Let’s Talk Politics

“This is an election year, and it seems appropriate therefore to talk politics. But politics in its full sense goes far beyond primaries or even general elections. The root of the word politics is polis — the Greek word for the city, or City State. A politician in anciet times was supposed to serve the City...That is the kind of politics we need now — the politics of service.”
Sargent Shriver |New York, NY|June 10, 1964

Our Quote of the Week describes a notion of politics that Sargent Shriver embraced with enthusiasm and energy — the politics of service.

In his speech to the New York University Class of 1964, Sargent Shriver remarked on the political lives of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and the many Peace Corps volunteers that Shriver himself led and inspired. What was notable about their examples, he said, was the way in which their values were expressed. Their political actions were always in service to others.

Shriver then turns from the global example of service in the Peace Corps to the question of serving at home:

“But why should this kind of freedom — the freedom that comes from service — be missing in our lives at home? Is it true that it can only come in serving the larger City of the World, and not in serving the City of New York?”

At this point, he calls on his young audience to serve with him “on the front lines” in the War on Poverty:

“President Johnson has declared War on Poverty. Congress, we trust, will soon give us the ammunition. But the people who are going to wage this war are not in Washington. They are already living on the front lines of poverty — right in the centers of our cities. It is here at N.Y.U., at your campus on Washington Square, in that most cosmopolitan neighborhood of the greatest city the world has ever known, that the war has to be waged.”

“But to win this war on the home front we shall require the help of this most cosmopolitan University. You must recognize your place on the front lines and give us the home front leadership and action we need.”

In his call, Shriver appeals to the audience’s intellect, imagination, and sense of community, highlighting the university’s expansive history of democracy and exploration, as well as its wealth of resources:

“Is this subverting the life of the University? — To suggest that you take the blocks around you, this great city as your laboratory, that you do your research in the service of the people you live among, that you make community action programs to end poverty in New York a focus of your study and the center of your extracurricular activities?”

“Remember what this University was founded for —133 years ago: To be a school in which ‘The children of the artisan and the tradesman should be as welcome as the children of the rich,’ But you are all rich — rich in education, the key to the twentieth century — or you wouldn’t be here today.”

The bottom line, for Shriver, is that we must all be committed to service. From the political candidates we choose in Washington, to the local leaders we support at home, and importantly, to the commitments we ourselves make in our communities, our common stance must be a willingness to act for the benefit of those communities.

As we remember these words from an election year 60 years ago, we turn our focus to the stakes for this upcoming presidential election. May we continue to prioritize the politics of service and stand behind leaders who do the same, and who are not distracted by efforts to amass power for themselves.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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