Ask not…

It’s been forty seven years since John F. Kennedy said, in his inaugural address: “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” In that time so much has changed in this country, but at our best I think we’ve retained a core belief that hard serious work and a spirit of pulling together can make the world a better place for all.

In the last eight years this core belief has been buried. Our government has asked nothing from us other than to consume. Such disasters as the attack on the World Trade Center, the devastation wrought by Katrina, and other tragedies around the world such as the horrific tsunami that hit Thailand on December 26 2004 were followed not by a call from our government to rise to the occasion, to jump in and contribute our time and efforts, but rather a strange sort of spiritual void. If we were told anything, it was to shop more.

I think that this is relevant as we examine the two presidential campaigns, and how the populace has responded to them. McCain’s message is oddly dispiriting. When not engaged in oddball lunacy like trying to tie Obama to the Weather Underground, his focus is almost entirely on faulting Obama for the phrase “Spread the wealth”. And that’s where McCain’s strategy misses the mood of the country.

We’ve all just gone through a strange period of time where the encouragement of unbridled greed, a government policy that smiled upon go-for-broke lust for wealth at all costs, has led – literally – to the bankrupting of our entire system of capital flow. And in the midst of this mess McCain is building his message around the anti-tax symbol of “Joe the Plumber”.

But what does that symbol really represent? Rather than reinvesting our wealth in new Joe the Plumbers, citizens trying to build up their small businesses and contribute to our GNP and national competitiveness, McCain’s example seems to encourage an “I’ve got mine Jack” message of everyone for themselves. The image of America he’s projecting seems to be a pack of jackals fighting over the last scraps of food.

Obama’s message, on the other hand, seems to be that of a kind of corporate CEO who wants to reinvest in order to build up the corporate wealth. Encourage new businesses, give tax breaks to the small entrepreneurs just starting out, use the revenue base to help develop new economic centers of growth. And he points out that this kind of plan is only effective if it’s long term. We need to invest in education – and also adequate health care for those kids we’re educating – because not to do so is tantamount to eating your seed corn.

It’s the message that any sensible leader conveys – and that Kennedy phrased so eloquently in 1961. Fundamentally people don’t want to be jackals. It’s a sickly, ugly feeling to realize that for the last eight years your government has been encouraging you to trade away your humanity, your core sense of decency and interconnectedness with your countrymen, for a temporary illusion of fiscal security. More calls to naked greed and selfishness are the last messages that America is in the mood to hear right now.

While McCain’s message fails to connect, Obama’s message succeeds because it is sensible, and fundamentally it fits the American ethos. Collectively we direct our tax money – and our time in volunteering for public service – not to create some sort of blind senseless socialism, but as a kind of cooperative capitalism in which we increase our pool of productive citizens, and the collective well-being of those productive citizens. This is what America does best, and it’s about time we got back to it by putting in the real work – the hard work – that we know we are capable of.

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