Forty years ago last Friday, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, capping off five awful years of murdered political and civil rights leaders. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live through those years — but I don’t need to imagine the long years of cynicism and hopelessness that followed, because I’ve lived three-quarters of them. To have the promise of real, positive change so violently cut down so many times must have felt as though some malign force beyond mortal ken were deliberately crushing all hope for a better future. It’s no wonder conspiracy theories sprung up; but the explanation I find both more plausible and more terrifying than some notion of a shadowy cabal manipulating the levers of power is this: that American society up to and in the 1960s was (and, to a greater extent than many of us would like to think, still is) so hidebound, so racist, so terrified of change, and that certain strains of conservative thought, capitalist/anti-communist ideology, violent nativism, heroic mythology and valorization of vigilantism, and anti-intellectual populism are so deeply woven into American culture, that in the face of attempts to bring about radical change in the social system — even in ways that in the short run will hurt only those who enjoy unearned privileges at others’ expense, and in the long run work to everyone’s benefit — individuals willing to commit acts of violence, murder and terrorism in the name of preserving an oppressive status quo will arise organically, and communities will be willing to tolerate or turn a blind eye to them.
(It’s true that this is not really a good explanation for RFK’s assassination, as Sirhan Sirhan is a Palestinian Christian who was angry over Kennedy’s support for Israel in the Six-Day War, or mentally disturbed, or both. He had lived in the US since the age of 12, so he very likely absorbed something of these cultural traits, but a twelve-year-old, though impressionable, is also already pretty strongly enculturated. But even if the motivations of the assassin himself do not fit the pattern of the previous five years, the assassination, and its cultural repercussions, fit all too well.)
The title of this post, then, is meant to suggest not that we have been in mourning specifically for RFK for forty years — but for the radical hope of the ’60s, to which the final deathblow seemed to have been delivered on June 5th, 1968. As Robert Jensen argued in an excellent post at Alternet a couple of weeks ago, though the great movements for social justice are still with us, in name at least, the radical critiques of American society that were their animating cores have been ignored, rejected, marginalized, and largely forgotten; and I think that may be in part due to the vicious brutality with which the people best positioned to be agents of positive change were met. Jack and Bobby Kennedy were not saints, or revolutionaries, and had they lived, the world would not have changed overnight. Their policies and positions were in many respects very conservative, even regressive, by early 21st century standards, and even their best, most liberal plans would have been blunted by caution, compromise, and the realities of the entrenched system they were working against. They offered no genuine critiques of capitalism, of the damaging effects of restrictive gender roles, of the genocidal European conquest of the Americas that established the United States in the first place. So by the lights of that radical core, the heart of the civil rights movements that demanded not just softer oppression but an end to oppression and to the systems that enabled and thrived on it, they could not be considered better than the lesser of two evils — but even so, even if the progress they stood for was intolerably slow, timid, unwilling to face the true magnitude of the task at hand, they stood for progress, for some movement forward rather than stasis or sliding backward. They would not have been the first leaders, or the last, to start or take part in a movement whose ultimate end they were themselves not ready to see: that is, I would argue, one of the greatest and worthiest traditions of American politics, exemplified by figures like Jefferson and Lincoln.
But even such tiny, faltering steps forward could not be tolerated, and had to be crushed out so swiftly and cruelly that even generations later, no public figure who wants to be taken seriously will articulate any genuine criticism of the deep-rooted sexism, racism, exceptionalism, imperialism, corruption, greed and class hierarchy which pervade our society; any who do are labeled “crazy” or “kooky,” like Dennis Kucinich, or described as “hating America,” like Jeremiah Wright.
For four decades, we as a society have been in mourning for the hope that was boiled out of us by that awful chain of murders.
I started writing this post last Friday, June 6th. As usual, it’s taken me a long time to finish it (though I have other posts that have been in unfinished-draft state for much longer). Yesterday, June 12th, was the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers. Five months from next Sunday will be the 45th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. A week from Saturday will be the 44th anniversary of the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Two months ago last Wednesday was the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Four months ago next Saturday was the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. Astute observers will note that some of these dates have passed since I started this blog, and I failed to write about them at the time. I was remiss in this. For what it’s worth, in the future, I will be more attentive.
For four decades we’ve been in mourning for the hope of real change and a better world that seemed to suffer its deathblow with RFK, and we’ve been merely accepting the status quo as irremediable, holding on to try not to fall back any further, timidly angling for small, incremental changes that help one group or another but don’t threaten the overall structure. But hope is an idea, and ideas needn’t stay dead forever; I think this is part of the reason for the enthusiasm so many people my age and younger feel for the Obama campaign. We’re tired of mourning, and we’re tired of accepting the cynical, hopeless conventional wisdom of the post-1968 era, that fighting for real change against the entrenched status quo is a doomed enterprise better left untried. Now, Obama is not a revolutionary, of course, and he himself does not articulate serious challenges to the status quo. He isn’t even very liberal. I think that he’ll win in November, though I think it’ll be closer than it should be, and I think he’ll be a very good President. I think that Hillary Clinton would have won in November had she won the nomination, and that she would have been a very good President, as well, though she’s also no revolutionary and also not much of a liberal. I’m still cynical enough to think that no one who’s truly a liberal, who genuinely wants (or is willing to appear to want) to challenge the real roots of the corruption and prejudice in American society, would ever get anywhere near a major party’s nomination. But a Hillary Clinton presidency or an Obama presidency is at least moving forward. It’s a sign that maybe that hope can start to come back to life.
(A personal note: as a Massachusetts native — indeed, as that dreaded bogeyman of the right, a Massachusetts Liberal — last Friday’s sad anniversary carried extra resonance for me. I highly recommend that those who haven’t listen to the recording of Ted Kennedy’s eulogy for his brother posted at Shakesville (though I do not recommend you listen to it at work, or in public, or anywhere you would be embarrassed to cry). To hear the emotion in his voice as he begins to break down at the end, and to think that forty years ago he suffered through a brother’s assassination for the second time, that since then he has been, whatever one thinks of him personally, one of the greatest and most consistent fighters for equal rights, the rule of law, and the disadvantaged, and that now, forty years later, he has just been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor which despite the successful surgery will, realistically speaking, probably kill him within the next five years if all the treatments work as well as can be hoped, is utterly heartbreaking.)