I answer Dr. Bastiat’s Question: JFK and the death of American hope

 

AI generated image

Between the pill and age of the internet, there was the death of John F. Kennedy.

Before JFK was killed, the left believed in progress. Technology gave rise to wealth, penicillin and indoor plumbing. Humanity was moving from poor rural farms to glittering cities with cars and skyscrapers.

Things were looking up for black Americans as well. Blacks were making substantial progress in American society after decades of stifling Wilsonian Jim Crow.  Just as importantly, black Americans were advancing economically as well as politically in the 1950s and 1960s, as Thomas Sowell has noted.

Internationally, Communism forged a unity among Americans. As much as conservatives (rightly) complain about FDR being soft on Communism, and Communists infiltrating Hollywood and the State Department, your average Democratic voter loved Jesus and hated Communists. Republicans and Democrats may not have liked the other party but usually didn’t hate them. Eisenhower Democrats were a thing, after all.

When JFK died, NYT editorialists responded by writing that America killed Kennedy because it was racist. That Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist was forcibly ignored. This is a great interview about the subject here. Peter Robinson interviewed the author an eternity ago, but I can’t find that interview.

The death of JFK gave rise to punitive liberalism. It used to be that some liberals believed in affirmative action in order to make America more fair and equitable to previously oppressed populations. After JFK, affirmative action was necessary to punish white America. This is particularly odd considering JFK was a moderate with regard to Civil Rights. But when have convenient myths ever needed to be constrained by facts?

Meanwhile, racial equality degenerated into black power and the war on poverty became about transferring wealth to poor people who stayed poor. We forget how optimistic FDR’s and JFK’s left-liberalism was. They thought that they could end poverty through technocratic allocations of wealth. Why did LBJ declare a war on poverty? Because he thought he could win it. Lefties today talk about how the poor will always be poor so they should receive various forms of financial aid.

Though not as materially important, American academic life became more and more corrupted and this has enervated the nation’s spirit. A source of serious thought about American advantages and weaknesses became worse than useless. Listen to Yeonmi Park’s take on college if you don’t believe me.

Perhaps most importantly, family life fell apart. This was mostly due to the pill and abortion, but I also think cultural factors were a big deal as well. I disagree with the materialist view of the world that scientific advancements and physical resources are the only things that determine history. The loss of confidence in Western Civilization that Dr. Bastiat laments has to do with the West telling itself the wrong stories.

I think the death of JFK was more of a symbolic event than one that shifted world history. Still, I think that single event is the best marker of the shift between an optimistic left-liberalism and a bitter and punitive left-liberalism.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    OK, five stars! A very fine post, Henry, and a moving one for anyone (like me) old enough to remember what a national rupture it was when the Democrats split into the old liberals and the modern left. 

    Let’s face it, there’s a reasonable temptation to ignore useful-to-explore distinctions in the political opposition. But I think it would be a mistake. And you know who else would call it a mistake?

    • #1
  2. Keith Lowery Coolidge
    Keith Lowery
    @keithlowery

    The loss of confidence in Western Civilization that Dr. Bastiat laments has to do with the West telling itself the wrong stories.

    Just so.

    • #2
  3. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Signing off on the west coast, for now, but I’ll be curious to see how this thread evolves. Smart conservatives ought to be able to examine what’s good in a liberal program or a liberal idea. Or a liberal icon. There was a time when the mainstream regarded him, not unreasonably, not as a big liberal but as a fairly centrist Democrat with a streak of nationalism.

    Well, okay, in my generation and a little bit older, he’s regarded that way, but I’m in my seventies. To be brutally frank, there aren’t all that many people older. And to people under fifty, let alone under forty, JFK registers as only the vaguest kind of liberal touchstone, someone who was president for a couple of years back at the beginning of the space program. 

    • #3
  4. EODmom Coolidge
    EODmom
    @EODmom

    There’s so much grief is this essay. Yes – the loss is tremendous. I’ll submit that the worst of it, with fundamental implications, was the (intentional?) destruction of the black family by LBJ and his Great Society welfare state.  I don’t think he thought he could eliminate poverty, nor did FDR. But the Marxist opportunists were plenty ready to keep moving in to reject Western Civilization in all corners. @garymcvey I’m also old enough to remember the optimism and excitement of the space race and the belief in the capability of Man to keep achieving. There were plenty of rising democrats who thought JFK was much too patriotic and centrist. There were also plenty of 1930’s and ‘40s radicals ready to use JFK’s assassination for their work to promote Marxism. The NYT had long been sympathetic to the communists. And it hated Jews. 
    Losing a belief in the future and excitement for one’s place in it is something to grieve. 

