By Dorcas sarkozy
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” – JFK Jan. 20, 1961
I cannot recall a line from an inauguration speech by an American president that has garnered more ink (or pixels) than the line above from John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s (JFK’s) January 20, 1961 address to the nation. Similarly, I cannot recall a line from an inauguration speech that has been taken out of context or cited selectively than it.
Those twenty-two words were part of a one thousand three hundred and seventy-five (1,375) worded address that lasted all of fifteen minutes and some odd seconds have become a staple of supporters of governments or institutions susceptible but averse to criticism – for a host of reasons – some valid and others not-so-valid and/or gratuitous.
Somehow lost in the citation of this line – conveniently or otherwise – is the rest of the speech – before and after the famous/popular line.
Immediately AFTER challenging Americans to ask of themselves what THEY can do for their country, Kennedy offered the unifying “…..but what together we can do for the freedom of man” – “together” being the operational word.
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what TOGETHER we can do for the freedom of man.”
Kennedy ended his speech with words that most Kenyans (and the leaders) who quote the line at the beginning of this post would consider an anathema coming from those who hold diametric views in the country’s body politic:
That whatever sacrifice an individual chooses to make should NOT be driven by some expected payoff or quid pro quo upon its completion, but “……with a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds…..”
Show me a Kenyan – citizen or leader – who does the right thing, makes a sacrifice on behalf of their fellow citizen – BECAUSE their conscience drives them to do so and BECAUSE they believe that the arc of the moral universe will EVENTUALLY bend in their favor and I will show a rarity amidst our rabid dog-eat-dog society.
Very few Kenyans (indeed humans) act out of pure altruism – present company INCLUDED – even as I know that I have and continue to aspire thus. The country isn’t amongst the most corrupt society in the world without reason.
The assassinated POTUS goes on to urge his countrymen and countrywomen to “lead…..the land they love, asking God for His blessing and for His help…..knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
What’s the saying – that “Malipo ni hapa hapa Duniaini”?
That’s exactly what JFK said in the same speech – that the payoff (for doing the right thing) is right here in this physical life – not in some abstract construct and/or afterlife as some “Christians” oftentimes prefer to proffer even as they enjoy the physical and material trappings of their “blessings”.
This line in the speech must be a shock to purveyors of “thoughts-and-prayers” whenever their fellow citizen is in need of assistance; whenever policy proposals that favor a minority are being debated and enacted legislatively – much to the detriment of the muted or powerless majority.
And about one-third of the way through the speech, few seem to remember Kennedy’s imploration on behalf of “those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery…..”; everyday people (voters) who only matter when their votes are being sought after i.e. “because we (politicians a la JFK) seek their votes”. Now where have we seen this before and even worse, where have we seen those living in squalid conditions i.e. in “huts and villages” while struggling to eke out a living circle the wagons for politicians they know don’t care about them?
The fact is that some of the very people officiously quoting the late 35th President of the United States and other dead black (Thomas Sankara, MLK, Malcolm X etc.) and white JFK, Abraham Lincoln, Socrates, Plato etc.) public figures are seemingly oblivious to yet another line from Kennedy’s ’61 speech:
That a society incapable of helping its “…..many who are poor (ultimately)….. cannot save the few who are rich”.
You’ve been forewarned.