John F. Kennedy and America’s Obsession with Innocence
If anyone's going to kill me, it should happen now. – John F. Kennedy, 1962
Assassinations, murder – and war, to – begin this way. This revolution is not just outside us in the streets and jails and detention homes and clinics, or in Texas, but is the Shadow in each of us that is trying to come out. – James Hillman, 11/22/1963
Part One: Myths
At book talks I used to ask: When did you lose your innocence? Common answers include 9/11/2001 and the various political assassinations of the 1960s. Then I would ask: When did you lose it again? The trick question was meant to provoke people into thinking about a uniquely American situation. Myths are stories we tell ourselves about significant people, real or imagined. But these stories are ultimately and always about ourselves. They are narratives we create, are drawn to or selectively remember, so as to view our own values and obsessions projected outside of ourselves.
The idea of innocence lies at the foundation of our national identity. It is as fundamental to our sense of who think we are as alcohol is to an alcoholic. Life for (white) Americans is simply unthinkable without the assumption that they are pure and blameless in terms of racial and foreign policy matters, and the parallel assumption that our anxieties are always caused by some evil Other.
For this reason, whenever the terrible complexity of human existence pulls us out of denial and causes us to lose our innocence, we very quickly back away from the precipice, revive that innocence and re-constitute it. The cracks that appear in our national veneer of innocence scab over quickly, sealing in the microbes – or the truths – that will inevitably rise to the surface as new infections. Then we lose our innocence again. And each time we do, the experience of disillusionment is so overwhelming that it feels like the first time, because we never really lost it the previous time.
It was not always this way. In the tribal world, initiation rituals were intended to be so effective that those who survived them (and many didn’t) were permanently altered, and their communities perceived them as such. Initiates lost their childish innocence and were recognized as adults who possessed a realistic, tragic view of the world, tempered by a clear sense of their own purpose in that world, of the relations with the unseen world and of their importance to their community.
As a mythologist, I have very little interest in the actual person John F. Kennedy, nor in what he accomplished, nor in what he believed. Indeed, the tsunami of Kennedy literature has made it impossible to know much about these things anyway. Like all essentially mythic figures, he and his entire clan (along with those other martyrs, Martin and Malcolm) have become Rorschach projection figures for our imagination. Amazon.com lists some 6,000 books on the Kennedys. Another source lists 40,000. In November 2013 alone, at least 140 new books were released, timed for the 50th anniversary of the assassination. All purport to tell the “truth.” But to a mythologist, one truth merely points to another truth, and sometimes that truth looks like the opposite of the first one.
Nor, in this article, am I interested in the question of who killed him or why – you already have your own opinion – except as how the issue has become part of our modern narrative. What I am interested in is the mythological issues: how we create our myths drive us and how they drive our emotions.
In American historical memory the Kennedy administration offers us three mythic images or narratives, all of them driven by electronic media.
A New Start
John David Ebert explains that
Kennedy was the first president to understand, and effectively use, the new medium (of television) to his own advantage…a whole series of televisual firsts: the first ever televised presidential debates; the first televised weekly press conferences; Jackie's first televised tour of the White House; and later, with Kennedy's assassination, we will have the first 24-hour news coverage of a traumatic event; with Ruby's shooting of Oswald, the first live murder caught on television.
This new image represented youth, romance, vigor, virility, health, enthusiasm, promise and a revival of the nation’s ideals. Kennedy’s warm, loving family was an electronic ideal of the new suburban nuclear family, and it mirrored the American public as it wanted to see itself at the time. Furthermore, it
…activated a mythological consciousness in the American psyche in which Kennedy appeared like an Arthurian knight questing for the grail in a Wasteland filled with decrepit old men and scheming villains….On television, the public could see that Kennedy, just past the age of forty, was young enough to appear capable of slaying the dragons of communism and banishing the old men back to their caverns. It is thus no accident that the youngest president ever to be voted into office coincided with the first presidential candidate to become familiar to his voters via television.
Television in 1960 was a form of low resolution technology that produced fuzzy, distorted, hazy images. As Marshal McLuhan pointed out, TV is therefore highly participational, since it requires "fill in" by the viewer for the completion of its images. We are talking now about a two-way street, about the relationship between, on the one hand, deliberately created images and on the other, the deep longing on the part of those who view them, always ready to project meaning onto them.
Watching Kennedy's televised weekly press conferences gave one the feeling of having the President discourse upon international affairs inside one's house. The impression was created thereby of having a personal, private chat with this new, young, approachable president right inside one's own living room…With television, (he) forged an American tribal identity based upon a tightly interwoven conception of himself as a chieftain at the head of his electro-serf peasantry. The American public, through the relationship which Kennedy created with them by means of television, felt very close to him, and that any decision he made on their behalf affected them directly. It is possible that no American president since Kennedy has had this sort of a relationship with his public.
His rhetoric of a “New Frontier” evoked the nation of boundless possibilities. The idea of the new start is at the very core of the myth of America. It is, in fact, the very meaning of America. Our mythology, however, tends to ignore the universal and ecological understanding that initiation requires the death of what came before. So does our New Age thinking, which highlights rebirth without acknowledging death.
But the emotional tone that Kennedy aroused went even deeper. In 1960 millions were fed up with both the anxieties and the conformism of the previous decades. As Peter Gabel wrote, JFK represented “an opening-up of desire.”
It was this feeling…that more than any ideology threatened the system of cultural and erotic control that dominated the fifties and that still dominated the governmental elites of the early sixties…Kennedy's evocative power spoke to people's longing for some transcendent community and in so doing, it allowed people to make themselves vulnerable enough to experience both hope and, indirectly, the legacy of pain and isolation that had been essentially sealed from public awareness since the end of the New Deal...
