Magazine | March 21, 2011, Issue

Recycling the Sixties

It starts! January 20, the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, passed with little comment, so far as I could judge. Then the public-sector unions of Wisconsin began demonstrating against Governor Walker’s bill to cut back their collective-bargaining powers. Propagandists for the unions were keen to remind us that it was John F. Kennedy who granted full union rights to federal employees in 1962. (Some states and municipalities had jumped the gun.) Who but villains could oppose the spirit of an Executive Order signed by the martyred monarch of Camelot?

The semicentennial anniversary of the martyrdom itself is still two and a half years away, but we may as well brace ourselves for the commemorations. After that we shall no doubt be invited to relive the rest of the 1960s: the assassinations and riots; hippies and Yippies; teach-ins, sit-ins, and love-ins; black power, gay rights, and women’s lib; and of course the war. Historian Richard Hofstadter described the 1960s (which he just barely outlived: he died in 1970) as the “age of rubbish.” Rubbish it may have been, but I fear it was rubbish of the recyclable sort.

Centenaries, semicentenaries, sesquicentenaries, and the like are of course artificial events, with their origins in the biological accident of Homo sap. having ten fingers. If we’d had twelve, this year would be the “centenary” of Seward’s acquiring Alaska 144 years ago. If we had stuck with the old Babylonian sexagesimal system we should now be in a.d. 33°31′, the “semicentenary” of the horrid Caracalla becoming Roman emperor . . . and so on. Artificial or not, though, a forward-looking nation with not much history to be conscious of will naturally lean on any mnemonic device that comes to hand, so here we are embarking on a commemoration of the Sixties.

And the Sixties began with JFK. I have been refreshing my own memory by reading James Piereson’s fine book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism. That subtitle is surely correct: Piereson shows clearly how postwar American liberalism — bourgeois, managerial, meliorist — curdled into something far more radical and malign during the “age of rubbish.” He gleefully points out most of the paradoxes arising therefrom: how the tax-cutting, proactively anti-Communist, civil-rights-shy JFK, who could have worn the neocon label very comfortably if born 20 years later, became transformed into a liberal icon; and how “many of those young people who filed in shocked grief past the president’s coffin in 1963 would just a few years later embrace as political activists the very doctrines that drove Oswald to assassinate him.”

(The similar posthumous reworking of Bobby Kennedy was even more audacious. It seems now to have been forgotten that this other liberal Kennedy martyr, who recently had a New York City bridge named after him, worked as counsel to Joe McCarthy’s investigative committee, and was honored to accept McCarthy as godfather to his first child.)

#page#Until reading Piereson’s book I had not realized how quickly the Camelot notion took hold, nor how instrumental Mrs. Kennedy was in promoting it. It was absurd, of course. The historical Arthur, supposing he even existed, was so little known to those who mythologized him centuries later that they could do their image-building with a clear conscience. JFK was sufficiently well known, even at the time of the assassination, that it is a wonder the idolization could “take.” Victor Lasky’s unflattering portrait J.F.K.: The Man and the Myth was still on the bestseller lists when JFK flew to Dallas. (It was pulled by the publisher thereafter.)

We need myths and heroes, though, no less than our ancestors did. It is not actually King Arthur I have been thinking of in the JFK context, but Agamemnon. This followed from my taking Piereson’s book with me to read on the train into Manhattan one evening, an hour each way from the Straggler mansion. I was making the trip to see the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, with Plácido Domingo as Orestes. Agamemnon makes a brief non-singing appearance.

Riding the train home, my imagination somewhat unleashed by wine from the Met Guild lounge at the intermission, I wondered how the historical Agamemnon — there quite likely was one: Hittite inscriptions contain suggestive mentions — would appear to me if I could encounter him. As an unwashed savage, probably: a boor who scratched himself in public, ate with his fingers, peed in odd corners of the palace rooms, helped himself to slave girls, and took it for granted his gods would demand the occasional human sacrifice. Yet he glitters down majestically through the millennia — Homer, Euripides, Shakespeare, Yeats — to the stage of the Met, a flawed hero toiling to his doom through the tangles of divine and human justice.

(Customer shows torn pair of pants to Greek tailor. Tailor: “Euripides?” Customer: “Yes. Eumenides?” . . . Sorry, sorry.)

I doubt one could make that much of JFK. The doomed-family motif is mildly suggestive, but the misfortunes of Agamemnon and his kin were caused by the gross misbehavior of their forebears. (Come to think of it, surveying the character and business career of Joseph Kennedy Sr., the parallel is not completely absurd.) Nor does the JFK myth look good for a 3,300-year run. Indeed, to judge by the lackluster observations of January 20, its power may already be fading even among liberals.

Well, well: so much to look forward to as the echoes of the Sixties ripple out from our magazines and TV screens. Nor was the decade ours alone. Many things changed mightily beyond our shores: the Six-Day War, China’s Cultural Revolution, men in space. Other things failed to change, most tragically the Prague Spring. They were interesting times, more than usually so.

But come, Mr. Straggler: why this obsessing over anniversaries and such — mere figments of numerological accident, as you yourself admit? It wouldn’t, would it, be anything to do with this being the 100th column here under your byline?

Perish the thought! A straggler, by definition, could never be so vainglorious. Coincidence, pure coincidence, I assure you.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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