Ask not what you can do for your country but what we can do for each other

I am thinking of the 77 year old Greek pensioner who took his life earlier today in Syntagma square, Athens.1 I am thinking of JFK’s 20th of January 1961 inaugural address speech where he uttered these well cited words: “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”2 The Greeks are not Americans. J.F. Kennedy in this inaugural speech was talking about a new world, where poverty, disease and injustice could be obliterated globally, “a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved”.3 And of course such a world could not be motivated into existence through this speech, nor does it exist.

The 77 year old Greek pensioner’s suicide letter, a testament to his stoicism, tells us of both the non-existence of a world of no poverty and indignation but also of the faith that hardworking generations have put into the idea of the state, and their pension and tax contributions. A faith in a future in retirement and in generations to come. The faith is fading away. This fading has faded away. The state or our countries have been obliterated by galloping capitalism. Lives have perished or are fading away. Or, certain more courageous and dignified individuals have taken their lives into their own hands. J.F. Kennedy’s motivational speech to the American people too, is obliterated.

Perhaps now is the time to ask ourselves: “Ask not what you can do for your country but what we can do for each other.” In a letter to her Spanish comrade in New York (18/11/1939), the anarchist Emma Goldman reflects on the spirit and camaraderie of the Spanish Anarchists during the Spanish Civil War:

“Yes, I think Our Spanish comrades are wonderful. In all fifty years of my activities I did not find in our ranks any other group of people so beautifully generous, so eager to give and to help. People laugh at me when I tell them that when one asks a Spaniard for a cigarette he gives you the whole package and is insulted if you do not take it. In all my life I have not met with such warm hospitality, comradeship and solidarity.”4

We know very well that the Spanish Civil War did not succeed. But neither has the image of the world that J.F. Kennedy imagined. Perhaps the difference between having lives fading away, taken away, perished, is the difference between giving a cigarette when a stranger asks for one or engaging in a conversation when your attention is demanded by a homeless person in the streets. I know very well that more needs to happen but sharing may be just the beginning — the beginning of a brave new world.

Elena Loizidou is Senior Lecturer in Law at Birkbeck, University of London

1. http://rt.com/news/greece-suicide-218/
2. http://www.famousquotes.me.uk/speeches/John_F_Kennedy/5.htm
3. Ibid.
4. Porter, D. (ed) Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution (Edingburgh, Oakland, AK Press: 2006) p. 50.

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