Perspicuity I



But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another great task. It is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - a lack of purpose and dignity - that inflicts us all. Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.

Our gross national product [is] now over eight hundred billion dollars a year,1 but that GNP - if we should judge America by that - 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 those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm2 and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. 3 It counts Whitman's rifle4 and Speck's knife,5 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.

If this is true at home, so it is true elsewhere in the world. From the beginning, our proudest boast was that we, here in this country, would be the best hope for all of mankind. And now, as we look at the war in Vietnam, we wonder if we still hold a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, and whether they have maintained a decent respect for us, or whether like Athens of old, we will forfeit sympathy and support, and ultimately security, in a single-minded pursuit of our own goals and our own objectives.

Robert F. Kennedy
University of Kansas
March 18, 1968
at the start of his campaign for the Presidency

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1. Gross National Product in 1967-68. Back to text.
2. "Napalm" is an horrific material that was used extensively by the United States in the Vietnam War from about 1963 to 1971. See Gilbert Dreyfus "Napalm and its Effects on Human Beings" and Masahiro Hashimoto "The Napalm Bomb". It was essentially jellied gasoline that would be used in incendiary bombs. It would stick to objects that it hit and then burn furiously. These objects included people, who would be killed most often by carbon monoxide poisoning or from terrible burns. The manufacture and use of napalm was attacked in the United States and elsewhere, prompted by horrendous pictures of Vietnamese people being burned by the material that began to appear regularly in the media by about 1965. Dow Chemical Company, which manufactured both napalm and agent orange for the US military, was reviled because of doing so and found it difficult to recruit people to work for it. Because of the public relations and recruiting problems associated with napalm manufacture, the Company stopped making the material in the early 1970's. It was not until 1998 that the US military began destroying the remaining, aging material. The destruction was supposedly completed sometime in 2001. Back to text.
3. There had been huge, deadly riots in the black ghettoes in Los Angeles in 1965 and Detroit in 1967. In both cases the Army had been called in to assist local authorities in subduing the violence. Similar violence broke out in many US cities on the evening of April 4, 1968, less than three weeks after RFK made this speech. These riots were provoked by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. that afternoon. It is noteworthy that no riot broke out in Indianapolis. RFK, contrary to his advisors' and local officials' advice because of concern for his personal safety, went into the black ghetto there and in an impassioned extemporaneous speech from the back of a truck announced to the crowd that King had been killed and appealed for calm and concern of Americans for each other. He noted that the assassin was thought to be a white man but reminded the crowd, most of whom regarded President Kennedy to be a hero, "... a member of my family was also killed by a white man." He went on to say in the speech "... 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... Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world..." Back to text.
4. On August 1, 1966 from the Tower at the University of Texas in Austin, Charles Whitman went on a shooting spree that killed 14 people and injured many more. Before going to the Tower, Whitman had killed his wife and mother. The spree ended when police shot and killed Whitman. Back to text.
5. On the night of July 14-15, 1966, Richard Speck murdered eight student nurses in Chicago, some of them by stabbing. He was convicted of the murders in April, 1967.Back to text.

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