Friday, July 4, 2008

Whats Important?

"A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on."
John F. Kennedy
US President (1961-1963)

As I get older and have less time and desire to play games, when I do get on I usually end up playing with a handful of people on my friends list. Over time its not the games so much that make the experience entertaining, its the people you play them with - thats how online games work. The character of the people you play with, over time, becomes more important than skill or any other factor. No matter how good someone is at a game, if they are unpleasant to be around, or they talk or act in an insulting manner, it can make it impossible to play with them.

Im going to tell you a story about John F. Kennedy, from when he was a young man. John used to play golf with a group of his old buddies from his prep school Choate. He would call them up and they would go out and play anywhere from 18 to 72 holes of golf in a day - whatever Kennedy's back could handle before giving in. The 3 guys he usually played with were named Jim, Henry, and Tom - the last names arent important.

Well one day, when the weather was particularly rough, they were considering heading in, but instead they decided to play on. Kennedy was having a pretty good round, and so were Jim and Henry who were all at or around par. Tom, who was normally the best player in the group, was slicing the ball all over the place, had taken several mulligans, and was well above par. While they were waiting for Tom to dig his ball out of some rough, two golfers appeared at the tee behind them. One ran over to John and said, "Hey, the weather looks like its about to get rough, do you mind if we play through?" John was a bit surprised to see a black man on a golf course in Massachusets (this was 1939 mind you), but told the young man to play on. "My buddy's having a rough time finding his ball, go on through. That might be his last one," Kennedy said with a smile. The young man turned around and ran back to the tee, where his partner was already teeing up. The partner hit his shot quite well, and then the young man who had talked to John hit a long, high drive that went well over the heads of the Kennedy party and layed up on the fairway not far from the green. The two men walked by just as Tom, who had finally found his ball, was coming out of the deep rough. Tom saw the two black men, stared for a moment, and then shouted "What the f*** do these n*****s think they are doing? Hey! n******s! Im talking to you! Get the f*** out of the way!"

The two men didnt even turn around, they kept walking, picked up their balls, and walked right off the course. Kennedy, flabbergasted at what he heard his friend just say, told him "Tom you can't talk like that. Those men have a right to play on this course. If we were at war, those men could save your life." Tom said, "John you're probably right, but that still doesnt give them a right to play through." He promptly dropped his ball, took a hard swing and sliced it right over the green into the woods. The group didnt say much for the rest of the round.

The next week, when the weather was much better, Jim called up Kennedy and told him where the group would be meeting for lunch before their usual round of golf.

Kennedy asked, "Is Tom going to be joining us?"

Jim said "Of course, why wouldnt he be?"

"Well," Kennedy responded, "I cant play with you then. That man is a bigot, and has no sense of sportsmanship whatsoever. Im embarrassed to be around him."

"Thats too bad," said Jim. "Hes a great golfer, usually, I think he was just having a bad day."

"Maybe he is a great golfer, but thats still no excuse for what he said."

So that weekend, Kennedy didnt play golf with his buddies for the first time in a couple years. The next week, when Jim called him again, Kennedy again asked if Tom was playing, was told yes, and excused himself again. That his prep school buddies didnt mind playing with this man struck Kennedy as odd, as he knew from private conversations that they were not racist at all. They both believed in fairness in matters of race or sport. "So why do you keep playing with this guy?" Kennedy asked the next time he spoke with his buddy. Jim responded, "He never misses a game, and we've entered into group tournament that he can help us win."

Kennedy was surprised. Both his friends, who were men of character, were putting up with a person whose behavior Kennedy had deemed unacceptable. This changed Kennedy's view of the other two men. Although they didnt engage in intolerant or unsportsmanlike behavior, their continued tolerance of such behavior by a peer reflected poorly on both them. After a few months of being asked to join the group he was once a core member of, John stopped bothering to call Jim back about golf altogether, and his spot in the group was replaced.

Whether the story is true or just part of presidential folklore isnt really important. What is important, on July 4th, 2008, as I watch on TV the Macy's fireworks show over the Hudson River, the same river which George Washington crossed during the Revolutionary War, is character. The character of my friends, my family, myself, and the people of this country, including its next president, Barack Obama. Are we everything we should be? Can we walk down the street proud, with our heads up high, or must we hang them low? Was this country we have now worth so many men dying for 200 years ago? Why did those men choose to die? How about the Civil War and the 50,000 men who died at the Battle of Gettysburg? Was that worth fighting? Why did those men choose to die? Why did Kennedy stop playing golf?

Ideas. Ideas are worth fighting for. Ideas are worth dying for. Its an incredible concept - to die for an idea - but perhaps it is the most noble of all things you could die protecting - because its intangible, except for in the minds of other men. The principle idea behind the Declaration of Independance and the Revolutionary War was freedom - freedom from taxation without representation, and the freedom of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. But it was a flawed idea, because it did not include freedom for all men and women in America. It took another 100 years for that war to happen, and even when it was over, another 100 years before our country was fully desegregated. But since then the the Idea of Freedom hasnt been fully protected in America - it has been desheathed, debunked, and dethroned. It is continually assaulted. It is up to each and every individual American to protect Freedom - and Im most certainly not talking about the specter of terrorists which the Republicans would have us believe lurk under every bed like the boogeyman.

There is Freedom of Speech in America, but with that freedom comes responsibility. The Founding Fathers of this country had a vision - it was a flawed vision - but eventually we got it right, and freedom was achieved for all men and women, regardless of race, religion or politcal belief. As an American, you have the right to call someone a Nigger or a Jew or a Cunt or a Fag over Xbox Live. But in doing so you abdicate all the responsibility that comes with that freedom, and in turn you spit on the graves of the people who died to make this country what it is, who died to give you that freedom.

Personally, I cannot associate myself with people who do not understand the history of this country and how lucky they are to be born here, to be given these incredible freedoms as birthrights. Those that choose to abdicate the responsibility of these freedoms - and those who willingly tolerate such abdication- are part of the Other America, the part of our country that wants to move backwards and resist change, resist progress. In November 2008 the Other America is in for a huge shock when Barack Obama will be elected as the first minority President in the history of America. What will their reaction be?

We dont know where Kennedy's prep school buddy Tom is today or if he ever existed, but if he were alive to see the election results in November I sure would like to see him. Perhaps the years have given him wisdom and he is able to see the errors of his foolish youth. Perhaps the sudden departure and subsequent success of his friend and golf partner made him reconsider how he used his freedom. Perhaps his intolerance intensified. People can change - but it requires individuals of great character around them, who believe very strongly in their ideas, to take strong action to back the ideas up and reinforce them. How strongly you accept the responsibility to take actions which back up ideas defines your character - and how we each accept that responsibility defines us as a nation.

Great Civilizations have failed before - The Romans, The Mayans, The Mongols. Are we next? Have our ideas failed us? Do we have the character necessary to make it another 200 years? It is up to each and everyone of us to decide which part of America we want to be a part of - the Ideal America, which took us 200 years to achieve and is still a work very much in progress - or the Other America, who sits idly by and waits for obsolescence and extinction. The choice is yours.

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives so that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Abraham Lincoln
US President (1861-1865)