1THE CAMPFIRE GENE; THE CAVEMAN in the JACKET PHOTO
Roughly ten years ago I was up late (as any writer with a baby in the house may find his or herself, gloating over those hours alone), searching the Internet for info. I have no idea what I had been seeking but what I ended up finding was a crude text on an ugly site, a “true crime” narrative written by someone with very, very little literary skill or apparent intelligence. The author’s goal in writing this thing I found myself reading was nothing more fancy than recording experience, a thing that had happened to people he or she knew, laying out the remembered details as they came to him or her, unspooling it wholesale, typos and bad grammar included. I can’t remember a thing about this shitty text, other than the facts that it was very, very long and utterly engrossing. The sun rose as I finished reading it, cursing myself for wasting a good night’s sleep on such a worthless (yet compelling) pile. I couldn’t get over how sucked in I’d been. I can’t abide senseless, heavy-breathing humbug like Dan Brown’s stuff, nor Stephen King’s and I can barely tolerate Tom Wolfe or John Irving, et al, yet I’d been put in a literary headlock of iron by material that wasn’t half as sophisticated as any hack’s worst crap. How?
My answer to that question (my perfectly unscientific theory) involves what I’d call a “campfire gene,” or a vestigial chunk of hominid-brainstuff or programming. Can’t you feel the faintest stirring of that ancient inheritance while reading the back of your cereal box over breakfast? Or in the ineffably sensual pleasure of listening to a storyteller on audiotape, your eyes closed, the dark wavelets of the lake of sleep mere inches beneath your alpha-waving body?
I believe this Campfire Gene; this Evolutionary leftover; makes us… even the best readers… suckers for Raw Narrative, the more raw (ie undiluted by sophistication) the better. In fact, it’s not the Campfire Gene we engage, at all, while reading Iris Murdoch or Tom Pynchon or Mr Brodkey… those narratives go straight to a far more modern, complex, paradox-invigorated cave in Cognition. The Campfire Gene is probably wired beside our fight-or-flight box; it’s probably right next to the weird part of our consciousness that can trick us into crying at the most shamelessly tear-jerking pantomime in an embarrassing movie. To access these primitive susceptibilities we need primitive stimuli. Which is why Oscar Wilde and Stanley Kubrick were never much good at minting tear-jerkers.
Even the simplest insect processes the rudiments of narrative when it associates a fluctuation in light, or air-movement, with danger and flits away. A hundred or so rungs up Cognition’s rickety ladder, the creature capable of understanding more nuanced narratives (eg, the circling of birds overhead indicating, possibly, the nearness of a waterhole) will have an evolutionary advantage over the creatures that can’t. And the even-more sophisticated cousins, capable of transmitting (with gestures or language) narrative will have a tribal advantage over those whose narrative insights remained locked in their skulls. At the pinnacle of this proto-literary-progression: creatures not only capable of detecting/ interpreting/ projecting (and possibly recording) narrative… but who can also enjoy narratives-qua-narrative, narrative as an end in itself: creatures capable, in other words, of proto-literary consciousness and, therefore, capable of immensely meaningful learning. Our slickest (and most sexually successful?) common ancestor was this proto-reader. She/he is no Alice Munro but his/her love for narrative-qua-narrative may be that hardwired feature of the oldest bits of the most developed chunks of our brains, thanks to The Campfire Gene… and you can picture the hoariest near-Humans gathered around a poignant fire, listening to the crudest, most powerful narratives: the hunting story, the fighting story, the love story, the terrifying wrath of the Gods (thunder) story. Given another 100,000 years, maybe Sapiens/Homo can eventually have sexually selected in favor of lovers of postmodern Lit, too…? Homo Meta Logo!
(But I’m getting ahead of myself…)
Anyway. All to say: in direct contradiction of the silly/ irritating article I just read about the craggy Nordic wunderkind of Shit Lit (Karl Ove Knausgaard)… no, it is not a mystery why so many people like/liked those simpleminded diversions that Karl Ove calls “books”. Otherwise intelligent people love so-bad-it’s-good fan fiction, and the backs of Wheaties boxes, and true crime narratives at 3am, too. Don’t necessarily embrace your Campfire Gene… but do admit to its occasionally unfortunate influence (I’d love to have the four hours back I spent on that true crime narrative ten years ago). Shitty-text-gobbling is not miraculous. It’s common. It explains a lot.
