BEFORE SEEING JFK I wrote last month's column on conspiracy theory. Then I heard from friends more or less what I anticipated, that the film was a horrible misrepresentation that would put leftists in an impossible position. Having to respond to ugly mainstream media attacks on the film, leftists would get pushed into defending it and Stone. The main problems, I was given to understand, were: (1) the film made Kennedy a marvelous savior who we all loved and who would have taken the country down a peaceful and just road had he only lived long enough; and (2) the film snares viewers in an endless quagmire of details about conspirators, with no useful attention to institutions. Film plot: John F. Kennedy's murder was a coup de tat and the country has since gone to hell in a handcart. Film moral: Find a new Kennedy and keep him alive long enough to get the country back on track. Problem with the film: JFK is liberal politics coupled to paranoid fantasy. Stone missed the point of what's now wrong with, and has always been wrong with, our country--the intrinsic oppressiveness of its basic institutions.
Obviously, with this as the advance billing, as I entered the theater, I was ready for the worst--and then some. I expected clips of Kennedy speaking, Kennedy riding horseback, Kennedy looking good talking about humanity's needs, Kennedy kissing Jackie and kids, all juxtaposed to a typical thriller about evil CIA renegades stealing our nation's fine institutions from the good folks, like Kennedy, who were up until then looking out for our well being and would do so again, if we just give them back the chance. In short, if only we could get back our wonderful institutions from a few bad guys, for example, by electing Joe Kennedy, everything would be Camelot again.
But that isn't the movie I saw. John F. Kennedy, except as target and corpse, was pretty much absent from JFK. JFK posits a continuity of Pentagon, CIA, corporate profit-seeking militarism from before Kennedy's election, that Kennedy, for reasons left unstated, opposed. For Oliver Stone, this is why Kennedy was killed and why the murder should be called a coup de tat. But Stone's "bad guy" in the movie is a system oriented to war and profitability and a lot of people obeying without questioning, not a few renegades stealing the government to set it on a new course.
Okay, JFK is wrong about Kennedy and that's certainly a major flaw. Kennedy was not a good guy and would not have turned history on its head. Still, I remember being into Kennedy as a teen-ager, and it wasn't because he was a Cold Warrior, a concept which undoubtedly meant nothing whatsoever to me at the time. Instead, there was an aura of concern and animation about Kennedy entirely contrary to politics as usual and which many people gravitated toward. And though it is a more interesting hypothesis than that Kennedy was a closet good guy, I don't think that the tendency of so many people at the time to relate so positively to Kennedy was a proto-fascist phenomenon, whether in myself or in others. His policies were nothing new, it's true. But the mood swirling about John Kennedy, however opportunist, was very much connected with a new kind of social and moral concern and, whether intentionally or not, contributed significantly to awakening my generation to politics as morality. Kennedy's death therefore hit us hard. But, that doesn't prove Kennedy was even a timid advocate of peace and justice, much less a paragon of virtue. As writers like Alex Cockburn in the Nation and others elsewhere have already indicated compellingly, there is no plausible evidence that Kennedy would have quickly ended the war in Vietnam.
So why did Stone employ that hypothesis? It isn't all that hard to understand. Cockburn and other left analysts of the period address the assassination after having looked at Kennedy's record and drawn a conclusion about Kennedy which becomes a constraint on any theory of why he was killed: that is, Kennedy was a part of the establishment, not an enemy of it. Stone starts, instead, with the murder. He notes from its nature that the assassination plot had to be undertaken by a large and well organized group of actors. He further notes that the cover-up had to be undertaken by the government itself, right up to its highest levels. These are the facts--and the evidence in their favor really is quite compelling--that Stone wants to explain. So Stone seeks a motive for the establishment as a whole to kill Kennedy, and he comes up with one, however far fetched: Kennedy was doing things or about to do things regarding foreign policy that the establishment was so opposed to that it killed him. What things? Well, how about policy reversals on the war and foreign policy? So, for Stone, we must have had a Coup de tat from the top. Why not? It happens often enough in the history of other countries.
