Monday, November 28, 2011

Myths Are Only a Problem If They're Actually Held By Somebody

Ross Douthat, apparently inspired by the cover of the latest Stephen King novel (although I won't rule out that he read the inside flap... or does that still count as the cover?) seems to take great offense that some people like President Kennedy. He outlines three "myths" of President Kennedy, along with an abbreviated history, that don't stand up to serious scrutiny.

I was going to ignore the column... yes, a lot of people who die young end up being romanticized, and Kennedy is often depicted through rose colored glasses; yes, people like Douthat hate, hate, hate Kennedy and want us to wake up to their version of reality, not that it's any more accurate than the myths they hope to destroy (although usually with a better eye toward what the myths and facts actually are). That song has been playing, on and off, for some fifty years and other than bringing Stephen King into the mix Douthat has nothing new to offer. Less than nothing.

But then I reached Douthat's conclusion, a patronizing lecture, and I thought... this is Ross Douthat?
This last example [that Kennedy was supposedly a victim of right-wing unreason] suggests why the J.F.K. cult matters — because its myths still shape how we interpret politics today. We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement. We find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame. And we imagine that the worst evils can be blamed exclusively on subterranean demons, rather than on the follies that often flow from fine words and high ideals.
I guess my childhood in Canada left me deprived of access to the myth of Lee Harvey Oswald as a creature of the political right. Google tells me that on occasion somebody will make that claim and send the right-wing blogosphere into a frenzy, but I'm not sure what makes Douthat insist that it's a prominent myth that must be busted. Perhaps it's just a typical Douthat sneer at the left, "Can you believe what those people think", no more representative of reality than his express sneer about "the widespread suggestion that the schizophrenic Jared Lee Loughner shot his congresswoman because Sarah Palin put some targets on an online political map." As I stated at the time,
You'll find few examples of anybody with any prominent making anything that resembles the charge. The closest actual example I've seen produced is a blog post to the Huffington Post by Gary Hart, somebody who long ago faded from the popular consciousness. And the criticism is not that people can't engage in free speech, but something that the vast majority of politicians and commentators on both sides of the aisle demonstrate through their conduct - that when you're a prominent leader of an American political party, you should choose your words carefully. You won't find Mitch McConnell bandying about phrases like "blood libel" or using campaign slogans such as "don't retreat, reload", because he knows it's beneath him, that it's bad for the party and that it's bad for the political culture. The debate is about a handful of people who presently are the unofficial opinion leaders or potential political leaders of the Republican Party who think it's really cool to use violent rhetoric, and to give unqualified support to candidates who echo or expand upon their rhetoric.
But here I am, asking Douthat to think past right-wing talking points, and there's little cause to believe that's his strong suit.

Now we're at the point of a non sequitur. Douthat suggests that because some people supposedly believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was a right-winger, we as a nation make all sorts of mistakes about how we approach politics. Obvioulsy I'm not seeing how the two are connected. More to the point, given that Douthat is able to "see through" his straw man "myths" about Kennedy and has no problem with violent rhetoric and imagery in politics, what's his excuse? Douthat complains, "We confuse charisma with competence" - sure, but that didn't start with Kennedy. Perhaps Douthat is offended that the public chose Kennedy's charisma over Nixon's competence? Whatever it is, when you hear people talking about which candidate has "presidential good looks" or which "gives good soundbite, and has shoulders you could land a 737 on", you're not dealing with deep or thoughtful analysis. When you hear somebody gush about a non-candidate "radiates youth", "has charisma and media savvy to burn", and his then-preferred non-candidate's presumed ability "attract voters on a visceral level" and appeal to "conservative YouTube watchers", you have to wonder if he has any business lecturing others about falling victim to form over substance.

The thing that pushed appearance and presentation to the forefront was not JFK's assassination - it was television. Unless Douthat believes that JFK's assassination played a role in why radio listeners tended to believe that Nixon won his debate with Kennedy while TV viewers tended to believe the opposite, he should have figured that out. Beyond the impact of television, and the expansion of public access to a candidate's unscripted moments, press coverage and media analysis of political issues tends to be poor. I won't lay the responsibility for that on any individual, but I don't see that it has anything to do with either Kennedy's assassination or any associated myths.

I'm also not sure how Douthat came to the conclusion that Kennedy's Assassination caused us to "find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame". I'll grant, if you buy into the conspiracy theories that Oswald was a patsy, set up to take the fall for whomever the "real killer" was, Douthat might be able to concoct some sort of association between the assassination and scapegoating, although even with that I don't see how he would transform Oswald into a "personal icon". But as with the confusion of charisma with competence, scapegoating has occurred throughout human history. Perhaps Douthat forgot about this example? What about defending people who cover up child molestation because you admire them? Is that something other than letting personal icons escape blame?

Even though he doesn't seem to be an admirer of G.W. Bush, Douthat wrote an exceptionally charitable interpretation of his Presidency. As willing as he is to judge Kennedy's foreshortened Presidency with the benefit of hindsight, he puts on those good ol' rose colored glasses for G.W., and I don't recall that he's ever taken a critical look at Ronald Reagan. As Joseph A. Polermo observed, on one of the blog posts linked above,
Not content to trash JFK from every which way and sideways Douthat also calls Kennedy “a serial blunderer in foreign policy,” even while calling him a few paragraphs later “a famously hawkish cold war president.” Douthat, a partisan Republican, doesn’t bother to enumerate these “serial blunders,” and one would think he would rejoice in Kennedy’s toughness toward the Soviet Union.... And what modern president CANNOT be characterized as a “serial blunderer” in foreign policy? (Certainly not Reagan — Douthat’s hero — with his fiasco in Lebanon during his first term, and the Iran-Contra Scandal during his second.)
Let's also not forget the strategy of building up fundamentalist opposition to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, resulting in the radicalization of Pakistan, and then abandoning the region once the Soviets withdrew, creating the void in which the Taliban rose to power and in which Afghanistan became a safe haven for the likes of Osama bin Laden. (In fairness to modern Presidents, I'm not sure that the adventurism of 19th Century Presidents looks much better through the eyes of history.)

I'm not sure where Douthat is going with his last point. If he's speaking literally, the U.S. has bee far less receptive to the concept "that the worst evils can be blamed exclusively on subterranean demons" since JFK's assassination than it was during prior centuries. If he's speaking figuratively, I'm again not seeing the connection. Douthat told us that in his version of history people blamed the political right for JFK's assassination, so is he analogizing the political right to "subterranean demons"? I'm not attempting to do so - I'm just trying to make sense of Douthat's argument. And what's the connection to harms that "flow from fine words and high ideals"? Douthat, a professional writer, doesn't believe that people should strive to speak with "fine words" or that they should aspire to "high ideals"? That doing so is a mistake brought on by JFK's famous rhetoric?

The most charitable conclusion would be that he tacked on a closing paragraph that he thought sounded good without giving a second thought to whether it was consistent with or supported by his own columns, past or present, let alone his own behavior.

I don't mind the occasional lecture on the subject of our nation's superficiality - heck, I expect that I've made more than a few in this blog. I can even overlook the eccentric finger-pointing, an attempt to tie the irrational behaviors of humankind to a specific, modern event rather than acknowledging that they are part of the human condition, although my tolerance will be greater if it's offered in the context of a fair wake-up call as opposed to being tacked on to a partisan sludge heap. But I wish Douthat would focus on being part of the solution, not being part of a problem that he explicitly recognizes.

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