Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Great Society at 50

Contemporary commencement speeches seldom get the attention such speeches often got in the not-so-distant past. If they do get any attention today it is actually more likely because of some controversy about the choice of speaker - such events having become yet one more occasion for personal outrage and political posturing among competing elites. The notion that great universities provide a setting for the public articulation of major policy initiatives seems largely to have gone the way of the even older notion of universities as a setting for great ideas.

Fifty years ago, however, statesmen still spoke serious words when invited to universities, and people in the wider world beyond academia actually cared. Thus it was when, 50 years ago tomorrow, on May 22, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson addressed an audience of some 90,000 at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Johnson had already used the phrase "great society" on  other occasions, but that day he elaborated on the idea which would be the animating ideal of his presidency. It would be a full-force, all-out effort not just to remediate this or that isolated economic injustice but to short-circuit the vicious cycle of poverty and provide society with a more just, equitable, and fulfilling framework.

"The Great Society," Johnson declared, "serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. ... It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods." Of course, like all such progressive ideals of the time, the "Great Society" presupposed abundance as a prerequisite. But presuming that, the greatness of Johnson's ideal lay precisely in aiming beyond merely the material redistribution abundance makes possible. Johnson's "Great Society" was "a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor."

Imagine that!  Our society and it so communal fabric have so deteriorated since then that such aspirations seem almost beyond even imagining. It says a lot about the early 1960s (before everything started to fall apart) that we could actually entertain such aspirations!

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