Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Of Famous People and Their Quotations

I used to love quotations from famous people like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr etc. Their words carry great weights, because they are the culmination of their lifetime achievement and insights that can only be seen with a keen eye. Time and over again, we stand on their shoulder so that we could look further. Like beacon, their words give us guidance and direction.

While quotations used to be my favourite collection items, as time goes by, I begin to have a mixed feeling about them. Eerm, actually not all quotations, but I start to doubt some quotations, especially those that are improvised, overused and abused in our society. In particular, I am talking about this quotation by the US ex-president John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address (video, full text):

Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country
I am sure most of us have heard of this immortal sentence somewhere. It's made its way into all quarters of our lives: history text books, politician's rhetoric speeches, organized brainwashing sessions, clubs and societies, or even fiery debates about the moral justification for someone to leave their homeland in search for a greener pasture.

And seriously, I hate it when people just throw out this sentence without second thought.

To begin with, I do not deny the aesthetic and the patriotic value in those words. In fact when I heard it, it did strike a chord in me deep inside, somewhere. It sounded nice when put in the original context, when John F. Kennedy was urging his countryman to build a brighter future by collective, selfless efforts, when the US is at the strange post world-war era and was waging a cold war with the Soviet Union.

However, underlying this line is an unspoken principle: when everyone works for a common goal, the common goal works for everyone. It's this reciprocal relationship that makes this line acceptable, when we come to terms with reality. In other words, elaborating the sentence, it might just mean:
"Ask not what your country can do for you - you should ask what you can do for the country instead. When everyone starts asking what they can do for the country, everyone will be actively playing an integral role in the country's development, and thence everyone actually benefits much more compared to the situation where everyone chooses to be on the recipient end. "
Of course one might argue that Kennedy didn't mean it that way at all, instead he's just saying it on the ground of "unconditional love" - a boundless affection, a love that one gives even if it could be unrequited. Unconditional love, while often held as the noblest of human virtue, is widely doubted to exist outside the framework of family ties and romantic affection. Even with the family and romance, we could very well argue that the love has a biological basis, but I'm not going into that right now. What I'm getting at is this:

What warrants an unconditional love? Is there an innate responsibility among us to love certain things unconditionally? Is that our country? Our culture? Or even our family?

How do people live up to their claims, when they say things like:
Chinese who love the Western culture but dislike Chinese culture are despicable bananas who don't deserve to be Chinese!
What says that every Chinese is born with immense moral responsibility to love a culture which they happen to be categorized in?

What about:
No matter what, you must love him, he's your dad after all!
What if your dad has been abusing you all the time, and he does not treat you well at all? Does he still deserve this unconditional daughterly love, just because "he's your dad after all"?

The last thing, and also the main thing I'm getting at, is this thing called "patriotism". Is patriotism an unconditional "love burden" that everyone must shoulder? Give a few minutes of thought into it.

I am not encouraging people to "betray" their country at their whims, no, not at all. Certainly patriotism, as with any other type of loves, is a virtue which deserves praise and acclamation. What irks me is, who are we to speak of patriotism as a nature-given responsibility, when to some people their country has not been worthy of love, just like the dad who's been abusing the daughter? I shudder.

Summing it up, this line by Kennedy is an idealistic statement, and taking it at the face value without considering the context, as many people do, does not make your point any stronger or your rhetoric more elegant. It just means that you have just abused another quotation without giving much thoughts. Today, whenever I see discussions surrounding decision, contribution and organization, regardless of the suitability, at some point someone will post up this line as some kind of veritable truth.

And I always flinch when I see it.


Kelvers said...

I guess the gist of the argument hinges on your definition of love. Need it be 'altruistic', or perfect?

Just my 2 cents... Cheers!

jasmine said...


it's especially annoying if the person himself is not walking the talk.

but, aiya, humans. sometimes when we don't know what to say, we can't stand the uncertainty so we like to repeat what we always hear from other people..

Elansargelmir said...

I empathize with you. I'm getting annoyed with this particular quote getting thrown casually around. To me, only 2 kind of people would abuse the quote: the first would be lazy governments who try to divert the citizens' attention on the under-achievement done by the government by blaming it on the citizens instead. The second group would be people who think that it's cool to quote this saying just because it makes them sound righteous and intelligent but in fact, they are just paying lip service.

youngyew said...

kelvers: The problem is that some people are so obsessed with perfect and unconditional love to the extent that lesser love is considered to be unethical. Sigh...

jasmine: Haha yeah, quoting others make ourselves sound smarter. :P

elansargelmir: Haha totally agree! :)