If there is one icon that inspires me in my discoveries on For A State Of Happiness, it is Robert. F. Kennedy. In a way, this is a bit ridiculous. For a large part, my image of the man is based on an extract of barely 300 words in a speech delivered almost five decades ago. There must be leaders alive in our times who have something to say about the topic.
Robert F. Kennedy (or RFK) was the seventh out of nine children in the Kennedy family. He served as Attorney General is his brother John’s administration. After the murder of JFK, RFK was one of the most prominent members of the Democrats. In 1968, he ran for President.
JFK and RFK kept a joint diary with quotes that inspired them. Many of those are aphorisms from old Greek philosophers, like Plato. French writer Albert Camus was another favourite. I really like the idea and have started my own notebook. I imagine I can look back at the quotes in some years and be re-inspired by them.
In 1968, RFK was one of the candidates in the Democratic primaries for the position of President of the United States. On 18 March, he delivered a long speech at the University of Kansas. Amongst others, the speech talks about civil rights, inequality and the Vietnam war. But he (or his speech writer) also gave an extremely sharp critique of Gross Domestic Product. It has a central place in my own notebook, and I’d like to quote a full extract:
“And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year. But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.
Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
That was on 18 March 1968. What has happened next? The US went through a volatile time. Martin Luther King was murdered on 4 April. RFK had the same fate on 5 June. And the elections that year were won by the Republican Richard Nixon.
This month, it is 46 years ago that RFK died. Who knows what could have brought into motion if RFK had won the Presidency…?