Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Kennedy assassination and the liberal breakdown

James Piereson has just written a short and penetrating book on the aftereffects of the Kennedy years and Kennedy's assassination on American liberalism, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism. Liberals and liberalism clearly suffered a nervous breakdown in the years after 1965. Piereson argues persuasively that the Kennedy administration and especially his death had a decisive negative effect on liberalism, which has never really recovered from that period.

The factual core of his argument is accepting, as all educated persons open to reason do, that the assassin Oswald acted alone, motivated by his far-left political beliefs. Piereson marshalls the evidence to this effect and notes the lack of counterevidence, especially to support the wide range of conspiracy theories that substitute for simply accepting the facts. But while Oswald acted alone, he did not think alone. He was a convinced Marxist, of the emerging "new" Left type, incensed by the Kennedy administrations attempts to eliminate Castro and his regime. He had defected to Russia in 1959, returned with his Russian wife in 1962, then attempted to meet Cuban diplomats and agents in Mexico City a couple months prior to the assassination. There's no evidence that Oswald was a "sleeper agent" programmed by the Soviets, and little evidence in that direction in connection with the Cubans. But there's also little question about his motives. The available evidence runs to thousands of pages of police and FBI files, scraps of declassified KGB files, plus Oswald's writings and publicly-stated beliefs. Part of the reason for the lack of a wider-ranging official investigation was simple embarrassment over the FBI and Secret Service's having missed such an obvious danger.

At the time of Kennedy's death, liberals were obsessed with a vague entity called the "radical right" and starting their long mental night of disconnection from reality. As Piereson goes to great pains to explain, especially to readers under 50 who were not present or old enough to understand the events first-hand, liberals continued to be obsessed with the "radical right" even after Kennedy's assassination. Little could be done to persuade the liberal elite, the media, academics and clerics, et al., to pay attention to the facts. Here was the origin of all the conspiracy theories about the assassination: a refusal to accept the obvious and a replacement of facts by preconceived "narrative." It was a failure of the respectable establishment itself; the wackos then cashed in on the establishment's own abandonment of reason and capitulation to fantasy. This is the moment when the media began to float free of facts and liberalism started to come unhinged. "Narrative" buried plain truth. Conservatives, on the other hand, had little difficulty accepting the bare facts and, as a matter of disposition, did not have the naive belief in automatic upward progress that most liberals shared at that time. They were shocked, but not surprised, by the assassination.

While Johnson was able to turn Kennedy's memory into a remarkable legislative accomplishments in 1964 and 1965 (the Civil Rights Bill, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Bill), liberals had by that point become dissatisfied with the old-style liberalism of the Progressive and New Deal eras and its programmatic basis. Kennedy had inadvertently awakened a yearning for something else entirely: a liberalism of style and ultimately a cultural radicalism, converting politics from bread and butter self-interest into obsessions about identity: the personal as political. Some even saw it at the time: Kennedy's own aristocratic air; the wealth and glamor of Jackie and their children; and America's burgeoning culture of celebrity, about to become pervasive with the rise of television, which itself made Kennedy's election in 1960 possible. Johnson won what was at that time the largest landslide in American history in 1964, but this victory proved ephemeral. Within a few years, liberalism was under fatal assault, not from without, but from within, as radical children rebelled against liberal parents.

Liberalism proved more fragile than expected, in contrast with standard liberal beliefs at the time. In less than 15 years, it went from an optimistic, hopeful, and forward-looking movement to a guilt-ridden and backward-looking movement of punishment and decline. I might discreetly add that the "new" punitive liberalism serves the class interests of the cultural elite. But the public at large are its designated victims, which is why it can't be directly sold to them. Instead, it has to be imposed by the courts and screamed in everyone's ears by the media and academia. This explains why the Boomers, radical children of the Greatest Generation, didn't look to conventional politics as their vehicle, unlike their parents and grandparents. Instead, they fomented the rise of "para-politics": the media, activist groups, and the courts. With these, they could reshape politics, not by voting or running for office, but by seizing the cultural megaphone and beating the drum of fake crisis as a front for the real agenda. As the Obama candidacy suggests, "punitive" liberalism is still with us, although since the 80s, it has had to adopt a wide range of cloaking strategies to hide itself - otherwise, voters would simply reject it.