The Kennedy myth – at least until the assassination, and possibly until his brother’s death 4 ½ years later – reinforced the characteristically American notion that history moves inexorably toward a state of more freedom, more opportunity, more equality and an American Dream for everyone, including all those poor folks in the Third World who so need to be saved and liberated by American armies. As we’ll see below, however, the myth of Camelot helped negate the belief in progress for millions.
Americans share a superficial aversion to the trappings of European royalty. After all, the Founding Fathers (itself a mythic reference to a kind of royalty) and their generation rejected the notion of inherited authority for their own racially flawed idea of equality. But America was formed in what Joseph Campbell called a “demythologized world” that has long lacked transcendent mythic figures. So precisely because of our egalitarian ideology – and especially since the age of the movies began – we have searched for public figures who can hold our projections of Kings and Queens. As Paul Fussell observed in his book Class, this is the shadow side of a society that claims democratic values and refuses to admit the fact (obvious to poor people) that it is not classless. Usually these ideal figures have been movie stars, singers and athletes, the stock characters of our cult of celebrity.
But actual royals carry an extra attraction. To this day, it is no coincidence that a typical week of PBS television culminating on Sunday evening includes endless adulation of the British royal family and its related aristocracy, including the denizens of Downton Abbey. Every November, however, as a warm-up for Thanksgiving, that adulation shifts to the American royal family.
The Kennedys, unlike their benign but boring predecessor Dwight Eisenhower or the fatuous and hypocritical Bushes who followed them, were glamorous, sophisticated, physically attractive, well educated, articulate and cultured. They seemed to be comfortable around actual movie stars. And they were only too happy to help perpetuate the image of aristocracy. It was easy to imagine JFK as a king of divine right out of a much earlier time. He looked convincing as a leader, writes Rick Shenkman:
…he became Hollywood’s idea of a president. Presidents in the movies don’t look like Eisenhower…they look like John Kennedy. The man and the myth come together in pictures. And the pictures in our head come easily to mind because the pictures are readily available to us. We don’t have to struggle to call up flattering images of Kennedy. The human brain allows us to call them to mind quickly because our brain readily digests information in the form of images.
He was, wrote one writer, “the subject of endless reverie about his capacity to renew the world.” This capacity to stand at the center of the realm and ritually proclaim the annual renewal of the world, the crops (and the psyche) is one of the characteristics of the archetype of the King. It is the very essence of the idea of the “New Start.” The King is the central archetype of the collective unconscious. He represents order, fertility, stability and blessing. He is a focal point for communal desire and selfless service devoted to a higher order of existence.
In 1960 Kennedy perceived this massive longing for meaning, tapped into it and reframed the classic American value of opportunity, which had always meant getting rich, or to “con” someone else, or (to conservative critics of the New Deal) to take advantage of government aid. Shortly after taking office, he established the Peace Corps, and thousands quickly joined up, delighted to be part of a non-militaristic attempt to make a better world. Now (despite the government’s ongoing anti-communism), opportunity implied the chance to participate in something greater, to build a new world without either the violence of empire or the trappings of Christian fundamentalism.
Kennedy, like his predecessors, cut taxes on the rich, denounced Soviet aggression and glorified American freedom. Yet this advent of the archetypal King energy was, in a very subtle way, calling into question some of the basic values of capitalism itself. At a time when the nation hadn’t fully completed its transformation from Protestant frugality to a consumer culture, this (in the eyes of what we now call the Deep State) may have been his greatest transgression. And it’s probably why the public has often ranked him among the top three American Presidents.
A secondary aspect of the archetype of the King is our longing for the return of the King, as exemplified by the Greek stories of Odysseus, the Hebrew expectation of the Messiah (originally mashiah, and rendered in the Septuagint translation as the Greek Khristos) and significantly, King Arthur of Camelot. This is a universal mythic theme, but it has particular meaning for us, because as Michael Meade has pointed out, American myth confuses the King with another archetype, the Warrior, in his immature form, the Hero. The Hero’s primary characteristic is that once he saves the innocent community, he leaves that community. Our Hero-Kings have all moved on, westward, toward the setting sun and the Other World, and we long for the imagined times and places where they once peacefully ruled over us and our service to them gave our lives meaning.
That longing for a savior figure grows along with our dissatisfaction with our sense of the nation. It is so strong that in the age of Trumpus, it allows us to overlook a fascist strongman’s obvious human frailties, at least for a while. Many Trumpus voters are old enough to have voted for Kennedy in 1960, and, curiously, polls tell us that many of them voted for Obama 48 years later.
Where has the King gone? Indeed, where is Camelot? These are the kind of questions that evoke the power of mythic images. In British myth, the original Camelot had no specific location. Thus, writes Arthurian scholar Norris Lacy, "Camelot, located nowhere in particular, can be anywhere."
Part Two – Myth Making
I shouted out, "Who killed the Kennedys?"
When after all it was you and me. – Mick Jagger & Keith Richards
Those lines make perfect poetic sense, but what do they really mean? Were the Kennedys scapegoats who died for our sins? If so, were those sins of commission or omission? Sins of deliberate evil or willful innocence? Must all mythic Kings die annually so that the land may be fertilized? Or do we Americans have such a diminished national imagination and such personal dark shadows that we simply cannot tolerate any shining individuals who prove unable to hold our projections?
The Kennedy clan began to manipulate the media images of JFK and his immediate family long before his election and has continued to do so decades after his death. Shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, JFK, fully aware of both the political moment and the mythic implications, told a historian, "If anyone's going to kill me, it should happen now."
