Kennedy, Boomerism, and the Power of Media

Mark Shea had this to say on the cyclical paroxysm of Kennedy nostalgia that Gen Xers such as myself have had to endure every November for our entire lives:

Baby Boomers, being the incredibly self-absorbed people we are, are *still* dominating national discourse for the entire month of November with our conviction that an emotionally upsetting moment from our mummified Pepsi Generation Youth is something that Kids Today need to hear about yet again because we Boomers discovered sex, death, morality, and everything else worth knowing about.  Our parents were prologue to us.  Our children are our accessories.  History was born and will die with us.  So we Baby Boomers blather each year about how “America lost its innocence on November 22, 1963″.  That would be the America that endured the crucible of a Civil War, slavery, ethnic cleansing of Native populations, two world wars, the opening of Dachau, and the spectre of nuclear annihilation.  What all the “lost innocence” chatter means is, “I grew up watching Howdy Doody in suburbia and this was *my* first encounter with death that my parents could not shield me from. Since I am the center of all things, that means my emotional experience will now blot out all of human history in my epic narcissism.”

I posted this to Facebook with the observation that “Kennedy nostalgia always says more about whoever is doing it than about the inept and reckless man it supposedly commemorates.”

My friend Steven Greydanus suggested that (and I’m paraphrasing here) the instantaneous way in which everyone experienced the assassination of Kennedy, along with the live reports and film footage, gave the event a uniquely visceral quality that prior historical events lacked.

I wouldn’t deny that because, as I replied at the time, it’s McLuhan 101. Modern mass media alters our perceptions of events and even shapes those events. They don’t, however, change their historical significance. Perhaps the way in which the nation collectively shared that experience was unique at the time, but its uniqueness doesn’t lend it any special qualities in hindsight. The addition of television was the only new ingredient, and that indeed must have seemed shocking at the time.

But radio was a new ingredient when Pearl Harbor was attacked. People shared that experience faster than any nation collectively had experienced any great tragedy. And Pearl Harbor was certainly a greater tragedy with far more lasting impact than the Kennedy assassination.

What we’re looking at, then, is a progression in degree not kind: the collective impact of a tragedy on the national psyche accelerates from generation to generation with the advent of new technology. Are we to attach some metaphysical importance to this acceleration, imbuing the Kennedy assassination with some kind of added importance because people experienced it faster and more viscerally than people had experienced things before?  Will it be even worse when an assassination is projected on our retina implants?

We’re used to this now. We experience tragedies equal to or worse than the death of JFK with numbing regularity. We’ve watched wars fought in real-time on television. Even our bombs and missiles are fitted with cameras to send images of people just before they’re blown apart.

I remember “real-time” news from my own life:

  • The end of the Vietnam war
  • The death of Elvis (and if you don’t think the nation reeled when that happened, you’re not old enough to remember it)
  • Jonestown
  • The Iran hostage crisis
  • The assassination of John Lennon
  • The attempted assassination of Reagan
  • The death of John Paul I
  • The attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II
  • The explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia
  • Oklahoma City
  • The first World Trade Center bombing
  • 9/11
  • Innumerable natural disasters
  • Too many wars

I can tell you that, personally, Jonestown had a huge impact on me, not just because it was tragic, but because it happened at an age when I had not yet come to understand the true depth of evil at large in the world. It changed me, because it revealed a darkness that seemed incomprehensible to my 10-year-old mind.

And that’s how I know Mark is right. I know that a news story changed me. It wasn’t the “nation’s” loss of innocence. It was mine. And everyone has one.

We had national tragedies before the Kennedy assassination, and we’ve had far worse since. Yet 50 years on, Generation Narcissus still rehearses the rituals and repeats the fables of Camelot, recalling “where they were” when paradise fell. It’s not about the event, important as it was in our national history. It becomes about the emotional impact on a notoriously and peculiarly self-regarding generation.

My parents could describe Pearl Harbor and their reactions in vivid detail when I was growing up, but it was less about “where they were” and more about the horrors it unleashed. (My father was in the Army three weeks later.) But it is a memory of a differently quality, less centered on the “I” and the absurd idea of a “loss of innocence.”  In a country where every adult lost someone to war or knew a family who lost someone, the idea of the Kennedy assassination as a “loss of innocence” is a myth that could only be manufactured by Boomers.

Assassination nostalgia is undeniably a mass media phenomena, produced by new technology that allowed an almost-instant emotional convulsion of a nation in a more immediate and visceral way than ever before.  We’ve had worse since, yet I don’t see the same bizarre emotional exhibitionism from the generation who was young when the Twin Towers fell. I know, because I’ve taught them for years. (My students this year were one year old on 9/11/2001.)

