Barry’s Blog # 74: John F. Kennedy and America’s Obsession with Innocence (Part Two)

I shouted out, “Who killed the Kennedys?” When after all it was you and me.  – Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Myth Making

1 – Inventing Camelot

The Kennedy clan began to manipulate the media images of JFK and his immediate family long before his election and has continued to do so decades after his death. Shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, JFK, fully aware of both the political moment and the mythic implications, told a historian, “If anyone’s going to kill me, it should happen now.”

Then came Camelot — a myth that there once existed a magical kingdom ruled by a wise, brave and dashing king who was unshakably devoted to his beautiful queen and their children. familyHowever, the word “Camelot” never appeared in print to describe the Kennedy years until after his death.

Only a week after the funeral, his widow put her definitive stamp on the new myth. She told Life Magazine and its thirty million readers that the President had been especially fond of the music from Camelot, the popular Broadway musical about King Arthur. He and Jackie had enjoyed listening to a recording of the title song before going to bed at night. JFK, she said, had been especially fond of the concluding couplet: “Don’t ever let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was Camelot.”

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Jackie was determined to convince the nation that her husband’s presidency was a unique and magical moment, and one that was now forever lost. “There will be great presidents again,” she said, “but there will never be another Camelot.” JFK, as his widow wanted him to be remembered, was The King – a peacemaker, like King Arthur, who died in a campaign to pacify the warring factions of mankind. The Camelot myth of the 1960s was born, a retelling of the earlier myth.

But the Camelot image as applied to the Kennedy presidency had some unfortunate and unforeseen consequences, writes James Piereson:

By turning President Kennedy into a liberal idealist (which he was not) and a near legendary figure, Mrs. Kennedy inadvertently contributed to the unwinding of the tradition of American liberalism…The images she advanced had a double effect: first, to establish Kennedy as a transcendent political figure far superior to any contemporary rival; and, second, to highlight what the nation had lost when he was killed. The two elements were mirror images of one another. The Camelot myth magnified the sense of loss felt as a consequence of Kennedy’s death and the dashing of liberal hopes and possibilities…the best of times were now in the past and could not be recovered…The Camelot myth posed a challenge to the liberal idea of history as a progressive enterprise, always moving forward despite setbacks here and there toward the elusive goal of perfecting the American experiment in self-government. Mrs. Kennedy’s image fostered nostalgia for the past in the belief that the Kennedy administration represented a peak of achievement that could not be duplicated.

Millions of baby-boomers date their disillusionment and loss of idealism from this point. From this perspective, democracy died along with the President. The assassination was, plainly and simply, a military coup, and since then elites in media and government have colluded in maintaining the con: a veneer of legitimate, democratic process. Sociologist Linda Brigance writes that without their heroic king, Americans began to feel a

…paradoxical combination of romantic yearning and fatalistic inevitability… (that) set the stage for the political cynicism and civic disengagement that characterized post-assassination America.

Beginning a few years later, Americans have maintained one of the lowest levels of voter participation in the industrialized world, with typical voting levels of 50% in presidential elections. Consider for example the “Reagan revolution” of 1980 that the pundits tell us ushered in a great swing to the right in political opinion. It actually was propelled by just over 50% of the vote count, or about 26% of potential voters. This was a lower percentage than Adolph Hitler won in 1932.

2 – The mythmaking Industry

Television began with only a few networks (all of which displaced regular programming with live coverage of JFK’s funeral). But in the age of the Internet, the mythmaking (and the anti-mythmaking, which is its mirror opposite) grew into an industry.

It has continued on both the right (Kennedy, they say, was more militaristic, more corrupt, more conservative and accomplished far less than Richard Nixon) and the left (Kennedy, they say, was murdered because he was intent on withdrawing from Viet Nam. Consider the ongoing controversy of his National Security Memorandum # 263.

Gore Vidal, a ruling class insider (until he turned critic) who knew Kennedy well, has said:

And it is now part of the Kennedy legend, that had he lived, this war would not have taken place, or would not have pursued, or would not have escalated. I can promise you…that he would have been as deeply in it as (Lyndon) Johnson…I liked him tremendously, and I hang his picture in my library, not as an icon, not as a memory of Camelot, not as a memory of glorious nights at the White House or in Bel-Air; but never again to be taken in by anybody’s charm. He was one of the most charming men I’ve ever known, one of the most intelligent, and one of the most disastrous presidents I think we’ve ever had.

Vidal made that last statement long before the age of Bush / Obama / Trump, so we must put it context. But it does have bearing on how we consume our myths.

Liberal mythmaking can be understood in the context of lost innocence and longing for the return of the King. But a careful look at media articles around the 50th anniversary of the assassination reveals that the great majority of them continue to take the official narrative for granted and use various subtle means of demonizing critics.