Then came Camelot – a story of a magical kingdom ruled by a wise, brave and benevolent young king who was unshakably devoted to his beautiful queen and their children. Born into privilege, he – like the Buddha – chose to serve truth and justice.
However, the word “Camelot” never appeared in print to describe the Kennedy years until after his death. Only a week after the funeral, his widow put her definitive stamp on the new myth, telling Life Magazine and its thirty million readers that the President had been especially fond of the music from Camelot, the popular Broadway musical about King Arthur. He and Jackie had enjoyed listening to a recording of the title song before going to bed at night. JFK, she said, had been especially fond of the concluding couplet:
Don’t ever let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was Camelot.
I invite you to speak that last sentence out loud and notice if some unidentifiable emotion washes over you.
Jackie was determined to convince the nation that her husband’s presidency was a unique and magical moment, and one that was now forever lost. “There will be great presidents again,” she said, “but there will never be another Camelot.” JFK, as his widow wanted him to be remembered, was The King – a peacemaker, like King Arthur, who died in a campaign to pacify the warring factions of mankind. The Camelot myth of the 1960s was born, a retelling of the earlier one.
But the Camelot image as applied to the Kennedy presidency had some unfortunate and unforeseen consequences, writes James Piereson:
By turning President Kennedy into a liberal idealist (which he was not) and a near legendary figure, Mrs. Kennedy inadvertently contributed to the unwinding of the tradition of American liberalism...The images she advanced had a double effect: first, to establish Kennedy as a transcendent political figure far superior to any contemporary rival; and, second, to highlight what the nation had lost when he was killed. The two elements were mirror images of one another. The Camelot myth magnified the sense of loss felt as a consequence of Kennedy’s death and the dashing of liberal hopes and possibilities…the best of times were now in the past and could not be recovered…The Camelot myth posed a challenge to the liberal idea of history as a progressive enterprise, always moving forward despite setbacks here and there toward the elusive goal of perfecting the American experiment in self-government. Mrs. Kennedy’s image fostered nostalgia for the past in the belief that the Kennedy administration represented a peak of achievement that could not be duplicated.
Millions of baby-boomers date their initial disillusionment and loss of idealism – their loss of innocence – from this point. To them, democracy died along with the President. The assassination was, plainly and simply, a military coup, and since then elites in media and government have colluded in maintaining the con: a veneer of legitimate, democratic process. Sociologist Linda Brigance wrote that without their heroic king, Americans began to feel "…a paradoxical combination of romantic yearning and fatalistic inevitability…(that) set the stage for the political cynicism and civic disengagement that characterized post-assassination America."
A few years later, Americans began and have continued to maintain one of the lowest levels of voter participation in the industrialized world, with typical voting levels of 50% in presidential elections. Consider for example the “Reagan revolution” of 1980 that the pundits tell us ushered in a great swing to the right in political opinion. It actually was propelled by just over 50% of the vote count, or about 26% of potential voters. This was a lower percentage than Adolph Hitler won in 1932.
The characteristically American myth of unending Progress suffered a terrible blow. The assassination, writes Charles Eisenstein,
…is like a radioactive pellet lodged inside the body politic, generating an endlessly metastasizing cancer that no one has been able to trace to its source. (It) opened a gulf between people and government that no bridge can span. It was the death of America – the America of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” People and government are now separate.
Since that time, half of American adults have withdrawn from civic involvement, more or less permanently. Countless others, influenced by unrelenting media barrages, still seem to be able to resurrect their sense of innocence after each political outrage or school shooting. “We’re better than that,” they say. May it be so.
The mythmaking Industry
In the age of the Internet, the mythmaking (and the anti-mythmaking, which is its mirror opposite) have grown into industries.
It has continued on both the right (Kennedy, they say, was more militaristic, more corrupt, more conservative and accomplished far less than Richard Nixon) and the left (Kennedy, they say, was murdered because he was intent on withdrawing from Viet Nam). Consider the ongoing controversy of his National Security Memorandum # 263. James Galbraith argues that Kennedy’s intention to withdraw after the 1964 election, articulated on October 11, 1963, was “…the formal policy of the United States government on the day he died.” And we also note that Lyndon Johnson’s NSAM 273, which authorized planning to begin for graduated offensive operations against North Vietnam, was issued on November 26th, only four days after the assassination.
Back and forth they go, to this day. Gore Vidal, a ruling class insider turned critic who knew Kennedy well, said:
And it is now part of the Kennedy legend, that had he lived, this war would not have taken place…or would not have escalated. I can promise you…that he would have been as deeply in it as (Lyndon) Johnson…I liked him tremendously, and I hang his picture in my library, not as an icon, not as a memory of Camelot, not as a memory of glorious nights at the White House or in Bel-Air; but never again to be taken in by anybody's charm. He was one of the most charming men I've ever known, one of the most intelligent, and one of the most disastrous presidents I think we've ever had.
Vidal made that last statement long before the age of Bush / Obama / Trumpus, so we must put it context. But it does have bearing on how we consume our myths.
Here we encounter another aspect of American history and culture that has taken on a mythic function, what I call gatekeeping, or the conspiracy of the center. It’s a huge topic that I address here, but it boils down to this. In Campbell’s terms, one of the four functions of mythology is the sociological function, which works to support and validate the existing social order and bind the individual to the society, its rulers and its alleged purposes.
In the tribal experience, the world of real initiation ritual, this function was entirely appropriate. But in our demythologized world of mass, urban civilization the sociological function of myth is to support nothing other than consumerism, nationalism and (in America) the stories of exceptionalism and manifest destiny that justify a world-wide empire and military-industrial complex.
