Talkin Bout Their Generation: the Insufferable Sixties

Baby Boomers should stop subjecting the rest of us to their solipsism

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Two American anniversaries: the one you’ve heard about and the one that matters

As you have likely noticed yesterday was the 50th assassination of John F. Kennedy. He is still a subject of massive fascination and a sizable industry. The most obvious aspect of this is the continuing obsession with the imagined conspiracy that killed him but it’s far from being the only one. For example, an article in the New Republic accused the up market Vanity Fair of having “an absurd preoccupation with the Kennedys” and noted that:

Since Michelle Obama became first lady, Jackie has merited more attention—20 mentions to Michelle’s 19. Since August 2008, when John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, searching for “Kennedy” in VF in Nexis yields twice as many results as searching for “Palin.” The “politics” section of VanityFair.com has a header for “The Kennedys”—an entire digital section devoted to political figures who are, save a few, no longer alive. Surely readers looking for political coverage would rather find, oh, say, a tab marked, “Presidential election 2012”?

When the American public are polled about who they think the greatest president is JFK is invariably near the top and a recent poll named him as the most popular president of the past sixty years. This stands in contrast to surveys of scholars who tend to give JFK a rather more middling rating.

The focus on the 50th anniversary of the JFK anniversary is all the more striking given that Tuesday was the 150th anniversary of a milestone in the presidency of the man who usually tops those scholar lists. On the 19th November 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. This was probably the most important speech ever in American history and followed the decisive battle of the Civil War. Yet somehow this was overshadowed by the death of a mediocre president who happened to be rather handsome. I would suggest that this disparity can be explained by the fact that JFK was a figure from the Sixties, a period with an outsize role in our collective imagination.

Sixties Mania

Our obsession with the Sixties manifests itself in many ways. There is, for example, the adulation that attaches itself to Mad Men or the latest 1000 pages of Robert Caro’s oil tanker length biography of LBJ. We could also observe that while Vietnam remains a cultural touchstone, the war in Korea is largely forgotten. Or we could point to the massive followings still enjoyed by the Rolling Stones, the Who or Bob Dylan.

It seems to me that what has happened is that now Baby Boomers – now firmly ensconced at the top of the media and cultural institutions – have been treating the events that were especially interesting and formative for them as being so for the world in general. And in the process they have managed to convince many of the rest of us that the Sixties were particularly significant.

Was the Sixties all that?

Stepping back and looking at the 20th century as a whole, the Sixties don’t seem that seminal.

If we look at the arena of politics and international relations, then important things did happen in the boomers formative years: the revolution in Cuba, the 1968 uprisings and Vietnam. However, these seem less significant than say the Depression, World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, the consolidation of postwar European democracy, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of China.

In terms of economics, the Sixties looks like a time of stasis between the emergence of Keynesian social democracy and it’s displacement by deregulation and deindustrialisation that began with the OPEC crisis in 1973.

And while it might have been a time of cultural tumult, it was intellectually arid. As Tony Judt observes in his masterful history of Postwar Europe, the Sixties was almost wholly devoid of great thinkers or movements. It produced no Durkheim, no Einstein nor a Wittgenstein.

Even in the changes in sexual politics were not as dramatic as often imagined. Phillip Larkin said that “Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three …..between the end of the “Chatterley” ban and the Beatles’ first LP.” However, an alternative narrative would be that the boomers rebelled against the sexual mores of their parents by embracing those of their grandparents.

What WAS unique about the Sixties was the boomers sense of their own importance. To again quote Judt:

Moments of great cultural significance are often appreciated only in retrospect. The Sixties were different: the transcendent importance contemporaries attached to their own own times – was one of the special features of the age. A significant part of the Sixties was spent in the words of The Who: ‘talking about My Generation’

I can’t be alone in thinking that it’s time for the generations that came before and after the boomers to tell them to see beyond their own formative years: if they can’t see that Gettysburg 1863 was more significant than Dallas 1963, they really need to learn to get some perspective.

There was no Kennedy conspiracy

Fifty years ago today  a shooting in Dallas left US president John F. Kennedy dead and Texas Governor John Connally injured. 3 in 4 Americans believe that this was the result of a conspiracy. They are wrong.

