Yes, I know precisely where I was when someone murdered John Fitzgerald Kennedy. No, I do not want to hear where the hell you were. Nor do I want to read or watch any “retrospectives” on his assassination. Nor do I want to read or watch orations on what might have been had the shot or shots missed. I’m only concerned with what the hell actually happened in and to America since Kennedy died.
A half century has passed since my infatuation with Camelot. Fifty years have passed since the naïveté of my youth promised me wars will end, peace will reign, and society will be equitable. Even after the brutality of Daley’s thugs disrupted the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Camelot sang as my siren. Even after gunfire from the National Guard killed four students at Kent State, I still believed in what the precisely cultivated mass mediations of JFK presented to me while he lived. Even after Nixon and his protect-me politics of Watergate, I had faith in process, politics, and people — even some politicians.
In his inaugural address, Kennedy spoke of the Cold War, but I heard something different, something that to me presaged an American rebirth.
So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
More than four decades before Barack Obama promised it, Kennedy did. Hope. Change. A way forward.
All that is gone. We no longer wear rose-colored granny glasses. Camelot has retreated to what it really was — a myth, an abstraction, a fairy tale, a media-constructed diversion for the masses from the economic and political realities of the times. Five decades later, Camelot has disintegrated into Clusterfuck.
Hope? Really? For what? A better way of life? On whose terms? At what cost? In seeking office, Ronald Reagan asked: “Are you better off than four years ago?” Now, looking back, should the American question be: “Are we better off than we were 50 years ago?”
Has the American educational system served our children better or worse in five decades? Are we a dumber nation now? Has education regressed to merely training serfs for the machine?
Has the American economic system — and its 1970s assimilation of the credo maximize shareholder income — produced a citizenry capable of spending sufficiently to support consistent economic growth? What has the momentum of the shift in wealth from the many to the few accomplished? And what has our economic system wrought on the finite natural resources of this planet?
In five decades, which have we experienced more: Peace? Or war or the constant posturing for war? Has our time, talent, treasure, and blood been tragically misspent?
In five decades, has the curve of civic decency — i. e., treat the electorate fairly — in our nation’s elected leaders ascended or descended? Five decades ago, even though power and dollars have always had their roles in politics, did we envision a Congress owned by corporations? (And unions?) Did we anticipate a Supreme Court that would reinvent humanity by bestowing the rights of individuals onto corporations?
Did we trade individual freedoms championed by Kennedy (and his brothers) for the “security” of the Patriot Act? Do the actions of the National Security Agency and President Obama’s murder-by-drone foreign policy transcend Kennedy’s vision of American exceptionalism?
Have American (and now transnational) media industries served more as distraction industries than truth-telling ones? Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! From whence do we find truth today? Google? YouTube? Twitter? Facebook? Al Jazeera?
That “one brief shining moment” of the mediated Kennedy’s life was sufficient to sow so many of my peers into the Garden of Liberalism. Even in our Eisenhowerian childhoods, we were taught each generation would be “better off” (we should have asked what that meant) than its predecessor. Kennedy’s media ministrations succored the optimism of those in a generation abhorrent of wasteful war and determined that slogan-bearing picket signs and campus civil disobedience would bring peace and prosperity throughout the land.
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Kennedy seduced us with his aroma of American exceptionalism, though we didn’t know it. He may have had faith in his own words and ideals, but after five decades, many of us look back not with nostalgic longing for echoes of Camelot but with the feeling that we were sold a particularly deceptive bill of goods.
Kennedy, as mediated image, inspired belief in his ability, his idealism, and his political agenda. So did Bobby; so did Teddy. True, they and other normally ethical politicians of the day had their baser instincts: attain and retain power. They courted the political and financial means to do so. But they knew how to govern, how to negotiate, how to compromise.
But five decades ago, I never imagined those baser instincts would become the normative means of
governing mismanaging this country. Now government is populated by too many uninterested in governing, unable to negotiate, and unwilling to compromise. The modern political credo is simple: I’m right, and you’re fucking wrong, asshole. That is the Clusterfuck that governs America today.
At my age, I will not live to see those baser instincts abate. So I ask my students, as young and naïve now as I was five decades ago: Who is your Kennedy?
If they have one, they should check for feet of clay, inspect for signs of puppet masters, and accept no heavily mediated future vision without serious reservations. I even offer a slogan for their picket signs: Fuck the Clusterfuck!
Right. Good luck with that, kiddies.
photo sources (top to bottom):
Goran Tomasevic / Reuters