    • #4
  5. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Outstanding essay.  Lots of great ideas here.

    I don’t tend to put much significance in JFK, and you seem to view him more symbolically than materially, which is probably appropriate.

    But again, great essay.  Your emphasis of the left’s loss of hope as an explanation for societal collapse is very interesting.  Let me ponder a bit…

    • #5
  6. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    One minor quibble:  

    Henry Castaigne: Why did LBJ declare a war on poverty? Because he thought he could win it.

    No.  Because he thought he could get the votes of poor people.

    Who knows, I guess.  But attributing any of LBJ’s actions to altruism seems a bit of a stretch, to me.

    • #6
  7. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    While I find JFK to be a profoundly uninteresting man, what’s interesting about him is that he would be too conservative to run for president today.  As a Republican.

    The leftists of his day disliked him (as Henry pointed out, he was killed by a communist), but when he died they saw an opportunity.  Dan Rather was a local reporter in Dallas at the time, and opportunistically made up a story about school children in a Republican neighborhood cheering when JFK was shot.  It wasn’t true, but it had the desired effect. 

    In that era, Americans disliked communists and other radical leftists.  Those radical leftists took the assassination of a moderate Democrat to gain the sympathy of American citizens who had been skeptical of their true motivations in the past.

    So again, I’m not sure how important JFK was as a leader.  But as a symbol, the radical left took advantage of his death to great advantage.

    When you consider that the radical left also CAUSED his death, the whole thing starts to look rather distasteful.  Perhaps much worse than that.

    • #7
  8. EODmom Coolidge
    EODmom
    @EODmom

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    While I find JFK to be a profoundly uninteresting man, what’s interesting about him is that he would be too conservative to run for president today. As a Republican.

    The leftists of his day disliked him (as Henry pointed out, he was killed by a communist), but when he died they saw an opportunity. Dan Rather was a local reporter in Dallas at the time, and opportunistically made up a story about school children in a Republican neighborhood cheering when JFK was shot. It wasn’t true, but it had the desired effect.

    In that era, Americans disliked communists and other radical leftists. Those radical leftists took the assassination of a moderate Democrat to gain the sympathy of American citizens who had been skeptical of their true motivations in the past.

    So again, I’m not sure how important JFK was as a leader. But as a symbol, the radical left took advantage of his death to great advantage.

    When you consider that the radical left also CAUSED his death, the whole thing starts to look rather distasteful. Perhaps much worse than that.

    They are known as radical for a reason. So very much worse than distasteful. 

    • #8
  9. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Most newly minted young adults view Martin Luther King as the pivotal historical figure, mainly because he put civil rights as the central issue.  They see his strategy and methods (perhaps even his message) as inadequate to the challenge America faced.  His assassination was a tragic confirmation of that. 

    • #9
  10. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):
    Dan Rather was a local reporter in Dallas at the time, and opportunistically made up a story about school children in a Republican neighborhood cheering when JFK was shot.  It wasn’t true, but it had the desired effect.

    Dan Rather was quite the news maker wasn’t he? I think back to the forged George W. Bush documents. I wonder how many other whoppers  have been thrown out there by him and others that have been swallowed hook, line, and sinker by naive Americans who once thought that the news media actually reported what happened.

    • #10
  11. DonG (CAGW is a Scam) Coolidge
    DonG (CAGW is a Scam)
    @DonG

    Henry Castaigne: Perhaps most importantly family life fell apart. This was mostly due to the pill and abortion but I also think cultural factors were a big deal as well.

    The LBJ “Great Society” programs were anti-family.  LBJ also threw a bunch of money at University that were about to ramp up their commie advancement programs.

    • #11
  12. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    I don’t think the murder of Kennedy by the racist right was ever as significant a trope as you assert.  The attempt to blame racist Texans fell flat.  There was far more national discussion as to whether the USSR or the CIA controlled Lee Harvey Oswald.

    The trope of JFK as martyr was less an accusation against white racists as it was an attempt to sanctify the liberal agenda in the name of a canonized former president.

