188 Revisioning Liberalism

The assassination of John F. Kennedy profoundly changed the nature of America, James Piereson argues in Camelot and the Cultural Revolution:  How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism (New York:  Encounter Books, c. 2007), for on November 22, 1963, “the cultural consensus of the 1950s began to give way to the oppositional and experimental culture that we associate with the 1960s” (p. vii).  Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s assassin, was a committed communist who openly hated America and loved Fidel Castro.  One would think his act would “have generated a revulsion against everything associated with left-wing doctrines.  Yet something very close to the opposite happened.  In the aftermath of the assassination, left-wing ideas and revolutionary leaders—Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Castro foremost among them—enjoyed a greater vogue in the United States that at any other time in our history.  By 1968, student radicals were taking over campuses and joining protest demonstrations in support of a host of radical and revolutionary causes, even going so far as to grow beards and don army jackets in emulation of Castro.  . . . .  It is one of the ironies of recent history that 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” (p. x).  The New Left—as was evident in the Port Huron Statement, issued by the Students for a Democratic Society, and spokesmen such as Tom Hayden and Bill Ayers—espoused the same views as Lee Harvey Oswald and moved rapidly and successfully to gain control of the Democratic Party.  

To explain this anomaly, Piereson first explores the liberalism that had developed in this country during the 20th century.  Rooted in pre-WWI Progressivism, re-oriented in a pragmatic direction by the New Deal, the liberalism of John F. Kennedy championed a big government designed to alleviate poverty and establish social justice.  It was, moreover, staunchly anti-communist.  Alongside this political and economic liberalism, however, there emerged, by 1960, a “social radicalism that . . . found adherents among the intellectual and academic classes, and in many instances among the idle rich” (p. 23).   These radicals were committed to social revolution—above all sexual liberation—and “moved into politics in order to transform education, the family, religion, relations between the sexes, and attitudes toward life generally” (p. 24).  

Kennedy, however, was a liberal, not a radical.  While in the Senate he actually had enjoyed generally good relations with Joseph McCarthy—indeed, his little brother Bobby served on McCarthy’s staff.  His great hero in politics was Winston Churchill.  But his support of the civil rights movement had elicited the enmity of “right-wing” extremists, so when he was killed “the immediate and understandable reaction was that the assassin must be a right-wing extremist—an anticommunist, perhaps, or a white supremacist, but in any case ‘a right-wing nut’” (p. 58).  When it became clear that a communist had killed him, Jacqueline Kennedy lamented that he hadn’t died for the cause of civil rights.  “’It had to be some silly little communist,’ she said.  “It even robs his death of any meaning’” (p. 59).  If, in fact, he was a martyr, it was for his role in the Cold War, but she and the Kennedy clan were determined to make him, like Lincoln (whose funeral provided the pattern for JFK’s), a martyr for social justice.  Still more, she began to craft the illusion of “Camelot” (something her husband never mentioned) to glorify him (a 20th century King Arthur!) and the New Frontiersmen surrounding him in Washington.  

Given the fact that Lincoln was invoked by Mrs. Kennedy had her circle, Piereson wonders at the comparison and devotes a chapter to Abraham Lincoln, finding that “the effort to link the two men was based on the assumption that they had died in the same cause—an assumption that was far from being the case” (p. 61).  Lincoln represented deeply-held moral and religious convictions concerning the immorality of slavery and the idea of a nation providentially called into being as a beacon of liberty.  He was thus a “martyr” in the classic sense.  Kennedy could have qualified as a martyr if his death had been attributed to his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, demonstrating that “communism was the large cause behind the assassination and, further, that Kennedy was martyr to the ideals at stake in the Cold War” (p. 86).  

But that was not the Liberal script!  To blame communism, or Castro, for the event would involve demonizing what Liberals lionized—the collectivism of the Left.  So almost immediately JFK’s death was blamed on the American people, perversely racist and militaristic, rather than a fanatical individual, a committed communist.  Pundits, politicians and preachers joined in a great chorus of accusation.  Chief Justice Earl Warren blamed “the hatred and bitterness” infused into “the bloodstream of American life” by “bigots” (p. 92).  An editorial in the New York Times declaimed:  ‘”none of us can escape a share in the fault for the spiral of unreason and violence that has now found expression in the death by gunfire of our martyred president’” (p. 91).  Oswald and communism literally disappeared from the narrative.  Disdaining the evidence, Kennedy was made a martyr for civil rights—the victim of a vicious, violent, militaristic, right-wing “society.”  

In this they were joined by the Soviet press, which insisted “that ‘rightists’ were responsible for the assassination and that plots were being hatched to blame the crime on a communist” (p. 96).  Reactionaries, racists, Ku Klux Klanists, Birchists!  Anyone but an avowed communist must be blamed!  Kennedy court historians quickly supported this account.  “Arthur Schlesinger, in his thousand-page history of the Kennedy administration, could not bring himself to mention Oswald at all in connection with the assassination but allocated several paragraphs to a description of Dallas’s hate-filled atmosphere” (p. 98).  Sadly enough, Piereson laments, “The public did not hear in that dark time the explanation that President Kennedy had been killed for his advocacy of liberty in the face of communist tyranny in Cuba and elsewhere, or that he was a casualty of ‘the long twilight struggle’ to defend and promote freedom in the world” (p. 104).  Amazingly, “In a bizarre paradox, Kennedy’s arch-enemy, Fidel Castro, was turned into a hero in the late 1960s by many of those young people who had mourned Kennedy’s death in 1963” (p. 107).  