By the way, it isn’t even the official narrative anymore, and hasn’t been since 1978. That year, the House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations found that in addition to Oswald, there likely was a second gunman. The commission concluded that the shooters were part of a “conspiracy,” without determining exactly who was behind it.

But the gatekeepers have their assignment, and it hasn’t changed for decades, despite the Committee’s conclusions. It is profoundly critical to the myth of American innocence that a so-called “troubled individual” killed Kennedy. The Lone Gunman has become another stock character in American myth, evoked whenever (several times in the past year alone) a mass shooting occurs – and, following it, every time, some pundit some pundit is sure to bloviate that “we’ve lost our innocence.” The stereotypical lone Gunman functions very specifically to divert our attention from the mass violence that we perpetrate daily upon the Third Word and upon our own children. He is a fundamental cog in the establishment – and regular re-establishment – of our sense of innocence.

Ironically, the Lone Gunman is the mirror opposite of the Western Hero, who, in dozens of movies) defeats the villains by himself, without the aid of the citizenry. High Noon is the classic example. Both of these Lone Gunmen, one directly and one in reverse) symbolize and teach our foundational value of American rugged individualism – and, equally foundational – the violent resolution of disputes.

This is why the gatekeepers continue to marginalize the “conspiracy buffs.” If indeed Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone, if in fact a wide-ranging military-industrial conspiracy was responsible, if the C.I.A. murdered him (as up to half of us still speculate) then America is not exceptional, no different, no freer, no better than any other nation. And if we call that idea into question, then the whole, monolithic edifice of American innocence (empire, masculinity, misogyny, white privilege and capitalism, not to mention freedom and opportunity) come up for review, as they did by the late 1960s.

In mythological terms, Dionysus causes cracks in the great walls of Thebes, and all the repressed parts of the psyche, all of the un-grieved ghosts of the past come roaring into the city, intent on revenge.

Peter Gabel writes about the trauma that the nation experienced:

But the real trauma, if we move beyond the abstraction of “the nation,” was the sudden, violent loss for millions of people of the part of themselves that had been opened up, or had begun to open up during Kennedy’s presidency…

In order to contain the desire released by the Kennedy presidency and the sense of loss and sudden disintegration caused by the assassination, government officials had to create a process that would rapidly “prove” – to the satisfaction of people’s emotions – that the assassination and loss were the result of socially innocent causes…

… the lone gunman theory…isolates the evil source of the experience in one antisocial individual, and leaves the image of society as a whole…untarnished and still “good.”…(It)…reinstitutes the legitimacy of existing social and political authority as a whole because it silently conveys the idea that our elected officials and the organs of government, among them the CIA and the FBI, share our innocence and continue to express our democratic will. But from a larger psychosocial point of view, the effect was to begin to close up the link between desire and politics that Kennedy had partially elicited, and at the same time to impose a new repression of our painful feelings of isolation and disconnection beneath the facade of our reconstituted but imaginary political unity…

…The interest we share with the mainstream media and with government and corporate elites is to maintain, through a kind of unconscious collusion, the alienated structures of power and social identity that protect us from having to risk emerging from our sealed cubicles and allowing our fragile longing for true community to become a public force.

In 1967 the CIA coined a new phrase in response to widespread skepticism of the Warren Commission. It sent out specific instructions for “countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists”  (my italics). The Agency recommended using assets such as “friendly elite contacts (especially politicians and editors)” who could be provided with ready-made talking points.

Ever since that date, gatekeepers throughout academia and the major media have lumped together all critics of the dominant narratives of American history under this phrase. Applying what I have called the myth of equivalency, they typically mention assassination or 9-11 researchers in the same sentence, with the same sarcasm, as Obama “birthers” so as to imply that all are equally loony.

For more on this subject, please see two of my blogs, here and here.  And you can find two  links, here and here, to further commentary on the issue of media gatekeeping.

Curiously, the Obama administration (like all administrations since that of Lyndon Johnson) continued to give ammunition to those who question the dominant narrative. In 2010, a federal archivist stated that only about one percent of the five million pages of government files on the assassination had been withheld from public view. But that amounts to some 50,000 pages, and the Obama administration did nothing to facilitate that process.

Next: Part Three – The Dying God

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3 Responses to Barry’s Blog # 74: John F. Kennedy and America’s Obsession with Innocence (Part Two)

  1. jp says:

    do you know phil ochs’ overtly archetypal song about the assassination ‘crucifixion’? here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UtNDTEqp_k

    • shmoover says:

      Thanks — I’d forgotten about that sing. As Freud said, ““Everywhere I’ve gone, a poet has been there before me.”

      • jp says:

        please note my comment made July 23, 2013 at 2:33 pm for post 61 [?] is still awaiting moderation. happy holidays [on this the 9th day of xmas]

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