Sunday, November 22, 2015

November 22

We Interrupt This Program For An Important News Bulletin

CBS News' Broadcast Interruption: 12:48PM CDST, November 22, 1963

For longer than I want to remember, I've been gnawed by a feeling that the world has deteriorated since JFK's assassination. Inexorably gone, right into the toilet. And, it's not possible to consider that without also remembering Martin Luther King's. And Bobby's. But this isn't a conversation about conspiracy, so much as the relevancy of November 22nd to America in 2015.

On November 22, 1963, it was as if the universe had shifted on its axis in Dealy Plaza... and later, on the second floor landing of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis... and then in a service corridor near the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.  And without those events, my sense is this world of 2015, in all its dangerous splendor, might not have happened.

It's just a feeling, not a fact -- and given that humans (and Dogs) tend to remember the past as a time when things were more secure, more full of promise than the present, it's no surprise that 1963 seems better. But even with that understanding, my feeling won't go away.  Every year on this date, I take that sense of things out of the memory box and look at it again.

Most Americans unconsciously accept the notion that we're special, god-blessed, preeminent in the world; we are best representatives of human civilization. It's a High School Civics Class view of who we are: a narrative of endless natural resources and boundless personal opportunity, in a democratic Republic protected by two huge oceans and two pliable geographic neighbors.

Our country developed in response to the tyranny of the Old World -- where powerful cabals ran things and murder to advance their interests could be common; where royalty could imprison you, or take what little you had, on a whim. They owned you from birth, and when you died they would rent your children pennies to place on your eyes.

The New World, The United States Of America, was a place where that couldn't happen -- because here all are equal before The Law, and all have an equal shot at becoming rich as princes themselves.
You're agent Hoffman, yeah?... German extraction? ... My name's Donovan. Irish -- both sides, mother and father. So, I'm Irish, you're German -- but what makes us both Americans? Just one thing... the rule book. We call it the Constitution. We agree to the rules, and that's what makes us Americans; it's all that makes us Americans. So don't tell me there's no rule book -- and don't nod at me like that, you son of a bitch.
-- Tom Hanks, as James Donovan [speaking circ. 1960], Bridge Of Spies (2015)
It's tempting (particularly if you were there for it) to believe the early 1960's were a golden age. JFK's assassination was a tragedy -- but it's too simplistic to use his death as just a metaphor for everything that's gone wrong after. I happen to believe the metaphor (the most favored was Camelot; the death of Arthur and the end of a golden age) has a good deal of truth in it -- but his assassination means something more seminal for all of us than the death of a noble man. Context is everything.

The Cold War defined the post-WW2 age. The West had seen Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' descend, then the Berlin blockade; an ugly proxy war in Korea; the suppression of Hungary by Russian troops. Finally, Cuba's 1959 revolution was too close to home; the CIA (as led by John Foster Dulles) was already attempting to assassinate Castro, or remove him through a planned invasion by CIA-backed anti-communist Cubans at the Bay Of Pigs. 

Richard Nixon, Eisenhower's Vice-President, was a known quantity for the Pentagon and 'The Company'. It isn't much of a stretch to imagine they hoped for a Republican victory in 1960.  In their plans to defeat the Reds, JFK wasn't supposed to have become President.  Nixon would rubber-stamp whatever the CIA had developed.

But the 1960 election was the most closely contested presidential race in the 20th century: Kennedy beat Nixon in the popular vote by just 0.17% -- less than two tenths of one per cent. But he also beat Nixon in enough key precincts in key states to win more than 270 electoral votes. In that contest, it's the only math that matters.

However, there were hints of voter fraud which benefited Kennedy in some of those key precincts. Immediately after the election, influential Republicans tried convincing Nixon to demand a recount, but Tricky -- wounded, angry and self-pitying -- rejected the advice... luckily for America, and the world, as it turned out

JFK wasn't Nixon, but he agreed to the CIA-backed invasion of Cuba.  When it failed, within hours of it's start, the military begged Kennedy to commit American air, naval and ground troops to support the invasion force. Kennedy refused (an Admiral asked JFK about sending in Navy jets and was told, No. "Why not?" the admiral asked. JFK, amazed at the question, replied, Because they're American planes! The admiral paused, then asked, "Well, what if we paint out the [aircraft identification] numbers?"). Attacking Cuba would be a first strike without a declaration of war, Kennedy said, and America's declared policy was never to act 'like the Japanese at Pearl Harbor'. 

Kennedy believed that Dulles and his CIA had lied, and attempted to manipulate the country into war: the sheer arrogance of it nearly left him speechless. Eventually, Kennedy fired Dulles and the head of the CIA's Operations Directorate, Richard Bissell, and said he wished he could "splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds"  

(This was a dangerous mistake. Kennedy believed he understood politics, and how tough things could get -- but in the end, people didn't kill each other. He assumed that the CIA, for all its power, was just another government bureaucracy. As President, he never appeared to understand that the agency might contain persons deluded and arrogant enough to have him killed -- if, in fact, that's how it went down.)

A year later, JFK was President when Soviet IRBMs were discovered in Cuba,  in part as a response to the Bay of Pigs. Only by careful backchannel diplomacy, by defying the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and luck, did Kennedy and his core advisors avoid a full-scale nuclear war.

