I always love it when some record from the “Sixties folk music boom” comes on the radio, and one can wallow for three minutes in comically twee clean-cut earnestness: the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Brothers Four and all the other college boys pretending to be field-hands. As for the songs, I quoted in my Seeger send-off this trenchant analysis of his lyric style by James Lileks:
‘If I Had A Hammer’? Well, what’s stopping you? Go to the hardware store; they’re about a buck-ninety, tops.
Just so. Anyone can have a hammer, and hammer in the morning, hammer in the evening, hammer out danger, hammer out a warning, hammer out love between one’s brothers and one’s sisters all over the land.
But, upon reflection, the fact that the thought is idiotic is, I think, the point. If it made sense, it would sound too polished, too written, too Tin Pan Alley. It can’t be easy sitting in your study and writing brand-new “folk” songs when you’re a long way from the cotton fields. So somehow these guys got it into their heads that, if you sounded like a simpleton, it would come over as raw and authentic. I once spoke to a Vegas pal of Bobby Darin’s, who gave an hilarious account of Darin, coming out of his finger-snappy tuxedo phase, and agonizingly re-writing and re-re-writing his “folk anthem” “A Simple Song Of Freedom” because he was worried it was insufficiently simple.
The legacy of this period is less musical than political: half-a-century back, the self-consciously childlike “folk song” met the civil rights movement and helped permanently infantilize the left. I caught an “anti-war” protest in Vermont a few years ago and the entire repertoire was from the Sixties, starting with “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”, which as a poignant comment on soldiering was relevant in the Great War but has no useful contribution to make in a discussion on Iraq. And, as I observed of Pete Seeger’s visit to the “mass” protest movement of our own time, the more pertinent question with the Occupy Wall Street crowd is “Where have all the showers gone?”
Mark Steyn, “A Mighty Wind”, Steyn Online, 2014-02-01
September 1, 2014
August 27, 2014
Published on 26 Aug 2014
“Just this whole process of going through the baby boom’s history, I began to realize what a nicer society — kinder, more decent society — that we live in today than the society when I was a kid,” says P.J. O’Rourke, best-selling author of Holidays in Hell, Parliament of Whores, and many other titles.
O’Rourke sat down with Reason‘s Nick Gillespie at Freedom Fest 2014 in Las Vegas to discuss his new book, The Baby Boom: How it Got That Way and It Wasn’t My Fault and I’ll Never Do it Again. As the father of three kids born between 1997 and 2004, he also lays down some thoughts about millennials, noting that they live in a much nicer, more tolerant world than the one in which he grew up. “I don’t think my 10-year old boy has ever been in a fist fight,” says O’Rourke, who was born in 1947. “I mean there might be a little scuffling but I don’t think he’s has ever had that kind of violent confrontation that was simply part of the package when I was a kid.”
He also feels that the internet “fragments information” in a way that destroys the sweep of history, at least at first. “You end up with mosaic information,” he says. “Now, I think over time the kids put these mosaics together but I don’t think the internet itself lends itself to the sweep of history.”
The interview also includes a tour of O’Rourke’s long and varied career in journalism, from his humble beginnings writing for an underground alt-weekly to his time as editor of National Lampoon and his incredible work as a foreign correspondent for Rolling Stone to his current position as columnist at the Daily Beast.
A prominent libertarian, O’Rourke also discusses the difficulties in selling a political philosophy devoted to taking power away from politicians.
“If libertarianism were easy to explain and if it weren’t so easy to exaggerate the effects of libertarianism — people walking around with ‘Legalize Heroin!’ buttons and so on — I think it would’ve been done already,” says O’Rourke. “But the problem is, of course, is that libertarianism isn’t political. It’s anti-political, really. It wants to take things out of the political arena.”
August 12, 2014
In sp!ked, Jennie Bristow reviews P.J. O’Rourke’s latest book, The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And It Wasn’t My Fault) (And I’ll Never Do It Again).
