Fred Siegel: American liberals took leave of reason after JFK's murder

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Siegel is a professor of history at The Cooper Union in New York.]

"Inherit the Wind" is running on Broadway again, night after night pitting the righteously rational Clarence Darrow against the Bible-thumping antievolutionist William Jennings Bryan. The 1955 play--a chestnut of high-school English courses across the country--concerns the Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925 and is meant to capture the moment in American history when science and reason superseded, at last, the myth and superstition of foolish reactionaries. It has become something of a liberal sacrament. But as James Piereson shows in "Camelot and the Cultural Revolution," myth and superstition were the essence of the liberal response to John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. It was the liberals who threw evidence and reason to the winds, inheriting the crippling effects of their own bad judgment.

Mr. Piereson is not concerned with showing yet again that, yes--in defiance of all conspiracy theories--Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman on that fateful day. "Camelot and the Cultural Revolution," Mr. Piereson explains, is less about "the assassination itself than the political reaction to it and the lasting consequences of that reaction." It is one of the best accounts we have of why liberalism--which "owned the future" in 1963--fell from grace and has yet to recover.

... when Kennedy was shot on Nov. 22, 1963, it was widely assumed that his killer was the kind of hate-filled reactionary who believed Kennedy to be selling out America to Soviet Communism and to be showing too little resistance to the civil-rights movement. Such an assumption was buttressed by the great liberal intellectuals of the 1950s, such as Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Bell, whose writings had attempted to show that segregationists and the followers of Joe McCarthy--with their "paranoid style" of politics, in Hofstadter's phrase--were insecure, backward-looking extremists who threatened America's bright future.

In the minds of liberals, then, Kennedy's killer should have been a right-wing fanatic. But he wasn't. Oswald was a man of the hard left. He had defected to the Soviet Union. When he found that country too bureaucratic, he returned to America and began proselytizing for Fidel Castro and his supposedly new brand of the third-world revolution....

[HNN: The author goes on to say that leftists believed that JFK was killed for civil rights and later that he was killed by a conspiracy of the CIA and others--signs that liberals had lost their moorings.]

Mr. Piereson's own argument is persuasive and well-presented, but liberalism was never as reasonable as he assumes. The irrationalism that exploded later in the 1960s had been a component of left-wing ideology well before. Herbert Croly, the liberal founder of the New Republic magazine, was drawn to mysticism. In the 1950s ex-Marxists fell over themselves in praise of Wilhelm Reich and "orgone box," hoping that sexual therapy might replace Marxist theory as the toga of the enlightened. And in the very early 1960s a veritable cult of Castro, informed by Franz Fanon's writings on the cleansing virtues of violence, emerged among intellectuals searching for an alternative to middle-class conventions.

It's not reason that is at the heart of modern-day liberalism but rather the claim to superior virtue and, even more important, to a special knowledge unavailable to the unwashed or unenlightened. Depending on the temper of the time, such virtue and knowledge can derive disproportionately from scientism or mysticism--or it can mix large dollops of both.

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Randll Reese Besch - 7/19/2007

Mr. Siegle fails to mention the part about Dr. W. Riech's paranoia about communism and its infiltration of our gov't and the fact that agents of the US gov't smashed his lab in 1957,Maine and burned his books. Sound familiar? By the way Reich was a scientist not a mystic and did experiments to prove his claims in biophysics. Though there are two camps,those pure psychiatry and those after Reich's discovery of "bions."
I don't think Prof. Siegel hasn't made his point well enough. Considering what happened to Reich,JFK,Malcolm X,MLK,and RFK causes one to ponder the implications.
The CIA was buisy killing democratically elected officials in other countries and replacing with dictatorships friendly to the West.

Michael Green - 7/13/2007

I wonder whether a conspiracy exists against Mr. Siegel. The conspiracy theorists--and I am not among them--have linked the JFK assassination to everyone from the FBI and the CIA to LBJ and for all I know the WPA and FHA. Mr. Siegel manages to link the Kennedy assassination to everything from Inherit the Wind to the founding of the New Republic. And he thinks LIBERALS are flailing about?