The protests of the Sixties were supposed to transform society and given the reality of the most legitimate claims of the Occupy Wall Street crowds, that's hardly happened. Gaps between rich and poor continue to grow, larger numbers of Blacks and Latinos are impoverished and incarcerated, and we're still fighting wars with unclear goals and no guaranteed results.
On the other hand, the slow churn of progress, incremental and dull as a pre-Apple computing system, slogs along. Heads get bashed in on the streets of our nation in order to raise consciousness about racism. Then Civil Rights laws get written, re-written, negotiated, passed, and only then, enforced. Constitutionally mandated guarantees of equality for women, gays and lesbians has followed a similar path. The years of work that went into passing gay marriage laws in New York State this past year, for anyone who was involved, was about working with the levers of government and the law in order to bring this into reality.
Now that this fundamental human right has been resolved in our state and is slowly moving toward becoming a universally accepted human right in all states--that is to say, the fundamental human right to love whomever you want and build a family with that person--we might step back and reflect on the fact that the greatest legislative achievement of the last thirty years (since passing civil rights guarantees for minorities and women) is about "individual rights," in perfect harmony with the classical reading of the opening of our nation's Declaration of Independence.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."We might approach these words with skepticism, especially since at the most fundamental level, they guarantee nothing but that you and I are endowed with an inherent equality to freely live our lives as we want. It says nothing, this most famous of sentences of American history, about our obligations to one another. And while it's true that it needn't do so--after all, it's declaration of independence, of uniqueness, of individuation from a greater whole--embedded within it are the germinating seeds of an ethic of individuality that arguably is our very undoing as a nation.
"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." To my mind, this is the greatest line of rhetoric to come out of the Sixties, just at the beginning of that decade, because it is spoken by a veteran of the Second World War, conscripted with a sense of duty, and impelled to serve for the sake of a greater whole. I've long admired the prescience of that call to obligation. The war ended for more than a decade; America moving along a booming economic growth period; the military-industrial complex in full-swing; the suburbs expanding exponentially; the Cold War divisions looming, embers of McCarthyism still burning. When Kennedy and his speechwriter Ted Sorenson wrote his inaugural address, they sought to address a generational shift in American political life; the looming dangers of the Cold War; and the obvious disparities of justice and equality that remained at the core of the American political reality, one hundred years after Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural address. One hundred years later and major civil rights legislation had still not been passed.
That's how slowly history moves.
Within three years Kennedy would be killed and with that death, there was never again a national leader who could articulate the particular call to the citizens of the nation that service to country was an obligation, a privilege, an equalizing demand that we must make of one another in order to subjugate ourselves to a greater whole. Freedom without the obligation is chaos: millions of people doing what they want, where they want, when they want. It may be a good time. But it's no way to fix things.
I remember sitting in a restaurant with my dad the week I turned eighteen. I knew I had to register for the draft if I was to apply for the student loans I needed to pay for college. "I don't want to fight in any war that President Reagan decides I should fight in," I told my father, who then slowly and methodically laid to rest my assumptions, namely, that a volunteer army taxes the poor unjustly, removes from the obligation of service the privileged, the educated and the rich; and that the greater good for the nation is served when all share in the burden of responsibility. "Take the long view, son," he said. "I met guys in the Army I'd never have met in my whole life. In a nation as big as ours, it's the great equalizer."
I have been reflecting on that conversation a lot lately, most recently in the context of our broken politics, our uninspired leadership, and my own personal decision to choose a life of service--religious service--by attempting to lead a small corner of the Jewish community toward a greater sense of obligation and service to God and others. It's why by the time I turned twenty, with my student loans that I had secured in exchange for a draft registration that never came to be, I got into the religion racket and decided to become a rabbi. I still remember sitting in the stacks of the Hebrew University library on Mount Scopus, cutting class, reading Voltaire, and concluding, fatefully, that "we must cultivate our garden." For me, leadership and obligation would be enacted in a local community.
And now, nearly thirty years later, I see my country in an even deeper mess, with a volunteer army fighting a terrible war and an even greater disparity between rich and poor. And I have to wonder aloud: was the spiritual turn inward a betrayal of my obligation to nation? Or, can a religious community model in our day the very language of obligation that our nation so sorely needs?
Challenges I thought once resolved have returned.
That slow moving train of history rolls along. What did Simon the Righteous say? "The world stands on three things: Learning, Service, and Deeds of Loving Kindness." Elemental foundations of our historical and spiritual reality that have kept us in the game for more than 3000 years. America isn't even 300 years old--but I'd make the case that without Service, we're in deeper trouble than we think.