President John F. Kennedy gave an historic speech on June 26, 1963, to a crowd in front of the Berlin Wall. Two years earlier the Soviet Union had built this wall to keep people from fleeing to non-Communist countries, mainly West Berlin, and Kennedy was praising the character of the people of West Berlin in their pursuit for freedom during this period of the Cold War. Speaking from an outdoor platform to an audience of 450,000, he began his speech:
Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum [“I am a Roman citizen”]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner!” …
After a pause in which the crowd cheered, he said, “I appreciate my interpreter translating my German.” Then he continued his speech.
John Kennedy was a successful speaker, and this speech was considered to be one of his best, but commentary centered on his use—or misuse—of the German phrase. The claim is made that Kennedy referred to himself not as a “citizen of Berlin,” but as a “jelly-filled donut.” In parts of Germany, a Berliner is a breakfast pastry. The controversy hinged on his use of the indefinite article ein, and whether or not that changed the meaning of the phrase.
I was thirteen and in no way interested in politics, but I couldn’t miss hearing about the president’s “big gaffe.” As a prolific talker, I sympathized—I’d mis-spoke many times myself—and wondered why people had to make such a big deal about it. Everyone knew what he was trying to say, and for the most part the crowd gave him credit for his attempt to speak their language.
Have we humans progressed in the last 50 years? We still pounce on errors and dissect them ad nauseum. We love reality shows where people treat each poorly, without respect or courtesy. We pass on scandalous gossip. We want to know the details of the latest celebrity marriage breakup and the latest arrest. And all I have to do is mention campaign ads, and we all cringe.
We could choose another focal point than that which is wrong or bad. Not ignore, not ignorance, not innocence.
Our choice. Our focus.