John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Honorable words that were meant to unite Americans and reawaken our national pride and love for country embedded in the soul of every person who enjoys the liberties extended to all who call America their home.
Sadly during the past 56 years, the content and spirit of those words have been ignored by many of us who have opted to alter and interpret the exhortation for personal gain. An unacceptable number of leaders in both the public and private sectors of our economy have chosen to do so in order to accumulate wealth and consolidate power. Politicians and elected officials too often have blindly and subversively diminished one of the most admired quotations in history to, ‘Ask not what our country can do for you, ask what you can do for me.’
Since those who hold high offices in our land have been well compensated for their skewed interpretation, others among us have emulated their example to broaden power and increase their bottom line. Within the business sector of our economy corporate and small business leaders seem to have modified the wording to, ‘Ask not what our business can do for you, ask what you can do for our business.’ This skewed philosophy of unilateral loyalty has trickled down to all levels of America’s social structure in a further erosion of President Kennedy’s words, ‘Don’t ask me what I can do for my country, I want to know what my country can do for me.’
Unfortunately we have evolved into a society where a growing number of us seem to share a common thread. The privileged feel exceptionally entitled, as do increasing numbers of our citizens who depend on government services and benefits, some of whom have yet to contribute. Ironically, this pattern is occurring at a time when senior citizens, who have contributed to the economy their entire adult lives, see their right to entitlements threatened with reduction or complete elimination.
Surely President Kennedy did not envision a country of such selfishness and inequity. He did not dream of a land where the super rich, large banks and conglomerates could hijack the entire political process to expand their own influence and threaten the American Dream for a growing number of Americans. Nor could he have envisioned a country where lobbyists and special interest groups would turn Congress into panhandlers seeking money for massive campaign spending and personal wealth accumulation.
Power, greed, selfishness, corruption, apathy and overindulgence can destroy a nation as it has so many worthy empires of the past. As in any society, most working Americans are vulnerable to the whims of higher governing authority. But not since the era of the major barons of the industrial revolution has greed become such a dominant determining factor in governance. Current titans in the private and public sectors of our economy also reflect greed in their disregard for ethics, loyalty and work history. There is a diminishing regard for the contribution of long-term employees reflected in another version of the president’s words. ‘So, what can you do for me today?’
As a society we too often punish public and private employees who consistently accept responsibility because they are visible to authority and most often held to task. Sadly, we reward those who hide under the radar and function in their jobs only when it benefits them or when their contribution can be observed by superiors who can bestow rewards.
Yes, we are all pawns in a desensitized and seemingly rigged system, which has produced an elite class of bureaucrats, many of whom have little concern for their fellow man. However, whether we admit it or not, often it is our own greed that has made us as disposable as the “treasures” we seek to acquire in life.
We have allowed avarice, indifference, selfishness and apathy to replace generosity, empathy, concern and selflessness. Too many of us place our own concerns above those of our neighbors, our communities, even our country. We should be much better citizens and recognize that almost everyone is reaching for the American Dream.
It does not matter whether we are Republican, Democrat or Independent. Above all else we are Americans and should reflect on our shared history as an example of a diverse nation, which has lived through adversity and triumphs. We live in a nation which once held the admiration and respect of most other countries in the world. We will always have cynics and usurpers among us who pervert and manipulate our system. It is our responsibility to heed Kennedy’s words meant to inspire, and aspire to be honorable citizens and help to restore our image here and abroad.
As we celebrate this revered holiday think not of what separates us but of what unites us. Think of the men and women in uniform who gave their lives defending America and never sought to ask, ‘what their country could do for them.’ Pray for our service men and women who currently serve and only ask, ‘what can I do for my country?’ And, remember the many American families who have lost a loved one and the families of our “Wounded Warriors.”
President Kennedy gave us good advice in 1960, which still resonates in 2016. Let us recommit ourselves to our country and our values on this Fourth of July day and every day thereafter.