Friday, May 05, 2006

Lee Harvey Oswald: Doubly an Assassin

I still have little grasp on just how deeply the Kennedy assassination affected the country. I had absorbed my parents' and grandparents' ethnic and religious pride at having one of "us" rise so high and exit the stage of life so dramatically, Kennedy's potential still seeming to have been unwasted. Walker Percy was so moved that he scrapped work on his novel The Last Gentleman and started over almost from scratch--an action still mysterious to me. Then there are Don DeLillo's novels which dive into the paranoid disbelief and cynicism which ironically betray the idealism of the man considered to be a president-martyr.

A recent article in Commentary supplies an analysis of the assassination's effect, showing how the cynics' interpretation of the event both gravely wounded establishment liberalism and helped to spawn the rough beast of sixties radicalism. Select excerpts:

It is one of the ironies of the era that many young people who in 1963 reacted with profound grief to Kennedy’s death would, just a few years later, come to champion a version of the left-wing doctrines that had motivated his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. But why should this have been so? What was it about mid-century liberalism that allowed it to be knocked so badly off balance by a single blow?


What, then, explains the resilience of such fanciful and conspiratorial thinking? Part of the answer surely lies in the enduring need of the Left to circumvent the most inconvenient fact about President Kennedy’s assassination—that he was killed by a Communist and probably for reasons related to left-wing ideology. If the case against Oswald can be clouded or denied, it opens up the possibility that Kennedy was killed by a more familiar villain, one of the many malignant forces on the Right.


This idea, too—that the nation as a whole was finally to blame for the assassination—came to be repeated widely and incorporated into the public’s understanding of the event. Liberals in particular tended to see Kennedy’s death in this light, that is, as an outgrowth of a violent or extremist streak in the nation’s culture. Yet doing so required its own species of doublethink, for the fact is that Oswald was not in any way a representative figure. He played no role in any domestic extremist movement. His radicalism was wholly un-American and anti-American. Even as a Communist or radical, he was sui generis. There was nothing about Oswald that even remotely reflected any broader pattern in American life.


For many American liberals, the shock of Kennedy’s death compromised their faith in the nation itself. Against all evidence, they concluded that a violent strain in our national culture was somehow to blame. A confident, practical, and forward-looking philosophy with a heritage of accomplishment was thus turned into a doctrine of pessimism and self-blame, with a decidedly dark view of American society. Such assumptions, far from marking a temporary adjustment to the events of the 1960’s, have proved remarkably durable.
-James Piereson, Lee Harvey Oswald and the Liberal Crack-Up

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