The speech below is an excerpt from that which was delivered by Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, during an I am an American Day gathering in New York's Central Park. Ickes spoke these words during a fragile and terrifying period in history: May of 1941 -when Hitler stood upon the precipice of world domination.
On this day in 1941 the countries that had fallen to the Nazis included Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and areas in North Africa. England was under incessant and devastating air attack from the Luftwaffe while Nazi U-boats blockaded the British Isles. And yet, still, many Americans questioned the sagacity and compelling necessity of direct U.S. intercession in what was viewed as a "European war". This, in part, was Mr Ickes reply.
"I want to ask a few simple questions. And then I shall answer them.
What has happened to our vaunted idealism? Why have some of us been behaving like scared chickens? Where is the million-throated, democratic voice of America?
For years it has been dinned into us that we are a weak nation; that we are an inefficient people; that we are simple-minded. For years we have been told that we are beaten, decayed, and that no part of the world belongs to us any longer.
Some amongst us have fallen for this carefully pickled tripe. Some amongst us have fallen for this calculated poison. Some amongst us have begun to preach that the "wave of the future" has passed over us and left us a wet, dead fish.
They shout--from public platforms in printed pages, through the microphones--that it is futile to oppose the "wave of the future." They cry that we Americans, we free Americans nourished on Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence, hold moth-eaten ideas. They exclaim that there is no room for free men in the world any more and that only the slaves will inherit the earth. America--the America of Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln and Walt Whitman--they say, is waiting for the undertaker and all the hopes and aspirations that have gone into the making of America are dead too.
However, my fellow citizens, this is not the real point of the story. The real point--the shameful point--is that many of us are listening to them and some of us almost believe them.
I say that it is time for the great American people to raise its voice and cry out in mighty triumph what it is to be an American. This tide of the future, the democratic future, is ours. It is ours if we show ourselves worthy of our culture and of our heritage.
But make no mistake about it; the tide of the democratic future is not like the ocean tide--regular, relentless, and inevitable. Nothing in human affairs is mechanical or inevitable. Nor are Americans mechanical. They are very human indeed.
What constitutes an American? Not color nor race nor religion. Not the pedigree of his family nor the place of his birth. Not the coincidence of his citizenship. Not his social status nor his bank account. Not his trade nor his profession. An American is one who loves justice and believes in the dignity of man. An American is one who will fight for his freedom and that of his neighbor. An American is one who will sacrifice property, ease and security in order that he and his children may retain the rights of free men. An American is one in whose heart is engraved the immortal second sentence of the Declaration of Independence.
Americans have always known how to fight for their rights and their way of life. Americans are not afraid to fight. They fight joyously in a just cause."
Democracy is, at its most fundamental, the protection of individual rights and freedoms. In that sense the "the whole is more than the sum of its parts." (Aristotle, Metaphysica). The denial of one man or woman's rights is a grievous blow to the "whole" for it erodes the foundation of the principle. If even one of our brothers or sisters suffers injustice by the very systems that have been created to ensure equality, due process of the law and fairness then we all, as a people, are weakened - and our democratic and human ideals compromised.
There are small wounds inflicted each day: an employee unjustly terminated with no recourse; someone silenced by slanderous internet chatter; voices hushed by fear of reprisal; equal rights casually denied while the courts debate whether or not some are more worthy than others; health measured by the size of one’s bank account, not by the scope of one’s need; media that, increasingly, values ratings over truth and crucifies their targets on the cross of “market share”; books banned because a writer has dared to tell a painful tale…the list is long and seldom counted.
Each small blow weakens the base until it seems that the whole once-proud and seemingly indestructible structure must surely crumble - with only its dust left to lie thickly upon the pages of history.
I have just, as I do each morning, read the national and international news. As I sit at my desk with my framed certificate of American citizenship on the wall before me, and my Canadian citizenship in my blood and bones, I feel frightened by the increasing lack of vigilance and sanity.
That which is cherished must be fiercely and tirelessly protected. Even as we develop weapons that are capable of soul-searing destruction; even as we strive to increase our military might; even as we send our men and woman to die in some desolate and unimaginable location half way around the world, we are losing the war on our own doorsteps. The voices raised in anger and divisiveness threaten to drown out those of individual freedom and quiet truth.
The cacophony is becoming deafening and soon we will no longer be able to hear the guiding echoes of the past or the small cry of a child.
Just my thoughts...