For the British ‘Baby Boom’ was very different to its American sibling, in both respects of the word. Demographically, Britain – like many other Western countries immediately after the Second World War – experienced a spike in the birthrate, but this dropped back quickly until the mid-1950s, when there was a less dramatic, but more sustained, bulge over the next 10 years.
Size isn’t everything, however, and the other aspect of the Baby Boom label is the period of prosperity and growth that followed the war in the US. O’Rourke’s introduction to the UK edition of The Baby Boom points out another fact that tends to be ignored in the slating of the British Baby Boomers – that ‘postwar experience in America was very different from postwar experience in a place where war, in fact, occurred. That is, we had the “post-” and you had the war.’
Throughout the book, O’Rourke’s fond accounts of growing up during the Fifties, which are generally amusing and often stylistically annoying, hammer home the space, freedom, affluence and indulgence enjoyed by the American Baby Boomers as children. In Britain, accounts of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of the Fifties tend to extend to children playing by the river and neighbours leaving their front doors unlocked, glossing over the more drab reality that kids did not have anything to play with inside, and that most homes were not worth burgling.
Given the divergence in experience between the British and American Baby Boomers, one might wonder how the American debate, about the problems of the Boomers’ size, wealth and health (which, many grumble, means they will live ‘too long’, robbing younger generations of their fair share of pensions and healthcare resources), became plonked on to Little Britain with scant regard for the differences.
The answer lies partly in what the US Boomers did share with their counterparts in the UK, and in parts of Europe, too. This was the experience of growing up in the tumultuous Sixties, when youth appeared to be in the vanguard of a cultural revolution that swept aside established norms and values, rejecting the authority of tradition and, above all, of adults.
Swiftly demolishing another great myth about the Sixties, O’Rourke points out that, in reality, ‘the Baby Boom was the tailgate party, not the team on the field’: ‘There was a lot of “talkin’ ‘bout my generation” (Pete Townshend, born 1945), but it wasn’t my generation that was causing “What’s Going On” (Marvin Gaye, born 1939) during the “Youthquake” (a coinage from Punch, edited by people born when mastodons roamed the earth).’
July 5, 2014
I didn’t follow this particular case (or any of the recent British witch-hunting expeditions against former celebrities), but this post makes it seem as if at least some of the charges Harris was convicted of were remarkably flimsy:
Rolf Harris has been convicted and for many that is conclusive proof of his guilt. However, we should not forget that the British justice system is not perfect, it can make errors, as these high profile miscarriages of justice show.
I do not know if Rolf Harris committed the crimes he was accused of. However, I find the fact that he was convicted, based on the evidence reported by the BBC, alarming.
Let me explain why:
COUNT ONE – VERDICT: GUILTY
“The woman said she was aged seven or eight when she queued to get an autograph from Harris at a community centre in Hampshire in 1968 or 1969. When she reached the front of the queue, Harris had touched her inappropriately with his “big hairy hands”, she told the jury.
The court heard that no evidence could be found that Mr Harris had been at the community centre. He also showed his hands to the jury and denied they were hairy.”
When they say that no evidence could be found that Mr Harris had been at the community centre, they don’t mean a cursory glance turned nothing up. They searched local newspaper archives between January 1967 and May 1974, council records and even conducted letter drops appealing for witnesses. Nothing, not a single piece of independent evidence that he was ever there!
It is hard to see how the uncorroborated recollection of an event alleged to have happened 45 years ago, when the witness was eight, can constitute proof beyond reasonable doubt.
On another count of which Harris has been found guilty by the court:
So the accuser couldn’t remember when it happened (or how old she was), she couldn’t remember where it happened and yet the jury found her 36 year old memory of the indecent assault to be evidence beyond a reasonable doubt!
When we talk about the indecent assault we are not talking about something so traumatic, like rape, that it would understandably be burned into her memory. We are talking about a 17 year old having her bottom touched in the 1970′s, a time where bottom pinching was considered mainstream enough for popular TV shows such as Are You Being Served and on billboards for respectable brands such as Fiat.
Again, nobody who wasn’t there can be sure what Rolf Harris did or didn’t do in this case, but I know that there is an £11m incentive for people to make up accusations and without any corroborating evidence there has to be a reasonable doubt in favour of the accused.