The sentence is how a writer bulletproofs himself, and insight, analysis, a special or heightened perception is what he would appear to be retailing. Knausgaard declined those protections. Laying himself bare in that way might so easily have failed; what happened instead, as Jeffrey Eugenides marvelingly put it, is that he broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel. Like life, his books are both boring and relentlessly interesting; like life, they seem somehow both very long and very fast. In other words, they’re like life.
Nonsense. They’re like Wheaties boxes. The backs of.
4,000 of ’em.
And, okay, sure, a certain percentage of fans were hooked by Karl Ove’s great head of exra-literary hair, too (much the same as Franzen’s disingenuously chiseled jacket photo, on The Corrections, blew that book off the shelves and into half-read piles around sun decks all across The Blue States) … there’s no denying that your average Lit Groupie is a woman with a disappointing husband. It doesn’t hurt that Karl Ove looks like an early ancestor of Homo Sapiens himself, recovered from a Nordic iceberg or bog. But that is not a literary matter. Neither is Karl Ove’s output.
Well, rather satisfyingly, lots of the second half of the linked-to, irritating article kicks Karl Ove’s snakeoil-soaked word-heap to sticky bits, as though an old rake who’s been dining out for years, as an Impostor Duke, has been found out for not being able to pronounce vichyssoise properly.
For a long time, readers have wondered why Knausgaard dared to title his book Min Kamp. His stubborn reading of Hitler’s life as a life insists in explicit terms upon the implication of the title and of the previous books that appeared under it, which is that we can only experience the world from a single perspective and that all institutions that pretend otherwise, including politics, including fiction, are stained by their denial of that. He understands the instinct to congregate but finds it impossible to place any faith in congregations. Only his personal experience is verifiable.
The tremendous irony there is how many readers have so completely identified with him, a random Norwegian halfway across the planet. The long and painful middle section of this book tries to make Knausgaard’s idea overt—or worse, perhaps, respectable—by departing from it, and moreover by taking a huge chance, by humanizing not just any figure, but Hitler.
There are traces of the muted humanity of W.G. Sebald in the attempt, but they’re disjoined from the remorseless clarity of Sebald’s intellect—or Roland Barthes’, or Claude Lévi-Strauss’, or Maggie Nelson’s, or Claudia Rankine’s, any of the writers who can distill meaning from a culture without leaving more questions than they answer. For the first time, Knausgaard’s least sophisticated accusers are right: This is the arrogance, grandiosity, and laziness of a loudmouthed white man who insists he’s worth 4,000 pages of your time.
Then, sadly (because the article is in a mainstream publication and because Karl Ove’s brand is still viable and not quite due for the coup de grace of a savagely honest reappraisal), the article reverts to pushing the codswallop.
Maybe no novelist has ever been superior to Knausgaard in describing the difference between the heightened clearness of purpose of childhood, even when it’s utterly wrong, and the murk of adulthood. As he writes, amid his endless trips to take his three children to get ice cream while Linda is ill, “What they had, and what I had lost, was a great and shiningly obvious place in their own lives.” If there is a unique magic to his work, it is the restoration of at least a glimmer of the great and shiningly obvious place that we might occupy in our own lives. Read Knausgaard from first word to last and it will change you.
Because we understand the basic structure of vox-pop magazine articles, we can see why that shiningly and obviously asinine sentence of Karl Ove’s, about childhood, is the sentence with which the article chooses to tie itself neatly (glibly) together at the end. But not only is it demonstrably absurd to suggest that readers of the Min Kamp 4,000-page mega-dump were reading it in order to… wait, to what, again? To [restore] “at least a glimmer of the great and shiningly obvious place that [they] might occupy in [their] own lives”?
Puh-lease. They read the swill because WHEATIES BOX. Glorified WHEATIES BOX (with great hair). And let’s not forget the book-pushing utility of massive hype. The Campfire Gene with a budget.
But how does a reviewer go from writing “This is the arrogance, grandiosity, and laziness of a loudmouthed white man who insists he’s worth 4,000 pages of your time,” … to … “Read Knausgaard from first word to last and it will change you,” only a few paragraphs later?
