Saturday, February 12, 2011

On the Polity and Public Violence

This past couple of months I've been catching up on the series Mad Men. I love almost everything about this re-creation of 1960s New York: the dialogue, the characters, the costumes and the cast. The show is said to be remarkably accurate in its depiction of the attitudes and habits of the time: the sexism, the racism, the constant smoking, the mid-morning drinking.

But what I found most striking in the third season was the characters' reactions to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was as moving as it was anachronistic. They were all horrified. Betty Draper (the loathsome spouse of the main character Don Draper) actually wept. Bear in mind the characters are all Republicans. Don Draper's advertising firm, Sterling Cooper, was responsible for the Nixon campaign's ads. Shortly before the election Betty Draper had said of John Kennedy, "I hate him." Three years later she's crying for him. And when she sees Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television she screams "What is going on?"In another scene Margaret Sterling, the daughter of Roger Sterling, cries for Kennedy even as she gets ready for her own wedding.

In addition to their overwhelming grief, the characters display an innocence in their reactions that is truly touching. At one point Trudy Campbell says, "This is America, you don't just shoot the President!"

I realize these are all fictional characters, but their reactions to the assassination are representative from what I've read about the time. And Trudy Campbell's outburst is a naive echo of the remark of an elderly woman in my home town. When I was in high school she told me that her first thought when she learned the President had been shot was, "I guess we're not as different from other countries as we thought."

The Kennedy assassination marked the first time that the death of a president was brought into people's home via television, and the vigilante shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald on live television almost made it look as if a chain reaction of violence was beginning (and in a way, it was). Of course brutal violence has marked our national life from the very beginning. And the America in which Kennedy was shot was one in blacks were still being lynched, murders were being committed, wives beaten. But Kennedy's death was one of those moments when the violence and insanity that has always been in this country bubbled up, lifting the lid, and everyone was forced to see it.

The murder of John Kennedy also occurred at a time when a majority, or at least a large minority, of people in this country shared a common civil religion. National institutions and offices (if not necessarily officeholders) were accorded a certain respect, and the president was still respected as a symbol of the entire country.* Admittedly, Kennedy had his enemies. In some parts of the South men drank toasts to Lee Harvey Oswald, but I think that in this, as in so many other respects, the South was an exception to national norms.

I can't imagine that the assassination of Obama, or any other President after Kennedy, would have been met with such an outpouring of grief. That's how inured to violence we've become, and how Americans' sense of ourselves as forming a common polity has been eroded. We've reached the point at which someone as vile as Sarah Palin is not only a public figure, but she doesn't hesitate to tweet a tasteless map with gun sights on Congressional districts and the exhortation, "Reload."

I keep thinking about Trudy Campbell's anguished, "This is America." That phrase means so many things: not only will no one shoot the President, but that everyone (theoretically) has certain rights and reasonable expectations: that you won't be locked up for no reason, that if you work reasonably hard you'll always have a roof over your head. Those expectations have always been violated, whether by lone gunmen, Southern sheriffs, or the brutality of the "free market." But the violations seem to be growing more frequent.

If faith in the gods of our civil religion wasn't killed by Watergate, the events of the last ten years have quite possibly done it. Our government has assumed the power to kidnap people, under a president who promised "change," our government has grown more secretive by the day, and that same President has authorized the assassination of U.S. citizens.

We won't get that faith back for a long time--if we ever do.

*One telling incident: when Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur, people all over America wrote letters or sent telegrams to the president to express their outrage. A Western Union employee refused to send the telegram composed by a woman in Charlestown, Maryland, on the grounds that calling the President a "moron" was out of the question.

They leafed through a thesaurus together and compromised on "witling."

(I realize this is a bit incoherent and far more serious than my usual rants. But don't worry--I'll be back soon with some snark.)

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