I have no idea whether Harris is actually guilty of the accusations, but I’m astonished a court could convict based on such flimsy evidence. Clearly, at least in high profile media-related cases, the presumption of innocence has been replaced by a presumption of guilt.
July 3, 2014
Fred Siegel reviews Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed, by Jason Riley:
A half-century ago, the Great Society promised to complete the civil rights revolution by pulling African-Americans into the middle class. Today, a substantial black middle class exists, but its primary function has been, ironically, to provide custodial care to a black underclass — one ever more deeply mired in the pathologies of subsidized poverty. In Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed, Jason Riley, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal who grew up in Buffalo, New York, explains how poverty programs have succeeded politically by failing socially. “Today,” writes Riley, “more than 70 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers. Only 16 percent of black households are married couples with children, the lowest of any racial group in the United States.” Riley attributes the breakdown of the black family to the perverse effects of government social programs, which have created what journalist William Tucker calls “state polygamy.” As depicted in an idyllic 2012 Obama campaign cartoon, “The Life of Julia,” a lifelong relationship with the state offers the sustenance usually provided by two parents in most middle-class families.
Riley’s own life experience gives him powerful perspective from which to address these issues. His parents divorced but both remained attentive to him and his two sisters. His sisters, however, were drawn into the sex-and-drug pleasures of inner-city “culture.” By the time he graduated from high school, his older sister was a single mother. By the time he graduated from college, his younger sister had died from a drug overdose. Riley’s nine-year-old niece teased him for “acting white.” “Why you talk white, Uncle Jason?” she wanted to know. She couldn’t understand why he was “trying to sound so smart.” His black public school teacher similarly mocked his standard English in front of the class. “The reality was,” Riley explains, “that if you were a bookish black kid who placed shared sensibilities above skin color, you probably had a lot of white friends.”
The compulsory “benevolence” of the welfare state, borne of the supposed expertise of sociologists and social planners, undermined the opportunities opened up by the end of segregation. The great hopes placed in education as a path to the middle class were waylaid by the virulence of a ghetto culture nurtured by family breakdown. Adjusted for inflation, federal per-pupil school spending grew 375 percent from 1970 to 2005, but the achievement gap between white and black students remained unchanged.
June 12, 2014
In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf makes an argument that it’s time the United States put Martin Luther King on the $20 bill:
During the 2008 election, Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote an article for Culture11 about the significance of a Barack Obama victory. “On television screens from Bedford Stuyvesant to South Central Los Angeles, images will be broadcast of a black family — a father, a mother, and two little girls — moving into the White House,” he wrote. “Whatever you think of policy, the mere fact of electing a black man president, sending him to live in the nation’s most iconic, so far whites only house, would puncture holes through the myth of black inferiority, violating America’s racial narrative so fundamentally as to forever change the way this country thinks of blacks, and the way blacks think of this country — and themselves.”
I still think Williams had a point. Today’s six, seven, and eight-year-olds have no memory of an America with anything other than a black president. What seemed improbable to us as recently as 2007 is, for them, a reality so normal that they don’t even think about it. Yet these same kids are still growing up in a country where the faces celebrated on the paper currency are all white. I don’t want to overstate the importance of that. There is a long list of suboptimal policies that are vastly more urgent to remedy. Still, the lack of diversity in this highly symbolic realm is objectionable, and improving matters would seem to be very easy.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is a universally beloved icon who led one of the most important struggles for justice in American history. When Gallup asked what figure from the 20th Century was most admired, MLK beat out every single American, and was second overall in the rankings, placing behind only Mother Theresa. Putting him on money would not be a case of elevating a man simply for the sake of diversity. Yet it would address the fact that, but for racism, our money would’ve long been more diverse. The only loser here would be the historic figure kicked off of a bill.