I suppose anything is possible when one is being paid to come to a desired conclusion…*
*(I mean, Jesus, it says this, shiningly and obviously, right under the article: Slate is an Amazon affiliate and may receive a commission from purchases you make through our links).
(written quite some time ago, c. 2010, and buried on a defunct site)
Long hot walk with an old friend yesterday. This old friend is having terrible troubles at home with his lover, a lover who no longer wants him to be the Bohemian he was when she moved into his flat years back. No, now she wants that beautiful house, that massive car, those luxurious holidays in a Third World setting. She wants, in a word, Status.
Comrades, I came home from this walk and kissed Beloved’s toes and hoisted Offsprung on my shoulders and we waltzed. I know I’m lucky. Not a day goes by that I take it for granted.
My old friend’s problems are too familiar as we pass through the spooky-cool corridors of Bohemian middle-age. What strikes me is the fact that when we were young, the polarity of the complaints I heard was different: all our female comrades were suffering, at one time or another, from some dick moving in and making life bad.
The commonest complaint of a given Bohemian female Comrade when we were young was that the fucker who beshat her toilet every other day was also physically and/or spiritually abusive and/or cheating. These female Comrades were often Art School Students or Liberal Arts Majors and trying, as we males were, to make things new (or make new things) while in love with oil paints and hand-stretched canvases and music and typewriters and double-billed Truffaut flicks you’d watch with only eight other people in the audience. They’d go home from said flick dreamy-smiling and their respective evil lodgers would then punch them or call them fat arse or would be drunk in bed with other Bohemian Comrades and a pizza got with a coupon off the fridge and the next day we’d all commiserate. Kick the fucker out, we’d say. Restraining orders were still exotic items in those days (and stalkers were merely called “lovesick”) and we’d share a frisson of the worldly when one of us would table the concept of Legal Intervention over a basket of home-fries split six unequal ways.
Now it’s different. Now it’s five or six of my male Bohemian Comrades who go home most evenings to spiritual violence or tauntingly-withheld sex and live through corrosive eternal gales of discontent and nitpicky, zero-respect criticism. It’s not nice but neither do these middle-aged male Bohemians want to hug their pillows at night alone. These men are suffering. Like me, my comrades were raised on that gender-role cusp between holding-the-door-open-for-a-woman and unisex ethics and this bred us into being super nice guys who do the housework like pros and perform cunnilingus like savants and hold the door open for milady at Starbucks… unaware when we were callow dicks that we’d be putting up with the cultural battle-baggage generated by Classical Cavemen… with no access to the clubs and spears that Classical Cavemen use to control things.
My friends are Leonard Cohens being pepper-sprayed by Monica Vittis who are mistaking them for Broderick Crawfords… and that’s by the women they don’t even know. Like battered women, these men have forgotten that they are worth something just because their respective evil lodgers keep reminding them that they aren’t worth enough. I read a book about the CIA when I was very young and the only scrap of it that still sticks with me is the creepy term “Honey trap“.
Bohemian men and women are notoriously bad at choosing mates; I certainly was; how I lucked into Beloved I’ll never know. Perhaps there is, among the ranks of the Arty, a nightmind-compulsion to seek punishment. Anyone who can still squeeze hot Zen orgasms from listening to Miles’ Almost Blue certainly has an advantage over some poor Dupe who needs coke, professional recognition or a pricey vacation to approximate pleasure (and, in fact, there is in these cases only the meta-pleasure of imagining others imagining one’s pleasure and, importantly, envying it)… maybe this spiritual advantage breeds guilt. The Germans call it Künstlerschuld but with the Germans it’s hard to tell if they mean that the guilt is merely felt or perceived or factual.
I can remember walking through the adjacent neighborhood of Mission Hills when I lived in Sandy Ego and the enormous pleasure I took in the nutmeggy smell of the temperate tongue of the breeze and the clatter of palm fronds and the spectacle of hummingbirds clustering jewel-tints around pomegranates. Nature itself was a cultural artifact on par with a Rousseau painting or Wendy Carlos doing Beethoven on a Moog in my headphones and I’d be near-ecstatic for an hour or two hours or four hours of walking until I came home to my evil lodger, my first wife, the former model whose only thoughts were heavy with cash and cars and luxury vacations. In a word: Status.
