Common sense is not so common. ~Voltaire

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Real American Dream

Today, many people in the U.S. are honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In light of this, and in combination with the recent Tucson tragedy, it is apropos to remember another who forever remains intimately connected to both—Robert Francis Kennedy, assassinated shortly after Dr. King, as well as his friend and supporter. Dr. King spoke of equality, justice, and freedom; Mr. Kennedy spoke of peace, compassion, and strength. It’s time to take an honest look at where this society stands today in terms of what they tried to achieve.

Dr. King said:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.
It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day out on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state sweltering with the heat and injustice of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Mr. Kennedy said:
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.

We have achieved but minor successes in all these. Discrimination still rears its ugly head, people are still judged by their appearances, or what they have, instead of their characters, our children’s health continues to decline, and surely no one would argue that the integrity of our public officials has improved. It is a depressing fact that  their words ring quite true more than 40 years later, but surely we have progressed some small bit, haven’t we?

America in the 1960s was a society suffering from an identity crisis. We were crashing back into reality after the relative prosperity we enjoyed after the end of WWII, but more importantly, no longer were we a country made up of idealistic citizens contentedly pursuing the American dream. Instead, this era had seen the rise of another war, countercultures and subcultures, the hippie movement, the feminist movement, and the civil rights movement; increasingly, we splintered off into groups defined by our reactions to the status quo. Some actively rejected it, others sought to change it, and still others clung doggedly to it. Differences of opinions, beliefs, and ideologies were inevitable, but, too often, they were accompanied by violence, which ultimately put both men in premature graves, and continues unabated to this day. It could even be argued that our differences today are more pronounced, more divisive, and more hate-filled than in previous times. Why?

This particular form of violence is not a result of our freedoms in this country, as the Russian reporter so erroneously opined. Neither is it the result of lax gun control laws. It is a characteristic of a society that has yet to realize its potential; a desperate act perpetrated by a person who mistakenly believes that the death of one person can change the world; that it can obliterate what that person believed in, represented, and hoped for, on more than simply a personal level.

Equality, justice, freedom, peace, compassion, strength—all these are noble pursuits indeed, and truly, a common thread runs through them all—hope that all these things can be realized. Dr. King and Mr. Kennedy not only had hope, they also inspired it in every generation since. In the face of tragedy, desperation, and death, this is where our salvation and comfort lies—the knowledge that one person’s death cannot destroy their vision of what should be the real American dream.

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