Monday, 11 February 2008

Dallas, 1963: a warning?

According to Doris Lessing (1), Barak Obama would be assasinated if he were elected president.

This is the sort of comment I'd usually ignore, because it stinks of a novelist trying to attract attention by being slightly outrageous. But I'm not sure she's wrong.

At the moment, I'm reading The Death of A President, William Manchester's account of the assasination of JFK. While he dismisses conspiracy theories abruptly, Manchester does touch on the poisonous atmosphere in Dallas prior to the shooting, and points to it as a contributing factor - something that shaped and directed Oswald's rage at his own impotence and unimportance. In the opening pages, he describes how
... a kind of fever lay over Dallas County. Mad things happened. Huge billboards screamed 'Impeach Earl Warren.' Jewish stroes were smeared with crude swastikas. Fanatical young matrons swayed in public to the chant, 'Stevenson's going to die - his heart will stop, stop, stop, and he will burn, burn, burn!' Radical right polemics were distributed in public schools; Kennedy's name was booed in classrooms; junior executives were required to attend radical seminars. Dallas had become the Mecca for medicine-show evangelists of the National Indignation convention, the Christian Crusaders, the Minutemen, the John Birch and Patrick Henry societies ... This was more than partizan zeal. It was a chiaroscuro that existed outside the two parties, a virulence which had infected members of both. (2)
In 1963, paranoia anti-communism, segregation and a hatred of the Kennedy clan came together to direct Oswald's desire to make himself matter. In 2008 it is issues like abortion, the war on terror, xenophobia and racism. Add to that a parlous economy that has reduced a lot of people to desperation and apocalyptic religious beliefs. Its all there.

If the 2008 presidential campaign becomes as vicious as it bodes to be, the same sort of partisan hate-spewing as seen in 1963 might trigger another lonely psycho into trying to win a little bit of infamy. In fact, none of the three contenders is safe, because all three might find themselves the target of the rightwing hate machine. Clinton because she's Clinton. Obama because he's black. McCain because he's being demonised as a turncoat who sells out his party.

Stanley Balwin said the press enjoyed "power without responsibility" - they could influence public affairs, but never had to bear the brunt of their mis-steps or advocacy. Thuis was evident in Dallas in 1963, where the press - controlled by rightwing moguls, then as now - immediately absolved themselves, claiming there was no link between Oswald's homocidal act and the hatred and bile they had aimed at Kennedy before the killing. Manchester describes how
Some people, and some cities, were searching their own souls. The editor of the Austin American was writing: "Hatred and fanaticism, the flabby spirit of complacency that has permitted the preachers of fanatical hatred to appear respectable, and the self-righteousness that labels al who disagree with us as traitors or dolts , provided the way for the vile deed that snuffed out John Kennedy's life.' That sort of self-criticism found no echo in the Dallas establishment. (3)
The voices of extremist commentators - predomiantly, but not exclusively on the right - are propogating hatred and fanatcisism. The media environment, polarised and innured to shocking statements and rabid frothing palmed off in place of rational arguement, is flabby and complacent - complicit, in fact. The repugnat has become respectable. It waits to be seen if the parallels will continue towards the tragic climax.
1 - 'Obama: "would be killed,' unattributed article in The Independent, 11th of February, 2008. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/obama-would-be-killed-780703.html)
2 - The Death of A president by William Manchester, published by Pan Books Ltd, London, 1968. Page 81. Immediately prior to the section quoted, Manchester recounts an encounter between Abraham Zapruder and Dallas man who hints at the desirability of killing Kennedy.
3 - ibid, page 463.

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