She was still only in her very early thirties but feeling old and looking for a replacement for the Flesh Value that her “fading” beauty was leaking in spurts like golden oil or eerily unsticky honey. She didn’t give a shit about hummingbirds or Joan Didion or Eric Fischl or Miles Davis or the astonishingly arty sci-fi flange-effect of the wash in the wake of a 727 low overhead in its final descent to the airport. Kid’s stuff. She didn’t give a fuck about listening to “Play Bach” in the dark or watching a VHS cassette of “Faces” over breakfast. Well, she did have a huge collection of Opera CDs but that was because she was a snob and she rarely listened to them anyway. When we started off together in Berlin, going to the Opera was something she did weekly and I misinterpreted this as a Bohemian attribute.
On a spectacularly beautiful So Cal day with no worries and plenty of good food in the fridge she’d yell, “You don’t make enough money!” and I’d yell “I make exactly as much money as you do!” but that never shut her up.
The old Berlin friend and I discussed two acquaintances during our long hot walk around the Bohemian post-apocalypse of Kreuzberg yesterday (the “36” region for connoisseurs of Kreuzberg). Can we call it a cautionary tale if we only ever hear it after it’s too late to help us? The story goes:
Antonio and Tonya were once terribly cool and ran together a trendy bar/cafe I’d never seen before when Alex brought me to the place and introduced them. Antonio (from Madrid) resembled a very tall Revolver-era George Harrison in black shirt and jeans with a silver Zodiac medallion around his neck. Tonya was a Gypsy-dark Czech of great beauty and perfect style also. You just couldn’t help envying them (or I couldn’t) because these blessed fuckers looked like they’d just walked out of a French flick co-starring Audrey Tatou. The cafe was a few steps down (watch your head) from street level and Leonard Cohen and Les Negresses Vertes were on the speakers and the calamari was at a discount for us. I was in Berlin for a few weeks escaping my terrible marriage. There was the affair with a casting director while, back in So Cal, my wife was fucking a surfer and a busboy-co-worker from the Fine Dining restaurant she was the head-hostess at. Antonio and Tonya were my torment and my inspiration during those weeks I’d go with Comrade Alex to hang out there. Watching lucky Antonio and Tonya giggle and coo and grab each others’ asses in the empty-but-charming cafe was like sipping the finest wine heated to a scalding temperature.
For two years or so, Antonio and Tonya shimmered with hipster grace. Then Tonya said, one day, apparently: we’re getting older. It’s time to grow up. I want a kid. Antonio didn’t want a kid. They had a kid. Soon thereafter began the fights about money. Soon thereafter, kid number two. Fights about money squared. The last time I saw Tonya, by accident, on the street after shopping, her exquisite features had sharpened into the beak and fierce eyes of a bird that feeds entirely on things which scurry. Antonio’s tail gets longer every time I see him.
3THE GANDHI MIRAGE (because far too few people have gotten the memo)
Are you aware that, regarding “Gandhi,” the famous supposed saint of non-violence, equality and enlightenment… (source)…
Addressing a public meeting in Bombay on Sept. 26 1896 (CW II p. 74), Gandhi said:
Ours is one continued struggle against degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the European, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir, whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness.
In 1904, he wrote (CW. IV p. 193):
It is one thing to register natives who would not work, and whom it is very difficult to find out if they absent themselves, but it is another thing -and most insulting -to expect decent, hard-working, and respectable Indians, whose only fault is that they work too much, to have themselves registered and carry with them registration badges.