This of course brings us to the issue of fake news. But for now, all we need to know is that for at least seventy years (or well over one hundred, if we consider official pro-war propaganda during World War One), the National Security State has controlled much of what the mainstream media has had to say, with agents embedded in literally hundreds of media outlets. I don’t have the space here to convince you of this, but I encourage you to do your own research. You can find a large number of references here or here. Or you could begin with Edward S. Herman’s essay, Fake News on Russia and Other Official Enemies: The New York Times, 1917–2017.
Since the end of World War Two, gatekeepers of all political persuasions have served – on a daily basis – to remind most middle-class white people of just exactly who or what is outside the pale of acceptable discourse. And one of the main tools at their disposal has been false equivalency: lumping loonies such as Obama “birthers” in the same sentences as those who question accepted political narratives such as the Kennedy assassinations and 9-11. Consciously or not, such voices offer a very tempting proposal: if only we were to turn off our cynical (or logical) minds, we could be accepted into the brotherhood of the reasonable center. We would be within the pale. We would (accurately or not) know who we are, and we would clearly identify those outside the pale.
We can understand liberal mythmaking about JFK in the context of lost innocence and longing for the return of the King. But a careful look at media articles around the 50th anniversary of the assassination reveals that the great majority of them continued to take the official narrative for granted and used various subtle means of demonizing critics.
By the way, it isn’t even the official narrative anymore, and hasn’t been since 1978. That year, the House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations found that in addition to Oswald, there likely was a second gunman. The commission concluded that the shooters were part of a "conspiracy," without determining exactly who was behind it. And, speaking of official narratives, few realize that in a 1999 civil lawsuit in Memphis, a jury reached a unanimous verdict that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. That you probably don’t know that is a testament to the power of the mass media, which can marginalize dissent, either by demonizing or, in this case, by simply ignoring it.
But let’s get back to Kennedy: History professor and gatekeeper Steven Gillon dismisses both the House report and Oliver Stone’s movie by inserting simple but patronizing modifiers into his text:
…the House Committee came to the bizarre conclusion that there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll, and that shooter fired at the President, but missed…In 1991, filmmaker Oliver Stone tapped into these doubts, and added his own paranoid twist, to create the popular movie, JFK (my italics).
The gatekeepers have their assignment, self-imposed or not, and it hasn’t changed for decades. It is essential to the myth of American innocence that a so-called “troubled individual” killed Kennedy. The Lone Gunman has become another stock character in American myth, evoked whenever (weekly in 2017) a mass shooting occurs – and, following it, every time, some pundit is sure to bloviate that “we’ve lost our innocence.” The stereotypical Lone Gunman functions very specifically to divert our attention from the mass violence that we perpetrate daily upon the Third Word and upon our own children. He is a fundamental cog in the establishment – and regular re-establishment – of our sense of innocence.
Ironically, the Lone Gunman is the mirror opposite of the Western Hero, who, in dozens of movies) defeats the villains by himself, without the aid of the citizenry. High Noon is the classic example. Both of these Lone Gunmen, one directly and one in reverse, symbolize and teach our foundational value of American rugged individualism – and, equally foundational – the resolution of disputes through extreme violence. This is one reason why the gatekeepers continue to marginalize the “conspiracy buffs.” But even one of those gatekeepers – NBC News (10/2917) – admits:
Search data going back all the way to 2004 indicate that interest in the topic (the Kennedy assassination) surpasses interest in more recent political events including the Watergate scandal and President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
The implications are quite significant. If indeed Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone, if in fact a wide-ranging military-industrial-organized crime conspiracy was responsible for Kennedy’s death, if the C.I.A. murdered him (as 62% of us still believed as recently as 2013) – then America is not exceptional, no different, no freer, no better than any other nation. And if we call that idea into question, then the whole, monolithic edifice of American innocence (empire, capitalism, masculinity, misogyny and white privilege, not to mention freedom and opportunity) come up for review, as they did by the late 1960s.
In mythological terms, Dionysus causes cracks in the great walls of Thebes, and all the repressed parts of the psyche, all of the un-grieved ghosts of the past, come roaring into the city, intent on revenge.
But the real trauma, if we move beyond the abstraction of "the nation," was the sudden, violent loss for millions of people of the part of themselves that had been opened up, or had begun to open up during Kennedy's presidency…In order to contain the desire released by the Kennedy presidency and the sense of loss and sudden disintegration caused by the assassination, government officials had to create a process that would rapidly "prove" – to the satisfaction of people's emotions – that the assassination and loss were the result of socially innocent causes…the lone gunman theory...isolates the evil source of the experience in one antisocial individual, and leaves the image of society as a whole…untarnished and still "good."…(and)…reinstitutes the legitimacy of existing social and political authority as a whole because it silently conveys the idea that our elected officials and the organs of government, among them the CIA and the FBI, share our innocence and continue to express our democratic will.
But from a larger psychosocial point of view, the effect was to begin to close up the link between desire and politics that Kennedy had partially elicited, and at the same time to impose a new repression of our painful feelings of isolation and disconnection beneath the facade of our reconstituted but imaginary political unity…The interest we share with the mainstream media and with government and corporate elites is to maintain, through a kind of unconscious collusion, the alienated structures of power and social identity that protect us from having to risk emerging from our sealed cubicles and allowing our fragile longing for true community to become a public force.
