this article examines the assassination within the wider context of the
mass psychological perspective of the time period. peter gabel touches
upon something here that is rarely if ever explored in such a perceptive
and far-reaching way. one of the most provocative analyses i have seen.
. . . It was this feeling–“the rise of a new generation of
Americans“–that more than any ideology threatened the system of
cultural and erotic control that dominated the fifties and that
still dominated the governmental elites of the early sixties–the
FBI, the CIA, even elements of Kennedy’s own cabinet and staff.
Kennedy’s evocative power spoke to people’s longing for some
transcendent community and in so doing, it allowed people to make
themselves vulnerable enough to experience both hope and, indirectly,
the legacy of pain and isolation that had been essentially sealed
from public awareness since the end of the New Deal. . . .
I say this is the great achievement of the movie because no
matter who killed Kennedy, it was the conflict between the
opening-up of desire that he represented and the alienated need of
the forces around him to shut this desire down that caused his
death. . . . There is no way for the forces of good to win the
struggle between desire and alienation unless people can break
through the gauzy images of everything being fine except the lone
nuts, a legitimating ideology that is actually supported by our
denial of the pain of our isolation and our collective deference to
the system of Authority that we use to keep our legitimating myths
in place. Oliver Stone‘s “JFK” brings us face-to-face with social
reality by penetrating the compensatory image-world of mass
culture, politics, and journalism.

the following appears in the March/April issue of “Tikkun” magazine,
a Bimonthly Jewish Critic of Politics, Culture, & Society.
________________________________________________________________

The Spiritual Truth of “JFK”
(c) 1992 by Peter Gabel

Peter Gabel is president of New College of California
and associate editor of Tikkun.
this article is reprinted here with permission of the author
Oliver Stone’s “JFK” is a great movie, but not because it
“proves” that John F. Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy. Stone
himself has acknowledged that the movie is a myth–a countermyth to
the myth produced by the Warren Commission–but a myth that
contains what Stone calls a spiritual truth. To understand that
spiritual truth, we must look deeply into the psychological and
social meaning of the assassination–its meaning for American
society at the time that it occurred, and for understanding
contemporary American politics and culture.
The spiritual problem that the movie speaks to is an underlying
truth about life in American society–the truth that we all live in
a social world characterized by feelings of alienation, isolation,
and a chronic inability to connect with one another in a life-
giving and powerful way. In our political and economic
institutions, this alienation is lived out as a feeling of being
“underneath” and at an infinite distance from an alien external
world that seems to determine our lives from the outside. True
democracy would require that we be actively engaged in ongoing
processes of social interaction that strengthen our bonds of
connectedness to one another, while at the same time allowing us to
realize our need for a sense of social meaning and ethical purpose
through the active remaking of the no-longer “external” world
around us. But we do not yet live in such a world, and the
isolation and distance from reality that envelops us is a cause of
immense psychological and emotional pain, a social starvation that
is in fact analogous to physical hunger and other forms of physical
suffering.
One of the main psychosocial mechanisms by which this pain, this
collective starvation, is denied is through the creation of an
imaginary sense of community. Today this imaginary world is
generated through a seemingly endless ritualized deference to the
Flag, the Nation, the Family–pseudocommunal icons of public
discourse projecting mere images of social connection that actually
deny our real experience of isolation and distance, of living in
sealed cubicles, passing each other blankly on the streets, while
managing to relieve our alienation to some extent by making us feel
a part of something. Political and cultural elites–presidents and
ad agencies–typically generate these images of pseudocommunity,
but we also play a part in creating them because, from the vantage
point of our isolated positions–if we have not found some
alternative community of meaning–we need them to provide what
sense of social connection they can. We have discussed this
phenomenon in “Tikkun” many times before, emphasizing recently, for
example, the way David Duke is able to recognize and confirm the
pain of white working-class people and thereby help them overcome,
in an imaginary way, their sense of isolation in a public world
that leaves them feeling invisible.