In this article for Slate, Fred Kaplan – himself a former conspiracy theorist – argues that the evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone is overwhelming. Even the most apparently convincing evidence otherwise dissolves under proper investigation:

At first, it was assumed that Kennedy and Connally had been hit by separate bullets. But the Zapruder film threw a wrench in that notion. The Warren Commission’s analysts concluded that JFK was shot sometime between Frames 210 and 225 (a street billboard blocked Zapruder’s view at the crucial moment), while Connally was hit no later than Frame 240. In other words, the two men were hit no more than 30 frames apart. However, FBI tests revealed that Oswald’s rifle could be fired no faster than once every 2.25 seconds—which, on Zapruder’s camera, translated, to 40 or 41 frames. In short, there wasn’t enough time for Oswald to fire one bullet at Kennedy, then another at Connally.

The inference was inescapable. Either there were at least two gunmen—or Kennedy and Connally were hit by the same bullet. The Warren Report argued the latter. The “single-bullet theory,” as it was called, set off a controversy even among the commissioners. Three of them didn’t buy it. Under political pressure to issue a unanimous report (preferably one reassuring the American public that there was only one gunman and he was dead), the skeptics stifled their dissent, at least publicly; in exchange, the report’s authors toned down their assessment of the single-bullet theory from “compelling” (the first draft’s term) to merely “persuasive.”

That section of the Warren Report drew the most biting attacks. Critics drew diagrams tracing the absurd path that a bullet would have had to travel—a midair turn to the right, followed by a squiggly one to the left—in order to rip through Kennedy’s neck, then into Connally’s ribs and wrist.

For many years, long after I’d rejected most of the conspiracy buffs’ claims, the “magic bullet”—as critics called it—remained the one piece of the Dealey Plaza puzzle that I couldn’t fit into the picture; it was the one dissonant chord that, in certain moods, made me think there might have been two gunmen after all.

Then, in November 2003, on the murder’s 40th anniversary, I watched an ABC News documentary called The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy. In one segment, the producers showed the actual car in which the president and the others had been riding that day. One feature of the car, which I’d never heard or read about before, made my jaw literally drop. The back seat, where JFK rode, was three inches higher than the front seat, where Connally rode. Once that adjustment was made, the line from Oswald’s rifle to Kennedy’s upper back to Connally’s ribcage and wrist appeared absolutely straight. There was no need for a magic bullet.

But the idea of a conspiracy has an appeal. For all its practical unlikelihood, at an emotional level it still seems more plausiable than the alternative:

As the old adage has it, “Big doors sometimes swing on little hinges.” John F. Kennedy’s murder was a big door—had he lived, the subsequent decades might have looked very different—and Lee Harvey Oswald was a preposterously small hinge. The dissonance is wildly disorienting. It makes for a neater fit, a more intelligible universe, to believe that a consequential figure like John Kennedy was taken down by an equally consequential entity, like the CIA, the Mafia, the Soviets, Castro … take your pick.

Now it could be argued that who was responsible for a shooting half a century ago is now just a historical curiosity like who killed the princes in the tower. Yet it still matters. David Aaronovitch argues in his book Voodoo Histories, belief in a particular conspiracy theory is often a gateway into a worldview riddled with implausible plots. He cites the example of 9/11 truthers who trace their involvement with the movement to their conviction that their was a plot to kill Kennedy. And as Aaronovitch warns this has nasty consequences:

Aaronovitch says conspiracy theories are fashionable across the globe. And while the one your neighbor insists upon — that the fluoride in the drinking water is actually a mind-control experiment by the government — might be a harmless variation, some have serious consequences.

“If you are to travel in Pakistan, for instance, you will find that a significant proportion of the educated Pakistanis believe that George Bush brought down the twin towers,” says Aaronovitch. “And that makes dealing with the [Pakistani] Taliban difficult because they actually don’t believe the fundamental premise on which the war against terror was waged.”

Update: this post initially stated that Governor Connolly had been killed in the shooting. This was drafting error and I had meant to say he was injured. I’ve now corrected the text. Thanks to Paul Walter for spotting this.