In its editorial on the Natal Municipal Corporation Bill, the Indian Opinion of March 18 1905 wrote:
Clause 200 makes provision for registration of persons belonging to uncivilized races (meaning the local Africans), resident and employed within the Borough. One can understand the necessity of registration of Kaffirs who will not work, but why should registration be required for indentured Indians who have become free, and for their descendants about whom the general complaint is that they work too much? (Italic portion is added)
The Indian Opinion published an editorial on September 9 1905 under the heading, “The relative Value of the Natives and the Indians in Natal”. In it Gandhi referred to a speech made by Rev. Dube, a most accomplished African, who said that an African had the capacity for improvement, if only the Colonials would look upon him as better than dirt, and give him a chance to develop self-respect. Gandhi suggested that “A little judicious extra taxation would do no harm; in the majority of cases it compels the native to work for at least a few days a year.” Then he added:
Now let us turn our attention to another and entirely unrepresented community-the Indian. He is in striking contrast with the native. While the native has been of little benefit to the State, it owes its prosperity largely to the Indians. While native loafers abound on every side, that species of humanity is almost unknown among Indians here.
Nothing could be further from the truth, that Gandhi fought against Apartheid, which many propagandists in later years wanted people to believe. He was all in favour of continuation of white domination and oppression of the blacks in South Africa.
In the Government Gazette of Natal for Feb. 28 1905, a Bill was published regulating the use of fire-arms by the natives and Asiatics. Commenting on the Bill, the Indian Opinion of March 25 1905 stated:
In this instance of the fire-arms, the Asiatic has been most improperly bracketed with the natives. The British Indian does not need any such restrictions as are imposed by the Bill on the natives regarding the carrying of fire-arms. The prominent race can remain so by preventing the native from arming himself. Is there a slightest vestige of justification for so preventing the British Indian?
Here is the budding Mahatma telling the white racists how they can perpetuate their Nazi domination over the vast majority of Africans.
In the British imperialist scheme, one important strategy was to divide and rule. Gandhi advised Indians not to align with other political groups in either coloured or African communities. In 1906 the coloured people in the colonies of Good Hope, the Transvaal and the Orange River colony, addressed a petition to the King Emperor demanding franchise rights. The petitioners showed clearly that, in one part of South Africa, namely the Cape of Good Hope, they had enjoyed the franchise ever since the introduction of representative institutions.
Commenting on the petition, the Indian Opinion of March 24 1906, declaring that “British Indians have, in order that they may never be misunderstood, made it clear that they do not aspire to any political power,” added:
It seems that the petition is being widely circulated, and signatures are being taken of all coloured people in the three colonies named. The petition is non-Indian in character, although British Indians, being coloured people, are very largely affected by it. We consider that it was a wise policy on the part of the British Indians throughout South Africa, to have kept themselves apart and distinct from the other coloured communities in this country.
In a statement made in 1906 to the Constitution Committee, the British Indian Association led by Gandhi (CW. V p.335) said:
The British Indian Association has always admitted the principle of white domination and has, therefore, no desire, on behalf of the community it represents, for any political rights just for the sake of them.
Commenting on a court case, the Indian Opinion of June 2 1906, in its Gujrati section, stated:
You say that the magistrate’s decision is unsatisfactory because it would enable a person, however unclean, to travel by a tram, and that even the Kaffirs would be able to do so. But the magistrate’s decision is quite different. The Court declared that the Kaffirs have no legal right to travel by tram. And according to tram regulations, those in an unclean dress or in a drunken state are prohibited from boarding a tram. Thanks to the Court’s decision, only clean Indians (meaning upper caste Hindu Indians) or coloured people other than Kaffirs, can now travel in the trams. (Italic portion is added)
Apartheid defended: Gandhi accepted racial segregation, not only because it was politically expedient as his Imperial masters had already drawn such a blueprint, it also conformed with his own attitude to the caste system. In his own mind he fitted Apartheid into the caste system: whites in the position of Brahmins, Indian merchants and professionals as Sudras, and all other non-whites as Untouchables.
Though Gandhi was strongly opposed to the comingling of races, the working-class Indians did not share his distaste. There were many areas where Indians, Chinese, Coloured, Africans and poor whites lived together. On February 15 1905, Gandhi wrote to Dr. Porter, the Medical Officer of Health, Johannesburg (CW. IV p.244, and “Indian Opinion” 9 April 1904):
Why, of all places in Johannesburg, the Indian location should be chosen for dumping down all kaffirs of the town, passes my comprehension.
Of course, under my suggestion, the Town Council must withdraw the Kaffirs from the Location. About this mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians I must confess I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population, and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.
Dr. Porter replied that it was the Indians who sub-let to Africans.