The reason why not is important and has yet to be so much as mentioned in anything I've read about the film and assassination. Of course, it is not because this country isn't violent. Our's is arguably the most violent country in the world. And, of course, it isn't because it's impossible for sons (or daughters) of capital (a) to be murderers and liars as Lyndon Johnson et. al. would have been in Stone's scenario, or (b) to oppose aims of capital, as JFK would have done in Stone's scenario. The argument against government-initiated assassination also doesn't depend on detailed analysis of films, testimony, bullets, and actuarial reports such as those that indicate the odds against so many potential witnesses having died as they did shortly after the assassination were billions to one. The facts show a conspiracy first to kill Kennedy, and then to cover up the killing, but unless there is a smoking gun waiting to be entered in evidence, the facts don't show who was involved or why.
Therefore, to rule out Lyndon Johnson, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Foster Dulles, and the Boards of GM and Exxon as the conspiring assassins, we would have to assert that something about the history of the period shows that they didn't do it. We know it isn't their scruples. They had none. But to see evidence against the idea that they killed Kennedy, suppose Kennedy was what Stone says and much more. Suppose he had undergone some type of moral awakening and consciousness raising and had over night become the political/intellectual/moral equivalent of Martin Luther King, cum Rosa Parks, cum Robin Morgan, cum Noam Chomsky, all in the White House. This is borderline loony tunes but not absolutely impossible. However, even then, and I don't think Oliver Stone believes anything like this level of transformation occurred, killing Kennedy would not be tops on the establishment agenda.
Why take the risk before trying other means to stay his hand? Remember, even if Kennedy had become a paragon of peace and virtue, he did not have the country behind him. There were no mass movements seeking radical ends, or any progressive change at all. So if you're the head of Exxon or the CIA or whatever else, why not just let threats of capital flight and media manipulation and the rest of the time-honored mechanisms available for restraining unwanted government initiative create a context that so limits Kennedy's capacity to cause trouble that his time in office can be ridden out peaceably? If that doesn't work, a very unlikely eventuality, you will have time enough to resort to assassination later. It follows is that if we want to claim the Pentagon and CIA, acting for corporate America, assassinated Kennedy due to views he held, at a minimum we first need to show that they had already tried coercing him via the safer, system-maintaining mechanisms they ordinarily resort to to get their way. That would provide evidence of their desire and frustration. However, there is no such evidence.
If I wanted to tell a tale of the assassination with the government as killer, for motivation, just like Stone, I'd try to credibly claim that Kennedy represented a threat that needed to be extinguished. Knowing he wasn't a closet pacifist, however, I'd look for a different reason than Stone. I might try to argue, for example, that Kennedy was the point man for a growing movement of technocrats (who I call coordinators) upset with the irrational and unplanned chaos of capitalism and intent on bringing it all under the control of a corps of intellectual policymakers and planners. In this persona, Kennedy, with aides like MacNamara, Bundy, Schlesenger, et. al., would become a more substantial and believable adversary than he would be as a closet leftist. As the leader of technocracy, he would have had a growing constituency becoming increasingly excited at the prospect of government by the young and knowledgeable for the young and knowledgeable. The problem irking corporate elites would not be the untenable claim that Kennedy was going to put government in the hands of working people who showed not the slightest sign of being interested, but the more plausible claim that he was going to put government in the hands of eager academics and professionals, not as servants to capital, but as rulers over capital. In this scenario, killing Kennedy would have been a preventive strike against a class uprising.
This more elaborate hypothesis has nice movie scenario potential, dramatically, as well as for the complex lessons it could convey. Moreover, it has the merit of being actually possible under the type of government and economy we have. Kennedy becomes a modern day Bolshevik, without the Red Star, of course, but nonetheless seeking to institute rule by intellectual elites by way of rapidly arousing the class consciousness of his primary constituency, the coordinator class of managers and other intellectuals located "between labor and capital." Kennedy is not, in this re-rendering of history, a paragon of peace and justice, but a broker for intellectual order and managerial regulation. Regrettably for the theory, however, two problems arise. First, as for Stone's version, regarding this one too there was no real evidence of growing efforts to constrain Kennedy preparatory to the assassination, and this would surely have been present if the assassins operated at the behest of capital and state. Second, after Kennedy was killed, the intellectuals stayed in Washington, if anything enjoying greater power than before.