MLK is the best symbol of the civil rights movement, but many preceded him in that long struggle. They ought to be featured on $20′s flip side. Perhaps it could include a timeline stretching from Harriet Tubman to Rosa Parks, putting them in the company of Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea, the women featured on U.S. coins. I suppose Jackson might be upset at my judgment that he is less deserving of our esteem than those figures. Then again, he might well support my plan. After all, few men in American history were as adamant about their hatred of paper money.
May 9, 2014
The Toronto Sun shares a portion of Peter Worthington’s Looking for Trouble (now available as an e-book) dealing with the trial of Jack Ruby. Worthington had been in the room when Ruby gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald.
The Ruby trial was pure showbiz. While the witnesses and characters who surfaced during the trial were Damon Runyon, the judge and lawyers seemed straight out of Al Capp and Dogpatch. Judge Joe B. Brown’s legal education before he was elected to the bench consisted of three years of night school 35 years earlier. In Dallas he was known as Necessity – “because Necessity knows no law.”
One day as a stripper who worked at Ruby’s nightclub called Little Lynn (who was over nine months pregnant at the time), was waiting to testify, seven prisoners in the connecting county jail grabbed a woman hostage and fled. They had fashioned a pistol of soap, pencils and shoe polish, persuaded guards that it was real, and made their break, witnessed by some 100 million viewers.
Little Lynn fainted and Belli prepared to play midwife. A BBC reporter on the phone to his office was describing the action and repeatedly swore to his editors that he was neither kidding, nor had he been drinking. “Listen, you bloody fools, this is America, this is Texas … any bloody insane thing is possible here!”
The next day, the New York Daily News ran an eloquent black headline: “Oh, Dallas!”
The jury returned in 140 minutes with a guilty verdict. In Texas, where the juries set the penalty, they opted for the electric chair.
Belli returned to San Francisco in disgust. “I shall never return here; it’s an evil, bigoted, rotten, stinking town.”
As it happened, Ruby died three years later and won a form of immortality and a place in criminal and political legend.
And as for conspiracy theories, the flaw is that Oswald was an ideologue, a semi-literate left-wing extremist, while Ruby wouldn’t know what an ideologue was unless he did a strip-tease for him.
To choose two such perfect foils on which to base a presidential murder plot challenges credulity. There has been so much official deceit, perjury, rationalization and cover-up that the deeds seem [...] more sinister than they actually have been.
We will probably never know the truth.
March 27, 2014
One of my all-time favourite jazz albums is turning 50, and the Smithsonian is marking the occasion:
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will kick off the 13th annual Jazz Appreciation Month March 26 at 11 a.m., with donations from Ravi Coltrane, son of international music legends, John and Alice Coltrane, and from notable jazz photographer, Chuck Stewart. Coltrane will then discuss his father’s career and the famed studio album, A Love Supreme, widely considered one of the greatest jazz albums of all time and celebrating its 50th anniversary. During its own 50th anniversary year, the museum is displaying Coltrane’s original score in the “American Stories” exhibition through June 17. The ceremony will be webcast live online.
Ravi Coltrane will donate his father’s Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone, made in Paris about 1965, the year that A Love Supreme was released. The saxophone is one of three principal saxophones Coltrane played and will be on view in the “American Stories” exhibition starting June 17. An accomplished bandleader and composer in his own right, Ravi Coltrane tours extensively with his own groups and with many other artists, including jazz musicians. He is a Blue Note recording artist.
“Today, a cherished and beloved Coltrane family heirloom becomes a national treasure and through Stewart’s never before seen images, our view of Coltrane expands,” said John Gray, director of the museum. “These generous donations help us preserve not only the legacy of individual artists, but of jazz music as a whole and its integral role in the history of music in America.”
H/T to Julian Sanchez for the link.
March 14, 2014
The death of Tony Benn was announced this morning, and the Telegraph‘s Iain Martin says that Benn’s political trajectory had three distinct phases:
The BBC‘s James Landale described it well this morning only minutes after the death of Tony Benn was announced. There were, he told the Today programme, three phases of Tony Benn the public figure. That is right, and in the second phase Benn almost destroyed the Labour Party. His death — or his reinvention as a national treasure from the late 1980s onwards — doesn’t alter that reality.