    The real problem in race relations was that after the Civil Rights bill passed (and my dad joined the Civil Rights Div of DOJ to bring desegregation actions in Tennesse and Mississippi) there was no transformation.  It turned out that the removal of all de jure and most de facto obstacles did not cause black Americans to discover their inner Sidney Poitier and instantly thrive as the idealized former victims the liberals promised us.  Cities burned, and white people continued to flee to the suburbs.  Crime, poverty, and declining education performance persisted under the guidance of exceptionally bad elected local leadership.

    A black friend told me that the rise of hacks like Marion Barry in almost every major city was especially, bitterly disappointing.  He recalled conversations with highly educated black friends who had dreamed of the day when it was their turn and how they would transform the cities.

    White liberals could not speak openly of the failure to seize opportunity, or of how welfare, moral relativism, and the sheer rot in public education made things even worse.  So it was inevitable that notions like “systemic racism” had to be invented instead.  There had to be a narrative that only white malfeasance in some form could be cited as the cause of black social dysfunction, even if such explanations bordered on superstition.

    Kennedy snubbed his pal Sammy Davis jr because the Mississippi congressional delegation would be offended if he was part of the first big White House reception.  He was for low taxes and fighting communism.  His sexual habits were appalling.  His health was poor.  His politics were old-school deal-making and he never would have endorsed the scope of LBJ’s social policies.  Yet he was a useful icon for the left for a long time.  I grew up knowing lots of Catholic households that had a picture of JFK, often in mixed displays with crucifixes and religious statues.

    • #12
  13. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    EODmom (View Comment):
     I don’t think he thought he could eliminate poverty, nor did FDR.

    Well he said he could at least. This is from his State of the Union in 1964

    Our history has proved that each time we broaden the base of abundance, giving more people the chance to produce and consume, we create new industry, higher production, increased earnings and better income for all.

    Giving new opportunity to those who have little will enrich the lives of all the rest.

    Because it is right, because it is wise, and because, for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty, I submit, for the consideration of the Congress and the country, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964•

    The Act does not merely expand old programs or improve what is already being done.

    It charts a new course.

    It strikes at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.

    It can be a milestone in our one-hundred eighty year search for a better life for our people.

    I can’t tell you if he believed it or not because I do not have post-cognition telepathy… for now.  Regardless of LBJ’s sincerity he utilized different and more hopeful rhetoric than modern day leftists. 

    • #13
  14. EJHill Staff
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Jack Kennedy was hated in large swaths of American society but it wasn’t for his politics. Many of us who are appalled at today’s rising tide of anti-semitism were also born into a society of virulent sectarian hatred and distrust of Catholics. Even in the 21st Century anti-Catholicism is considered by many to be the last acceptable prejudice in this country.

    As Bastiat pointed out, politically JFK would be seen as a Reagan-era Republican. And yet the entire family has continued to embrace the looney left. He was no different than any other politician who shaped his view around where he thought the electorate was at the moment. Who knows where he would actually be today. (I mean politically. He would be 107 otherwise so chances are he would still be dead.)

    The Kennedy mythology was largely born from the mind of Ted Sorensen as he helped Jackie craft the “Camelot” story. I always found it amusing that near the end of his life when he had written a book that actually dealt with some of Jack’s personal foibles he told one newspaperman, “Camelot was a myth and sometimes a myth turns into a mountain that buries the real person.”

    The most laughable tag line of the mythology is that November 22, 1963 was “The Day America Lost its Innocence.” What a load of claptrap for a nation that tore itself asunder over state’s rights and chattel slavery a century before and had just participated in the bloodiest and deadliest conflagration the world had ever known in WWII.

    The Republican Party has its own mythology problem in Reagan. Under Trump the GOP had embraced Clintonism of the Bill variety. Nothing is static. No principle is non-negotiable. The electorate slides left and the party slides with it. We rail against the uniparty but in the end the only difference between Republicans and Democrats seem to be our propensity to show up to their party thirty years too late.

    • #14
  15. Django Member
    Django
    @Django

    This post leads to a lot of thoughts for one as old as I. Along with the pill and JFK, there was Vietnam. That war/police action taught us that the “best and brightest” weren’t, that our government would lie to us, that we had apparently forgotten how to win wars. Then, in the 1970s Kissinger had to publicly deny that he had privately stated that the USSR was the future and his job was to negotiate the best possible “second-best position” for the US. Water under the bridge. 

    I suppose I could ramble on some more, but just listen to the lyrics and imagine you were a kid in elementary school who believed it could be this way. And it all died one day in 1963. It took us a while to realize it. 

