Monday, November 18, 2013
November 18, 2013: Times Like These: 1963
[In such bitterly partisan and divided times, it can be easy to feel as if things have never been this bad before. Without downplaying the genuine challenges presented by our own moment, however, it’s well worth AmericanStudying other similarly polarized eras. So this week I’ll highlight five such moments, and think a bit about what we can learn from them. Your thoughts, on these moments, our own, or any others, are very welcome as always!]
On the bitter divisions that preceded, and perhaps even contributed to, a tragic day.
On November 21, 1963, the day before John F. Kennedy was assassinated, numerous copies of a flyer featuring Kennedy’s picture (arranged like a mug shot) and titled “Wanted for Treason” were distributed in Dallas (most likely by members of the John Birch Society). Many of the seven (almost entirely inaccurate and ludicrously extreme) “treasonous activities against the United States” that the poster attributes to Kennedy feel, to be blunt, as if they could and perhaps have been written in the last year or two about Barack Obama with virtually no changes; but while those echoes have a great deal to tell us about our contemporary moment and its historical origins and connections, they’re not my main point here. Instead, I think the flyer helps us to contextualize Kennedy’s assassination, to realize that—whether or not Oswald had the slightest thing to do with the flyer or had even seen it or anything like it—Kennedy was governing in an era of increasingly unhinged and explicitly violent (if we remember the penalty for treason) right-wing rhetoric, published and circulated en masse, for purposes that can at best be called divisive.
One problem with seemingly “lone wolf” assassinations (like Oswald’s of Kennedy, unless you go down the Oliver Stone route of course) is that the dominant narrative of such events can make it far too easy for us to elide the culture of extreme and violent oppositional rhetoric (as in the Kennedy flyer) in which the lone wolf committed his or her crime. Which is to say, it’s usually not, to my mind, either-or. There are those assassins who are obviously and centrally driven by specific historical and social contexts, such as John Wilkes Booth in his murder of Lincoln; and there are those who are pretty clearly just plain nuts, such as John Hinckley in his Jodie Foster-inspired attempt on Reagan. But in many—if not most—cases, a political assassination represents a complex combination of these two factors—an individual who is sufficiently detached from normal reality and society to plan and commit such an act, operating within a historical and social climate that fosters violent perspectives and responses and attacks on political figures.
Which leads me to a few questions about one of the most violent moments in our recent political history. Was Gabrielle Giffords’ shooter influenced by the map on Sarah Palin’s website featuring key “targeted” Democratic Congressional districts (including Giffords’) with crosshairs over them? Did he know that Giffords’ Tea Party-endorsed opponent in the preceding election was an Iraq War veteran who featured a fundraising event where supporters could come out and shoot an M16 to “help” unseat Giffords? Did the shooter have any connection to the multiple times her office had been vandalized and she had received death threats after the passage of the health care reform bill, a bill for which she voted and to which Sharron Angle and others were in part referring when they spoke of “2nd Amendment remedies” if elections don’t do the job (and Giffords did indeed win re-election)? The overt answer to all of those questions might well be no, but I believe we cannot and should not attempt to understand his actions without at least some awareness of and engagement with these contexts.
Next divided era tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other divided moments you’d highlight?