In the 1950s and 1960s Benn was part of Labour’s supposed wave of the future, serving in Wilson’s governments and embodying the technocratic approach that was going to forge a modern Britain in the “white heat of technology”. It didn’t work out like that.
But it is when Labour found itself out of power in 1979 that Benn the socialist preacher applied his considerable talents — his gift for public speaking and the denunciation of rivals — to trying to turn Labour, one of Britain’s two great parties that dominated the 20th century, from being a broad church into a party that stood only for his, by then, very dangerous brand of Left-wing extremism. In the wars of that period against Labour’s Right-wing and soft centre he did not operate alone, but he was the figurehead of a Bennite movement that created the conditions in which the SDP breakaway became necessary, splitting the Left and giving Margaret Thatcher an enormous advantage to the joy of Tories. When Labour crashed to defeat in 1983, Benn even said that the result was a good start because millions of voters had voted for an authentically socialist manifesto, which would have taken Britain back to the stone age if implemented.
From there, after a bitter interlude and a sulk, Benn began his final and, this time, wonderful transformation, during which he was elevated to the ranks of national treasure — a pipe-smoking man of letters, like a great National Trust property crossed with George Orwell. As with many journalists of my generation, I encountered him one on one only in that third phase, and found him, as many others did, a deeply courteous, amusing and interesting man. It was his defence of the Commons, against the Executive, that I liked, and when he spoke on such themes it was possible to imagine him at Cromwell’s elbow in the English Civil War, or printing off radical pamphlets before falling out with the parliamentary leadership after the King had had his head cut off.
January 18, 2014
Safe manufacturers generally ship their products with a factory-standard combination. Many people fail to change them once the safe is in use:
In England many years ago, chatting with a locksmith while he worked, I learned the following thing: One of the country’s leading manufacturers of safes shipped all its products set to a default opening combination of 102030, and a high proportion of customers never reset it.
He: “If I need to open a Chubb safe, it’s the first thing I try. You’d be surprised how often it works.”
This came to mind when I was reading the story about Kennedy-era launch codes for our nuclear missiles:
…The Strategic Air Command greatly resented [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara’s presence and almost as soon as he left, the code to launch the missile’s [sic], all 50 of them, was set to 00000000.
I use a random-string generator for my passwords and change them often. I guess safeguarding my Netflix account is more important than preventing a nuclear holocaust.
January 7, 2014
Chronologically speaking, I’m a late Baby Boomer, but I’ve never felt I was a Boomer culturally. In the New York Times, Richard Pérez-Peña helps to explain why this is:
This year the youngest of the baby boomers — the youngest, mind you — turn 50. I hit that milestone a few months back. But we aren’t what people usually have in mind when they talk about boomers. They mean the early boomers, the postwar cohort, most of them now in their 60s — not us later boomers, labeled “Generation Jones” by the writer Jonathan Pontell.
The boom generation really has two distinct halves, which in my mind I call Boomer Classic and Boomer Reboot. (Take this quiz to see where you stand.) The differences between them have to do, not surprisingly, with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — and economics and war. For a wide-ranging set of attitudes and cultural references, it matters whether you were a child in the 1940s and ‘50s, or in the 1960s and ‘70s. And it probably matters even more whether you reached adulthood before or after the early ‘70s, a time of head-spinning changes with long-term consequences for families, careers and even survival.
Late boomers like me had none of that — no war, no draft, no defining political cause, and most of our fathers were too young for World War II. I remember, as a teenager, seeing old footage of the riots outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, and thinking, “People my age don’t feel that strongly about anything.”
People raised in the immediate postwar years had more faith in their government, and an idealistic view of America that curdled in the ‘60s and ‘70s. My childhood memories of the evening news, on the other hand, include the war, protests, Watergate and the dour faces of Johnson and Nixon, not the grins of Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy.
In this way, I think we late boomers have more in common with the jaded Generation X that followed: we had less idealism to spoil. No, I don’t remember where I was when Kennedy was killed and innocence died (I was an infant), but I sure remember where I was when Nixon resigned and cynicism reigned. Older boomers may have wanted to change the world; most of my peers just wanted to change the channel.