Boomers have been shaping consciousness with their mastery of media for decades now, with each part of their self-created myth sliding neatly into its place. The Kennedy Camelot myth is their Garden of Eden, lost in Dallas when the nation fell from grace and sank into A New Era of Cynicism Unprecedented in Our History. (Except for all the other eras of our history.)

That they took entirely the wrong message from the event (in which a vain and feckless Cold Warrior was killed by a Communist) is only to be expected from a generation that got all the important things wrong.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Gary Chapin

    And it was such a LAME Camelot, too. In what way was the White House of that time the embodiment of any kind of virtue? Innocence? Really? Goodbye Norma Jean.

    So, I also count Jonestown as a primary shaping of my word view. I have vivid memories of those TV reports. They changed everything for me. It’s valid to look back and realize you are shaped by these events … but to generalize to everyone, or to try and make the grief collective and normative is bizarre. I can’t remember who said it, “The golden age of music is twelve.” The same thing seems to apply here.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Interesting that you remember Jonestown the same way. Funny, but I don’t prattle on about it every November 18th (yes, today is the anniversary), although I remember the cover of Time magazine as if I just looked at it. We all have it. We just don’t all go on about it endlessly.

    We’re all shaped by youth and our experience of the history of our times. It’s just that the boomer tendency to self-mythologize and dominant the discussion (due in no small part to their admitted skill at media) is tiresome.

  • Bob_the_other

    “That they took entirely the wrong message from the event (in which a vain and feckless Cold Warrior was killed by a Communist) is only to be expected from a generation that got all the important things wrong.” That is an enviably well-written sentence.

    Interesting what we remember, and perhaps varies with where in the world you were too. For me, a very late X’er (b. 1980) from India, perhaps my two most vivid memories of international events were things not on your list: the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the kidnapping of Gorbachev, the developments of both of which I watched on the BBC … and as a Catholic (only a recent convert at that stage), being woken up at what must have been 4am (Australian time) in the morning to be told that Cardinal Ratzinger had been elected Pope, and had taken the name Benedict. I wonder whether (and I hope that I won’t) I will inflict this on people in 40 years…

  • Jo

    As someone who was a teenager on 9/11, I find the cultural phenomenon of the Kennedy assassination a bit perplexing. My parents are boomers, but they’ve never had the typical ‘world revolves around my generation’ attitude, so it wasn’t obsessively talked about and I’ve never really understood the hype (same with the bizarre pride/fixation on Kennedy being a ‘Catholic’ president…not exactly a Catholic we should emulate in a lot of ways). Surely, I remember exactly where I was when the Twin Towers fell (8th grade history class), but I’m not aware of anyone trying to rhetorically hijack 9/11 as the ‘millenials moment of history’ (pun *definitely* not intended). It’s everyone’s grief.

    It was, however, one of the first times where I really understood that war and violence were very real things that didn’t just happen on the other side of the world or in times past (although NYC still seemed like worlds away to kids in the midwest)-the teacher allowed us to watch the news for several minutes once it broke. And I think, for a lot of us, it rekindled a little bit of patriotism that we didn’t realize we had, being just another generation, following Vietnam and the Gulf War, for whom war was something distant and foreign to our experience, and national pride wasn’t as tangible as it was for say, my parents, who grew up in the aftermath of WWII.

    While I’m not by nature particularly interested in politics or following the blow-by-blow action of global news, I do remember having a peculiarly strong, almost visceral reaction when I heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed, and almost remember more vividly where I was at that moment than 9/11 itself. It definitely wasn’t celebration (no matter how evil, who can be happy about a man’s death?), but it did feel like a kind of satisfaction that this mastermind of terrorism was no longer in control. I didn’t know quite what I was feeling, but I felt something.

    I think that with today’s 24/7 media cycle and everyone being more or less a curator of their own news, it is much harder to identify as a group, nation, or generation with a single event unless it’s *really* huge and actually communally experienced (like Hurricane Katrina or the Boston Marathon bombing), and even then, a lot of it is driven by the marketable ‘drama’ factor that shapes today’s TV news. I shudder to think that 20 years from now someone might cite things like the Casey Anthony trial as one of their defining moments, simply because it was impossible to avoid if you turned on the TV, looked at a newspaper, or caught the headlines online.

  • FW Ken

    Mark Shea, as usual, manages to demonstrate the boomer narcissism about which he complains. I was 11 when Kennedy was shot, and we lived in Dallas, so sure, our was pretty traumatic. But Kennedy was a hero of our parent’s generation, not ours. He represented them coming of age, taking leadership of the country, and living the life of glamour the post-war years were selling. Of course, a lot of that life, like Kennedy himself was an illusion. But to us, he is a Life magazine photo spread.

    My own “loss of innocence” was Jonestown, mostly because I was living in one of those “intentional Christian communities” that were the thing back then, and it was all to close to home, challenging my own presuppositions and life choices. It’s arguable that I continue to work through some of the questions it raised after all these years.