Making Fascism Fashionable with John F. Kennedy
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country…”
—John F. Kennedy
Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy, in his 1961 inaugural address delivered one of the greatest speeches of all time. It simply was and is one of the most ambitious and memorable speeches of the 20th century. Whatever your feelings on JFK—philanderer, speed-freak, bellwether, prince of Camelot—the appeal of his inaugural address is readily apparent. Its lofty language holds the promise of a new and better future into which America will be the world’s leader.
Even today it’s hard not to be swept away in the emotion of JFK’s address. Unlike Obama’s 21st century conciliatory inaugural address, Kennedy’s words were brash and challenging. Never mind the absurdity of someone such as JFK asking average Americans to sacrifice for their country, when he, the penultimate silver-spooner, arrived in the White House thanks more to his father’s wealth and connections than his own talent or drive.
Lost in the noisy response surrounding Kennedy’s call to service was not just Jack’s perhaps hypocritical past, but also lost was room for dissent. In just a few sentences, Kennedy helped convince us that we were one country with one aim and that aim would be reflective of his administration’s ramp up of the U.S.military-industrial complex. And most importantly he made the nation feel good while doing it.
The economist Milt Friedman suggested that, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” is emblematic of Fascism both in its paternalism and its assault on healthy dissent. On this issue at least, I won’t disagree with the deceased.
Fascism as defined here is simply the elevation of the state above the individual. Under that definition, “Ask not…” clearly meets the established criterion. But it does so in an insidious way. Kennedy’s most famous lines are used as an exhortation to young people to join the Peace Corps or Americorps—both of which, regardless of politics, can be agreed upon as a positive thing—but the insidiousness of the premise lies in the way the phrase is used to cudgel dissent.
In his inaugural address, JFK was preemptively attacking dissent, suggesting that one who is not for the “country,” which in this case is intended to mean the Kennedy administration, must be against it, or not “for it.” To argue that the state has interests is a bastardization of precepts fundamental to the American republic. The people elect a government to represent their interests, and grant said government the authority to enact good faith measures in accordance with their interests. Therefore the state’s interests can only be for the people. As Friedman pointed out, asking what one can do for his country in a democracy implies that the country is in effect a “master.” and the individual a “servant.” As Friedman put it:
To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshipped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.
Since Kennedy’s address, we’ve moved further away from the notion that government is an instrument of the citizens’ interest rather than something whose worth must continually be questioned. Last decade, under both Bush and Obama the U.S. (which has come to mean its government administration) has continually dictated the terms to its own citizens. In effect the relationship between the government and those who elect it has become some sort of bizarre alternate world where hostage dictates the terms to its kidnappers despite their control over its continued existence.