The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has brought forth a flood of books and documentaries.
On this Thanksgiving, what strikes me is the ideals JFK put forward in his Thanksgiving proclamations, and how different they are from today’s discourse in Washington, D.C.
Kennedy wrote in November of 1962 that
“It is fitting that we give our thanks for the safety of our land, for the fertility of our harvests, for the strength of our liberties, for the health of our people. We do so in no spirit of self-righteousness.”
Kennedy talks of giving thanks for the “health of our people.” The people’s health was of concern to him. Today, we have a vast disinformation campaign against the Affordable Health Care Act, a campaign aimed at ensuring that 40 million Americans remain without health insurance, at danger at any time of losing everything. Our liberties were enshrined in the Bill of Rights, which since 1962 has been more or less gutted. They are no longer strong. The Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches of our private papers and effects has been gutted by an out-of-control National Security Agency. Our freedom of speech is threatened by surveillance and dirty tricks, which has already induced self-censorship in many American authors. As for self-righteousness, it pervades the atmosphere on Capitol Hill.
“Let us renew that spirit by sharing the abundance of this day with those less fortunate, in our own land and abroad. Let us renew that spirit by seeking always to establish larger communities of brotherhood.”
There is nothing in Kennedy of the hatred of the foreigner or the punitive attitude toward the poor so prominent in the discourse of today. JFK wanted to see America’s bounty shared with the disprivileged not only in the United States but abroad. Nowadays, the Congress is obsessed with punishing the working poor and reducing government assistance for them, including food stamps. Mitt Romney revealed their thinking when he referred to the 47%, the portion of the population he said depends on government help. But that 47% includes Veterans, who deserve all the help they can get. It includes retirees, who paid into Social Security all their lives and are not getting a handout but their due.
We haven’t cared about the fate of the working poor, who make as little as $9000 a year despite all their labor, and who are food insecure. They need a raise in the minimum wage. That is how we would share the abundance. All the solid economic studies show that raising the minimum wage increases employment, since it draws people into the work force.
As for the poor abroad, what an outlandish idea JFK put forward. The US is outspent per capita on foreign aid by Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and even by Japan, Britain and Belgium. An urban myth circulates among the American public that foreign aid is a big item in the budget. It is not. We are not pulling our weight per capita in dealing with poverty.
“Let us renew that spirit by preparing our souls for the incertitude’s ahead–by being always ready to confront crisis with steadfastness and achievement with grace and modesty.”
We haven’t confronted the uncertainties we now face with “grace and modesty.” We have not risen to the challenge of climate change; rather, we have allowed the debate to be dominated by the multi-billionaires and their sock puppets. We haven’t confronted the crisis in health care with grace and modesty but rather with misrepresentations and false flags. We didn’t deal well with the 9/11 attacks, going off in our anger to strike an unrelated country, Iraq. The US public was manipulated into blaming Muslims in general, whereas it was the work of a tiny, extremist fringe.
JFK concluded with a hope that Thanksgiving might go global as a holiday:
Let us renew that spirit by concerting our energy and our hope with men and women everywhere that the world may move more rapidly toward the time when Thanksgiving may be a day of universal celebration.
Let us renew that spirit by expressing our acceptance of the limitations of human striving and by affirming our duty to strive nonetheless, as Providence may direct us, toward a better world for all mankind.
A better world for all mankind will require that we deal straightforwardly and expeditiously with climate change. It will require that we address hunger and vast inequality.
Kennedy thought that precisely because so many of us have so much to be thankful for, we should be compassionate toward and help the working poor. At the least, we should make sure that they aren’t bankrupted by an illness just because they don’t have insurance.
We can’t hope for a universal Thanksgiving Day until we honor the aspirations and values put forward by President Kennedy.