Commenting on the White League’s agitation, Gandhi wrote in his Indian Opinion of September 24 1903:
We believe as much in the purity of race as we think they do, only we believe that they would best serve these interests, which are as dear to us as to them, by advocating the purity of all races, and not one alone. We believe also that the white race of South Africa should be the predominating race.
Again, on December 24 1903, Indian Opinion stated:
The petition dwells upon `the comingling of the coloured and white races’. May we inform the members of the Conference that so far as British Indians are concerned, such a thing is particularly unknown. If there is one thing which the Indian cherishes more than any other, it is the purity of type.
In his farewell speech at a meeting held in the house of Dr. Gool in Capetown, which was reported in the Indian Opinion of July 1 1914, Gandhi said:
The Indians knew perfectly well which was the dominant and governing race. They aspired to no social equality with Europeans. They felt that the path of their development was separate. They did not even aspire to the franchise, or, if the aspiration exists, it was with no idea of its having a present effect.
Gandhi joined in the orgy of Zulu slaughter when the Bambata Rebellion broke out. It is essential to discuss the background of the Bambata Rebellion, to place Gandhi’s Nazi war crime in its proper perspective.
or that, regarding the death of Gandhi’s Wife (source link lost):
In August 1942, Gandhi and his wife, Kasturba, among others, were imprisoned by the British in Aga Khan Palace near Poona. Kasturba had poor circulation, and she’d weathered several heart attacks. While detained in the palace, she developed bronchial pneumonia. One of her four sons, Devadas, wanted her to take penicillin. Gandhi refused. He was okay with her receiving traditional remedies, such as water from the Ganges, but he refused her any medicines, including this newfangled antibiotic, saying that the Almighty would have to heal her.
The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi quotes him on February 19, 1944: “If God wills it, He will pull her through.” Gandhi: A Life adds this wisdom from the Mahatma: “You cannot cure your mother now, no matter what wonder drugs you may muster. She is in God’s hands now.” Three days later, Devadas was still pushing for the penicillin, but Gandhi shot back: “Why don’t you trust God?” Kasturba dies that day.
The next night, Gandhi cried out: “But how God tested my faith!” He told one of Kasturba’s doctors that the antibiotic wouldn’t have saved her and that allowing her to have it would have meant the bankruptcy of my faith.” (Emphasis mine.)
But Gandhi’s faith wasn’t much of an obstacle a short time later when it was his ass on the line. A mere six weeks after Kasturba died, Gandhi was flattened by malaria. He stuck to an all-liquid diet as his doctors tried to convince him to take quinine. But Gandhi completely refused and died of the disease, right? No, actually, after three weeks of deterioration, he took the diabolical drug and quickly recovered. That stuff about trusting God’s will and testing faith only applied when his wife’s life hung in the balance. When he needed a drug to stave off the Grim Reaper, down the hatch it went.
But why stop at Gandhi….? If we want to un-Dupe ourselves, we’ll need to look more closely (for the first time) at other sacred cows…
ROBERT FRANCIS Kennedy was the third son of Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., a ruthless and politically ambitious businessman from Massachusetts. Kennedy Sr. made a fortune from a variety of enterprises, including real estate, moviemaking, the stock market and bootlegging alcohol during Prohibition.
Joe Kennedy had extensive ties to organized crime and corrupt politicians, who helped make him very rich and to pursue his political ambitions. His own ambition to be the first Irish Catholic president of the United States, however, was thwarted by Franklin Roosevelt, and he transferred his dream to his sons. Three out of four would either become president or run for the presidency.
It is one of the great ironies of U.S. political mythology that the Kennedy family, viewed today as the very symbol of liberalism, was, in fact, deeply conservative.
Joe Kennedy was openly supportive of the pro-fascist forces in Spain during that country’s civil war in the 1930s. He was appointed U.S. ambassador to Great Britain by Roosevelt in 1938, and was known as an “appeaser”–one of those who supported making concessions to Hitler on the eve of the Second World War. Herbert von Dirksen, the German ambassador to Britain, told his superiors that Ambassador Kennedy was “Germany’s best friend” in London. Kennedy was fired as U.S. ambassador in 1940.