In the 1950s, the alienated environment that I have been describing
took the form of an authoritarian, rigidly anticommunist mentality
that coexisted with the fantasized image of a “perfect” America–a
puffed-up and patriotic America that had won World War II and was
now producing a kitchen-culture of time-saving appliances,
allegedly happy families, and technically proficient organizations
and “organization men” who dressed the same and looked the same as
they marched in step toward the “great big beautiful tomorrow”
hailed in General Electric’s advertising jingle of that period. It
was a decade of artificial and rigid patriotic unity, sustained in
large part by an equally rigid and pathological anticommunism; for
communism was the “Other” whose evil we needed to exterminate or at
least contain to preserve our illusory sense of connection,
meaning, and social purpose. As the sixties were later to make
clear, the cultural climate of the fifties was actually a massive
denial of the desire for true connection and meaning. But at the
time the cultural image-world of the fifties was sternly held in
place by a punitive and threatening system of authoritarian male
hierarchies, symbolized most graphically by the McCarthy hearings,
the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the person of J.
Edgar Hoover.

In this context, the election of John F. Kennedy and his three
years in office represented what I would call an opening-up of
desire. I say this irrespective of his official policies, which
are repeatedly criticized by the Left for their initial hawkish
character, and irrespective also of the posthumous creation of the
Camelot myth, which does exaggerate the magic of that period. The
opening-up that I am referring to is a feeling that Kennedy was
able to evoke–a feeling of humor, romance, idealism, and youthful
energy, and a sense of hope that touched virtually every American
alive during that time. It was this feeling–“the rise of a new
generation of Americans”–that more than any ideology threatened
the system of cultural and erotic control that dominated the
fifties and that still dominated the governmental elites of the
early sixties–the FBI, the CIA, even elements of Kennedy’s own
cabinet and staff. Kennedy’s evocative power spoke to people’s
longing for some transcendent community and in so doing, it allowed
people to make themselves vulnerable enough to experience both hope
and, indirectly, the legacy of pain and isolation that had been
essentially sealed from public awareness since the end of the New
Deal.
Everyone alive at the time of the assassination knows exactly
where they were when Kennedy was shot because, as it is often said,
his assassination “traumatized the nation.” But the real trauma,
if we move beyond the abstraction of “the nation,” was the sudden,
violent loss for millions of people of the part of themselves that
had been opened up, or had begun to open up during Kennedy’s
presidency. As a sixteen-year-old in boarding school with no
interest in politics, I wrote a long note in my diary asking God to
help us through the days ahead, even though I didn’t believe in God
at the time. And I imagine that you, if you were alive then, no
matter how cynical you may have sometimes felt since then about
politics or presidents or the “real” Kennedy himself, have a
similar memory preciously stored in the region of your being where
your longings for a better world still reside.
In this issue, Peter Dale Scott gives an account of the
objective consequences of the assassination, of the ways that the
nation’s anticommunist elites apparently reversed Kennedy’s
beginning efforts to withdraw from Vietnam and perhaps through his
relationship with Khrushchev to thaw out the addiction to blind
anti-communist rage–an addiction that, as he saw during the Cuban
missile crisis, could well have led to a nuclear war. But for
these same elites, the mass-psychological consequences of the
assassination posed quite a different problem from that of
reversing government policy–namely, the need to find a way to
reconstitute the image of benign social connection that could
reform the imaginary unity of the country on which the legitimacy
of government policy depends. In order to contain the desire
released by the Kennedy presidency and the sense of loss and sudden
disintegration caused by the assassination, government officials
had to create a process that would rapidly “prove”–to the
satisfaction of people’s emotions–that the assassination and loss
were the result of socially innocent causes.

