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posted: 11/22/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: What have you done for your country?

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  • President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1961, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

    President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1961, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
    AP File Photo

The Daily Herald Editorial Page

When you dream of a brighter future, is it a comfortable retirement you envision? A nicer car, a bigger house, top-notch colleges for your kids? Or do you dream of a brighter future for America?

President John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural speech famously invoked: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Fifty years after his assassination, that admonition remains worth exploring. Are we a people that puts country before self?

A half-century ago, we'd emerged from the foxholes of World War II and Korea, and Vietnam wasn't yet more than a faraway skirmish. But a burgeoning cold war with Russia and the space race it created demanded that we all pull our oars in the same direction.

Kennedy's words remain as recognizable as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and King's Dream speech. But how often do we truly reflect on them? How many of us can honestly say that -- short of paying our taxes -- we've done something for our country?

Perhaps we lack a singular direction; a common goal.

Economic threat can be as paralyzing as fear of foreign aggression. But it can be much more polarizing to a society.

We're just climbing out of the biggest economic downturn in generations. We're still recovering, rebuilding, protecting what we can. Acting in self-interest under these circumstances is understandable.

But in the long run, acting in self-interest alone does not promote the betterment of the country.

Yes, the United States was built on a foundation of capitalism. The notion that if you work hard, you get ahead; that if you start a business, you can turn a profit. But there is a difference between self-interest and self-absorption, between self-interest and greed.

Revolutionary patriot Thomas Paine wrote: "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."

Kennedy likely would have looked upon the prospect of today's information age as he did the moon landing that would come six years after his death -- with wide-eyed optimism for all the possibilities it holds.

But in many ways, something that should be bringing us closer together has the opposite effect. Too often we seek out and listen only to those with whom we agree and shun or even ridicule those with opposing viewpoints. In this new age of information, we should be opening our minds to new possibilities. Instead, we grow more insular, more cynical.

Today, let's shrug off that mantle of cynicism and ask ourselves in the context of our own lives and our own era, are we working together? What we are doing to help? What are we doing for others? What are we doing in a positive way to help our government help others?

Self-government is not a passive activity. Done right, it requires the committed and cooperative involvement of all of us.

If there's one thing the Kennedy legacy leaves us with, it's that.

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