From this point onward, Joe Kennedy concentrated on promoting his sons’ political careers and conservative causes in more covert ways. He was very close to the infamous anticommunist Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, after McCarthy became famous for persecuting liberals and radicals. During McCarthy’s 1952 reelection campaign, Joe made a sizeable contribution and then asked that his son Bobby be placed on the McCarthy subcommittee investigating “subversives.”
Bobby only stayed on McCarthy’s committee for six months, using it as a springboard for an assignment to another congressional committee that gained him greater notoriety–the Senate Rackets Committee led by the reactionary Democratic Sen. John McClellan of Arkansas, whom the conservative labor leader George Meany described as “an anti-labor nut.”
As an assistant counsel to McClellan, Bobby carried on his particularly vicious persecution of Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, gaining a reputation for ruthlessness in pursuit of his political enemies and rivals. Joe Kennedy complimented his son on this character trait. “He’s a great kid,” Joe said. “He hates the same way I do.”
Throughout the 1950s, Bobby remained focused on building his older brother’s political career. He was campaign manager for John F. Kennedy’s first U.S. Senate campaign in 1952 and his presidential campaign in 1960. Bobby was his brother’s closest advisor (after Joe Kennedy Sr.). When JFK won the presidency, he made Bobby his attorney general.
* * *
THE KENNEDY presidency took place during a crucial time for three issues that would later come to dominate the rest of the decade: the civil rights movement, the Cuban Revolution and the war in Vietnam.
The Kennedys relied heavily on the Black vote to win the presidency in 1960, making certain symbolic overtures to Martin Luther King during the campaign. But as Bobby recalled in 1964, “I did not lie awake at night worrying about the problems of Negroes.”
That would soon change as Freedom Riders challenged segregation on interstate bus lines during the first year of the Kennedy presidency. The year before, a wave of sit-ins took place across the country to desegregate everything from lunch counters to public swimming pools. A mass movement against Jim Crow segregation was emerging–and the Kennedys did everything they could to contain it.
The Democratic Party was still a Jim Crow party–white Southern Democrats were known as “Dixiecrats”–with Blacks almost entirely disenfranchised in the South and the border states. For most of the 20th century, the Democrats needed the “solid South” (the states of the former Confederacy voting for the Democratic ticket as a bloc) to win national elections, and Kennedy was no exception. During his short time in office, John Kennedy appointed five supporters of segregation to the federal judiciary.
The Freedom Riders and sit-ins threatened to push the Dixiecrats into the Republican Party. The Kennedys hoped to pressure civil rights activists in a direction that wouldn’t jeopardize their southern support.
John Kennedy told Louisiana Gov. James H. Davis that his administration was trying “to put this stuff in the courts and get it off the street.” As attorney general, Bobby Kennedy famously told representatives of student civil rights groups, “If you cut out this Freedom Rider and sitting-in stuff and concentrate on voter registration, I’ll get you a tax exemption.”
He told Harris Wofford, special assistant to the president on civil rights, “This is too much,” after King refused to call off the protests. RFK added, “I wonder if they have the best interests of the country at heart. Do you know that one of them is against the atom bomb? Yes, he even picketed against it in jail! The president is going abroad, and all this is embarrassing him.”
Robert Kennedy also authorized FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover to begin wiretapping Martin Luther King’s telephone conversations on the grounds that Stanley Levison, King’s closest adviser, was allegedly a closet member of the Communist Party. Of King, RFK remarked, “We never wanted to get very close to him just because of these contacts and connections that he had, which we felt were damaging to the civil rights movement.”
The Kennedys put enormous pressure on the organizers of the historic March on Washington in August 1963 to cancel the event; then, when that failed, to control it. Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee leader and future member of Congress John Lewis wanted to say in his speech: “I want to know: Which side is the federal government on?” The administration compelled him to take this out because, according to Bobby Kennedy, it “attacked the president.”
Lewis’s frustration with the Kennedy administration would have resonated with many civil rights supporters. One major source of frustration with the Kennedys was their refusal to provide federal protection to civil rights activists. Bobby later admitted, “We abandoned the solution, really, of trying to give people protection.”
A generation of civil rights activists became radicalized in the face of the waffling compromises and inaction of the Kennedy administration.
Now we know. Next…?