Thus many “conspiracy” explanations were floated to exonerate Oswald and his communist convictions!  These received considerable currency among leaders of the New Left who resolutely doubted the official report of the Warren Commission.  Books and articles, TV programs and films, discredited the official account.  Some devious plot—orchestrated by the CIA, perhaps—led to Kennedy’s death.  Skillful propaganda, such as Oliver Stone’s egregious film, JFK, swayed public opinion so that “by the mid-1970s, according to a Gallup Poll taken in 1976, some 80 percent of American were convinced that Kennedy was a victim of a conspiracy, a figure that was not wavered much since that time” (p. 126).  

To clarify the truth, Piereson devotes an illuminating chapter to Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin.  He was a high school dropout who latched on to some Marxist notions that fueled a deep hostility toward America.  He joined the Marines, tried to emigrate to Russia, and generally seemed to be the prototypical “loser” in whatever he attempted.  But he did develop some political convictions, and his “ruminations on politics sound more than a little like the theories outlined in the Port Huron Statement, the New Left manifesto written in 1962 that denounced U.S. preoccupations with communism . . . and exalted an alternative system based on a concept of participatory socialism” (p. 149).  When Kennedy was shot, both the FBI and CIA were confident that he had acted on his own, motivated by his very public communist convictions.  But powerful politicians, including the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, demanded that they mute their public statements lest they provoke Soviet hostility.  

Consequently, “Kennedy’s anticommunism, for example, was turned on its head by the radicals of the 1960s and by the liberals who eventually took command of the reform movement” (p. 204).  Replacing Kennedy’s type of liberalism was what Piereson calls “Punitive Liberalism,” designed to assail America for her failures and demand radical social transformation.  American history became a litany of oppression and abuse—women, blacks, Indians, et al. had all suffered at the hands of a deeply flawed, if not evil, nation.  Thus we have today’s liberalism, primarily committed to speaking up for the “oppressed” and rectifying proliferating “injustices” in America.  

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Looking at Liberalism from a different perspective, Jonah Goldberg has written Liberal Fascism:  The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (New York:  Doubleday, c. 2007).  Goldberg’s title, and treatment, are almost deliberately incendiary, designed to anger American liberals, who have routinely insisted that “fascism” is a conservative trait!  Here they ape “Stalin [who] stumbled on a brilliant tactic of simply labeling all inconvenient ideas and movements fascist” (p. 10).  So for clarity, Goldberg provides this definition of fascism:  “Fascism is a religion of the state.  It assumes the organic unity of the body politic and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people.  It is totalitarian in that it views everything as political and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve the common good.  It takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well-being, and seeks to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by fore or through regulation and social pressure.  Everything, including the economy and religion, must be aligned with its objectives.  Any rival identity is part of the ‘problem’ and therefore defined as the enemy.  I will argue that contemporary American liberalism embodies all of these aspects of fascism” (p. 23).  Consequently, he points out remarkable correlations and draws intriguing conclusions that make his treatise quite thought-provoking.  Historically, the argument he endeavors to prove is this:  “Progressivism was a sister movement of fascism, and today’s liberalism is the daughter of Progressivism” (p. 2).  

Before the Holocaust, “when it never occurred to anyone that fascism had anything to do with anti-Semitism” (p. 26), many American liberals, including members of FDR’s “brain trust” such as Rexford Guy Tugwell, openly admired fascist efficiency.  To New Dealers (pragmatists to a man) success validated the truth and goodness of ideas.  Thus Tugwell praised Italian Fascism as “’the cleanest, neatest, most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I’ve ever seen.  It makes me envious’” (p. 13).  What Tugwell—and earlier Progressives such as Woodrow Wilson—craved is what Goldberg calls “the totalitarian temptation—that with the right amount of tinkering we can realize the utopian cream of ‘creating a better world’” (p. 15).  That longing still marks the liberal rhetoric of “hope” (Barak Obama) and the “politics of meaning” (Hillary Clinton).  The desire to create a better world, to make sure that everyone’s cared for, to require everyone to live right, informed “the Nazi antismoking and public health drives [that] foreshadowed today’s crusades against junk food, trans fats, and the like.  A Hitler Youth manual proclaimed, ‘Nutrition is not a private matter!’” (p. 19).  

To rightly explain Fascism, Goldberg gives careful attention to Benito Mussolini.  “He was one of Europe’s leading radical socialists in arguably the most radical socialist party outside of Russia.  Under his stewardship, Avanti! became close to gospel for a whole generation of socialist intellectuals, including Antonio Gramsci” (p. 36).  He was clearly indebted to the syndicalism of Georges Sorel, and “without syndicalism fascism was impossible” (p. 36).  Interestingly enough, “Sorel was deeply influenced by the Pragmatism of William James, who pioneered the notion that all one needs is the ‘will to believe’” (p. 37).  Still more:  Sorel replicated much of Rousseau and Robespierre and the radical ideas of the French Revolution, which “was the first totalitarian revolution, the mother of modern totalitarianism, and the spiritual model for the Italian Fascist, German Nazi, and Russian Communist revolutions” (p. 38).