The Spiritual Truth of JFK (As Movie and Reality)
[Editor's Note: November 22 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and virtually all major TV channels, magazines, and other media outlets are planning specials, documentaries, articles with historical analyses and personal retellings of where people were at the time of assassination. Also, Oliver Stone's 1991 Oscar-nominated film JFK challenging the conventional theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman and suggesting that there may have been a conspiracy to kill Kennedy will be shown this month in over 250 theaters nationwide. To put the Kennedy assassination in a historical perspective that is both spiritual and political, we here reprint Peter Gabel's brilliant article on the subject, "The Spiritual Truth of JFK (As Movie and Reality)," originally published in Tikkun in March/April 1992 in response to the original release of Stone's film. Gabel's piece is an example of the kind of historical analysis we are trying to develop in Tikkun - locating the critical event of JFK's assassination in the context of the repression of our collective spiritual longings for a loving world that characterized the 1950s, and what he calls the "opening up of desire" represented by JFK. In defending Stone's film against its critics, Gabel also shows how the conflict between hope and fear, between the desire for an erotic, loving, and caring world and the forces seeking to deny and contain that desire, is central to understanding the meaning of historical events. His analysis also implicitly helps explain why this month there is such an outpouring of memory, pain, longing, and loss in recollecting the assassination fifty years later.]
Oliver Stone’s JFK is a great movie, but not because it “proves” that John F. Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy. Stone himself has acknowledged that the movie is a myth — a countermyth to the myth produced by the Warren Commission — but a myth that contains what Stone calls a spiritual truth. To understand that spiritual truth, we must look deeply into the psychological and social meaning of the assassination — its meaning for American society at the time that it occurred, and for understanding contemporary American politics and culture.
The spiritual problem that the movie speaks to is an underlying truth about life in American society — the truth that we all live in a social world characterized by feelings of alienation, isolation, and a chronic inability to connect with one another in a life-giving and powerful way. In our political and economic institutions, this alienation is lived out as a feeling of being “underneath” and at an infinite distance from an alien external world that seems to determine our lives from the outside. True democracy would require that we be actively engaged in ongoing processes of social interaction that strengthen our bonds of connectedness to one another, while at the same time allowing us to realize our need for a sense of social meaning and ethical purpose through the active remaking of the no-longer “external” world around us. But we do not yet live in such a world, and the isolation and distance from reality that envelops us is a cause of immense psychological and emotional pain, a social starvation that is in fact analogous to physical hunger and other forms of physical suffering.
One of the main psychosocial mechanisms by which this pain, this collective starvation, is denied is through the creation of an imaginary sense of community. Today this imaginary world is generated through a seemingly endless ritualized deference to the Flag, the Nation, the Family — pseudocommunal icons of public discourse projecting mere images of social connection that actually deny our real experience of isolation and distance, of living in sealed cubicles, passing each other blankly on the streets, while managing to relieve our alienation to some extent by making us feel a part of something. Political and cultural elites — presidents and ad agencies — typically generate these images of pseudocommunity, but we also play a part in creating them because, from the vantage point of our isolated positions — if we have not found some alternative community of meaning — we need them to provide what sense of social connection they can. We have discussed this phenomenon in Tikkun many times before, emphasizing recently, for example, the way David Duke is able to recognize and confirm the pain of white working-class people and thereby help them overcome, in an imaginary way, their sense of isolation in a public world that leaves them feeling invisible.
In the 1950s, the alienated environment that I have been describing took the form of an authoritarian, rigidly anticommunist mentality that coexisted with the fantasized image of a “perfect” America — a puffed-up and patriotic America that had won World War II and was now producing a kitchen-culture of time-saving appliances, allegedly happy families, and technically proficient organizations and “organization men” who dressed the same and looked the same as they marched in step toward the “great big beautiful tomorrow” hailed in General Electric’s advertising jingle of that period. It was a decade of artificial and rigid patriotic unity, sustained in large part by an equally rigid and pathological anticommunism; for communism was the “Other” whose evil we needed to exterminate or at least contain to preserve our illusory sense of connection, meaning, and social purpose. As the sixties were later to make clear, the cultural climate of the fifties was actually a massive denial of the desire for true connection and meaning. But at the time the cultural image-world of the fifties was sternly held in place by a punitive and threatening system of authoritarian male hierarchies, symbolized most graphically by the McCarthy hearings, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the person of J. Edgar Hoover.
In this context, the election of John F. Kennedy and his three years in office represented what I would call an opening-up of desire. I say this irrespective of his official policies, which are repeatedly criticized by the Left for their initial hawkish character, and irrespective also of the posthumous creation of the Camelot myth, which does exaggerate the magic of that period. The opening-up that I am referring to is a feeling that Kennedy was able to evoke — a feeling of humor, romance, idealism, and youthful energy, and a sense of hope that touched virtually every American alive during that time. It was this feeling — “the rise of a new generation of Americans” — 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 — the FBI, the CIA, even elements of Kennedy’s own cabinet and staff. 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.
