To what do we aspire?

March 14, 2011

I recently watched the "Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964" segment of the PBS documentary "Eyes on the Prize." Besides the music taking me back to my earlier years, I was struck by the participants' use of language: inspirational language of the kind we don't often hear -- or seem to use -- anymore.

In this segment, Ella Baker, talking about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), says this: "The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party is only beginning. And it is beginning on the basis that it believes that a political party should be open to all of the people who wish to subscribe to its principles."

Ms. Baker clearly states the MFDP's values. She uses inspirational language, the language of freedom and aspiration: "open to all of the people who wish to subscribe to its principles." She uses words that imply a choice and a greater goal or good that a person can aspire to.

These values of freedom, aspiration to a good greater than oneself and the language used to convey conviction -- backed up by one's actions -- have stayed with me, and I wonder what the values of the United States, as a country, are at this point in time.

What do we aspire to be? Are we the country we believe ourselves to be? Are we living out our values through our actions; i.e., are we backing up our rhetoric by living what we say? Who do we want to be in 10 years? Fifty? Do we aspire to be a good citizen of the world, or are we just out to impose what we want on others?

I look at Congress, and I wonder where are the leaders who put the good of the nation first. When the stated primary goal of the Republican Party is to make sure that President Obama will not be re-elected, what does that say about the values we aspire to as a nation? When the House of Representatives proposes $61 billion in cuts -- much of that to programs that serve poor and at-risk populations -- what does that say about the value we place on those who have the least? When the Democrats acquiesce in prolonging the Bush-era tax cuts for the super-rich at the expense of our country, what does that say about the value we place on those who have the most and on the needs of the nation?

Many of our states are facing bankruptcy. Civility and respect for others have deteriorated into an "us" against "them" mentality. Is this really the sum of our aspirations for who we want to be?

Watching "Eyes on the Prize," I am struck by the integrity and authenticity of those who participated in the Freedom Summer. They were acting out of their deeply held conviction -- and knew they could be killed for it. They did it anyway.

It's time to re-evaluate the values of our country. It's time to assess who we are as a people and as a nation. It's time to be honest about who we are and what our bedrock values are. Our role in the world is changing and we will not meet it well without the integrity and authenticity of who we understand ourselves to be, which is based on the values we hold as a nation.

We have come together in our past, not as persons of a particular political affiliation, but as Americans, putting the good of our nation before self-interest. Let us do so again now, in order to articulate the values and aspirations of our time.

I was 3 years old when President Kennedy gave his inaugural address and 6 when he was shot. His articulation of our country's values at the time, the sense of idealism, shared sacrifice and our country's call to work together with the nations of the world have endured and inspired generations. Particularly now, his inaugural address is worth re-reading. President Kennedy famously gave a charge to the people of this country: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

Few remember how his inaugural address ends: "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.

"Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."

Do we still aspire to these same high standards and values?