Monday, November 22, 2010

The Habit of Freedom

We were struck the other day when we came across a picture of John F. Kennedy giving a stump speech in West Virginia during the 1960 presidential campaign.

The masters of the world, wrote Gibbon, professed themselves to be the Servants of the Senate and the supreme Augustus affected himself a bourgeois gentilhomme.

But the affectation had a real effect. Then, as now, studied simplicity does keep things simple. When things are simple they are direct and clear; and, being clear, open, and thus free and fearless.

It is a question of habit.

Habit is a form of doing things -- an outward motion. It is, to be sure, an appearance but one that dictates substance. A man who holds his head high, must of necessity walk erect and walking erect breathe fully and breathing fully feel full and flush and thus confident. Disease produces symptoms; habits (which are symptoms in reverse) induce health.

Jack Kennedy would have understood this instinctively.

It was odd that we should have come upon the photo of Kennedy standing on the kitchen stool, for a few days before that our mind had -- for some random reason -- called up the memory of Hyannis Port.

The Kennedy's were a wealthy clan; but their compound was nothing extraordinarily grand, particularly bearing in mind the clan's size. It was "roomy", well appointed and gentilement bourgeois.

Of course, America has had its ostentatious moguls and diamond-studded Trimalchios. There is always a class whose inner disgrace reveals itself in gilded depravity, as openly as possible for all to see! But they were not what the Country was about or conceived itself as being.

The habit of a retiring simplicity affected by the greater part of America's ruling class, as by the first Caesars, engendered and preserved an egalitarian concourse and familiar freedom despite our conflicts and imperfections.

The curtain on that habit of being was rung down by crisp rapports on a sunny November day, 47 years ago.

Even before the president was laid to rest, the cry went up that the Secret Service had been "lax". Indeed it had been precisely because the country itself was. In becoming correctively "un-lax" the Secret Service took those first critical steps which led to the forbidden end and made the country un-free.

We do not mean to suggest that there were no security concerns before November 23, 1963, or that the country became a police state the day after. The acquisition and loss of habits is always a question of time and degree. But before that day, even the police services, respected the demands of openness; after, even society itself became increasingly focused on achieving air-tight security.

It is inconceivable today that a president would stand on kitchen stool in the open air, and we, as a consequence, are no longer free.

©WCG, 2010

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