Saturday, May 03, 2008

Why Bobby Kennedy Matters

In 2005, I was applying to a master of divinity program to become a Buddhist chaplain. As part of my application for financial support, I had to write an essay on "Engaged Buddhism." I was casting about for material for my essay and I started watching the PBS series Eyes on the Prize that documents the history of the civil rights movement. I've read two newspapers a day since I was a teenager and was a political science major in college. Yet I was shocked to discover that I knew very little about the history of the civil rights movement. I couldn't believe that in 16 years of education I had never been told this remarkable story.

The speeches of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were unlike anything I had ever heard before. They were speaking on a moral plane that was vastly more advanced than anything in our current political discourse. I remembered hearing cartoonist Aaron McGruder say that no one had dared speak truth to power in this country since 1968. Watching King and Kennedy speak, I realized that McGruder was right -- that the political and moral development of this nation stopped in 1968 and we've been living in the shadow of a 40-year political eclipse.

I didn't end up going into the divinity program. In the end, American Buddhism put way too much emphasis on passivity for my taste.

Having been introduced to Bobby Kennedy through Eyes on the Prize I was hungry for more. I was hungry for a real political conversation in this country -- not the petulant, lowest common denominator, god-gays-and-guns pandering required by all politicians ever since. Listening to Bobby Kennedy I realized that a different world was possible. I realized that America was not just facing a crisis of political courage -- it was facing a crisis of IDEATION -- we had lost the capacity to form new ideas -- our brains had been colonized by the narrow limits of what is deemed permissible in our current political climate.

I started to wonder, what would it be like if Bobby Kennedy were alive today? What would he say? What issues would he be leading on? What would our country have been like if Bobby had survived? Where would we be as a nation today if we had been able to enjoy 8 years of a Kennedy administration followed by 8 years of a Martin Luther King administration? Picture that!!!

So I started this website, RFK Action Front. I named it RFK Action Front to pattern it after revolutionary movements in Latin America who name their struggle in honor of a fallen martyr (such as the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional in El Salvador and the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional in Nicaragua). I intentionally choose to invoke revolution because I believe we need to dismantle the oppressive economic, political, and religious structures in our country and start anew. I believe it starts with overthrowing the colonization of our own minds -- discarding the pop up messages of "no you can't /this is the way it is" and starting to dream and work towards a world of limitless possibilities again. I started RFK Action Front to try to inject Bobby Kennedy's vision back into the political conversation in this country. Sometime I live up to that challenge, other times I write about cats and pop singers.

It's been striking to see that just within the last few weeks, many people have started to talk about Bobby Kennedy again. Mostly I think this renewed interest in Bobby Kennedy is driven by Barack Obama's candidacy. For the first time in 40 years people are feeling hopeful again. For the first time in 40 years a political leader is calling on all Americans to find our moral core as a nation and to act upon our highest values. I also think we are living in a unique historical moment. We are all waking up from our collective PTSD as a result of the trauma of 1968. I think it was only a matter of time before people began to demand genuine courage and moral leadership in our country again -- and with the decline of the Republican party and the rise of people-powered publishing on the internet, that deep national yearning has been made evident. Obama is no Bobby Kennedy -- he's still young, still learning, still finding his moral core. But in many ways his campaign has picked up the conversation started by Martin and Bobby. And he's injected aspiration politics back into our political discourse and for that we own him an enormous debt of gratitude (and our votes).

Here are some of the articles that have come out on Bobby Kennedy in recent days:

"The Last Good Campaign" in Vanity Fair. Bobby Kennedy was also on the cover this month. They also have 18 photos by Bill Eppridge that will break your heart into a 1000 pieces.

Christy Hardin Smith at Firedoglake links to a series of videos on RFK that are extraordinary.

Also, the Washington Post did a piece today on Charles Guggenheim who designed RFK's TV commercials during the 1968 campaign. The photos and videos they compile on their website are amazing.

I believe Bobby Kennedy lives as long as we hold him in our hearts and allow him to remind us of the angels of our better nature. Long may he live.

Bobby Kennedy campaigns in Indianapolis during May of 1968, with various aides and friends, including (behind and left of Kennedy) former prizefighter Tony Zale and (right of Kennedy) N.F.L. stars Lamar Lundy, Rosey Grier, and Deacon Jones. Photograph by Bill Eppridge.

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