Thursday, December 1, 2011

Lee Harvey Oswald's True Motives

It’s a canard, novelist Stephen King tells us, that guns do not kill people.

Now, King offers a better explanation: ideas kill people. In particular, he blames the miasma of right wing ideas that infested Dallas in the early 1960s for the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Stephen King is a novelist. He has just written a widely acclaimed novel, entitled 11/22/1963, about the assassination of JFK. I have not read the novel. At 845 pages… not a chance.

As I understand it, King proposes that the Kennedy assassination was not, in itself, a defining event. The toxic atmosphere in Dallas would have led to the Vietnam debacle, the counterculture, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and God knows what else, even if JFK had lived.

King is assuming something like historical inevitability. He believes that history unfolds in grand cycles regardless of what we mortals do or do not do.

We can choose to ride the wave or try to stop it. In the end, the wave will out. Nothing we do really makes any difference.

If the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not been assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914 World War I and the attendant destruction would have happened anyway. Or else, something like it would have happened.

King’s effort to make human endeavor into an exercise in futility strikes me as a leap too far. You might just as well say that it’s all being directed by the stars, or, if you want to be more philosophical, that it’s all in the motions of the Zeitgeist.

For those who do not believe in astrology, the modern version of this theory originates with Hegel.

In his novel, King explores the possibility that someone could have changed the course of history by stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK.

Of course, this is true only if Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone gunman. It also implies that no on else was involved at any level. It means that if Lee Harvey Oswald had gotten into an automobile accident on the morning of 11/22/1963, that JFK would be alive today.

Joined by Frank Rich and other luminaries from the liberal commentariat King assumes that toxic right wing ideas killed Kennedy.

Lee Harvey Oswald was just a pathetic loser who was infected with these ideas. If JFK had not been assassinated the right wing extremism that was afoot in the Dallas would have naturally led to the Vietnam counterculture. I assume that King believes that some historical dialectic would have provoked a backlash.

I mention in passing that, liberal fantasies notwithstanding, 1963 America was not awash in right wing thinking. Republicanism was still represented by fatherly Dwight Eisenhower, the man who, just to refresh your memory, had been instrumental in bringing down Joe McCarthy. Surely, there were staunch anti-communists afoot, but the nation was not consumed with right wing vitriol.

I also mention in passing that neither Stephen King nor Frank Rich has anything to say about the poisonous left wing rhetoric that surrounded the administration of George W. Bush.

It feels trite to have to repeat the obvious, but novelists and playwrights and intellectuals of all stripes stoked the fires of Bush hatred, to the point where many were explicitly calling for his assassination.

As you know, authors like King and Rich feel that the Tea Party movement is riding a tide of violent rhetoric. If it isn’t there, they make it up.

Yet, when the Occupy movement showers us with violent anti-Semitic and anti-American rhetoric these same moral paladins turn blind, deaf, and dumb.

King is a novelist. He does not deal in reality.

So he dismisses the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald was sufficiently committed to Communism to move to the Soviet Union. Might we not notice that a good young cadre like Oswald would have been exposed to the most vicious left wing anti-American propaganda?

I haven’t read King’s book, but I would guess that he does not much care for the possibility that Oswald was influenced by the teachings of Marx and Lenin.

It should not bear repeating, but Marxist and Leninist rhetoric is not sweetness and light. This rhetoric inspire some of the most destructive regimes in human history and some of the most brutal dictators in human history.

If you want to argue that ideas kill, have enough integrity to point out the poisonous rhetoric coming from the left.

Stephen King is a professional fabulator, and fabulators fabulate. It isn’t a crime to distort reality to fit it within the confines of narrative fiction.

And yet, writing to the editor of the Times, King takes serious issue with Ross Douthut’s opinion about Lee Harvey Oswald’s motives. My comments on Douthut here.

Then, he moves beyond fabulation. He pretends to know Oswald's true motives. But why would we ever imagine that Stephen King has a special insight into anyone’s motives?

King’s credentials state that he is a novelist who has read a pile of books on Oswald. Presumably, this makes him an authority on Oswald’s psychology.

It’s an amazing assertion. For me it is only mitigated by the fact that many psychologists believe that the royal road to understanding human motivation passes through fictional narrative.

Psychologists have come to believe if you can concoct a story that is both coherent and consistent, then it must necessarily be true. If this is true, then novelists are authorities on human motivation.

So, one understands why King let his hubris get the better of him. The toxic atmosphere surrounding therapy has infected him to the point that he can no longer distinguish human beings from characters in fiction.

King’s Lee Harvey Oswald is acting out a narrative. Its value lies in its adequacy to the novel he is constructing. At best, it’s a hypothesis. There is no reason whatever to think that it’s the truth about Lee Harvey Oswald.

King’s Oswald could not have been politically motivated because he did not take responsibility for the murder while he was under arrest.

