Dreaming things that never were, and asking why not

Politics is very much in my mind these days. Barack Obama is the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton has just given her concession speech, and the 40-year anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination has just passed. On a personal note, I’m dealing with the painful awareness of not being a full member of this community, while I’m waiting for my pending citizenship case to be decided.

On June 5, 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy was shot, I was 7 years old and living in Italy. I remember that the news made me very sad. Something about him had touched me deeply, as it had touched millions of Americans who saw in RFK the personification of the hope for a better world for everybody: the blacks, the poor, the immigrants, the minimum-wage workers, and the young people fighting to stop the Vietnam war. Just two months after Martin Luther King’s assassination, the America that desperately needed change was mourning again. It was not just the loss of a man, as extraordinary as RFK was; it was the attempted murder of the belief that progress, peace, equality, and human dignity are possible here and now.

That June of forty years ago, Paul Fusco captured the mourning of the Country: a million people standing by the tracks as RFK’s body made its 8-hour last trip from New York to Washington DC. (video; more about the death of RFK and what he meant for this country in The End of an American Dream: The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy).


It’s astounding and perhaps sad that Robert F. Kennedy’s message is still so relevant and urgent. His speeches are about fundamental human values and problems that need to be solved today as much as they were 40 years ago. He talks about community, war, the environment; poverty, violence, the need for compassion, and what it means to be human.

Politics, many people feel, are dirty. Politics are boring, something to delegate to others. But everything important in our lives, all the things that touch us very personally–our families, our relationships, our jobs, our health and the health of those we love, our retirement, our death, and even our identity and our dignity–are strongly influenced or completely dependent on political decisions. Saying “I don’t care about politics” it’s like saying “I’m OK with delegating decisions about all it’s important in my life to others I don’t even know.”

Sure, power is a dangerous thing. Power corrupts. Politicians are not always good role models. They are human, imperfect, limited as everybody else. But this is exactly why it’s important for people like me and you to be involved in politics, to pay attention to what’s going on, to put in place grass-root checks and balances, to be passionate about influencing our present and our future. Delegating politics to others because we are too good for it is easy; it’s also the laziest, most coward, and most dangerous thing to do.

You can think of politics just as the exercise of power. Or you can think of politics as the opportunity to make the world just a little bit more fair and compassionate.

Yesterday, in her impressive concession speech, Hillary Clinton exhorted us not to look back in regret, but forward with determination. She was talking to her supporter about her campaign, but perhaps she was also talking about our hopes to make the place we call home a little bit better each time.

When you hear people say, or think to yourself, “if only” or “what if,” I say: please, don’t go there. Every moment wasted looking back keeps us from moving forward.

Life is too short, time is too precious, and the stakes are too high to dwell on what might have been. We have to work together for what still can be.

Robert F. Kennedy’s speeches on the web

  • Robert F. Kennedy announces the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in Indianapolis, IN – April 4, 1968 [ Video | Transcripts ]

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.

  • On The Mindless Menace of Violence, City Club of Cleveland, Cleveland, Ohio – April 5, 1968 [ Video | Transcripts ]

But when you teach a man to hate and to fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies that he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your home or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and to be mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, alien men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in a common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. Our lives on this planet are too short, the work to be done is too great, to let this fear flourish any longer in this land of ours.

  • RFK about the true wealth of America [ video |
  • Robert F. Kennedy last speech at the Hotel Ambassador, June 4-5 1968 [ Part 1 | Part 2 ]
  • Ted Kennedy’s heartbreaking Eulogy at RFK’s funeral [video | Transcripts ]

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”

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