H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.
To be kind, I wasn’t a fan of Paul Hellyer even before he started talking about aliens:
Paul Hellyer was Canada’s Minister of Defense in the mid-1960s. He is now a critic of the United States’ willingness to trigger an interstellar war with aliens — aliens who might give us more advanced technology if only we were less belligerent.
“They’ve been visiting our planet for thousands of years,” Hellyer told RT’s Sophie Shevardnadze in a televised interview.
“There’s been a lot more activity in the last few decades, since we invented the atomic bomb. and they’re very concerned about that, and about the fact that we might use it again,” added Hellyer, who said that a cold-war era commission determined that at least four alien species had come to Earth. “The whole cosmos is a unity, and it affects not just us but other people in the cosmos, they’ve very much afraid that we might be stupid enough to start using atomic weapons again. This would be bad for us and bad for them too.”
“I have seen a UFO, about 120 miles north of Toronto, over Lake Muskoka,” Hellyer said. The UFO “just looked like a star … we watched it until our necks almost broke. It was definitely a UFO, because it could change position in the sky by 3 or 4 degrees in 3 or 4 seconds. … There was no other explanation for it except that it was the real thing.”
The Star of Bethlehem, he added, was one of God’s flying saucers.
Moreover, the number of known alien species has leapt from “between two and 12″ to as many as 80, said Hellyer, the senior cabinet minister from Pierre Trudeau’s 1968 cabinet. “They have different agendas. Maybe all of us on earth should have have the same agenda. … Nearly all of them are benign, but one or two are not, and that’s what I’m investigating now.”
January 5, 2014
Okay, it isn’t really (but if you think it is, you’ve probably fallen for the “gullible isn’t in the dictionary” prank as well). In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout discovers that every defining event of the Baby Boom era always comes back to being about the Baby Boomers themselves:
Most “Monty Python” fans are, of course, baby boomers, who have long been a nostalgic lot and are growing more so as they totter toward old age. Witness their tiresomely obsessive fascination with the popular television series of their youth. Likewise their undimmed passion for the rock music of the 1960s and ’70s, which they still love so much that they’ll buy expensive tickets to see wrinkled old codgers play it onstage.
As always with the boomers, this nostalgia contains more than a touch of narcissism. The same narcissism was on display in many of the countless gushy boomer-penned reminiscences occasioned by the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. An indisputably major historical event, to be sure, but there was also something decidedly creepy about the self-centered tone of those suddenly-my-world-changed pieces, which was deftly skewered by this Onion headline: “Area Man Can Remember Exactly Where He Was, What He Was Doing When He Assassinated John F. Kennedy.” Like everything else in the boomers’ world, Kennedy’s death turned out in the end to have been all about them.
Not surprisingly, my parents’ generation did everything they could to make life easier for their own children. Was that good for us? I wonder. It certainly didn’t do us any good from a cultural point of view. I’m struck by how few boomers have embraced adult culture in middle age. My impression is that they’d much rather watch sitcoms than read novels, go to the opera or listen to jazz. In large part they’re a cohort of Peter Pans, determined not to grow up any more than they can help. Indeed, not a few of them seem to take a perverse kind of pride in their adolescent enthusiasms. I read the other day that a “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” lunch box from 1973 now sells for $1,200 — and that the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History owns one. I’m not quite sure which of those facts makes me sadder.
If I live long enough, I’ll enjoy finding out how the millennials remember the world of their youth a quarter-century from now. Since they’re having a much harder time earning a living than did their baby-boom parents, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if their attitude ends up being much more like that of the wised-up kids of the Great Depression, especially as regards cultural matters. While I don’t know whether they’ll go in for late Beethoven by the time they reach their 50s, somehow I doubt that watching an ancient episode of “30 Rock” will cause them to recall with fondness the good old bad old days when they were living in crummy studio apartments — or their parents’ basements.
