music friday, 1963 edition
what i watched last week

a circular, uninformative discourse on john f. kennedy and me

I suppose I should bring this discussion to the blog.

I have never been a fan of the Kennedys. I never thought JFK was a good president. And I’ve long resisted the notion that Kennedy deserved a special place in our hearts, beyond the obvious point that he was killed while in office. That is a big point, one that impacted a generation. But I don’t see why we need to elevate his reputation as a president, just because he was taken from us too soon.

And so, I wasn’t looking forward to this long weekend of remembrances about the 50th anniversary of the assassination. I thought I’d keep my mouth shut … people should deal with these things however they see fit. My own thoughts tended towards the sacrilegious … I liked Sarah Hedgecock’s Gawker piece, “15 Women JFK Fucked”, which many found to be in poor taste.

Still, there was no avoiding the damn thing, and so I posted the following on Facebook:

Reason #1 why I'm trying to avoid talking about that event from 50 years ago:
I am a self-hating Baby Boomer.
The primary response Boomers have to Kennedy's assassination is to tell you where they were when they heard the news, as if their personal experience of the moment mattered more than the fact that the President of the United States had been killed. You might say that the Baby Boomer Era began that day, when Boomers began to elevate individual navel-gazing over all else.

The key phrase here is “self-hating Baby Boomer”. I have many critiques of Baby Boomers. I also recognize that I am a Boomer, in fact a fairly typical one. Which means I participate in many Boomer notions. Hence, self-hating.

Of course, my concept of Baby Boomer behavior is stereotypical, so I’m off-base before I even get started. I also have a starry-eyed feel for the 60s, and in some ways never got over the collapse of whatever “the 60s” meant. In music, I identified the problem being personified by the singer/songwriter genre, with that genre personified by James Taylor, who I am sure is a fine fellow, but I’m going by the music:

I've seen fire, and I've seen rain.
I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
But I always thought that I'd see you again.

(One of the refreshing things about Bruce Springsteen in his early years was that he largely avoided this. He wrote about “Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat”, told Wild Billy’s Circus Story, related the tale of Scooter and the Big Man. When he used the word “I”, it was part of a tall tale … “I'm coming to lend a hand, I'm coming to liberate you, confiscate you, I want to be your man!”)

For all of the above, I mistrust the whole “where were you when Kennedy died” enterprise. What people really mean when they ask that is, “hurry up and answer so I can tell you where I was”. But there is slippage in what I wrote on Facebook, a way in which I confuse myself in order to obscure my own complicity. I do believe Boomers’ tendency to turn everything into a story about themselves is one of our least appealing qualities. But I also believe personal experience matters.

My friend Phil called me on this, commenting, “??!! You keep a blog called ‘Steven Rubio's Online Life,’ where you filter all experience through Steven Rubio's Life and Steven Rubio's Memory and Steven Rubio's Everything”. I think he’s on to something. I did say in response that “I do more navel-gazing than anyone I know, but I'm not nostalgic about it. I'm just self-absorbed.” And it is true, I think about myself all the time. I usually ascribe this to my self-absorption, but perhaps it is a manifestation of my Boomerness. I have seen the enemy and it is me. (I said I was self-hating.)

Having admitted that, I’d add that my blog is filled with roundabout ways of talking about my personal experiences, and I do it that way on purpose. I think it is important, when talking about a movie or a song or whatever, that we admit to the ways our personal experiences affect our responses, and I do indeed talk about Steven Rubio in those cases. But the purpose isn’t to use the movie to explain Steven Rubio, it’s to use Steven Rubio to explain the movie. I am not 100% on this, but I try very hard not to expose too much of myself in a literal sense. I want people to know me by my artifacts. I am willing to expose myself only by talking about Bonnie and Clyde. (Which means I really am using the movie to explain Steven Rubio. I’ve outed myself!)

All of this loops around itself, and ultimately, I have no idea what it means, except that I am fooling myself a lot more often than I’d like to admit.

Another friend, Scott, disagreed with my central premise, writing, “Events like these are measured by their impact, and that includes their impact on people's personal lives, and to me it's an honest way to reflect on such events, and collectively it does provide one very accurate measure of the event's impact, no? Isn't this just what people do?” I’m not particularly happy with my reply: “There is no denying the personal impact. But in this case, I think our collective experience (where I was when it happened) leads to our identifying the personal impact, 50 years later, as the actual news story. This means we think of that date in nostalgic terms, and use the assassination as a marker of where things went from good to bad. This lets JFK off the hook. A mediocre president becomes enshrined as the King of Camelot, leading to the deluded notion that everything would have been better if only our beloved King had lived. For me, this is connected somehow to the way we think primarily of ‘where I was’.”

I think I’m just blabbing here, trying to cover my tracks. The reality lies in the second sentence of this post: I have never been a fan of the Kennedys. Everything I’ve said here grows more out of that statement than anything else. I hear the name “Kennedy”, and my anti-Kennedy alarm clock goes off, and I blather away at the same old stuff.

I spend a lot of time telling students not to trust anecdotal evidence, and here I’m going to offer a second-hand anecdote. When I was a kid, my maternal grandmother used to talk to me a lot about politics and social issues. Her great hero was FDR. Now, I’m relying on my memory of my grandmother’s memories, which means I’m so far removed from reality I shouldn’t even be mentioning this. But I don’t recall her talking about the day Roosevelt died. I know from the history books that it hit the nation very hard, even though it was nowhere near as unexpected as Kennedy’s death. I just remember her talking about what Roosevelt did as president, and to a lesser extent, what Truman did with the aftermath. The memories were not “where I was when I heard the news”, but rather, “looking back, I am reminded of why I thought FDR was a great president”. And he would have been dead around 20 years at that point.

It’s a different story from the one that Boomers tell about November 22, 1963. I can’t use memory-of-memories as actual evidence … this is very hazy at best. But it may help explain why a self-hating Baby Boomer would wish the Kennedys weren’t so symbolic. The more we talk about the meaning of the assassination, the less we talk about Kennedy’s actual accomplishments.

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