Saturday, November 23, 2013

In loving (and selective) memory

Dealey Plaza, looking at the grassy knoll (left) and the former
Texas School Book Depository Building (background).
How long can a city wear sackcloth and ashes for a crime it didn’t commit?

The memorial at Dealey Plaza was rather low-key, which could have been expected even without the bone-squeezing wet cold of the day. Some conspiracy theorists and some citizens protesting police brutality tried to horn in on the solemnities. It could have been worse, however: it could have turned into an anti-conservative bashapalooza.

 The fact is, a significant number of people younger than me — depending on where you place the cutoff, I’m either at the trailing edge of the boomers or in the vanguard of Generation X — tend to view the youth of the 1960s as supremely narcissistic, and the annual spasm of grief over the assassination of John F. Kennedy as just one more symptom of their emotional retardation. And, in all candor, the constantly reiterated “death of innocence” line is not only tiresome and melodramatic but inapposite, as cynics aren’t necessarily any more objective than are idealists; cynicism is merely idealism distorted by despair.

Nevertheless, this cross-generational impatience is too brutally dismissive. Even with a proper appreciation of Kennedy’s all-too-human failings as a Catholic, a husband and a politician, there is still no known sin in his life up to that point that made his death a poetic justice. Even Abraham Lincoln’s most vociferous opponents were astonished and mortified by his death, and Lincoln was a far more controversial man who held power during a more violent, agonized period of our history. By contrast, even given some of the tensions created by the civil rights movement during the time, nobody could look objectively at the events of 1963 and say that Kennedy’s assassination was inevitable. By any reasonable evaluation, it was a tragedy and ought to be acknowledged as such.

However, in the midst of the ritualized outpouring of nostalgia and mourning for a popular president gunned down in the prime of his manhood, there has been some effort to rewrite the history surrounding Dealey Plaza so progressives can draw parallels between 1963 and 2013 — parallels that are far-fetched and, quite frankly, inane.

But if the JFK story has resonance in our era, that is not because it triggers the vaguely noble sentiments of affection, loss, and nostalgia that keepers of the Kennedy flame would like to believe. … What defines the Kennedy legacy today is less the fallen president’s short, often admirable life than the particular strain of virulent hatred that helped bring him down. After JFK was killed, that hate went into only temporary hiding. It has been a growth industry ever since and has been flourishing in the Obama years. There are plenty of comparisons to be made between the two men, but the most telling is the vitriol that engulfed both their presidencies.

Rich spends some time trying to nail Kennedy to the cross of “hatred”, referring us to William Manchester’s The Death of a President, Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and even contemporary editorials in the Dallas Times Herald and the Austin American to convince us that sectionalist rage somehow manifested itself in Lee Harvey Oswald. Nor is Rich alone in this effort. In his speech at Dealey Plaza, current Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings (a Democrat, natch) intoned, “Our collective hearts were broken. … A new era dawned and another waned a half century ago when hope and hatred collided right here in Dallas.” And the Kansas City Star quoted the Dallas Morning News as saying, “Indeed, this city had a broad streak of in-your-face right-wing politics born of Cold War anxieties and sectional resentments. The darker angels of our nature had stature and voice, so much so that Kennedy said his Texas trip was a foray into ‘nut country.’”

It’s called a false correlation or cum hoc fallacy. E occurred while C was present; therefore C caused E. Make reactionary hatred as significant a feature as you want of Dallas in 1963, it still doesn’t follow that that right-wing rage should find expression in a troubled self-described Marxist known to his fellow Marines as “Oswaldovich”. Right there, credibility snaps; as if one were to suggest that Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme or John Hinkley was an avatar of liberal rage.

The point, of course, is to draw parallels between John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, and Barack H. Obama, the first African-American president. Quoth the editors of the Star:

We live again — or perhaps still — in angry times. And today, as in 1963, much of the anger is directed at a leader who is seen by many as “different,” a disruption of the image that some people hold of the nation and the person who represents it as president.
In 1963, Dallas was a hotbed for conspiracy theories, contempt for the federal government and insinuations about the president’s loyalties and motives. Half a century later, all of that mistrust and anger has metastasized through the Internet, cable news and other media.

Except that, while we can never know for a fact why Oswald shot Kennedy, we can be reasonably certain that it wasn’t because of Kennedy’s Catholicism or his civil rights policies. Significantly, Oswald had earlier tried to kill an outspoken anti-communist and segregationist, Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker, an action that simply can’t be squared with sectionalist racial prejudice. While Kennedy and Walker were functionally opponents on civil rights issues, Kennedy had firmly established anti-communist policies; Oswald, who had distributed pro-Castro literature in New Orleans, most likely saw Kennedy as a threat to the success of Communism and may have persuaded himself that Johnson would be more lenient towards Cuba and North Vietnam. Communism, not race, is the common denominator.

This is worth dwelling on. As a Marxist, Oswald had more in common with the progressives of today than with the reactionary businessmen and angry racists evoked by Rich. A more logical connection can be drawn between his own activities in 1963 and the work of the Symbionese Liberation Army between 1973 and 1975. As significant as the reactionary rage was, it serves to distract us from the violence perpetrated in the name of social justice over the next couple of decades.

There’s no small measure of selective memory being exercised here. The Dallas where businessmen declared Kennedy “Wanted for Treason” was also the Dallas where thousands of residents packed the sidewalks along the presidential route to cheer him lustily on. (Said a rider in his car, “You certainly can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you, Mr. President,” just seconds before the first shot.) Some Southerners declared themselves happy that “that n****r-lover” was dead; in Dallas, however, there was as much grief and fear as there was elsewhere, nor has any longtime resident ever taken pride in the city being the locus for such an act.

I would be a fool to pretend that Pres. Obama could never suffer an attempt on his life. But nuts have tried to kill many presidents; including FDR, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan and — of all people! — Gerald Ford. Successful and unsuccessful, assassinations have been attempted in many different sorts of political climate.

But climates don’t kill people. People kill people.

By all means, let’s stop hating. But let’s also stop pretending that Kennedy is a martyr to reactionary anger.