     

     

    • #15
  16. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

      I grew up knowing lots of Catholic households that had a picture of JFK, often in mixed displays with crucifixes and religious statues.

     

    Yeah. Lot of folks thought that Kennedy was as Catholic as the Pope. Though perhaps it depends on the Pope. 

    • #16
  17. Django Member
    Django
    @Django

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I grew up knowing lots of Catholic households that had a picture of JFK, often in mixed displays with crucifixes and religious statues.

     

    Yeah. Lot of folks thought that Kennedy was as Catholic as the Pope. Though perhaps it depends on the Pope.

    Back in college, I met a student who was from Dublin. We worked construction together one summer to pick up some cash. He said that his mother had two pictures in prominent places in her home: The Pope and JFK. I was dense enough to ask why JFK and the answer was, “Because he’s an Irish Catholic and was President of the most powerful nation on Earth.”

    • #17
  18. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Malvina Reynolds’ song ‘Little Boxes’, about suburban houses ‘that all look just the same’, was released in 1962.  It has long seemed to me that this was a marker in the change from a Left which wanted average Americans to have *more* the a Left which just didn’t like average Americans very much.

    As part of this transition, there was a change in Left attitudes toward technology, and not just in America.  See this excerpt from the Fabian socialist Sidney Webb in which he praises what he called ‘the machine age’ for its impact on average people.  Hard to imagine anything like that coming from the current or the recent Left.

    • #18
  19. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I don’t think the murder of Kennedy by the racist right was ever as significant a trope as you assert. The attempt to blame racist Texans fell flat. There was far more national discussion as to whether the USSR or the CIA controlled Lee Harvey Oswald.

    The trope of JFK as martyr was less an accusation against white racists as it was an attempt to sanctify the liberal agenda in the name of a canonized former president.

    The real problem in race relations was that after the Civil Rights bill passed (and my dad joined the Civil Rights Div of DOJ to bring desegregation actions in Tennesse and Mississippi) there was no transformation. It turned out that the removal of all de jure and most de facto obstacles to not cause black Americans to discover their inner Sidney Poitier and instantly thrive as the idealized former victims the liberals promised us. Cities burned, and white people continued to flee to the suburbs. Crime, poverty, and declining education performance persisted under the guidance of exceptionally bad elected local leadership.

    A black friend told me that the rise of hacks like Marion Barry in almost every major city was especially, bitterly disappointing. He recalled conversations with highly educated black friends who had dreamed of the day when it was their turn and how they would transform the cities.

    White liberals could not speak openly of the failure to seize opportunity, or of how welfare, moral relativism, and the sheer rot in public education made things even worse. So it was inevitable that notions like “systemic racism” had to be invented instead. There had to be a narrative that only white malfeasance in some form could be cited as the cause of black social dysfunction, even if such explanations bordered on superstition.

    Kennedy snubbed his pal Sammy Davis jr because the Mississippi congressional delegation would be offended if he was part of the first big White House reception. He was for low taxes and fighting communism. His sexual habits were appalling. His health was poor. His politics were old-school deal-making and he never would have endorsed the scope of LBJ’s social policies. Yet he was a useful icon for the left for a long time. I grew up knowing lots of Catholic households that had a picture of JFK, often in mixed displays with crucifixes and religious statues.

     

    “Useful icon” nicely captures it. 

    • #19
  20. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I grew up knowing lots of Catholic households that had a picture of JFK, often in mixed displays with crucifixes and religious statues.

     

    Yeah. Lot of folks thought that Kennedy was as Catholic as the Pope. Though perhaps it depends on the Pope.

    When my parents visited the U.K. in 1964, my next older sister and I stayed with a family which had a framed copy of JFK’s inaugural speech on the wall. I’m not a big Kennedy fan but he looks good compared to Johnson. He was a vile corrupt man who pushed terrible policies.

    • #20
  21. GlennAmurgis Coolidge
    GlennAmurgis
    @GlennAmurgis

    I do not think JFK would have created the welfare state of LBJ. that itself would have been a big bonus.

    • #21
  22. Rightfromthestart Coolidge
    Rightfromthestart
    @Rightfromthestart

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    One minor quibble:

    Henry Castaigne: Why did LBJ declare a war on poverty? Because he thought he could win it.

    No. Because he thought he could get the votes of poor people.

    Who knows, I guess. But attributing any of LBJ’s actions to altruism seems a bit of a stretch, to me.