In 1967 the CIA coined a new phrase in response to widespread skepticism of the Warren Commission. It sent out specific instructions for “countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists” (my italics). The Agency recommended using assets such as “friendly elite contacts (especially politicians and editors)” who could be provided with ready-made talking points. Since then, as I mentioned above, gatekeepers throughout academia and the major media have lumped together all critics of the dominant narratives of American history under this phrase.
The Obama administration (like all that followed Johnson’s) continued to give ammunition to those who question the dominant narrative. In 2010, a federal archivist stated that only about one percent of the five million pages of government files on the assassination had been withheld from public view. But that amounted to some 50,000 pages, and Obama did nothing to facilitate that process. In October 2017, Trumpus announced that he had ordered all the remaining files to be released. As usual, he was taking credit for legislation mandating the release that had been passed in 1992. But very quickly and very publically, the CIA disagreed (with extreme prejudice, one might say), and Trumpus, whatever his actual motives, caved in. Mainstream media gatekeepers typically noted that 2,800 documents had been released and 300 remain withheld. However, writes Rex Bradford, “They are off by a factor of 100.”
In fact, tens of thousands of documents…remain sealed at the National Archives…This includes 3,147 “withheld in full” records never seen, and an unknown number of redacted documents estimated at about 30,000. Intensely lobbied by federal agencies including the CIA, Trump instead authorized the withholding of well over 90% of these documents. 52 of the 3,147 withheld-in-full records were released and put online…less than 2%, and 2,839 of the redacted documents were released, which is probably less than 10% of that set.
“The biggest revelation from last week’s limited release of the JFK files,” wrote Caitlin Johnstone “is the fact that the FBI and CIA still desperately need to keep secrets about something that happened 54 years ago.” Former high-ranking CIA man Ray McGovern wrote:
…occasionally the reality of how power works pokes through in some unguarded remark by a Washington insider, someone like Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York…he also is an ex officio member of the Senate Intelligence Committee…with MSNBC’S Rachel Maddow, Schumer (said) “Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you. So even for a practical, supposedly hard-nosed businessman, he’s being really dumb to do this.” So, President Trump has been in office long enough to have learned how the game is played and the “six ways from Sunday” that the intelligence community has for “getting back at you.” He appears to be as intimidated as was President Obama.
In October of 2021, 58 years after the event, Joe Biden postponed the full release of the files. In November of 2022 (30 years after JFK), Oliver Stone released his film JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass. Quite predictably, it provoked the usual howls of derision, with the once-progressive Rolling Stone calling him a “tinfoil-hatted fabricator”.
But the gatekeepers have never been able to close their case, because we are dealing with the powerful psychological issue of projection, and its opposite, disillusionment. Eisenstein writes:
Many present-day conspiracy theories embed the Kennedy assassinations within a larger mythology; it is an integral structural element. That doesn’t mean that the truth of a particular Kennedy conspiracy theory entails the truth of any of these larger conspiracy theories. It does mean that without the JFK assassination and cover-up, most of these other theories would not have been born…Certainly most are objectively false…but also they are all true in their basic motif. They give voice to a profound alienation, an endemic and well-deserved distrust of authority. Today huge numbers of people believe the election was stolen, that the vaccines are a deliberate depopulation scheme, even that the moon landing was fake…The monstrous act of deception that was November 22, 1963 makes all of these a lot more plausible, suggesting, “They are capable of anything.”
(That “anything” even includes the notion that JFK Junior is still alive and is a beacon to the QAnon crowd. But their perspective contains an internal logic: If the Deep State killed his father and the government has lied about it all these years, then what else are they lying about?)
From a mythic perspective, however, the entire assassination dispute addresses a rather superficial question – did they or didn’t they? We need to go deeper and consider how the ongoing mystery surrounding Kennedy and his death reflects much deeper, archetypal mysteries about his – and our – lives.
Wow! I never realized that Kennedy and Vietnam was to your generation what Princess Diana and 9/11 is to ours. – A thirty-something
The Dying God (1)
He was known in Sumer as Dumuzi, the consort of the Goddess Inanna. Later in Babylon he was known as Tammuz, in Egypt as Osiris and Serapis, in Asia Minor as Attis, in Persia as Mythra, in Italy as Bacchus, in Syria as Adonis, as Fufluns among the Etruscans, as Dionysus in Greece and as Jesus when the Pagan world collapsed.
The ancients marked as sacred not the places where gods and heroes had been born, but the places where they had died. Christianity replaced them with the saints and added, along with their relics, the dates of their deaths. Our modern toxic mimic of that world, the culture of celebrity, does the same thing. Who remembers the birthdays of JFK, Diana or Elvis?
Steven Stark itemizes the long list of Pop culture celebrities who died young, Elvis most prominently, and he points out the mythic connection:
Dying young freezes the stars at their peak: like the promise of Hollywood itself, they remain forever young and beautiful – the perfect icons for the immortality that films and records purport to offer…As a cultural symbol whose life can now be made into anything with impunity, Kennedy, like Presley, has become, in Greil Marcus's words, "an anarchy of possibilities" – a reflection of the public's mass fears and aspirations and also a constant vehicle for discussing those sentiments…Thus Presley and the Kennedys have evolved into a collection of cultural deities – modern-day equivalents of the Greek gods, who were immortal while sharing the characteristics of the human beings who worshipped them…
Stark’s conclusion makes intuitive sense to any perceptive observer of mass media. Today, much, perhaps most political rhetoric, especially the deliberately provocative variety, is not intended to persuade the opposition to change its mind on a given subject. Politicians offer their statements to rile up their own constituencies, not to convince another. The lie repeated often enough becomes the accepted reality. Every time you roll your eyebrows at one of these lies, however, somebody who has already been entertaining them is becoming even more certain. This is known as confirmation bias. Preaching to their own separate choirs, these demagogues (and entire TV networks) are essentially entertainers rather than advocates in the realm of public ideas. Stark concludes:
Myth tells us that Dionysus was always followed by a band of raving, ecstatic women known as the Maenads, a word related to mania. Young people, who had been so identified with JFK’s symbolic renewal of the world, took his death particularly hard. Perhaps it is no coincidence that a new form of maenadism erupted only two months later in February 1964, when the Beatles performed before seventy million Americans on the Ed Sullivan show. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, “At no time during their U.S. tours was the group audible above the shrieking.” Someone dubbed the experience “Beatlemania” and the phrase stuck. Sociologist Susan Douglas argues that the resonance between Kennedy and the Beatles allowed for “a powerful and collective transfer of hope.”
