that these words moved me, and seemed like something the world needs to hear — needs to hear at any time, really, but perhaps especially right now.


~ by h.e.g. on October 18, 2008.

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