Ted Kennedy saved my life, at least according to my mother. It was sometime in the mid 1960s, and she and I were walking down Boston's Beacon Hill when I broke away and began running toward a busy intersection. Just as I arrived at the end of the curve, a figure rounded the corner and, with an outstretched arm, whisked me from almost certain automotive death.
That figure was none other than Ted Kennedy. At least according to my mom. And, also according to her, after saving my life he carried my mother's groceries home for her.
Apocryphal or not, I've always admired the Kennedys as the standard bearers and most public repositories of the canon of liberal Democratic social values. Each impossibly and tragically flawed in character, nevertheless they carried a vision of the world not as it was, but what it could and should be, while relentlessly asking the question of why it wasn't so.
I remembered that question, when Ted Kennedy passed away last month, and I remembered its most succinct expression as I first learned it from Kennedy's eulogy to his brother, Robert. A eulogy devastating in its emotional impact on anyone who can bear to listen to it and made ever more so by the fact that it was a eulogy largely written by Robert Kennedy himself, from a speech in Cape Town delivered in 1966.
"The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to the obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans."- Robert Kennedy
It was a speech about the future that Ted had thought a most appropriate tribute to his brother and which he delivered on that terrible day in 1968 when he, and others in the cathedral of St. Patrick's, took RFK to rest.
A swiftly changing planet
"The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to the obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. They cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that come with even the most peaceful progress."
A "present that is already dying." That line has haunted me since the day I first heard it, particularly because it so beautifully counters the dogma of the status quo, a dogma that relentlessly asserts that tomorrow will be, must be, just like today, only more so.
It is a dogma that provided the national ideological foundation for our Mesopotamian expeditionary resource war, into which we have poured so much of the future's scrip and with it so much of the future's opportunity. And it is a dogma that provides the local ideological foundation for a relentless championing not only of a present that is already dying, but of a future that is doing so as well.
"Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change."- Robert Kennedy
There were several recent events in our community that drew me to think about the subject of this column. Events that symbolized the struggle for the future that exists between the forces of the status quo and between those who recognize that present which is already dying.
A Vietnam-era plan to widen the SR45/46 bypass, building a seven-lane wide wall between Bloomington's eastern and western poles. Opposed by Mayor Kruzan, championed by the newspaper and the Chamber of Commerce.
A Reagan-era plan to bulldoze under even more of Monroe County's rapidly dissipating natural capital and convert it, using public funds, into a new plastics factory while abandoning the old plastics factory to the elements. Opposed by a (very) few elected county democrats, championed by the newspaper and the Chamber of Commerce.
An Eisenhower-era plan to build yet another interstate highway through Indiana, from a city that already has more interstate highway connections than any other in the United States. Opposed by the mayor (again), the president of the Bloomington City Council and a vanguard of progressive thinkers in elected and appointed office, championed by the newspaper and the Chamber of Commerce.
"Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. And I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe."
The climate is changing. Resources, such as oil and gas, are changing. The availability of water, fertilizers and arable land are all changing even as the population continues its relentless change upward. The world isn't yielding painfully to change, it is changing. What is yielding, or not, isn't the world.
It is us.
And a species that changes with it
We can continue to obstinately believe that the future will be just like the present, only more so. We can continue to obstinately believe that the present, and the future it portends, isn't already dying. We can maintain the status quo for those that derive their livelihoods from it.
"The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects."- Robert Kennedy
Or we can follow the leads of those I mentioned above and work, at the local level, toward a different future. A future that depends not on the dividends of a present already dying, but a different future that recognizes our changing world:
"The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society. Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth.
"In any event, it is the only way we can live."
Gregory Travis can be reached at email@example.com.