We know now there were nearly 60,000 Soviet troops on the island, possessing tactical nuclear weapons under the control of local commanders. If Richard Nixon had been President in the fall of 1962, I doubt he would have resisted the advice of the Joint Chiefs to bomb the missile sites, followed by a full invasion of Cuba.  I doubt any of us would be alive to read this.

In 1963, Kennedy was murdered, in public; later, so were MLK and RFK. I understand how it can feel true that the world has gone to hell in a plastic bag since, but the currents which created our present situation had been in motion long before that morning in Dallas.
You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West... There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.
-- Ned Beatty as Arthur Jensen; "Network" (1976), Written By Paddy Chayefsky
Commerce had been globalizing beforeWW2.  Intelligence agencies, once a backroom adjunct to diplomats and the military, became secret, unaccountable instruments of U.S. foreign policy (in the eight years of the Eisenhower administration, Dulles' CIA destabilized governments and arranged the murder of national leaders -- actions Americans had never done before).  Industrial processes and chemicals that affected our water, air, and food chain were used on an increasing scale with little or no oversight.

The Cold War paranoia of the McCarthy era was still in the air, and it lasted for decades. Even in the 1970's when applying for jobs, I had to sign a Loyalty Oath to the Constitution and the government, a requirement to swear you were not then and had never been a member of an organization advocating the violent overthrow of that government. Hoover's FBI keep track of anyone of interest.

And underneath it all, like an underground river moving in the dark, was our unacknowledged history of disenfranchisement, slavery, exploitation, prejudice, hypocrisy and inequality. The facts about what business and intelligence connections were doing wasn't common knowledge, but people sensed things in America were... not right, but in the social contract of 1960, you didn't acknowledge them. If you did bring them up, it was -- well, impolite: Don't make waves. Don't be disagreeable. You can't fight city hall. Don't spoil the party for others. And, You don't like it here, go to Moscow !

I don't pretend to know who was responsible for killing JFK. I don't believe we will ever know. A Gallup poll taken in November, 2013, noted that eighty per cent of adults contacted replied that they believed Kennedy was killed as the result of a conspiracy.  Who ran that conspiracy -- the Mafia, the CIA; Lyndon Johnson; the Commies, or Space Aliens -- is less clear.

The common wisdom is that 'They' killed him. And Martin. And Bobby.  That whoever 'They' are, They're powerful enough to murder an American President, his brother, and a Baptist minister who was the spirit and conscience of Black America. Powerful enough to keep it a secret for 52 years.

Woody Allen's joke in the mid-1960's, that he was "still waiting for a non-fiction version of the Warren Report", made people laugh -- not because it was funny, but because it struck a nerve: the Report's conclusions were Official History and almost everyone sensed something was wrong with it.

After November 22, 1963, The Sixties that followed, everywhere, were partly driven by a shared understanding that we were living in a lie. The cognitive dissonance between the Official History of America, and that feeling we weren't being told the truth, ended up fueling a tremendous amount of social change.

This is the real metaphor of JFK's assassination. His murder and the inquiry that followed was a lie told in public and made into Official History. His death was like some original sin, the truth of which would bring down empires if known. So other acts, more protective lies, grew around that original sin like scar tissue.

It almost doesn't matter any longer who killed him. What matters was that we were lied to in order to hide the guilt of those responsible. In America, murderers aren't supposed to be above the law -- but these are. By birth or wealth or influence, they're exempt from the kind of accountability and punishment an ordinary American would face. 

JFK's death is symbolic of that gulf between the narrative we tell ourselves about America, and the truth of where we've been.  The greater the difference between the two -- the further we are from the Freedom, Equality and Opportunity, from the Equal Justice Under The Law in our national story -- then the more we feel cheated, manipulated, lied to.  The more we feel like We, The People, aren't more than chattel for someone else's enrichment and amusement.

... That's where we are today. And, at least for me, that's what November 22nd represents.
A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.
-- John F Kennedy; Amherst College Address: October 26, 1963


  1. "we feel cheated, manipulated, lied to" - and in response, some of us become fans of donald trump (my wife's favorite niece, about to have her first child next month, is married to a guy who has made his facebook page a billboard for the donald)

    who knows if it's good or bad?

    (as another of life's persistent questions puts it, "compared to what?")

    1. We live in a place and time where narcissism and domination by force are celebrated and lauded. The heroes of the majority of Americans are *business leaders* -- not men and women of conscience, or creativity, or compassion.

      It isn't that the majority are incapable of being thoughtful, or compassionate, as individuals. But they seem to accept as a basic assumption that life is a Darwinian gladiatorial competition, and that to be a 'business leader' assumes such people have all the attributes necessary to not only succeed but thrive: Intelligence, patience; a little streak of ruthlessness in their gameplay -- the 'will to win'.

      Work Hard, Play Hard -- and at the end, they've built a mighty empire, with generous leavings for their issue. Only the results matter. The greatest good for... well, the deserving. The ones who served them well. The Little People don't have that same 'will to win', the drive and competitive spirit. They aren't The Elite -- and so don't have their names already written in the Book Of Life and (because god has already predestined who is Chosen and who not) are the Preterite and therefore are already damned -- or, so the Calivinist Puritans believed, anyway. And it's what Trump, in his tiny sclerotic heart, accept and believe in some fashion as well. In that view, he's one of the Elite, favored by god; one of life's Winners. "See? He got that money and power. Gotta mean somethin'... don't it?"

      Who's to say if it's good or bad? Oh, okay. I will. It's *bad*.


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