    LBJ ‘I’ll have those n—-rs voting Democrat for 200 years’ 

    • #22
  23. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    David Foster (View Comment):
    Malvina Reynolds’ song ‘Little Boxes’, about suburban houses ‘that all look just the same’, was released in 1962.  It has long seemed to me that this was a marker in the change from a Left which wanted average Americans to have *more* the a Left which just didn’t like average Americans very much.

    That sort of snooty ‘more educated than though’ Bohemian nonsense was there in the 1950s with the Beatnicks. The Beatnicks were a bunch of spoiled sexually perverse losers. Who could not have taken a beach from a stray dog let alone stormed Normandy. 

    That infection was spreading throughout the body politic for awhile but the the death of JFK suppressed America’s immune system. 

    • #23
  24. Jim Kearney Member
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    Henry Castaigne: Before JFK was killed, the left believed in progress.

    Before JFK was killed we all believed in progress. His tone and style, combined with the space program, and our youth inspired a generational optimism in Boomers who were mostly still students on 11/22/63.  (I was a freshman in a high school library science class. Where were you? Boomers old enough do remember that dark day in history.)

    The next pivotal event, an empowering one for our generation, came in February 1964: the launch of Beatlemania in America. The arc which the rock industry took from there tracks social change as meaningfully as much of what LBJ did, but for one.

    But it was a big one: Vietnam, a war coinciding with baby boomers hitting draft age. It was the Vietnam War which opened the door for the dormant American Left. Others — Dr. Leary, Hugh Hefner, Gloria Steinem, Malcolm X — walked through that door, but Vietnam had unlocked it.

    JFK’s death and LBJ’s succession fanned the Vietnam flame. On a separate front, the flames lit by black militants (who pushed aside the non-violent leadership of men like Dr. King ) fired divisions still not healed. But communists had tried to use the civil rights movement for inroads here for decades. 

    It was the life and death fight of the Vietnam War which raised the stakes of politics for boomers, black and white. By their prescient use of the crisis, the Left twisted a peace movement into a broader questioning of our values and “the system.” Many political loyalties were set for life in those years. 

    I’ve always been suspicious of political bundles and packages, preferring to order my politics a la carte. In a bipartisan newsletter I co-edited in 1967, I called for withdrawal from Vietnam “in order to preserve the faith of the American people in our system of government.” The Left’s strategy was apparent to me at age 18. Maybe it was the all-or-nothing certainty of our political parties that blinded America to the incipient long march through our institutions.

    • #24
  25. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    EODmom (View Comment):

    There’s so much grief is this essay. Yes – the loss is tremendous. I’ll submit that the worst of it, with fundamental implications, was the (intentional?) destruction of the black family by LBJ and his Great Society welfare state.

    I grew up in a nearly all-white part of northern Appalachia.  LBJ’s Great Society ruined the working class white population, too.  

    • #25
  26. Lunchbox Gerald Coolidge
    Lunchbox Gerald
    @Jose

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):
    Dan Rather was a local reporter in Dallas at the time, and opportunistically made up a story about school children in a Republican neighborhood cheering when JFK was shot.  It wasn’t true, but it had the desired effect. 

    I didn’t know that Dan Rather’s dishonesty extended back that far. – Thanks. 

    Full story here.

    • #26
  27. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    Jim Kearney (View Comment):
    I was a freshman in a high school library science class. Where were you?

    I was a college freshman. I had a very hard to schedule music practice room reserved that afternoon, so I borrowed my roommate’s portable radio so I could check on news while I was practicing. What a weekend that was.

    • #27
  28. Rightfromthestart Coolidge
    Rightfromthestart
    @Rightfromthestart

    Headedwest (View Comment):

    Jim Kearney (View Comment):
    I was a freshman in a high school library science class. Where were you?

    I was a college freshman. I had a very hard to schedule music practice room reserved that afternoon, so I borrowed my roommate’s portable radio so I could check on news while I was practicing. What a weekend that was.

    In Nov 63 I was a high school senior, in the fall of 1964 , still 17, I joined the Navy for several reasons but  one reason was to take control and not wait around to be called. 

    • #28
  29. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Dang, some of you guys are old.   [I was not quite 2 years old when JFK was killed]

    • #29
  30. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    GlennAmurgis (View Comment):

    I do not think JFK would have created the welfare state of LBJ. that itself would have been a big bonus.

    Johnson’s “Great Society” had a terrible impact on black families in particular; welfare replaced the husband as family breadwinner.

    • #30
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