In King’s words: “Surely if his prime motivation had been political, he would have thrown up his hands and said, ‘Yes, it was me, I rid the world of the capitalist warmonger.’”

Why is King so sure about this? True, it would have made for a better story, but it is just as possible that Oswald preferred to reveal his political motive during a trial. There he would have gotten maximum media exposure and he could have spoken directly to the world, without having to pass through the intermediary of the Dallas police.

King’s assertion proves nothing.

Ever the amateur psychologist King imagines that Oswald was not a sincere Communist. He was so close to his mother that he had to rebel against her. Amazingly, King is hanging his interpretation on the Oedipus complex.

In King’s words: “Oswald’s Communist beliefs were never more than skin-deep. His real interest was in being viewed as a rebel, an extraordinary fellow who could see the real truth when those all about him were blindfolded. The most important figure in his life was his domineering mother, Marguerite, in whose bed he slept until he was 11 and who alternately praised and belittled him.

“When he read ‘Das Kapital’ while on post with the Marines in the Pacific or tried to ‘organize’ his fellow workers in various low-paying jobs, he was acting out the rebellion of which he was incapable with his mother. “

Again, this is blather. There are a lot of ways of rebelling against your mother or your father or your Aunt Sally. Why do it by becoming a Communist?

Surely, King does not believe that true Communists do not have an Oedipus complex?

Besides, children who are too close to their mothers do not necessarily rebel. As a narrative his theory is plausible. As a rendering of human psychology it is nonsense.

How does King know whether Oswald’s Communist beliefs were superficial? Perhaps his wish to be a rebel was only superficial; perhaps he just wanted to be back in the arms of his mother. Or maybe he wanted to be his mother’s hero. Or maybe he wanted to punish her.

King does not know. Unfortunately, he does not know that he does not know.

From thinking that Oswald had something of an Oedipus complex and therefore could not be a real Communist, King moves on to his other hypothesis: that Oswald wanted to be famous.

In his words: “Oswald’s guiding star wasn’t Marxism or Communism but the true American cult: renown. He defected to the Soviet Union because he believed that it would make him famous, even exalted. When the Soviet bureaucracy allowed him to stay, but put him to work in a Minsk factory — just another prole sticking vacuum tubes in radios — he became disenchanted with Communism and worked to come back to America. Before landing in Dallas, he instructed his wife, Marina, on how they should respond to the hordes of reporters who would want to talk to them. When there were no reporters, he was furious.”

King emphasizes that Oswald craved: “media notice, a brief stint in jail and attention, attention, attention.”

There are many ways of attaining fame and renown. Why choose assassination? Why not become a porn star or a serial killer?

If you decide to murder the president of the United States, you are likely to be executed. You might even be shot on sight. How could you enjoy all that attention from your grave?

As might be expected, King does not distinguish between fame and infamy. Has the name of John Wilkes Booth been covered with fame? It hasn’t. His name lives in infamy.

And then, how famous are Leon Czolgosz or Charles Guiteau, both of whom assassinated American presidents? FYI—William McKinley and James Garfield.

While we’re at it, do you know the name of Gavrilo Princip, the man whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggered World War I?

Of course, if Oswald were really looking for fame, if he was looking to become an honored figure in world history, where would his name be honored most? In Washington or in Moscow?

Perhaps he was smarting from his treatment in Minsk and wanted to return to Moscow as a hero of the revolution. Perhaps he had wanted to be buried in the Kremlin next to John Reed.

For all we know, Oswald was recruited by people who had no interest in politics at all. If he is as deranged and malleable as King seems to think, he might have been influenced by other forces.

Some have speculated that JFK was assassinated on orders of organized crime, as retribution for his brother’s crackdown on the Mafia.

If you were a Mafia don planning to assassinate the president of the United States you would not use a hit man who was part of your organization. You would try to find someone who could not be connected to you. And you would not want it to take place in a venue where you have important operations.

If you could find a way to make it look like a political action, that would deflect serious attention away from you.

That might be pure speculation, but, certainly, it could have happened that way.

We can try another speculation. What if Oswald had wanted to discredit American conservatism? He might have thought at first that he could do so by murdering a radical right winger like Edwin Walker.

When he failed, he might have dreamed up a second strategy: assassinate John Kennedy, do it in a place that is rife with right-wing rhetoric, and allow gullible intellectuals to blame Texas conservatives.

If a dedicated radical leftist wanted to discredit conservatism, he could not do much better than to assassinate a beloved liberal president in a city that was a hub for right wing thought.

If Lee Harvey Oswald was trying to manipulate the minds of Frank Rich and Stephen King, he certainly succeeded.


Robert Pearson said...
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Robert Pearson said...

I thought Don DeLillo had already staked out this territory in Libra, but I read the Amazon page and see that this book is at least somewhat different in that it's a time-travel story about a guy trying to stop Oswald.

