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Detail: President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1961. AP.
April 17, 2020

“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Most Americans know three of them by heart; short phrases that have come to define an age and a speaker. “Nothing to fear but fear itself” spoke Franklin D. Roosevelt, and “with malice toward none,” Lincoln said in his second inaugural address. John F. Kennedy, born just one year before the Great Influenza plague of 1918, uttered the third such phrase at his only inauguration, and it is, in popular memory: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Today, Americans are hearing an echo of Kennedy’s words. They are being asked, once again, to do something for their country. Facing a deadly infectious disease sweeping the globe – one without, yet, a cure – medical personnel are being asked to leave their homes and travel to hotspots to help. Everyone else is being asked to not travel, and to help by simply staying put. It hardly sounds like a clarion cry, but edicts not to leave home, or engage with others – except masked, and at a distance – are in fact calls for patriotic sacrifice, poignant for a culture that so prizes personal freedom. If one does not live a normal life today, then others may live a normal life later. Mundanity and tedium are now the difference between life and death, for oneself and others; for a neighbor, and fellow citizens across the entire country. This terrible moment is felt by many, to be just a little akin to the days when JFK announced those most famous words. Read more here.

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