But only some of that hope was channeled into collective political action, because idealism, for many, had already been degraded into its opposite, cynicism (see Chapter Eleven of Madness at the Gates of the City for a more in-depth discussion). Cynicism led to apathy; apathy led to abandonment of hope that change could occur through conventional politics; and reduced voting eventually begat Reagan, the Bushes, the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, Trumpus and our current Supreme Court.
Sixty Years Later
Like almost all politicians, most media pundits are, quite simply, entertainers charged with diverting the public from the men behind the screen – and from the collective weight of our unexpressed anger and grief, from the anxiety of our diminished, alienated lives and from the pain of remembering that we once dreamed of serving the great King of our souls. The pundits entertain us with silly concepts such as the “red state/blue state” divide, when in fact both major political parties are far more conservative than they were in 1963, indeed far more conservative than the nation as a whole today.
In the context of the myths about John Kennedy, the real divide today is between two other groups. The first group is composed of those who still accept the dominant narratives about both his death and American exceptionalism. They tend to be white and old (Roger Ailes, may he burn in Hell, famously admitted, “I created a TV network for people 55 to dead.”) Many consider themselves “moderates,” or “independents” who thoughtfully weigh the issues and vote Democratic as often as they vote Republican. And they are either very angry or very scared, because it is harder and harder to cling to their sense of innocence. They tend to be evangelical or mainline Protestants. They respect the police and many of them believe that white people are more discriminated against than black people. They support all of America’s wars, if reluctantly.
The second group is younger, darker-skinned, more tech-savvy, much less affluent and more cynical, despite their youth. They have very little hope of any good coming out of the political process, because they see it as either hopelessly broken or deliberately rigged to perpetuate power and privilege. They hate the police. Many are rooted in communities that never subscribed to the myth of innocence. As novelist Walter Mosley has said,
I have never met an African-American who was surprised by the attack on the World Trade Center. Blacks do not see America as the great liberator of the world. Blacks understand how the rest of the world sees us, because we have also been the victims of American imperialism.
Many of them feel that they have nothing to lose. Granted, their disdain for the cesspool of national politics leaves the field to the very worst people in the world. But who can blame them for not voting?
Many others in this second group, however, have permanently rejected the patriarchal, homophobic, racist, violent, imperialistic, individualistic, competitive, monotheistic values of the dominant culture in favor of non-political (or at least local), collective, creative, soulful, pagan, meditative attention to truly human and environmental values, values of the Whole Earth, who is the ultimate transcendent cause.
Here I recall the Rumi quote that opens my book:
I have lived on the lip of insanity wanting to know reasons, knocking on a door. It opens. I’ve been knocking from the inside!
Members of the first group occasionally view the madness behind the door. Horrified, they slam it shut, and as G.W. Bush exhorted after 9-11, they go back to shopping. For them, a quick glimpse into the margins where cracks appear in the seemingly solid walls of the myth of innocence is too much to bear.
But others have chosen to live there, because they know that when the King has vacated the center of the realm, the realm rots from the center outward. And healing comes from the margins.
The Dying God (2)
Only the Goddess lives on, unchanging. The God – or the King – must die, because his rebirth awakens the world (or the psyche) to the necessity and the possibility of renewal. His capacity to die to what he had been so as to be reborn into what he could be is the very essence of initiation. And this is why we long for his return, not because he might save us, but because he symbolizes our own renewal.
It is our responsibility to determine the fact, the literal truth of a situation and then to refine, reframe, re-imagine and retell it in its mythic context. We look at what people do and re-imagine how they would act if they were in alignment with their higher purpose. Ironically, JFK himself quoted George Bernard Shaw: You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?” Political rhetoric? Of course. Archetypal thinking? Certainly.
Even Gore Vidal, that strong critic of Kennedy’s imperial policies, admitted:
The thing about myths and legends, should we allow reality to intrude; the Kennedy legend is a very good one for the world, and it's a very good one for the United States. And as a critic, I am sort of split; because on the one hand, I know it's not true, and on the other hand I think, Well, if it's not true – it ought to be true.
One of the few factual things that we can say about JFK is that, like Barack Obama, he did not take office as a liberal. He redbaited the Republicans to get elected. In Noam Chomsky’s words, “Kennedy launched a huge terrorist campaign against Cuba (and) laid the basis for the huge wave of repression that spread over Latin America…” He built up the American forces in Viet Nam from a few dozen to 17,000 men. Ronald Reagan praised him for having lowered taxes on business. He initially tried to prevent the March on Washington and didn’t speak out on Civil Rights until circumstances forced him to.
Unlike Obama, however, he actually became more liberal. And he did speak out. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he told Arthur Schlesinger, “I want to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” In June of 1963 he gave a remarkable speech that seemed to offer a just, workable peace to the U.S.S.R., and it quickly led to the first arms control treaty.