November 22, 2013
Colby Cosh makes no friends among the over-60 Kennedy worshipping community:
The myth of Kennedy as a uniquely admirable knight-errant has finally, I think, been wiped out by the accumulation of ugly details about his sexual conduct and family life. For a while it was still possible to regard JFK’s tomcatting as the inevitable concomitant of super-masculine greatness. By now it is pretty clear that he was just an abusive, spoiled creep. There are scenes in White House intern Mimi Alford’s 2012 memoir that make you wonder why it took so long for somebody to shoot the swinish bastard.
As for the assassination itself, the experience of seeing conspiracy theories bloom like a toxic meadow after 9/11 has hardened us all against the nonsense that was still popular in the 1990s. Most adults, I think, now understand that Oliver Stone’s JFK was a buffet of tripe. It is no coincidence that Stephen King’s 2011 time-travel book about JFK’s slaying, written after decades of fairly deep research, stuck close to the orthodox Warren commission narrative.
The new favourite themes in the 50th anniversary coverage dispense with grassy-knoll phantoms and disappearing-reappearing Oswalds. One new documentary has revived Howard Donahue’s idea that the final bullet that blasted Kennedy’s skull apart might have been fired accidentally by a Secret Service agent in one of the trailing cars. This would help explain the oddity of the Zapruder footage, and might also account for some awkwardly disappearing evidence — notably JFK’s brain — without requiring us to believe anything obviously outrageous.
In the early ’70s Lyndon Johnson made a cryptic remark about JFK possibly being killed because his administration had been “running a damn Murder Inc. in the Caribbean.” This offhand remark turned out to be quite specific; rumours of multiple CIA assassination attempts against Castro were true, as were wilder tales of literal Mafia involvement (confirmed when the CIA “Family Jewels” were declassified in 2007). Oswald would not exactly have been anyone’s first choice as an intelligence asset, and probably had no state sponsor. But notice that it’s 2013 and we still have to say “probably.”
November 20, 2013
Virginia Postrel on the legacy of Jacqueline Kennedy:
When she was 22, the future Jacqueline Kennedy won a Vogue contest with an essay in which she dreamed of being “a sort of Overall Art Director of the Twentieth Century.” As first lady, she proved herself a genius at visual persuasion. She crafted her own image, refined her husband’s, re-created the White House’s, and even shaped America’s abroad.
Her most evocative and enduring image-making came when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, 50 years ago this week. She art-directed the funeral’s pageantry and then, in an interview with T.H. White for Life magazine, memorably linked her husband to one of the most powerful legends in the English-speaking world. Jackie created the myth of the Kennedy administration as Camelot: the lost golden age that proved ideals could become real.
The Arthurian legends traditionally operate as what the cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken calls “displaced meaning.” Every culture, he observes, maintains ideals that can never be fully realized in everyday life, from Christian charity to economic equality. Yet for all their empirical failings, such cultural ideals supply essential purpose and meaning, offering identity and hope. To preserve and transmit them, cultures develop images and stories that portray a distant world in which their ideals are realized — a paradise, a utopia, a golden age, a promised land, a world to come. Camelot is such a setting.
“When they are transported to a distant cultural domain,” McCracken writes, “ideals are made to seem practicable realities. What is otherwise unsubstantiated and potentially improbable in the present world is now validated, somehow ‘proven,’ by its existence in another, distant one.”
[...] The Kennedy administration ended with sudden violence from without, making Jackie’s analogy doubly potent. It suggested a parallel with a legendary Golden Age while simultaneously implying that, left to itself, this new Golden Age might have continued indefinitely. This Camelot was pure glamour: a frozen moment, its flaws and conflicts obscured.
Glamour invites projection. For 50 years, Americans of various persuasions have imagined their ideals embodied in a Camelot that might have been. Advocates of a vigorous Cold War foreign policy claim John Kennedy. So do their opposites. He did less for the civil-rights movement than his unglamorous successor, Lyndon Johnson, yet in imagination he would have done more. Above all, people imagine that somehow a living Kennedy would have prevented the tumult of the 1960s.