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Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism Hardcover – May 21, 2007
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From the Inside Flap
It has now been more than forty years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on the streets of Dallas on November 22, 1963. No event in the post-war era, not even the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has cast such a long shadow over our national life. The murder of the handsome and vigorous president shocked the nation to its core, and shook the faith of many Americans in their institutions and way of life. The repercussions from that event continue to be felt down to the present day. Looking back, it is now clear that Kennedy’s death marked a historical crossroads after which point events began to move in surprising and destructive directions.
In Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, James Piereson examines this seminal event from an entirely new and provocative point of view. Most books on the assassination take up the question as to who was really responsible for killing the President. Mr. Piereson takes it as established fact that Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald.
What needs to be explained, he argues, is the bizarre aftermath of the assassination: Why in the years after the assassination did the American Left become preoccupied with conspiratorial thinking? How and why was John F. Kennedy transformed in death into a liberal icon and a martyr for civil rights? In what way was the assassination linked to the collapse of mid-century liberalism, a doctrine which until 1963 was the reigning philosophy of the nation? In answering these questions, Piereson places great weight on the influence of Jacqueline Kennedy in shaping public memory of her husband and the meaning of his death. The Kennedy assassination, he argues, is a case study in public myth-making and the ways in which images and symbols can override fact and substance in political life.
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Since the days of opposing the Whigs, the Left has thought itself superior because it was calm and rational. It was not irrational and given to conspiracies. Whereas those on the right pointed to outside enemies, like Communism as America's greatest threat; the Left pointed to the crazies on the Ameircan right, like Joseph McCarthy, as the greatest danger facing the country. Then came the assassination of JFK. His supporters just knew he was a martyr for some important cause, like civil rights. But, his killer turned out to be a lone pitiful little Communist. The Left ignored the facts and Oswald to begin blaming the Right and the country. A culture of violence spawned by the philosophy of the Right had to be the cause for JFK's death. Anything else meant that the Left had been wrong the whole time and the Right was correct. It was just too much to believe that a Communist, someone from the philosophy of the Left was Kennedy's killer. The result was that within hours the Left became what it had always believed the Right alone to be: irrational people who ignored the facts and believed myths and conspiracies. The situation grew even more pronounced with the rise of the radicalism that protested against the Viet Nam War.
One flaw is that after the fall of Communism in the Eastern Bloc, Colonel Stanislav Lunev wrote a book about how the USSR had fomented much of the radical protest against the Viet Nam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but this book makes no mention of the Russian role in American protests it hoped would destabilize American society,
It is an interesting book to read, especially for anyone who experienced the 1960s and remembers the Kennedy Assassination.
A Catholic commuter kid from Queens, I loved Kennedy.
I think the author correctly characterizes Kennedy as. Pragmatic politician, one who was decidedly anti communist, but " not afraid to negotiate." He was a casualty of the Cold War killed by a communist. The John Birchers of the left made "all of us" responsible for his death.
I remember an interview in which Kennedy said he was "an idealist without illusions" and one where he sought to advance the notion that his family was not merely nouveaux riches but instilled with a bit of noblesse oblige which is Gaelic for public service is an honorable calling.
Liberals and the Kennedy family, the author suggests, did not like the Cold War narrative and so they dressed him anew as a latter day Lincoln.
The Cold War really was a "long twilight struggle." Kennedy was killed at midday but in another sense it really was dusk.
The first was the Progressive Era which was mainly procedural (direct primaries, voter initiatives, direct election of senators). The next was the New Deal which was mostly substantive (welfare, social security, deposit insurance). The current era which was just beginning in the time of JFK can be described as cultural (now affirmative action, same-sex marriage, amnesty for illegal aliens).
The close election of JFK in 1960 marked a new beginning in American politics. Much of the public was no longer interested in frugal types from humble backgrounds like Truman, Eisenhower, or Nixon. JFK was rich, young, energetic, telegenic, sophisticated, and glamorous with inspirational rhetoric tailor-made for television. He was America's first celebrity president and the author notes how he basically moved from politics to celebrity while Reagan later moved from celebrity to politics.
JFK was a staunch anti-communist and pragmatically lukewarm on civil rights. While he was part of the liberal left, he preferred to call himself a moderate. Oswald was a communist sympathizer who defected to the Soviet Union, later returned to America, then decided revolutionary Cuba was the place to be, and had a visa to visit there at the time of the assassination.
Piereson explains that the assassination of JFK by a leftist created a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance in the liberal community. Only someone from the right wing could do such a terrible thing. The liberal establishment then made Oswald's communism irrelevant and began placing blame on the right. It was the right that was guilty because it had created an atmosphere of hate and violence with anti-communism and southern opposition to civil rights. Led by Jacqueline Kennedy the liberals made JFK into a martyr for civil rights instead of a martyr to communism.
When the right had earlier been claiming there was a communist conspiracy within America, liberal writers dismissed conspiracies as delusional and irrational. But after JFK's death they promoted various conspiracy theories to blame perceived rightist institutions such as the FBI and CIA as the culprits. Meanwhile the liberal media, again led by Jacqueline Kennedy, had turned JFK's pragmatic administration into a modern-day Camelot, a magical place with a magical leader.
There are three major mythical heroes in the English-speaking world. The first is King Arthur of England who lived in the 5th century in the real Camelot. The second was JFK who was made into a mythical hero because of his assassination. The third would be Barack Obama who was given a god-like status even before he had done anything besides getting elected, especially by the young who are particularly susceptible to fantasy.
The author provides some very interesting information about Oswald which has been largely suppressed. Oswald spent three years in the Marines and was stationed as a radar operator in Japan at a base where the secret U-2 reconnaissance planes would take off for spy missions over the Soviet Union. Afterwards in 1960 when Oswald was in the Soviet Union, a U-2 was shot down over Russia and many believe Oswald gave the Soviets information that helped them shoot down the plane.
Piereson ends by also describing post-KFK liberalism as Punitive Liberalism where the emphasis has shifted from progressive reform to punishing America for its past sins as perceived by the left. Since this attack was against the majority, it had to be largely done through courts and government bureaucracies instead of the democratic process. This process is particularly evident in affirmative action which is essentially legal discrimination against the majority.