Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Still True: Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You. Ask What You Can Do For Your Country"

Tonight I went to hear the American Ambassador to Germany speak, Philip Murphy. He was giving the opening lecture to a series of lectures on "citizenship" at the Humboldt University in Berlin. The title of his talk was "Still True: Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You. Ask What You Can Do For Your Country". He talked about what Kennedy's inauguration speech meant to Americans in 1961 (a lot), and argued that although among younger Americans this kind of patriotic "call to arms" doesn't really seem to resonate, it is still a worthwhile mantra. Overall, I found Murphy's speech interesting, although light and superficial, and also rhetorically fascinating. Nice, fluffy political speeches are humorously predictable: throw in a few founding fathers (Jefferson and Franklin were well-represented), a few impressive statistics, a couple of historical anecdotes (especially the Berlin connections were nice), and, of course, throw a few asides to the President (Obama embodies Kennedy's ideals). It was nice to be a part of this audience, and at one point the Ambassador asked if there were any Americans in the audience, and he was happy to have us there.

He started out the speech talking about "town hall meetings" and what participatory democracy means, and being an engaged citizen. He said that in his own travels throughout Germany he feels that he is often privileged to take part in such small-scale discussions and to hear about US-German relations through this smaller, bottom-up kind of discussion.

Then he went on to emphasize the importance of immigration to the United States, and how we are a "country of immigrants." I don't know about all of his statistics, but he said that out of the 311 million Americans, 3 million are native Americans and the rest are "immigrants," and that today as well as in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries it is because of the hard work, dedication and innovation of our country's immigrants that we have been so successful. He did mention that it hasn't always been a "nice" history--mentioning violence against various immigrant minorities, as well as our history of slavery--but he did refer to the "melting pot" vs "vegetable stew" metaphors (obviously preferring the latter) quite a lot. "You want to be able to taste the carrots!"

He said that recently, during two different public talks he gave in Germany, the first question he got from the audience was "what does it mean that anyone born in the US is an American citizen?" [In Germany this has long been a topic of debate; since 2001(!!) you get German citizenship if you are born in Germany, provided your parents have been here legally for 8 years.] Murphy talked about how in the US, 1 of every 4 people is a first-generation immigrant or a child of first-generation immigrants. (I guess in Germany it is 1 in 3).  This fit into his point about how the most important thing is "integration" (not assimilation, not "melting pot" but "stew") and how immigration is not only a challenge for immigrants, but is a question of "WE", also a challenge for the community to welcome them and help them feel welcome in society.

Although the general tone of the speech (I would argue) was "Germany can learn a lot from the US," he explicitly said that the US also has a lot to learn from Germany, and how similar a lot of the issues are that our countries are dealing with. Throughout, he definitely mentioned national citizenship as the starting point, although he did end by talking about "global citizenship" and what citizenship means in a world of globalization. 

(Interesting in this context is the second part of Kennedy's speech)
"Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man." - Kennedy

Murphy also referred multiple times to the upcoming presidential elections (I guess his job is on the line, too...) and how debates will be centered around what concepts like "freedom" and "equality" mean to various Americans.

All in all, I'm glad I went, even though it was a rather flowery talk, that remained rather vague and idealist, rather than concrete about the challenges of the meaning of citizenship in today's world. What does "citizenship" mean when people want to build a double-fence wall (scarily reminiscent of the Berlin Wall) between the US and Mexico? Or when the "Occupy" movements demonstrate for the "99%"? Our country is so divided right now, over really huge issues. I am very interested to see what happens with the elections...

Citizenship can be an official definition, the belonging symbolized by the passport (national belonging), or it can be understood in the participatory sense, engagement. In German there are actually two words for these different senses: Staatsangehörigkeit, belonging to a certain state, and Staatsbürgerschaft, being a citizen of a state. The notions, the concepts of citizenship, are from the French idea of the citoyen and the texts of the French and American Revolutions.

And Kennedy's speech? Is it "still true"? To me it feels outdated to ask what I can do for my country. I feel like our allegiances all need to be far more global, our perspective wider than that, and at the same time more local, more small-scale community-oriented. The discussions about the challenges of immigration, for example...We not only need to work to promote equality and prosperity in developing countries, but also to promote integration and the kind of "welcoming" Murphy mentioned on a local level.

I welcome comments on this topic!


  1. Wow, that's really interesting. Do you think you'll go to the other talks in the series? The "The Birthright Lottery: Citizenship and Global Inequality" looks like it could be worth a look, too.
    I like what you said about being global but at the same time keeping things local - it seems like in this day and age so much of that is lost. Do you think there is more "local" pride and feeling of local citizenship in Germany than in America? There's been discussion about German people's difficulties with being "German", and I feel like there is such the stereotype of the "flag-flying" American in Europe, but I also feel like local ties and local citizenship are more important here than they might seem. (Or maybe I'm just super sensitive to it.)
    It's hard to think about what doing something for your country even looks like today, aside from enlisting. Voting? Being well informed? Going abroad and defying or perpetuating stereotypes?
    I'm not sure I'm making any kind of point here, but it's definitely not an easy question, or easy to think through. I think, if nothing else, the talk came from someone with a very interesting perspective on citizenship. If you see any sort of recording or transcript I'd love to see it :)

  2. Thanks for your comment! I will definitely try to go to more of the talks...and really like your comments/questions about citizenship today.

    Some of the ambassador's speeches are available online:
    Although the specific one I heard seems to not be listed yet, some seem very similar, such as "The United States - A Nation of Immigrants" or "The Legacy of the Kennedy Administration". I definitely got the feeling he was able to "recycle" a lot of previous speeches. :)