As I mentioned in Part Two of this essay, he may well have been about to pull the nation out of Viet Nam. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. claims that on the morning of November 21st, as JFK prepared to leave for Texas, he told his assistant press secretary Malcolm Kilduff,
It's time for us to get out…After I come back from Texas, that's going to change. There's no reason for us to lose another man over there. Vietnam is not worth another American life.
To be fair, we should note that Noam Chomsky completely disagrees with the claim that JFK was planning to withdraw from Viet Nam (Chomsky also subscribes to both the “lone shooter” narrative and the official 9/11 explanation). Michael Parenti and John Judge criticize Chomsky’s position. But Allen Dulles, whom JFK had fired as CIA chief (and who later “served” on the Warren Commission), said, "That little Kennedy…he thought he was a god."
Some writers claim that Kennedy’s deepest values (imagine even using that phrase to describe any of his successors!) had undergone profound transformation. Consider the liberating influence that Mary Pinchot Meyer, his mistress, may have had on him.
But so much of what we think we know remains in the category of allegations and has been well managed by the Kennedy clan. John F. Kennedy remains a chimera, and because he is more myth than human, we all remember him through our own highly subjective lens. So I, like Vidal, choose to remember who he – and we – might have become.
Ultimately, the pull of JFK’s image in our national memory evokes that same symbolism I began this essay with, the same image that allows us to picture America in its most ideal light: the New Start.
As Yeats wrote, “the center cannot hold.” Perhaps this is a good thing. When the center is rotten – when the King dies – the renewal of the world must come not from there but from the margins. Perhaps only those who inhabit the margins of the culture – the realms of Hermes, Dionysus, Coyote and Kokopelli – are capable of reframing the American story.
Perhaps history is forcing us to learn the languages of mythology and psychology. Perhaps renewal will come when enough of us discover that we have projected too much of ourselves onto public figures. It is time, as Robert Bly said, to withdraw our projections. The archetypal King that Kennedy attempted to embody – that we wished he’d embodied – will not return until enough of us realize that the King lies within each of us.
Sing sorrow, sorrow, but good win out in the end. – Aeschylus
As a mythologist (and sharing our common curiosity about these things), I felt responsible to watch several 2013 documentaries and read much of what passed for journalism on the Kennedys that was published that year. On TV, pundits lined up to calmly and rationally discuss the major issues and then conclude, predictably, that we should all trust the dominant narratives of John F. Kennedy’s life, of his death, and by implication, of our own innocence.
Daniel Mendelsohn’s work rises above the general level of bogus pontification. His essay on the Kennedys is noteworthy for two reasons: First, and very rarely among prominent journalists, because he addresses social issues from the perspective of Greek myth. And second, because, like the New Yorker itself, he functions ultimately as a gatekeeper.
It is a great gift to American thinking to point out that we can discern very old stories in our national obsessions and repetitive behavior. But it is a great disservice to use mythology to subtly manipulate that thinking, to define, as all gatekeepers do, the proper range of acceptable discussion, and to demonize those who stand outside it. It reduces mythic images from mystery to parable.
Myth says: Here is a story. Take ten or twenty years of your life to let it work on you and consider what it tells you about yourself. Parable says: This is how you should interpret the image. Myth serves the soul. Parable serves the dominant ideology.
Mendelsohn acknowledges that Jacqueline Kennedy made Camelot the official myth of the Kennedy Administration. But, he says, Greek tragedy may be more appropriate, because
Athenian drama returns obsessively – as we do, every November 22nd – to the shocking and yet seemingly inevitable spectacle of the fallen king, of power and beauty and privilege violently laid low.
He mentions another familiar mythic theme evoked by the Kennedy saga, that of family curses and original sins that come back to haunt the innocents. The list is quite long: brother Joseph’s death in war; brother Robert’s assassination; brother Ted’s scandal at Chappaquiddick; three lost Presidential opportunities; airplane crashes, madness, murder scandals and drug addictions – all stemming from the alleged crimes of the family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy.
Mendelsohn suggests that this is tragic thinking: “…assuming that there is a dark pattern in the way things happen…” Using the Oedipus and Oresteia myths as examples, he reminds us that
…the impulse to expose, to bring secret crimes to light...lies at the heart of Greek drama. You could say that all tragedy is about the process of discovery, of learning that the present has a surprising and often devastating relationship to the past…slowly uncovering the deeper meanings of things…
This desire underlies much of our curiosity about the Kennedys and the national trauma we associate with them. So we “…constantly revisit it, as much to convince ourselves that such a thing could happen as to hope, each time we go back, that it might turn out differently.”
Indeed, we annually revisit both the assassination as well as the entire weekend that followed, from the first news through the Jack Ruby’s alleged revenge killing of Oswald to the grand funeral procession that (for a time) re-established our national sense of continuity and purpose.
This suggests that the conclusion to be drawn is not about “the role of the media” – about news and how we get it – but about drama: about our need, as ancient as the Greeks, to see certain elemental plots re-enacted before our eyes, at once familiar but always fresh.
So far, so good. Mendelsohn then moves to the theme of the King/God/Hero as sacrificial victim, which, he says, has deeply influenced our fifty-year-long response to these stories (not to mention, I might add, our even older fascination with Abraham Lincoln:
Hero and victim: our ambiguous relationship to the great – our need to idolize and idealize them, inextricable from our impulse to degrade and destroy them – is, in the end, the motor of tragedy, which first elevates and then topples its heroes…
But we are talking about an American story, which was born, as I have said, in what Campbell called a “de-mythologized world.” This world suffers from a profoundly diminished imagination. It’s not that we have no myths, but that we are generally unconscious of them, of how profoundly they determine our identity, and of how little they nourish us.
