Let’s Look at Robert F. Kennedy Again

As you know, the premise of A Larger Pie is that participants in this blog, by engaging with the authors and each other, will improve virtually every aspect of our book.  Outstanding among critics to-date is Basel Musharbashfrom the University of Texas, Dallas.  Basel has written about fifteen detailed critiques of specific arguments or statements in A Larger Pie: Part I.  Some of these critiques force us (in a good, constructive way) to decide whether to weave Basel’s arguments into the prime text of the book (giving him full credit, as is our policy) or to include them as part of the ongoing discussion.

Here is an example:  The Larger Pie book now says (slightly paraphrased): “Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 speech at the University of Kansas provides an important clue: In the midst of its greatest economic growth ever recorded, with unemployment below 4% and falling (and economists promising permanent “full employment”), something clearly had gone wrong in the U.S.”

To which Basel responds (in part):  “Although he is one of my personal role models, I’m also going to criticize Robert Kennedy for his speech. My criticism centers on the notion that ‘something clearly had gone wrong in the U.S.’ Why? Even though unemployment was under 4% – there were huge percentages of Americans living in poverty. In 1968, 12.8% of Americans were living below the poverty line. There were still countless other millions not living in comfort – life at incomes less than double the poverty line has never been a comfortable life. In 1969, only 54% of Americans age 25 and over had completed 4 years of high school – only 10.7% had completed 4 years of college. I also need not mention the continuing struggle for civil rights for minorities – the waste of national energy in battles of pride and prejudice, disappointments and hatreds. The man on the south side of Chicago did not feel he had the time or the privilege for “inner peace, intellectual pursuits, personal excellence and community values”  [Kennedy’s words]. Considering all of these difficulties in our society – is it really fair for RFK  to indict all Americans, to indict our society as a whole, as having traded in community values and personal excellence for the “mere accumulation of material things”? I don’t believe that is a fair criticism.

If you want to look at reasons for the deterioration of community values and personal excellence – you should look at general white and affluent black flight from the inner city, at the movement of jobs from the inner city to the suburb, at the entrance of the drug trade, at the dislocations caused by the Vietnam war, and at the resultant disillusionment with the War on Poverty and the civil rights movement.  The imperfections and inadequacies of our society are fundamentally material. For there is no separation between material means and happiness, material goals and spiritual aspirations. Economic mobility – opportunity – is the key that opens up choice and allows human beings to cultivate the better angels of their natures as they see fit, allows human beings to live in peace and hope, and commit to the personal and community excellence. Therefore, to say that “something had clearly gone wrong” – or that Americans had surrendered “community values and personal excellence” [as RFK does] – without a deeper understanding of the very real, very felt, very tangible problems in our society, is to give a flaccid criticism to a pervasive problem.

Wow!  Did we misrepresent what RFK meant and said?  And if we reflected Kennedy’s views correctly, to what degree is Basel correct?  Basel’s statistics are impressive, but what is he using them to say –that the prime response to poverty, prejudice and injustice in the U.S. should be to generate more wealth?



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