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Ed Driscoll

Interview: James Piereson on Camelot and the Cultural Revolution

December 8th, 2013 - 11:08 pm

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“Liberalism entered the 1960s as the vital force in American politics, riding a wave of accomplishment running from the Progressive era through the New Deal and beyond. A handsome young president, John F. Kennedy, had just been elected on the promise to extend the unfinished agenda of reform. Liberalism owned the future, as Orwell might have said. Yet by the end of the decade, liberal doctrine was in disarray, with some of its central assumptions broken by the experience of the immediately preceding years. It has yet to recover.”

“What happened?” That’s the question that James Piereson of the Manhattan Institute asked in his 2007 book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, which was recently republished with a new forward by Encounter Books, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. Building on his 5,000-word 2006 Commentary article, “Lee Harvey Oswald and the Liberal Crackup,” whose opening paragraph we quoted above, Piereson sets out to explore why the 1960s ended on a much darker note than they began, with the American culture in tatters.

As I wrote in 2007, when I first reviewed Piereson’s book for Tech Central Station:

It’s not primarily an attempt to once again prove that Oswald acted alone, as authors such as Gerald Posner, and most recently, Vincent Bugliosi have demonstrated, to the satisfaction of virtually everyone whose name isn’t Oliver Stone. But it is an attempt to explain an incredible transformational shift in American culture, which occurred during the years from 1963 and 1968, particularly in the media and on college campuses.

Even simply looking at photographs, it’s obvious that a decade that began with Sinatra and Miles Davis in cool sharkskin suits and ended in the mud of Woodstock had undergone a enormous cultural shift. In 1973, Pat Moynihan looked back on the decade which had recently concluded and said, “Most liberals had ended the 1960s rather ashamed of the beliefs they had held at the beginning of the decade.” The attitudes amongst liberal elites changed particularly radically during that decade.

Piereson believes that it was a combination of the news of the days leading up to Kennedy’s assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy’s desire to have her husband be a Lincolnesque martyr to civil rights, and a fear of upsetting the Soviet Union and Cuba that caused the background of Oswald to be suppressed.

But the actual causes of liberal disorientation regarding Kennedy’s death and the motives of his killer predate his assassination by several years. It was during the 1950s and early ’60s that that liberal elites declared America’s nascent and disparate conservative movements to be a greater threat to the nation than the Soviet Union, as illustrated by films of the day such as Dr. Strangelove and The Manchurian Candidate. And the subtext of those films was very much based upon “a vast literature that developed in the ’50s and early ’60s about the threat from the far right,” Piereson says, specifically mentioning Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style In American Politics, and Daniel Bell’s The Radical Right.

A trend that continues to this very day, as seen by the virulent paranoia displayed by the media and the Obama White House over the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009.

During our interview, Piereson will discuss:

● The cognitive dissonance that occurred when Kennedy’s death at the hands of a pro-Castro Communist was recast to make Kennedy a victim of the Civil Rights movement.

● How the Camelot myth became associated with JFK’s biography — but only after his death.

● How the nostalgia that Camelot introduced into the “Progressive” movement itself also caused a dangerous element of cognitive dissonance.

● Why the country began to come apart at the seams in the years after Kennedy’s death.

● How JFK’s death transformed the center-left into a much nastier form of what Piereson calls “Punitive Liberalism.”

And much more. Click here to listen:

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Transcript of our interview begins on the following page; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.

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All Comments   (10)
All Comments   (10)
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The Kennedy people really rewrote history/ I wonder if the history of their family ever will make it through their censorship.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't think you can write about the 1960s social transformation and ignore the effects of the Vietnam war. It was the biggest divider of all. We may have had hippies and LSD without Vietnam but we wouldn't have the deep divisions that have lasted as long.
The ironies abound. Ike wanted to keep us out. JFK adventurism got us started. LBJ lied us into a huge commitment (Gulf of Tonkin incident). Post 1972, Nixon was pilloried for not getting us out fast enough.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
Great article, but it's quite unfair to label "The Manchurian Candidate" as part of the trend - in that film, after all, it is a secret plan by the Chinese communists, backed by Russian accomplices, to kill the President and place a secret communist stooge in the oval office.

now that I think about it, looks like they figured out how to accomplish that without any need for bloodshed at all.

