Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Torch and the 60s, Fifty Years On

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.

We might as well accept it: we're in for a long run of fiftieth anniversaries in the months and years to come. With our media, our culture, our economy, and our politics so thoroughly stamped by the Baby Boomer experience, it could hardly be otherwise; "the Sixties" looms large in all of us, whether we admit to it or not. And as far dating the beginning of the Sixties is concerned, the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inauguration as president, with his stirring--yet, I think, also strangely distant--address, is a better anniversary than most.

The news has been filled this week with commemorations--including some from some of my favorite bloggers and writers--of the life and work of Sargent Shriver, who died on Tuesday at the age of 95. A Kennedy brother-in-law who founded the Peace Corps, and went on to a life of enormous accomplishment in government and public service--including constructing much of President Johnson's War on Poverty in the years after Kennedy's assassination--he never won political office himself. He ended up as the vice-presidential candidate on the chaotic 1972 Democratic ticket with George McGovern, and they were crushed by Nixon. That was a terrible loss, not just because of everything that happened in the Nixon White House afterward, but also particularly for Christian socialists like myself: what would have become of our national political debates, I wonder, if we'd had a couple of unconventional, deeply religious Democrats like McGovern and Shriver in the White House when Roe v. Wade was decided? But perhaps that's the wrong way to think about things: after all, by the early 70s the revolutions in how we think about government, and how we think about ourselves--revolutions which JFK, whether he intended it or not, was central to the beginnings of--were more than a decade underway.

I've never had particularly strong feelings, one way or another, about President John F. Kennedy. His short presidency has always been, for me anyway, far too much a phenomenon best known through myth, and far too obviously serving as a kind of synecdoche for an entire era, for me to develop anything so pedestrian as an "opinion" about it. Can one have an opinion about a moment in time? About his predecessor, Eisenhower, and his successor, Johnson, I can talk about the significance of their policies, their perspectives, their leadership style and their political impact. But with, not really, I can't, not with any confidence anyway. He's too large, and therefore too indistinct, for any of that. Through looking at the life and career of Martin Luther King, for example, I can particularly situate and judge JFK and his actions in regards to certain trends and movements and transformations, but only momentarily; as soon as I turn the page, he's gone, ghosted away into a world of symbols, into "the Sixties" and all that such a reference means. Much of it, of course, from the bureaucratic idealism of the Peace Corp and the War on Poverty (a progressive, governmental idealism which Shriver's career exemplified), to the democratic and moral fervor of the civil rights movement and the early years of the Students for a Democratic Society, is admirable, whatever its complications and limitations. But the larger spill-over of that idealism, the heady, yet culturally undirected and in some ways self-centered legacy of Kennedy's concluding words--"that here on earth, God's work must truly be our own"--arguably gave a giant green light to an encompassing individualism, one which undermined the very collective language which his speech is most famous for.

There are worse fates for a president, to be sure, than to be reduced (or enlarged?) by history into a commodity, a symbol, a sign: a sign of youth, change, progress, and innovation, and eventually of lost causes, Baby Boomer corruption and obliviousness, sexual and social irresponsibility, and dreamy might-have-beens. We've been living with this contradictory legacy of 1960s (economic security giving rise to rebellious experimentation, radical challenges being sublimated into the socio-economic status quo, visions of progress revealing themselves to be pragmatic adjustments to almost seemingly predetermined results, lather, rinse, repeat) ever since. He was the youngest man ever elected president, and the one (despite the occasionally successful efforts of both Clinton and Obama) most obviously associated with a specific generational mindset. And the people of that generation knew that, at the time, as it was happening: as Norman Mailer put it in a long profile of JFK's journey to the White House in the November 1960 issue of Esquire, in electing Kennedy president America was "enlist[ing] the romantic dream of itself...vot[ing] for the image in the mirror of its unconscious." Forget all the other ideological accouterments of Kennedy's brief administration that on their own provide more than enough grist for myth-making and idealization (the celebration of the intellect and the arts, the manly and--for some--attractively irresponsible militarism and virility, the revived and revised expression of the familiar republican language of self-sacrifice and civic duty--"ask not what your country can do for you" and all that). His youth alone, his age alone, the sense of independence and liberation which is very appearance and words carried alone, did much of the trick.

And so, metaphorically, he lit a torch...and, of course, the torch continues to literally burn on his grave. Arguably, that thing we call the Sixties had really started the year before, when a group of ambitious young men forged themselves into what eventually became the dominant engine of the emerging world-wide youth-oriented pop culture and market economy. Just as arguably, a key ingredient of that culture--a critical and educated sharpness, combined with a self-indulgent, self-referential, self-mocking pretentiousness--was only just getting started (check back next Monday for more on that). And, of course, Kennedy's own brother Robert would emerge, towards the end of the 1960s, as perhaps the purest distillation of the confusing and contradictory images and legacy which his slain brother ended up laboring under. But John F. Kennedy himself was the essential ingredient, the catalyst that jump-started the simmering pot of America's postwar economy and public opinion and somehow built a bridge which took us from the Cold War to everything that came after. With the death Shriver, some would argue that we have finally, tragically, left that era--that bridge--behind us. I'm doubtful of that. That we've left the bridge Kennedy behind us is indisputable; no sane politician today could approach government work and the idea of citizen service with anything like the confidence which JFK exhibited fifty years ago (unfortunately, I say). But still, we can see the ruins of it in the rearview mirror. It's a huge, burning landmark, and I suspect we aren't likely to entirely leave its shadow for a long time to come.

(And no, in case you're wondering, I don't have anything to say about the canceled big-budget Kennedy miniseries...except that the image in the Youtube clip of Tom Wilkinson as patriarch Joseph Kennedy, Sr., draped with an American flag, kind of makes me giggle.)

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