Here we come to the mass-psychological importance of Lee Harvey
Oswald and the lone gunman theory of the assassination. As Stone’s
movie reminds us in a congeries of rapid-fire, post-assassination
images, Oswald was instantly convicted in the media and in mass
consciousness even before he was shot by Jack Ruby two days after
the assassination. After an elaborate ritualized process producing
twenty-six volumes of testimony, the Warren Commission sanctified
Oswald’s instant conviction in spite of the extreme implausibility
of the magic bullet theory, the apparently contrary evidence of the
Zapruder film, and other factual information such as the near
impossibility of Oswald’s firing even three bullets (assuming the
magic bullet theory to be true) with such accuracy so quickly with
a manually cocked rifle. You don’t have to be a conspiracy
theorist, nor do you have to believe any of the evidence marshaled
together by conspiracy theorists, to find it odd that Oswald’s
guilt was immediately taken for granted within two days of the
killing, with no witnesses and no legal proceeding of any kind–and
that his guilt was later confidently affirmed by a high-level
Commission whose members had to defy their own common sense in
order to do so. The whole process might even seem extraordinary
considering that we are talking about the assassination of an
American president.
But it is not so surprising if you accept the mass-psychological
perspective I am outlining here–the perspective that Kennedy and
the Kennedy years had elicited a lyricism and a desire for
transcendent social connection that contradicted the long-
institutionalized forces of emotional repression that preceded
them. The great advantage of the lone gunman theory is that it
gives a *nonsocial* account of the assassination. It takes the
experience of trauma and loss and momentary social disintegration,
isolates the evil source of the experience in one antisocial
individual, and leaves the image of society as a whole–the
“imaginary community” that I referred to earlier–untarnished and
still “good.” From the point of view of those in power, in other
words, the lone gunman theory reinstitutes the legitimacy of
existing social and political authority as a whole because it
silently conveys the idea that our elected officials and the organs
of government, among them the CIA and the FBI, share our innocence
and continue to express our democratic will. But from a larger
psychosocial point of view, the effect was to begin to close up the
link between desire and politics that Kennedy had partially
elicited, and at the same time to impose a new repression of our
painful feelings of isolation and disconnection beneath the facade
of our reconstituted but imaginary political unity.

Having said this, I do not want to be understood to be suggesting
that there was a conspiracy to set up Oswald in order to achieve
this mass-psychological goal. There may well have been a
conspiracy to set up Oswald, but no complex theory is required to
explain it. And it would be absurd, in my view, to think that the
entire media consciously intended to manipulate the American people
in the headlong rush to convict Oswald in the press. The point is
rather that this headlong rush was something we all–or most of
us–participated in because we ourselves, unconsciously, are deeply
attached to the status quo, to our legitimating myths of community,
and to denying our own alienation and pain. The interest we share
with the mainstream media and with government and corporate elites
is to maintain, through a kind of unconscious collusion, the
alienated structures of power and social identity that protect us
from having to risk emerging from our sealed cubicles and allowing
our fragile longing for true community to become a public force.
The great achievement of Oliver Stone’s movie is that it uses
this traumatic, formative event of the Kennedy assassination–an
event full of politically important cultural memory and feeling–to
assault the mythological version of American society and to make us
experience the forces of repression that shape social reality. The
movie may or may not be accurate in its account of what Lyndon
Johnson might have known or of the phones in Washington shutting
down just before the assassination or of the New Zealand newspaper
that mysteriously published Oswald’s photographs before he was
arrested. But the movie does give a kinetic and powerful depiction
of the real historical forces present at the time of the
assassination, forces that were in part released by the challenge
to the fanatical anticommunism of the fifties that Kennedy to some
extent brought about. Through his crosscutting images of the
anti-Castro fringe, the civil-rights movement, high and low New
Orleans club life, and elites in corporate and government offices
who thought they ran the country, Stone uses all his cinematic and
political energy to cut through the civics-class version of history
and to bring the viewer into sudden contact with the realities of
power and alienation that were present at that time and are present
in a different form now.
I say this is the great achievement of the movie because no
matter who killed Kennedy, it was the conflict between the
opening-up of desire that he represented and the alienated need of
the forces around him to shut this desire down that caused his
death. This struggle was an important part of the meaning of the
1960s, and it provides the link, which Stone draws openly, between
John Kennedy’s death and the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and
Bobby Kennedy. There is no way for the forces of good to win the
struggle between desire and alienation unless people can break
through the gauzy images of everything being fine except the lone
nuts, a legitimating ideology that is actually supported by our
denial of the pain of our isolation and our collective deference to
the system of Authority that we use to keep our legitimating myths
in place. Oliver Stone’s “JFK” brings us face-to-face with social
reality by penetrating the compensatory image-world of mass
culture, politics, and journalism. And for that reason it is an
important effort by someone whose consciousness was shaped by the
sixties to transform and shake free the consciousness of the
nineties.
This is one of four articles on “JFK,” The Assassination, The
Movie, and The Coverup, in the March/April issue of Tikkun.
(te.kun[umlout over the `u’]) To mend, repair and transform the world.

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