I suppose that since it's a novel and not a history book, King can do what he will, but I've also read a "pile of books" on Oswald and the assassination, and any theory that Oswald was part of some Grand Conspiracy with the CIA, Kremlin, Castro, Mafia and the radical right, singly or in some combination, is so ludicrous it doesn't even make for a good fiction. Oliver Stone's excreable JFK movie comes to mind.

Oswald's real story is fascinating enough. The best I can reconstruct it, his motivations were to become a hero to the Left, and to erase his sense that he was a nobody. These were, of course, intertwined in a very complex way. The fact that he shot at Gen. Walker first is just ignored by far too many people who try to speculate about him and his psychology.

If you really want some fun reading may I commend Shea and Wilson's Illuminatus!. While this is only a small thread in a hugely complex novel, the conspiracy theories and fun quotient are SO much better than Dan Brown and Stephen King put together. In that book, they refer to JFK as "the young Hegelian from Boston."

Spooky, eh?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, Robert.

I am still bothered by the fact that there are lots of ways of being a somebody. Assassinating the pres. of the US is rather extravagant. By definition it's a political act, making one a political hero or villain, depending on where one lives.

That Oswald conceived, planned, and executed the assassination by himself-- a different question from whether or not he alone pulled the trigger-- is still subject to some doubt.

He said he was a "patsy." What did he mean?

And then there's the matter of Jack Ruby... where did he come from, who was he representing, or was he just a great Kennedy lover who lost it?

Bizzy Brain said...

One story I heard is that Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit was sent to quiet Oswald by killing him. That scheme backfired, resulting in Tippit's death, Oswald's subsequent capture, and his statement that he was a patsy.

Robert Pearson said...


I think Ruby thought he was getting revenge for Mrs. Kennedy and for Dallas. It was his assassination of Oswald, of course, that really made the whole event the strange, neverending saga that it became. With a trial, conviction and probable execution, there would have been some finality to the matter.

I think that Ruby's killing of Oswald was something he'd been thinking about for two days, but the opportunity he received to carry it out was random. Ruby was wiring money to one of his strippers ten minutes before he showed up at police headquarters. If he was truly focused (or in the employ of others), one would think he would have been hanging around every minute for his chance.

Oswald asked to change his clothes at the last minute, and the slight delay gave Ruby his chance. The whole remarkable sequence of events, from Oswald geting a job at the Book Depository to his assassination, are an amazing coincidence in retrospect, but again, Oswald's attempted assassination of Gen. Walker shows that he was bent on making a name for himself. I believe if Kennedy had not, by chance, have come into his sights, some other prominent figure would have eventually.

This is my opinion, of course, but Oswald's own writings and statements are the basis for it.

LordSomber said...

Just heard an interview with this author. Pretty interesting:

"JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think about Claims of Conspiracy" by John McAdams.

Fat Man said...
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Fat Man said...

James Piereson, the author of "Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism."


"The central myth of the JFK assassination was that a climate of hate inspired by the far right created the conditions for President Kennedy's murder. A single assassin may have pulled the trigger, but he was put up to it by an undercurrent of hatred and bigotry that President Kennedy tried but failed to subdue. On this view President Kennedy was a martyr, somewhat like Abraham Lincoln, to the causes of civil rights, racial justice, and an elevated liberalism. JFK's assassination was a tragic but richly symbolic event for many Americans who saw it as a vivid expression of an ongoing battle in American life between the forces of light and darkness.

"This explanation for the assassination did not drop out of thin air but was circulated immediately after the event by influential leaders, journalists, and journalistic outlets, including Mrs. Kennedy, President Johnson, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, James Reston, Russell Baker, and the editorial page of the New York Times, columnist Drew Pearson, and any number of other liberal spokesmen. Mrs. Kennedy took the lead in insisting that her husband was martyred by agents of hatred and bigotry. Within days of the assassination, she elaborated the symbolism of Camelot and King Arthur's court to frame the Kennedy presidency as a special and near-magical enterprise guided by the highest ideals. The eternal flame she placed on his grave site invokes King Arthur's candle in the wind as imagined by T. H. White in his Arthurian novel, The Once and Future King, later the basis of a Broadway musical that was popular during the Kennedy years.

"These were the myths, illusions, and outright fabrications in which the Kennedy assassination came to be encrusted. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they are still widely believed. In fact, the Kennedy legend, incorporating the myths about his assassination, is closely intertwined with the history of modern liberalism: JFK has come to represent a liberal ideal and his assassination the threat posed to it by the forces of the far right.

"It is hard to fathom, in this age of secular rationality, that so many people can believe a tale so obviously contradicted by the facts. President Kennedy, to the extent he was a martyr at all, was a martyr in the Cold War struggle against communism."