Everyone alive at the time of the assassination knows exactly where they were when Kennedy was shot because, as it is often said, his assassination “traumatized the nation.” 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. As a sixteen-year-old in boarding school with no interest in politics, I wrote a long note in my diary asking God to help us through the days ahead, even though I didn’t believe in God at the time. And I imagine that you, if you were alive then, no matter how cynical you may have sometimes felt since then about politics or presidents or the “real” Kennedy himself, have a similar memory preciously stored in the region of your being where your longings for a better world still reside.
In this issue, Peter Dale Scott gives an account of the objective consequences of the assassination, of the ways that the nation’s anticommunist elites apparently reversed Kennedy’s beginning efforts to withdraw from Vietnam and perhaps through his relationship with Khrushchev to thaw out the addiction to blind anti-communist rage — an addiction that, as he saw during the Cuban missile crisis, could well have led to a nuclear war. But for these same elites, the mass-psychological consequences of the assassination posed quite a different problem from that of reversing government policy — namely, the need to find a way to reconstitute the image of benign social connection that could reform the imaginary unity of the country on which the legitimacy of government policy depends. 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.
Here we come to the mass-psychological importance of Lee Harvey Oswald and the lone gunman theory of the assassination. As Stone’s movie reminds us in a congeries of rapid-fire, post-assassination images, Oswald was instantly convicted in the media and in mass consciousness even before he was shot by Jack Ruby two days after the assassination. After an elaborate ritualized process producing twenty-six volumes of testimony, the Warren Commission sanctified Oswald’s instant conviction in spite of the extreme implausibility of the magic bullet theory, the apparently contrary evidence of the Zapruder film, and other factual information such as the near impossibility of Oswald’s firing even three bullets (assuming the magic bullet theory to be true) with such accuracy so quickly with a manually cocked rifle. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist, nor do you have to believe any of the evidence marshaled together by conspiracy theorists, to find it odd that Oswald’s guilt was immediately taken for granted within two days of the killing, with no witnesses and no legal proceeding of any kind — and that his guilt was later confidently affirmed by a high-level Commission whose members had to defy their own common sense in order to do so. The whole process might even seem extraordinary considering that we are talking about the assassination of an American president.
But it is not so surprising if you accept the mass-psychological perspective I am outlining here — the perspective that Kennedy and the Kennedy years had elicited a lyricism and a desire for transcendent social connection that contradicted the long-institutionalized forces of emotional repression that preceded them. The great advantage of the lone gunman theory is that it gives a nonsocial account of the assassination. It takes the experience of trauma and loss and momentary social disintegration, isolates the evil source of the experience in one antisocial individual, and leaves the image of society as a whole — the “imaginary community” that I referred to earlier — untarnished and still “good.” From the point of view of those in power, in other words, the lone gunman theory 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.
Having said this, I do not want to be understood to be suggesting that there was a conspiracy to set up Oswald in order to achieve this mass-psychological goal. There may well have been a conspiracy to set up Oswald, but no complex theory is required to explain it. And it would be absurd, in my view, to think that the entire media consciously intended to manipulate the American people in the headlong rush to convict Oswald in the press. The point is rather that this headlong rush was something we all — or most of us — participated in because we ourselves, unconsciously, are deeply attached to the status quo, to our legitimating myths of community, and to denying our own alienation and pain. 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.
The great achievement of Oliver Stone’s movie is that it uses this traumatic, formative event of the Kennedy assassination — an event full of politically important cultural memory and feeling — to assault the mythological version of American society and to make us experience the forces of repression that shape social reality. The movie may or may not be accurate in its account of what Lyndon Johnson might have known or of the phones in Washington shutting down just before the assassination or of the New Zealand newspaper that mysteriously published Oswald’s photographs before he was arrested. But the movie does give a kinetic and powerful depiction of the real historical forces present at the time of the assassination, forces that were in part released by the challenge to the fanatical anticommunism of the fifties that Kennedy to some extent brought about. Through his crosscutting images of the anti-Castro fringe, the civil-rights movement, high and low New Orleans club life, and elites in corporate and government offices who thought they ran the country, Stone uses all his cinematic and political energy to cut through the civics-class version of history and to bring the viewer into sudden contact with the realities of power and alienation that were present at that time and are present in a different form now.
I say this is the great achievement of the movie because no matter who killed Kennedy, it was the conflict between the opening-up of desire that he represented and the alienated need of the forces around him to shut this desire down that caused his death. This struggle was an important part of the meaning of the 1960s, and it provides the link, which Stone draws openly, between John Kennedy’s death and the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. There is no way for the forces of good to win the struggle between desire and alienation unless people can break through the gauzy images of everything being fine except the lone nuts, a legitimating ideology that is actually supported by our denial of the pain of our isolation and our collective deference to the system of Authority that we use to keep our legitimating myths in place. Oliver Stone’s JFK brings us face-to-face with social reality by penetrating the compensatory image-world of mass culture, politics, and journalism. And for that reason it is an important effort by someone whose consciousness was shaped by the sixties to transform and shake free the consciousness of the nineties.
Peter Gabel is editor-at-large of Tikkun. His new book, Another Way of Seeing: Essays on Transforming Law, Politics, and Culture (published by Quid Pro Books) is available from Reach and Teach and Amazon. The article reprinted above, “The Spiritual Truth of JFK (As Movie and Reality),” also appears in The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning (Acada Books, 2000).