Indeed, the myth of American Innocence offers only one alternative to the Hero: the Victim. If Americans feel the constant need to revisit the theme of the Hero reduced to victim, perhaps it is because many of us sense that our long-assumed sense of white, male privilege that underlies our national identity and military/industrial empire is collapsing. Perhaps this is why so many white people are, like deer in a headlight, staring at its shadow of victimization. Perhaps we all know at some deep level that the cracks in the veneer of the walls of the City are exposing a rot that we cannot ignore much longer.
And, once again, this is where the gatekeepers come in. Their function – as intellectuals, professors, writers, broadcasters, pundits and journalists, as managers of elite opinion for our middle- and upper-middle classes – is to control the spin and sheer up those cracks in the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. This is where Mendelsohn (as a staff writer for the New Yorker) shifts from classicist to gatekeeper:
The tragic conviction that there are long-hidden reasons for the fall of kings finds its most extreme expression, today, in the obsessive desire to find “plots” of another kind in the Kennedy story: here you can’t help thinking of the conspiracy theories. With their Rube Goldberg-esque ingenuity, their elaborateness directly proportional to their preposterousness, these can end up looking suspiciously like madness (that other favorite tragic subject.)
Note the similarity of his patronizing attitude to that of Steven Gillon in Part Two of this essay. Mendelsohn the classicist wrote ninety-five percent of a very insightful article, but Mendelsohn the gatekeeper inserted the above paragraph, and by doing so, revealed his real agenda. Patronizing: the attitude of the patriarch. Trust him.
What are the differences between the old myths and ours? Greek drama, like all art forms deriving from indigenous myth, expresses archetypal themes and is embedded in the physical places where some of those themes were first told. As such, it still retains the soul-making potential to connect readers and audiences to their essential natures. It still carries the possibilities of a functioning mythology. It is and will continue to be re-told to modern audiences because its themes are our own. It remains relevant to an understanding of both who we are (what Euripides, in the words of Sophocles, showed) and who we might become (what Sophocles himself tried to show).
The myth of American innocence, by contrast, functions essentially on Campbell’s sociological level – to enable us to rationalize the contradictions of our lives and our belief systems, to live in a mad system without going mad, by projecting that madness upon the Others of the world. As such, our myth is profoundly unstable. The truth (its mythic image is Dionysus at the gates of Thebes) always threatens to intrude upon our fantasies of innocence, good intentions and exceptionalism. Because these cracks in the myth continually appear, because we are clamoring for a different story, the gatekeepers must continually re-tell it, as if one more re-telling will put us back to sleep.
In the case of the Kennedy assassination, the gatekeepers are well aware that most Americans doubt the dominant narrative. They know that if that doubt were to become universally expressed, then we would have to call many other aspects of our American story into question. So the gatekeepers have been working overtime, as they do every November, so that we might sit down for Thanksgiving dinner to feed on fantasies instead of on dreams.
Public education, writes Chomsky, is a system of imposed ignorance in which the most highly educated people are the most highly indoctrinated. “A good education instills in you the intuitive comprehension – it becomes unconscious and reflexive – that you just don’t think certain things...that are threatening to power interests.”
From this perspective, it is the thinking of the “educated” classes – the teachers, managers, professionals, donors and conventional activists – us – that must remain within the bounds of acceptable debate. In this realm, our most important gatekeeping institutions are not the major TV networks (their function is obvious enough), but the media consumed most innocently by these classes, the so-called liberal media: The Public Broadcasting System, the New York Times, the Washington Post and The New Yorker.
I’m not calling for a boycott of these venerable institutions. I’m suggesting that as you read and watch them, it is more important than ever to remember the necessity of understanding their real intentions. If, as Mendelsohn says, “…all tragedy is about the process of discovery,” then why not let people discover the truth – and the tragedy – for themselves, instead of spoon-feeding them with such heavily-loaded words and phrases as “preposterousness,” and “Rube Goldberg-esque”?
Again, I’m not really interested in the superficial political questions, or even, for that matter, in answers. I’m interested in deepening the questions themselves. I began this inquiry by asking two of them: When did you lose your innocence? and When did you lose it again? Now let’s reframe them: Did you really lose it? Can we afford to remain innocent?
As a moderate-liberal, do you still hold to the single-gunman narrative that has functioned for nearly sixty years to shore up the holes in your national identity? How does such thinking affect your views of contemporary issues, from abortion and Black Lives Matter to Iran, North Korea and “the Russians?”
As a progressive, what does your acknowledgement that the CIA really did kill JFK really mean? Knowing that every President since 1963 has been held captive to the dictates of the Deep State, did you vote for the last two Democratic candidates? Were you hedging bets against your own cynicism, or were you, once again, caught up in the temptation of “hope?” Do you still long for the days of Barack Obama?
Please don’t misinterpret my meaning. I’m not arguing against involvement and activism, but rather, as Campbell also said, to “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” To do that, however, we have to wake from our national daydreams
An authentic capacity to think mythologically brings with it the knowledge that any truth, rather than ending the discussion, merely points us further down the road to deeper truths. It dispenses with one-dimensional parables and soothing reassurances in favor of metaphor, nuance and symbol. It gifts us with better questions, not cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all conclusions. It invites us further into both the tragedy and the mystery at the core of our stories, our behavior and our identity, and then it encourages us to imagine models for who we – and our nation – might become if we were truly in alignment with our soul’s purpose. It expands our thinking rather than constricting it. It speaks truth to power. And that is why we need to be familiar with mythology: not for armchair pontification, but to change the world.