Friday, November 22, 2013

A lesson we never learned

It's very difficult to make it through this week without learning that today is the 50 year anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

There's a big misconception that JFK was an important civil rights leader, and that that may have cost him his life. This is very wrong for two important reasons.

Despite what folk songs tell you, Kennedy did not consider the civil rights of black Americans a priority and did little to help them. He was much more concerned with the future of the Democratic party and as a senator in 1957 he voted against civil rights legislation. In the words of the BBC's Nick Bryant, he was a bystander on civil rights for the first two and a half years of his three years in office. The only contributions he made were in words, not actions:

At times, however, his rhetoric was considered inadequate. James Meredith, whose determination to register as the first black student at University of Mississippi led to one of the climactic battles of the civil rights era, submitted his application in anger at Kennedy's failure during his inaugural address to denounce the evil of segregation... 
On civil rights, his early inaction as president led white segregationists to believe they could prolong segregation, and prompted black protesters to adopt more provocative tactics and make more radical demands.

The other big reason why Kennedy should not be considered a civil rights martyr is that we know what motivated his killer. For reasons I won't get into here, it's well established that Lee Harvery Oswald assassinated the president. Oswald was a communist and Kennedy focused a lot of his energy on fighting communism.

A recent New York Times piece about the political climate in Dallas in 1963 as compared to today tried to blame right-wing extremism on Kennedy's death, but it had to admit that Oswald was to the left of Bernie Sanders with this reluctant paragraph:

Lee Harvey Oswald was a Marxist and not a product of right-wing Dallas. But because the anti-Kennedy tenor came not so much from radical outcasts but from parts of mainstream Dallas, some say the anger seemed to come with the city’s informal blessing.

"Some say" being reporter lingo for "A point I wanted to make in the story but couldn't find anyone to say it for me."

Kennedy was behind the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, went through the tense Cuban Missile Crisis and was a friend and defender of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. His policy of containment and reversal for communist influence was called the Kennedy Doctrine.

In his book "Death of a President" William Manchester quoted JFK's wife Jackie as saying "He didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights... It had to be some silly little communist."

Kennedy's murder is a tragedy, and a tragedy we should learn from, but we can't ever learn anything if we hide behind myths and stories. Something Steven Pinker said tells us exactly what that lesson is:

...there are ideologies, such as those of militant religions, nationalism, Nazism, and Communism, that justify vast outlays of violence by a Utopian cost-benefit analysis: if your belief system holds out the hope of a world that will be infinitely good forever, how much violence are you entitled to perpetrate in pursuit of this infinitely perfect world? 
Well, as much as much as you want, and you're always ahead of the game. The benefits always outweigh the costs. Moreover, imagine that there are people who hear about your scheme for a perfect world and just don't get with the program. They might oppose you in bringing heaven to earth. How evil are they? They're the only things standing in the way of an infinitely good Earth. Well, you do the math.

Kennedy was a martyr in the battle against communism, a battle that we may have to fight again one day. Let's make sure we learn before history repeats itself.

1 comment:

  1. "Of course, having on the market a rather large source of cheap labor depresses wages outside of that group, too – the wages of the white worker who has to compete. And when an employer can substitute a colored worker at a lower wage – and there are, as you pointed out, these hundreds of thousands looking for decent work – it affects the whole wage structure of an area, doesn’t it?"