I often do a lot of soul searching about why I am such a backward-glancing person, why my sights seem so rigidly set on the past. And the answer I often come up with is the event that happened 50 years ago today.
I was born two years after the assassination. So I never knew that storied time of confidence, optimism, dynamism, affluence (that is, affluence without debt), and faith in our institutions. The post-JFK years were characterized by rioting in the streets, the senseless war in Vietnam, more assassinations, Johnson’s cowardly resignation, Watergate (and Nixon’s myriad other affronts), the OPEC oil crisis, the great stagflation, the Iran hostage crisis, and all the divisiveness and scandal and the thousand flavors of government malfeasance and cultural degradation that have happened in all the years since.
In the ensuing half century we have developed a habit of mind that is cynical and pessimistic. We are afraid to innovate and try new things. The problems of the world seem so great, judging ourselves unequal to the task, we don’t even try. We seek refuge in fantasy. We have gotten quite good at this. So much so, that I am tempted to say that it’s become the American genius. Cooking up, selling, and consuming fantasies. That’s my line, too, so I’m not squawking about the fact that it exists. It gives me pleasure, and that is fine, so far as it goes.
But I’d like to suggest that that same genius may also be the answer to our impasse. Another word for fantasy is imagination. If we applied the same amount of energy to solving real problems as we do to solving fake ones, I’m guessing that we’d at least regain a little of our national self-respect…and maybe achieve some positive results. Dreaming about an ideal even as you ignore your reality is the path to the Middle Ages. The past, too, is such an ideal.
We dwell too much on JFK’s death. We ought to be drawing a lesson from the example of how he lived his life. The point in exhuming a lot of great ideas from the past is NOT to relive something. That’s just a costume party. And a party is what you do at the end of the day when you’re done with your work. There’s plenty of work to be done. Whatever that means to you, whatever thing it is that you care about: I bet the work ain’t finished. The point in plundering the best ideas of the past ought to be to take inspiration from them and make something NEW. We must have the confidence to do that. What are our reasons for optimism in the face of war, terrorism, debt, government paralysis, constant domestic strife? Well what were the grounds for optimism then? With Soviet tyranny in control of half of Europe, nuclear terror in the air (and a recent near-brush with nuclear war), civil unrest, etc etc? But at the time of his death Kennedy (I just read yesterday) was enjoying a 70% approval rating. Pessimism is a habit of mind.
When was American culture at its height? I’d like to suggest that it is TOMORROW.