The events of the decade-and-a-half starting in 1965 revealed that American liberals had become a panicked mandarin class, projecting their decline outward, and obsessed with exaggerated or invented problems, constantly trying to bully voters into accepting their dark vision. Whatever prospect the "new" liberalism of the 60s and 70s had of achieving legitimate electoral success was dashed in 1980 by Reagan's election. The Clinton years of the 90s proved frustrating for left-liberals. While Clinton was fairly popular (even though not a majority president) and his later policies more so, the left of the Democratic party found little way to force its agenda into American politics, in spite of its disproportionate influence in liberal institutions (universities, media, mainstream churches).

The Kennedy assassination itself, as Piereson explains in some detail, was the central event in this change. Waves of nostalgia and myth-making engulfed the liberal classes, distorting who Kennedy was and why he was killed. A sense of irreplaceable loss overcame much of the nation, giving rise in some quarters to despair, which is typically the root of political rage and radicalism. JFK's assassination was the first of a series of assassinations in the 60s and 70s encouraged by the rise of television, much as an earlier wave of assassinations in the late 19th century was encouraged by the rise of the telegraph and the penny press. The killing of Malcolm X in 1964 and Sirhan Sirhan's 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy (motivated by RFK's support of Israel - Sirhan was a Jordanian-Palestinian) did not fit the template of the liberal obsession with the "radical right" either. Only Martin Luther King's 1968 death at the hands of James Earl Ray, a self-confessed loser acting out notions of white supremacy shared by parts of white society in those days, fit anything like what the liberal "narrative" required, although King's death, like the movement he led, is best viewed as a follow-on to the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination.

Pre-1965 liberalism is now a lost world to us. It's hard to remember that modern liberalism, from the 1890s until the early 1960s was the main party of ideas and reform in American life. Kennedy's own policies, while containing a liberal strain (such as the Alliance for Progress, the Peace Corps, and a belated recognition of the civil rights movement), were also exceptionally aggressive in opposition to communism as it spread into the Third World and newly decolonized countries. The Kennedy assassination started the disintegration of this older "reform" liberalism and accelerated its replacement by the new punitive liberalism. The mid-century liberal movement itself became split into radicalized and neoconservative wings. These events showed that, contrary to what many of its spokesmen believed, modern liberalism was not as rational a movement as it imagined itself to be. It had strong latent reserves of denial, selective misuse of facts, and wishful thinking. It took a series of unexpected and inexplicable disasters, starting with the Kennedy assassination, to bring that potential out. Often it's not events themselves, but people's reactions to them, that prove decisive.

In the years since, nothing has replaced the centrality of liberalism as America's guiding political philosophy, not Reagan-Goldwater-style conservatism, not neoliberalism, nor the flash-in-the-pan of neoconservatism. Its absence has opened a void in American life not yet filled.** Instead, the leftover fragments of the once-ascendant liberalism fight it out in a deepening twilight. It is worth remarking on the striking fact that, 40-plus years later, liberals and liberal institutions (especially the media) are still acting out and upon many of the themes of that era of disintegration. The era of FDR came to an end between 1968 and 1980. The era of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon - including its misunderstood events, trends, and traumas - is, strangely, still with us.
* The terminology reflects the vague anxieties of liberals who, by the late 1940s, were establishment, although they often had a hard time admitting this, even to themselves. (That's why Senator McCarthy could make them such an effective target for populist-style attacks, especially while the Korean war was still on.) While various portentous theories about the "radical right" were floated to "explain" who "they" were, the concept was never defined. If they were the pre-war isolationists, they had been discredited and marginalized. If they were the American fellow-travelers of fascism, they were never large in number and in precipitous decline by the 1960s. If they were the new post-war conservatives, there was never any danger of political violence - the problem here is that liberals had weak answers to attacks from the free-market, individualist right, whose anticommunism and opposition to collectivism were always more consistent and better thought-out. The real problem was that liberals continued to have a "no enemies on the left" mentality that served them poorly during the cultural revolution of the later 60s and 70s.

By then, as Piereson points out, it was clear that the main threat to liberal democracy in America was from this violent and anti-American "new" left. That movement's toxic residue remains in our major liberal institutions (academia and the media), which have been powerfully corrupted by it. Unfortunately, today's remnant of liberals still have a hard time seeing this - and thus, are slow to accept the free-market revival of the 80s, the end of the Cold War, and threat that political Islam poses to Western and non-Western nations. In the first two instances, they fundamentally misinterpreted the course of modern history. In the last, many cannot process something so alien to Western sensibilities.

** Just one fact alone demonstrates the enormity of the change. In 1964, almost 55 percent of registered voters were Democrats. Today it's slightly less than a third.

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