@Par After Sub = So what's a reasonable explanation for why Kennedy was killed and the assassination was whitewashed? I've always assumed that the Mafia--people who, after all, know how to kill other people and are highly skilled at it--plus some of their allies in government, did Kennedy in. Perhaps Kennedy was threatening their operations. Perhaps it was a family thing. Likely there were some crazy Cold Warrior or CIA types involved either out of anger over the Bay of Pigs, to pay back Mafia debts, or, as Stone prefers, because they feared Kennedy would try "Vietnamization" rather than letting them do their thing in the war. In any event, presumably because there were some renegade government folks involved, or some crazy corporate folks, or because some FBI types were worried that maybe Cubans or Russians were involved, the cover-up was begun, and once underway rapidly grew so large that it incorporated government to the highest levels.
Would this explanatory theme plus all the rest of Stone's JFK have made a better movie? It would certainly have avoided false claims about Kennedy's aims. But JFK is a movie, after all, not a scholarly historical study. And it seems to me that as a movie, despite its historical flaws, surprisingly, JFK sends viewers out thinking not so much about renegade bad guys, but about the country per se, and not so much about Kennedy's virtues, but about the system's faults. The movie is brilliant drama, yet it also conveys a ton of information, setting a valuable precedent about the possibility of entertaining and educating simultaneously. Does JFK have some ills of conspiracy theorizing, as outlined last month. Of course, but fewer than I'd expected, and fewer, I think, than much of what the left has produced about Irancontra, October Surprise, etc. Moreover, this is a dramatic movie, not a history book. It is a product of Hollywood, not of the community of leftists who have been studying the government and socio-economic system for decades. JFK is directed at provoking the U.S. populace, not providing them with a finished analysis of the workings of society. And it provokes rather well, judging by the reactions.
The most revealing fact about the massive response to JFK is that in all the hoopla about the movie, you rarely if ever hear anyone say, "but Kennedy couldn't have been killed by American leaders, by the government, by elites--they don't do things like that." Critics claim that JFK is manipulative--as if Buggsy and every other Hollywood movie isn't. And what does the claim even mean? JFK is a movie. Saying the Director tugged at people's hearts in some scenes or otherwise tried to get preferred results by having actors say what he wanted them to say is not criticizing him, but merely saying that he was, after all, making a movie. Critics claim JFK plays loose with history (though Stone is actually fastidious in repeatedly indicating that the film is hypothesis, not proved fact)--as if other films and TV, not to mention historical studies and legal accounts, don't play loose with history on a much grander more malevolent scale. And again, in any event, what does this criticism really mean? The relevant point is that there is so much history in JFK at all, with the obvious purpose of getting people to think about it. That's a giant step forward for Hollywood. What differentiates JFK isn't that it bends circumstances and takes critical license and incorporates history, it's that it does these things openly with a clear and politically charged purpose. In that sense, it is much less manipulative than most Hollywood films, and infinitely more serious. Critics don't claim, in their rush to judge JFK and Stone, that it is absurd that anyone would have the gutter mentality to accuse our great leaders and institutions of so vile behavior as an assassination. And they don't do that because no one would buy it. Most people believe worse about the government and politicians and big business than anything Oliver Stone has even intimated, much less sealed on celluloid.
The dynamics in JFK are compelling for the massive audiences seeing the film not solely because of the obvious nonsense of the magic bullet and the effective way Stone uses the Zapruder film, the geography of the killing site, the revealing portrayal of the autopsy room, and Donald Sutherland's insider speech. It rings true because audiences take it for granted that rich and powerful people are amoral slugs who would do just about anything to further their own and their class's interests.
