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Icons & Assassins

By Violet Socks

"Violet Sacks" originally posted this critique of "progressive" reactions to the shootings in Tucson at her website, www.reclusiveleftist.com.

The past week has been full of bizarre responses to the Arizona shooting, and if I weren’t so tired and depressed I’d grace you all with a 10,000 word essay on the subject. But I am tired and depressed, so I’ll just pick the one moment that continues to intrigue me. It was this: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s essay in the Huffington Post. It’s a fine essay, and RFK Jr.’s personal reminiscences of the impact of the JFK assassination on his family are poignant. I also share his repugnance for right-wing vitriol, both then and now.

But the essay is missing a sentence. I was so sure the sentence had to be there that I read the entire piece three times, and then started doing page searches to find the missing words. Surely the sentence was there and I was just somehow not seeing it. It’s the sentence that goes something like, “Ironically, despite the atmosphere in Dallas, it turned out that Uncle Jack’s assassin was a misguided pro-Castro Marxist.” Because that, of course, is what actually happened. That was the great irony of the JFK assassination. Dallas was infested with wingnuts (though they weren’t called wingnuts back then), and at first everybody thought that’s who killed the president. But lo and behold, it was just Lee Oswald, delusional Communist blowhard. As Jackie Kennedy remarked bitterly, JFK didn’t even have the “satisfaction” of dying for his liberal ideals; instead his assassin was just a “silly little Communist.”

In fact, that’s the point I thought RFK Jr. was going to make when I started reading the essay. Everybody in Dallas in 1963 thought it was a right-wing hit, and they were wrong; that’s the parallel with Tuscon. But no, that wasn’t the point RFK Jr. wanted to make. He just wanted to talk about the dangers of right-wing hate. Okay, fine. That’s cool. Let’s talk about it. But still: how do you leave out the sentence about Oswald? As a writer, how do you do that? I couldn’t. It feels obligatory. You write this highly-charged essay, you make a big deal about how ugly the right-wing stuff was in Dallas, you evoke the horror of the president’s death; even if you want your takeaway message to be about the dangers of superheated rhetoric, how do you leave out the undeniable historical reality that Oswald was cut from an entirely different bolt of cloth? Even if you tuck it in as a parenthetical throwaway (”of course, ironically…”), you still have to acknowledge it. Don’t you?

I had just about persuaded myself to forget about it—chalk it up to a single editorial decision not to muddy the main point—when I learned today that Eric Boehlert wrote an extremely similar essay in 2009 http://mediamatters.org/blog/200909180004: A President was killed the last time right-wing hatred ran wild like this. It’s exactly the same argument RFK Jr. makes, and with exactly the same stunning omission. No Oswald! Oswald has simply disappeared. He’s gone. And everything that motivated the man is gone. No Cuba, no Fidel, no Soviet Union, no Marxism, no Communism, no nothing. There’s not even a nod to Oswald’s real motive, which was the inchoate longing to be somebody, to be a great man, to be important.

So is this what we do now? Is this the program? Fifty years later, we just make it be about whatever we want it to be about? (Mr. Derrida, white courtesy phone. White courtesy phone, Mr. Derrida.)

Ironically, people will accuse me of having an ulterior motive for even saying this. So you’re defending right-wing hatred? So you’re arguing that the left is just as bad? Blah blah blah. Actually, here’s my ulterior motive: truth. I like truth. I like facts. I like knowing what really happened.

Here’s what happened in Dallas in 1963: Lee Harvey Oswald saw his chance at history and took it. The motorcade route was published in the newspaper just a few days before the presidential visit, and Oswald realized that JFK’s car would be passing right in front of his own place of employment, the Texas School Book Depository. He didn’t hate the president, but he did resent JFK’s policy towards Cuba. Oswald was a self-taught Marxist; he’d defected to the Soviet Union right after getting out of the Marines. The Russians pegged him for what he was—a mentally unbalanced loser—and tolerated him as an awkward guest. He married a Soviet wife and eventually returned to the U.S., tired of the Russian winters, the boring low-level factory work he was given, the absence of anything remotely glamorous or exciting.

Back in the U.S., he revered Fidel Castro, tried to do some political organizing for Cuba, read Communist papers, probably listened to Havana’s Radio Free Dixie on his shortwave set, and yearned to help with the revolution. He felt sure he was destined to play some stupendous role in history, if only he could figure out how. Throughout 1963 he bounced from one thing to another, from job to job, from Texas to Louisiana and back, floundering around, trying to find his place. Going to Cuba was one possibility: a few months before the JFK assassination he went to Mexico City and tried, unsuccessfully, to get a visa to Cuba. He also tried to persuade his wife Marina to help him hijack a plane to Cuba. And he seems to have hit upon the idea that shooting somebody important here in the U.S. might be a good move: maybe it would make him a revolutionary hero, or at least a name for the history books. In April 1963 he tried unsuccessfully to kill the right-wing anti-Communist General Edwin Walker, using the same bolt-action rifle he would later use to blow off John Kennedy’s head.

So did the atmosphere of right-wing vitriol in Dallas contribute to JFK’s assassination? I think that’s a hard case to make. The connection is tangential and reactionary at best: Oswald wouldn’t have shot JKF if he hadn’t already gotten the idea (and the nerve) to kill General Walker, and he wouldn’t have tried to kill General Walker if the latter hadn’t been a vitriolic wingnut. Hmm. Not very satisfying.

Nor can you even say that the anti-JFK stuff in Dallas gave Oswald the idea of killing the president. He’d already tried to shoot General Walker back in April. In October 1963 he watched We Were Strangers, a film about political assassination, and according to Marina was very excited by it. There’s also good reason to believe he’d seen Suddenly and The Manchurian Candidate, both films about shooting a U.S. president—and both starring Frank Sinatra, weirdly enough. (Wait, is Frank implicated?)

If you want to make the case that violent political rhetoric in general begets real violence, then make that case. Don’t fudge the data and don’t cherry pick your facts. Don’t talk ominously about right-wing vitriol and look meaningfully over at Dallas 1963, or at Tucson 2011. Unless, of course, you want to argue that right-wing rhetoric is dangerous because it drives leftists and schizophrenics to murder, but somehow I don’t think that’s the goal.

Personally, I think the American track record for killing our politicians is born of many things. We’re a society that fetishizes violence and guns; we stockpile weapons, demonize our enemies, and leave disturbed people without help or comfort. As I wrote earlier about the attempt to blame Sarah Palin for the Arizona shooting:

It’s like, come on, dudes, try this theory with my mom. My mom, who has lived through the past blood-soaked half-century of American history, from the JFK assassination to this moment. Wave your Palin map in front of her and explain that the lady who showed up from Alaska two years ago made this happen with her scary map icons.

It’s just such a fucking insult to everyone’s intelligence.

From February, 2011

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