In Defense of an Open Society

The New York Times celebrated a new year by updating its archive of the people, places, and things insulted by President Trump on Twitter. High on that list was “illegal immigration,” a “crime and killing machine.” He blamed Mexico, “the number one most dangerous country in the world,” a nation that is “killing us.” The unending, remorseless waves of “aliens with criminal records,” he recently argued, demands construction of a huge wall, a physically imposing edifice that can hold back the tide.

Insults and scapegoating create hierarchy. President Trump distinguishes between “us” and “them.” “They” must be defined, dehumanized, and detained—they must be immobilized so that they do not infect “us.” History explains why mobility matters; for a nation rooted in the story of the biblical Exodus, movement often leads to citizenship. The Pilgrims sought religious freedom on a New World’s shore, Puritans embarked on an errand into the wilderness, pioneers headed west, slaves escaped north, women marched for the vote, and John Kennedy praised the decision to immigrate. It was “an enormous intellectual and emotional commitment,” a choice “to begin an adventure filled with incalculable uncertainty, risk, and hardship.” The willingness to move “helped give America the extraordinary social mobility which is the essence of an open society,” he wrote in his book, A Nation of Immigrants.

Of course, Kennedy’s country offered considerably less social mobility than he thought at the time. Yet if rhetoric is, as Thomas Farrell claims, the art of “making things matter,” then President Kennedy made fluidity matter. In style and substance, I argue in John F. Kennedy and the Liberal Persuasion, he invigorated the core appeals of U.S. liberalism: the claims that each person possesses an intrinsic dignity, that people should respect the dignity of others as equal to our own, and that all do so in a contingent world.

The contrast between the 35th and 45th presidents encompasses more than the former’s ability to speak in grammatical English sentences. JFK’s allusion to Karl Popper’s classic The Open Society and Its Enemies defines the issue. Kennedy, and the liberal tradition he represented, campaigned on the promise of an open nation. Immigrants, he wrote, “usually had a fixed place” in the communities they left. Their prospects were limited to the family’s “craft or trade,” to the family farm. “Only with the most exceptional talent and enterprise” could people “break out of the mold in which life had cast” them. “There was no such mold… in the New World” with, the president carefully noted, the exception of “the Negro slave.”

That exception came to define the liberal project by the end of Kennedy’s administration. The case he too belatedly made for civil rights depicted the fluidity of citizenship as a normative imperative. “The heart of the question,” he argued in his June 11, 1963 speech, “is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.” If people could not “eat lunch at a restaurant open to the public,” send their “children to the best public school available,” vote for “public officials who represent” them, if they could not “enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his [sic] skin changed and stand in his [sic] place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”

The reciprocity argument, or Golden Rule, beat as the persuasive heart of JFK’s address. A claim of reciprocity demands that two people or ideas of the same class or category ought to be treated equally; if black and white were human, then black and white ought to be citizens.

John F. Kennedy addresses the nation on desegregation efforts at the University of Mississippi, September 30, 1962. Image: Mary Ferrell Foundation

The claim of reciprocity is what segregationists denied. The “reality” the Southerner “faces squarely,” James J. Kilpatrick argued in 1962, the “one reality most often shunned” was “the inequality of man.” Editor of the Richmond News-Leader, friend of William F. Buckley, and frequent contributor to the National Review, Kilpatrick illustrated the argument JFK faced squarely: The “Negro race, as a race, is plainly not equal to the white race, as a race; nor, for that matter, in the wider world beyond, by the accepted judgment of ten thousand years, has the Negro race, as a race, ever been the cultural or intellectual equal of the white race, as a race.” Inequality justified hierarchy; black Americans should not, could not, walk or talk or flirt or drink or swim or eat or learn or vote with white lest “they” contaminate “us.”

If African Americans could not be treated as equals, then what role should they play in southern life? White intellectuals, such as Southern Agrarian and rhetorical theorist Richard Weaver, struggled with that question. He decided that “the African,” the “chief source of Southern misfortunes,” needed monitoring and mentoring. Lacking the capacity for full citizenship, blacks might eventually be able to play a lesser role in society, as separate as the fingers on a hand. White Southerners would try to construct such an order. They felt obligated, since the African’s “very childlikeness, his extraordinary exhibitions of loyalty, and his pathetic attempts to find his place in the complicated white man’s civilization rather had the effect of endearing him to his former owners.” A strict hierarchy could order society and improve the African American by keeping them away from the respectable folk, at least in public. Southerners built a closed social structure, one that walled off pernicious influences, forestalled social change, and preserved the white, rural way for eternity.

Reciprocity melts hierarchy. Grounded in the world’s contingency, the belief that things can be changed, reciprocity embraces movement and exchange. To treat others as one wishes to be treated is to see the other as oneself. People imagine themselves as others, change places, eat lunch, campaign for officials, switch schools, cross borders, and march for freedom. They move and movement undermines hierarchy. JFK mobilized people, as liberals had long mobilized their ideal citizen. As a public language, liberalism, from the Latin liber, meaning “free man,” erodes static hierarchies. If both conservatives and socialists root their citizens in natural law, religious hierarchy, class solidarity, or hegemonic bloc, liberals seek always to liberate individuals, while recognizing that liberation, like a “more perfect union,” is never completely possible. As a result of this linguistic and ideological bias, liberals do not easily comprehend the comfort of hierarchy or the structural nature of oppression. Liberals often prefer bowling alone. Nonetheless, liberalism, as I understand it through Kennedy’s words, offers a historically weighty and politically effective language for dissolving hierarchy and attacking the norms of a closed society. It disdains walls. It teaches us to treat others as we wish to be treated. It offers an expansive, flowing world, one in which people talk, trade, compete, cooperate, and debate with one another.

Kennedy loved to tell a story of Frank O’Connor, an Irish writer. As he and his friends made their way across their country, one divided and exploited by absent landlords, they often came to walls. If one seemed too high, too doubtful to climb, too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall—and then they had no choice but to follow. Immigrants, JFK believed, have tossed their caps over the wall. We ought to welcome them home.


John M. Murphy is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Illinois. He is the author of John F. Kennedy and the Liberal Persuasion (Michigan State University Press, 2019).

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