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What You Can Do For Your Country

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Message Larry Sakin
In 1961, America was divided, its citizens torn by fears of war. To address this fear, newly elected President John F. Kennedy made a plea to the American people: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Forty years later, after America suffered an attack by foreign terrorists for the second time, President George W. Bush told the American people that everything was under control and to go shopping.

The vast chasm between these two messages indicates how much our country has changed in the last fifty years. For the most part, we're no longer a people willing to sacrifice, sticking our necks out for the common good of our families, our neighbors and ourselves. It's among the reasons why the US is so incredibly dysfunctional. We continuously put our nation's problems in the hands of incompetent and greedy politicians, wait, and repeat the process. Eventually we get fed up, as we did recently in the 2006 midterms, take a 'throw the bums out' attitude, and vote in more bunglers whose self interest comes before the needs of the people.

This is not the model our Constitutional fathers set up for us. Their vision was to have an active electorate, participating in their communities, making them stronger and acting as the last defense against potentially tyrannous rulers from outside of the country and within. So while we have some time before the contestants in the upcoming 2008 Presidential horserace are announced, I'm urging you to take the words of President Kennedy above to heart, and apply yourselves to the needs of your community. Don't wait for the politicians to do something; they don't give damn about you and your problems. Don't be satisfied just to carry a picket sign and smile for the TV news cameras when they come around. Getting your ideas across is a good thing, but in the endless blather that television promotes, you can be assured your words will be lost.

What I'm saying is get off your duff and get your hands dirty. Are you pissed off because of the lack of government action in New Orleans? Take some of your vacation time, go down there and make a difference in the lives of people who've suffered tremendous loss. I don't care if you only spend a day or two there. Both you and the people whose lives are ruined will grow as a result of your actions. Do you want to see a more progressive agenda in your state legislature? Work with local progressive organizations to form ballot initiative to address those concerns, and be available to carry petitions to be signed. Be vocal at meetings in your city. If the town leaders are doing stupid things, don't wait for them to magically change their stripes. Do everything you can to make their waste and abuse known to your fellow citizens. Back candidates in your town that truly have the people's interests at heart. If need be, run for local offices yourself. If that seems too scary, volunteer your time at a local library and read to kids. And believe it or not, it's vital when you're called to jury duty that you serve. The old joke about juries is that they're twelve people too dumb to get out of jury duty. But think of it this way-if you're unjustly accused of a crime, who would you want to serve on your jury?

And don't tell me you can't make a difference. Average people just like you have been making a difference for years in this country. Dorothy Day was a journalist before founding The Catholic Worker newspaper and subsequently the movement that provides social services to thousands of underprivileged people. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was just a Baptist pastor before he reluctantly became involved in changing Jim Crow laws in the South that allowed Rosa Parks to be arrested. It was injustice that motivated both Day and King and we all know there is enough injustice around these days to motivate millions of average citizens. Your only limitations are your imagination and your own fears of being different and bucking current conventions.

So stop expecting the power structure to do anything for you and do it for yourselves. If you care about your kid's education, run for the school board. If you're sick to death of corporations running our country, start a state initiative to curb their influence on your leaders. John F. Kennedy didn't implore us to ask what we can do for our country just because it was a catchy phrase. It was a clarion call, heeded by millions who knew change was an imperative, and now change is an imperative again. Except we have to break away from the endless distractions of our modern world and focus on creating the communities we want to live in.

You can give your power away or you can use it against those who wish to abuse you. The choice you make is the key component in how our nation functions.
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Larry Sakin is a former non-profit medical organization executive and music producer. His writing can be found on, Blogcritics, OpEd News, The People's Voice, Craig's List and The Progressive magazine. He also advocates for literacy and (more...)
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