A related point of advice that I hope Stone will take is that because so many people are already that cynical/aware, what we need from filmmakers as creative and capable as Oliver Stone is a movie about winning a better world, about how a better world could work, and about what we could do to bring a better world into being. Those are the things people don't know and might have their consciousnesses raised a whole lot by seeing addressed in the mass forum of public movie theaters. In the meantime, films like JFK, and like some of Stone's others, for that matter, are among the only rays of serious concern emerging from Hollywood. Constructively criticisizing progressive film efforts makes sense. But some of the more aggressive attacks from the left on a project that has millions and perhaps tens of millions of people talking about whether the U.S. government could, would, and did kill its own president over issues of war and peace seem misplaced. On the other hand, I can easily understand why mainstream commentators are having fits about Oliver Stone and his movies.
A Winning Attitude
I DON'T KNOW how to write this without sounding a bit silly, but is there anyone else out there who isn't hunkering down as if to merely survive till death? Sorry, but that's the feeling I've been getting from many of my friends and other left folks I encounter, in print or otherwise. Progressive people seem to think our cause is dust. We are untidy corpses. History is their's. Morbidity is ours. Maybe they were even right all along. Sorry, but I don't get it. And I'm getting sick of it.
One manifestation of this accelerating losing attitude is widespread resignation among people who ought to know better about the possibility of something beyond capitalism. I've written about this numerous times, but on so important a matter, a little repetition can't hurt. So, again, I defy anyone to contest the simple claim that in the past decade nothing whatsoever has happened to dim the worth or viability of left vision as propounded by feminists, antiracists, anarchists, greens, and advocates of participatory economics. The idea of a society in which gender is not a power division; race, ethnicity, and religion are not grounds for denigration; politics is not disenfranchisement; ecology is not a sewer; and economy is not an arena of alienation and exploitation, is not dead, nor even harmed by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The decline of Soviet economies is the decline of a particular class-divided system of elite rule. The decline of Soviet politics is the decline of one party authoritarianism. These things are better gone. The fact that the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries are barreling toward economic calamity is a human catastrophe for their citizens, but it does not reflect a whit on the potential of the human species to live better in new social circumstances. Likewise, the fact that the Soviet Union no longer exists as an international counterweight to U.S. international hegemony is a disaster for Third World countries, but, again, it says nothing about the possibility of those countries following an egalitarian and democratic development path.
Concern about the plight of millions of people in the East and the Third World makes sense. But the dream of a better world has not died. Only a nightmare has died, being replaced, regrettably, by another. Moreover, the dream was barely ever even dreamed, much less tried. What the Soviet Union got for the past fifty years is what the Bolsheviks sought--political domination by a single party and economic rule by coordinators running planning boards and administering typically hierarchical workplaces.
So why the hell are so many good and thoughtful people acting as though we will have markets forever, we will have capitalists forever, and twiddle dee, tweedle dum politics is the epitome of democracy? There is no rational reason for this intellectual resignation. Nothing has reduced the validity of left critique of markets, capital, bourgeois democracy, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Nothing has diminished the logic or morality of an appeal to find and win superior alternatives.
In fact, looking around, I feel considerable optimism, if not about the state of humanity and our country as it is, admittedly a debacle, at least about prospects for change. People are upset and confused. Trust of established institutions and authorities has plummetted. Desire for compelling explanation of current problems and for a plan of action to make life better is growing. In short, the social arena we find ourselves in has not been as open to radical critique and strategic initiative in a great many years. It is not hookum to say that this is a horrible time to decide to wallow in depression. By doing so, we are abdicating, at exactly a moment when the public is clamoring for answers and programs. I don't understand this. And I hope we can all get over it before too many opportunities slip by.
Indeed, ironically, while we're moaning and worrying about whether we were ever correct in our leftism, Oliver Stone is telling the entire country that its government is a bunch of murderous amoral thugs and getting away with it, and Jerry Brown (really, Jerry Brown) is running for President on the strength of a single claim--that our government is owned by capital and we need to take it back by dramatically transforming all its institutions. The fact is, we have a lot of important things to say, and we ought to be doing so, loud and clear. I think a great many people are ready to listen.