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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You, Demand It!

It was the American president, John F. Kennedy, who said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Those words have echoed for a generation. They are clever, and sound right, but are they?
Way back at the time of the Magna Carta in England, a group of noblemen rose up against their government, demanding it pay attention to the needs and rights of the citizenry. At the time, the King was the government. He made all the rules and the people had no alternative but to obey, lest they be imprisoned or worse. In fact, all the people were expected to do for their country, and the government was beholden to none. The King could do whatever he wanted.
Similar events occured in other countries, such as France. Many centuries later, in the American colonies, it was the same story all over again. When the colonists complained their government, led by King George, was ignoring them, not allowing fair representation, and ruling without regard for their rights, they too rose up. They were in fact demanding the government “do for them” and were quite sick of “doing for their country” while their country did nothing for them. In the end they formed their own country, a country that was “for the people, by the people.”
This latest slogan, in the years since, has become the founding phrase for democracies all around the world. It seems to fly in the face of what JFK said. In fact, democracy, at its core, is founded on the notion that a country, and its government, must do for its people, not the other way around!
Yesterday I was in a cafe where I overheard the young server complaining about people who are forever expecting their government to do for them. Its a common complaint. Anyone who is expecting their government to help them out is somehow a welfare bum, a miscreant, a ne’er do well. At least that’s what many of us have come to believe, but is it reality?
Seems to me the whole point of democracy is governence for the people, representing the people, by the people, not the other way around. Government, in the democratic system, is meant to represent the people against the power.
Today the corporations and the wealthy have replaced the king. And in democratic systems, the task of government is to balance the people’s interests against that power. Its the whole purpose of elections, to give the people a say in how they are treated by the power, and to keep the power in check. At least, that’s what is supposed to be going on!
Unfortunately, somehow, it is not what is going on. We have supposed democratic governments that spend the lion’s share of their time representing the interests of the power, corporations and industry, against the people. The current economic mess, and bailout plans, are a prime example. Banks, the auto industry, big corporations, the rich, are all being handed huge sums of the people’s money. Yet, if its even suggested that money should be going directly to the people, all of a sudden we hear cries of “socialism” as if it would be anti-democratic to help the people. Yet it is somehow okay to help the powerful!
Why is socialism okay for big corporations, but not for the people? Its a question no one can answer. We’re told its because the big corporatons create jobs, but all the evidence says otherwise. Every study ever done illustrates it is not the big powerful coroporations that create jobs, but small business! Small businesses run by the people are the primary sources of new jobs in every economy in the world. Big business is better known for cutting jobs, for moving jobs offshore, for polluting, for using tax lawyers to get around paying taxes, for reaping huge profits while cutting manpower. Yet our governments continue to bend over backwards to keep big business in business, while everyday people, and the businesses they operate, go under!
For all intent and purpose we’re back where we were when the noblemen launched their protest and created the Magna Carta. We’re in the same place France was, when the people stormed the bastille and overthrew their king. We’re in exactly the same place we were in the when the colonists climbed aboard the ships in Boston harbour and had themselves a tea party! Our government has become the servant of the rich and powerful and the mantra is: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” We’re being called upon to go along with the premise that we should ask nothing of our governors, and gracefully accept whatever they decree for us.
We’ve been here before and it is not too difficult to imagine what will happen next. The king must capitulate or lose his head!
As much as I’ve been taught to honour the memory of John F. Kennedy, and I have, his creed reads more like golden rule of Fascism than Democracy! And it shouldn’t be a matter of asking what our government can do for us! The point is, the government, in a democracy, should be doing for us without us having to ask!
Perhaps we all need to ask what our country has done for us of late, before we go blindly asking what we can do for it. Our governments have stood by idly while we lose our jobs, while our health and educations systems deteriorate, while our houses are forclosed on, while our young men and women are sent off to fight unwinnable wars, while our environment is driven to the brink of disaster, while we pay more and more and more, for less and less and less!
No, JFK had it backwards. We should be demanding our country do for us what it is supposed to be doing for us. And if it doesn’t, then we owe it to both ourselves and our country to do the one thing we can do for our country! That is the thing the nobles did in England, the peasants did in the Bastille, and the colonists did in Boston. If our country won’t do for us, then we should change it!
Ask not what your country can do for you, demand it!

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