Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"This Man Should Not Be In Charge Of a Government"

What set off the exchange between me and the Democratic loyalist I wrote about on Sunday was my posting this screencap of a tweet by MSNBC pundit and despicable hack Joy Reid:

My acquaintance commented, "Your nihilism is adorable."  Though I'll admit to nihilism on a cosmic level, it was odd to be accused of it when I had just made a harsh moral judgment of Reid's celebrity-cult treatment of the Kennedys.  But then Reid and my acqaintance have no principles save partisanship and leader-worship.  She'll accurately catch Trump and the Republicans in their falsehoods, but she's uncritical (and an amplifier) of Democratic lies and misconduct.  My acquaintance didn't get it; he's a Reid fanboy for her partisan attacks on Trump, which are all that matter.

It's amoral to celebrate the Kennedys, or anyone else, for their glamor while ignoring their actions.  "Teddy chased redemption" seems almost a Freudian slip, since Teddy, like Jack and Bobby, chased women with a good deal more sincerity; if these guys were alive today, they'd probably be on the hot seat for sexual aggression and assault along with so many other American elites.  I have some sympathy for Mrs. Kennedy, who I presume didn't know what she was getting into when she married that compulsive cockhound; but "pathos" is not a moral virtue, nor a particularly attractive quality; I'd say it's downright creepy of Reid to voyeurize her pain, when she surely knows what caused it.  I suppose she was visualizing Jackie in her bloodstained pink suit, or draped in widow's black at the funeral.  That's no better.

(I suddenly realized while I was writing this that 2017 is JFK's centennial, and that must have been what Reid was referring to.  I haven't noticed the kind of celebration that I'd expect for such a national icon; is it just me?)

But there are graver concerns, which Reid presumably is also aware of but is happy to ignore: JFK's attempts to block the Civil Rights movement and the 1963 March on Washington, his waging of state terror against Cuba and other Caribbean countries, his escalation of the US invasion of Vietnam.  And perhaps his most discrediting achievement:
On 14 October 1962, in the classic pose of a public-school boy after lunch, legs straight out from a leathery armchair, I picked up a newspaper and saw on the front page that Kennedy had threatened Khrushchev with atomic war unless he recalled some ships carrying Russian missiles to Cuba.

I was horrified.  I'd paid no attention to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, I had little interest in unilateral disarmament, I'd gone to only one 'ban the bomb' march and I disliked Bertrand Russell.  I'd dismissed the subject from my head, for the simple reason that it would never happen.  Yet here we were, on the brink of the smouldering pit.

For me this was the beginning of the Sixties.  I was never an 'easy rider' or a counter-culture protester, but when Kennedy gave his ultimatum I thought: Gambling with the end of the world is dumb, this man should not be in charge of a government.  The hero of that dreadful confrontation was never, for me, Kennedy. The hero was plump, occasionally foolish, even though ruthless, Nikita Khrushchev.

This did not mean I automatically supported Russia from that moment on, but it did mean I was an early convert to one of the great illusions of the Sixties: where power is involved, there's nothing to choose between one side and the other [279].
In one of those cases of synchronicity that keep life interesting, I've just finished reading Matthew Spender's 2015 memoir A House in St. John's Wood: In Search of My Parents (Farrar Straus & Giroux), which contains the passage I quoted above.  Spender, the son of the poet Stephen Spender, was 17 at the time of the Cuban missile crisis.  (I was 11, and though I remember watching news coverage of the crisis, I don't remember what I thought of it.)   Then, today, I read David Swanson's reflections on Daniel Ellsberg and (among other issues), the Cuban missile crisis.  Like any important historical question, there is room for disagreement about Kennedy's legacy, but the kind of fatuous celebrity adulation Reid exhibited is inexcusable in a self-styled journalist.  I suspect she has fantasies of a hot fifteen-minute tryst with JFK in a White House closet; many people do, as they fantasize about Barack Obama. 

Donald Trump also has glamor, after all: it's part of what his fans love about him. C'mon, Joy, can't you see Melania's "glamour and pathos"?  So did Ronald Reagan -- but I'm going too far there, assuming that Reid is immune to his charisma.  Many sincere Democrats hold Reagan in the highest regard.  Our wise and noble leaders have frequently responded to the glamor of dusky foreign men in uniform, such as Mussolini.  Which is fine and dandy, but a bad idea when you're supposed to be thinking about issues and policies that affect the lives of billions of people.

I think it's possible, and not really all that difficult, to recognize Khrushchev as the real hero of the missile crisis without succumbing to what Matthew Spender called a great illusion of the Sixties, "that where power is involved, there's nothing to choose between one side and the other."  In this case, there certainly was a good deal to choose beween JFK and Khrushchev.  One can condemn one side without overlooking the faults or crimes of the other, and certainly the crimes of the Soviet Union didn't excuse the crimes of the US.  But this is also a great illusion of the present day: for example, that if the Republicans are bad, the Democrats must be good; if the Republicans are stupid, the Democrats must be smart; if Hillary is crooked, the Donald must be honest.  The evidence simply doesn't support such a conclusion.  But who needs evidence?  The situation is far too grave to worry about such trivia.

It's not nihilism to recognize the faults or crimes of one's own side along with those of one's opponents; it's more like nihilism to ignore them and denounce those who point them out.  I agree that Donald Trump should not be in charge of a government; but I also agree with Matthew Spender that neither should John Kennedy have been.  (Nor Obama.)  Kennedy's apologists have tried to defend him, pointing to the pressure he was under from militarists and hard-liners, but those defenses backfire: if he couldn't resist such pressures, he had no business being President.  We lucked out in 1962; we may not be so lucky next time.