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Tuesday, August 9, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesSource Manager’s Journal: PRESIDENT KENNEDY

Source Manager’s Journal: PRESIDENT KENNEDY

Like many things in our postmodern world, the remembrance of President Kennedy’s assassination is likely to have a short shelf life. It is also complicated by the reassessment of his term in office, at first the martyred idealist and, in recent years, a more hard-edged look at his failures and personal recklessness.

Fifty years is a long time. For younger Americans, this is truly ancient history. For many, the assassination is an abstraction brought to life only by the widespread acceptance of JFK, Oliver Stone’s conspiracy film, as history.

And for the older generation, especially those in the mass media, we get a calcified and often misleading view of both Kennedy and American society. My favorite of these is that Nov. 22, 1963, was the “day that we lost our innocence.”

This extraordinary assumption that prior to Nov. 21, 1963, we were an “innocent” people may be the biggest load of crap to come down the road in quite a while. Let’s leave out slavery and genocide, and stick to the mid-20th century.

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Americans in the North, mostly thanks to the advent of television, were becoming aware of the virulently racist society that existed in the Deep South. At the same time, they were able to conveniently deny the unpleasant racial reality that existed in their own communities. When someone asked Malcolm X where the Deep South began, he replied, with a high degree of accuracy, “at the Canadian border.”

Poverty was also widespread in our country. In 1962, Michael Harrington published The Other America, a description of widespread and deep poverty in the richest country on earth. The shocked reaction: who knew?

Overseas, we had just acquiesced in the overthrow and assassination of the leaders of South Vietnam. In the decade before, we had overthrown democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala, triggering oppression leading to Islamic revolution in the first case and civil war and mass slaughter in the second.

In previous decades, our government, or corporations with government complicity, had carried out unregulated drug experiments and a mass sterilization program in Puerto Rico.

So the pre-Nov. 22, 1963, brand of “innocence” was a peculiar one indeed.

What is also left out of many airbrushed remembrances of the Kennedy assassination is the fact that mourning for the murdered president was not universal. President Kennedy had given his seminal civil rights speech in May of 1963, at the time of the University of Alabama crisis. As a result, he and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were hated by whites in the Deep South.

Rather than mourning, there were wild celebrations on white campuses when news of the assassination was received. The same was true in parts of Georgetown, scarcely two miles from the White House.

Then there are the might-have-beens of history, most notably, Vietnam and the Civil Rights Acts. What would have happened if President Kennedy had lived? We’ll never know. In all of these areas, his legacy is an ambiguous one.

But there is something that we do know about Kennedy and his impact on our country. And it is definitive.

President Kennedy inspired a whole generation of young people – and some not so young – to pursue a life of public service. He fostered a culture of idealism and a belief that your contribution could make a difference. In the process, he changed millions of lives, all of them for the better. In our toxic environment today, it is difficult for young people fully comprehend what this was like.

The Peace Corps was the most visible example of this idealism. What is most interesting is that it was our country that benefited the most from the Peace Corps. Those who served went on to become leaders in many areas. In each instance, they brought the wisdom that comes from being exposed to another culture and an appreciation for how lucky we were in the United States. The Peace Corps had a presence in the Virgin Islands, and Peace Corps volunteers made a number of contributions to the territory.

We are living in bleak times. The idealism fostered by President Kennedy is largely a thing of the past. Over the years, hatred of government and disdain for those who serve in it, a belief that getting rich is what makes our country great and, worst of all, an ever-present and growing contempt for poor people have taken an enormous toll.

Mainland politics reflect this sad transformation. President Kennedy’s rival, the much-loathed Richard Nixon, believed in a guaranteed income as a response to poverty in our country. Even the most recent Republican president, George W. Bush, felt obliged to pay lip service to “compassionate conservatism” and to occasionally have some black kids dancing on the stage.

No more. The new Republican Party takes great pleasure in cutting food stamps. One of its rising stars, Paul Ryan, claims that our increasingly nonexistent social safety net is a “hammock” for the lazy and parasitic classes. They have no time for losers or what they increasingly – and dangerously – define as surplus populations.

Meanwhile the Democrats avoid the subject of poverty, and the thought of public service is barely on the radar screen. Their focus is on the “middle class.” That there is now a vast “former middle class” has largely escaped their attention. And the mass media reflects this skewed picture, with Fox News and far right voices openly voicing their contempt for poor people and highlighting the smallest of abuses in the remaining social services, while the mainstream just ignores the subject.

The Virgin Islands is different. For a number of reasons, proximity probably being the most important, poor people are not treated with disdain in the ways they are on the mainland. Possibly the right wing lie that “There are all kinds of jobs out there that people are too lazy to take” just won’t wash in the territory.

All trends eventually reverse themselves or hit a wall. We can only hope that the current era of greed, cynicism, and social and economic decline will end. The Virgin Islands is a small place and vulnerable to all kinds of economic forces beyond its control. But it is not beyond its control to rekindle the belief that service to the community, in any number of forms, can make it a far better and happier place. That is an achievable goal.

If nothing else is clear about it, our more than three decade romance with wealth, acquisition, extreme inequality and treating anyone who was not a winner as a parasite has produced an unhappy, insecure and often desperate society.

There is no Kennedy to inspire us in the way that he did. But at the community level, people can still make the collective decision that we can do better and that we take care of the weakest among us. That is the now long-lost message of President Kennedy’s idealism. Lost but needing to be found.

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