Subtlety and Equivocation

September 17, 2008

I think the issue most raised by reading John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” in the current political climate is the complication of subtlety and equivocation. Let me explain.

Folks who know me know that this past summer I read Barack Obama’s books, “Dreams from my Father”, written when he was leaving Harvard and before he was running for public office, and “The Audacity of Hope”, decidedly written in public office and, some argue, with a run for the presidency in mind. In these books, especially the first one, Obama offers a much more nuanced discussion of personal and social and even political issues than I think most of us are used to hearing, at least most of us who have come of age in the last one or two decades.

“Profiles in Courage” is even more nuanced and subtle.  I found myself taken aback by some of the things Kennedy was saying:

“I am convinced that the decline – if there has been a decline – has been less in the Senate than in the public’s appreciation of the art of politics, of the nature and necessity for compromise and balance, and of the nature of the Senate as a legislative chamber” (3).

At first, I noted this passage because I was offended. Of course a politician would say that it was our fault rather than that of the politicians. But then I realized how much my ear for political argument has been attuned by current political practice. This is a time when Mitt Romney won a Michigan primary by telling voters he would get their manufacturing jobs back, and John McCain lost it by saying, “Some jobs won’t come back”.  Which makes it clear that this is not only what politicians tell us, but also what we want to hear. Because it’s easier.

My initial reaction to Kennedy’s argument was based on my desire to have democracy be someone else’s responsibility, and that’s exactly where we’ve come and exactly what he’s arguing against.  Politicians won’t begin to treat us with any more intelligence until we require it from them. Unfortunately, recent events don’t indicate any change on the horizon.

But, we can always try to help ourselves. Reading “Profiles in Courage” has helped me with my ear for political discourse, so I’ll leave you with another passage:

“But this is no real problem, some will say. Always do what is right, regardless of whether it is popular. Ignore the pressures, the temptations, the false compromises.

“That is an easy answer – but it is easy only for those who do not bear the responsibilities of elected office.  For more is involved than pressure, politics and personal ambitions. Are we rightfully entitled to ignore the demands of our constituents even if we are able and willing to do so? We have noted the pressures that make political courage a difficult course –  let us turn now to those Constitutional and more theoretical obligations which cast doubt upon the propriety of such a course – obligations to our state and section, to our party and, above all, to our constituents” (10).

You mean, courage can actually mean different things at different times? It isn’t just being a maverick? Morality can be complex?

Whew. I don’t know if I can deal with that.

Kennedy, John F.  Profiles in Courage.  New York: Harper and Row. 1964.


One Response to “Subtlety and Equivocation”

  1. […] One that I was pleased to read because of how it took me aback and made me reconsider my own thinking… JFK’s Profiles in Courage. I talked about it here. […]

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