p.s. don't forget that the Manchurian Candidate, which came out just before the assassination, was suppressed for 25 years (no showings at all, anywhere!) for the thought crime of suggesting that a Vice President might have the most to gain from a President's death. Lyndon Johnston's people didn't like that idea very much, imagine that, and they shut this movie down cold for as long as they were alive. (Jack Valenti, especially)
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
The last time I remember the Kennedys being "hip" was in the 1980s - when there seemed to be a wave of nostalgia for the early, pre-crackup, late 50s/early 60s. 80s pop culture used a lot of images and memories from the period. It was the late-Boomers missing their ideal childhoods, I guess. The brief, shining moment just before their older siblings went apeshit and tried to destroy the country. I also had friends - mostly females in their 20s, for some reason - who were Kennedy fans, in the celebrity-obsessed sense.

One more reason I'm glad the 80s are dead and buried...
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
It was the drive to regain power by the Kennedys and the Harvard intellectual class that had become their paid courtiers that contributed to the downfall of the left. They felt the White House had been stolen from them by Oswald's bullets and made alliances with the far left wing of liberalism to wrench it back from Johnson as fast as possible.

Democrats had already come out of 11/22/63 thinking that the right had somehow been responsible for the assassination, and the subset saw no problem in demonizing not just the Goldwater campaign but Dallas and all of Texas, including LBJ. Once you're there, de-legitimizing your party's own sitting president comes as easy as doing the same thing to Barry Goldwater, but those doing that thought they could pick and choose what they would destroy -- i.e., take out Johnson over not just Vietnam but also on civil rights (!), by claiming his 1965 Civil Rights Act and the accompanying War on Poverty didn't go far enough.

The Kennedy clan's assumption of the banner of being the leaders of the left side of the Democratic Party, first with Bobby and then, for the next 40 years, with Teddy, meant legitimizing any far left idea that came down the pike. Throw in the guilt trip the family and their backers tried to put on America to give them back ultimate power -- a strategy taken up by other special interest groups in the Democratic Party's coalition -- and you end up where we are now, where persuading others with ideas takes second place to shaming/intimidating them to give in to your ideology.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
We have made so many portrayals of what it is that made the '60s what it was. What leaps out at me are two things:

The first was the wholesale turning away of youth from their parents constraints and value systems or even anything they had liked. That meant everything had to go: commercial illustration, music, literature, fashion, film, etc. Even comic books changed as the Comic Code fell began to fall apart before the end of the decade. Underground comix purposefully parodied the blithe innocence of '50s comics in the most vulgar possible ways.

The second was that the new elements of pop culture had to be seen as giving a message rather than mere entertainment - it must peer through the cracks, enabling perception, deal with social issues, see the REAL deal. Drugs like acid were said to enable perception, not make you merely feel good.

The French Connection (1971) and the now forgotten seminal made-for-TV movie The Marcus-Nelson Murders (1973) for example, show how this affected police procedurals. Literature, especially science fiction literature was far ahead of the game because, unlike a mainstream film audience, their audience was also ahead of the game, and so we saw more nuanced work like Stranger in a Strange Land in 1961 and Dune serialized beginning in 1963 addressing hedonism and environmentalism.

So what's the upshot and legacy of all that: it is still popular to imagine that nothing is what it seems like on the surface - obvious is never obvious. Mitigation and explanation for the most innocent act is the order of the day. We have rhetoric formed around mysterious "systems" that aren't systems, "patriarchies" that aren't patriarchies, and "institutions" that aren't institutions.

I just visited the site of an author of young adult books about goblins and words like "cis," "cissexist," "transphobic," "cis gender," "able-bodied neurotypical," "privilege," "PoC," "colorblindness," "genderblindness," "other," were all in the single newest post and comments section. Such people are adopting the rhetoric almost word for word of the most suspicious group of people in America today - radical black feminists - the newest "hippie."
(show less)
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
All this work devoted to Oswald, a Communist who hated America, Capitalism, the Constitution, and Freedom, whose life, itself a variation of Big Bill Haywood, John Reed, and Lincoln Steffens, became a template for generations of Americans, especially in academia, the media, and (Democrat) politics.

He was the strong horse to be followed, the nexus on which all history pivoted, the door through which a third way of Socialism (after the failures of national and international ways) won the world.


Two assassins bookend the destruction of the West, but Oswald is more influential than Gavrilo Princip.

So why in particular was Ruby driven to shoot him?
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
So why in particular was Ruby driven to shoot him?"

Why? Really?

Passion, and Opportunity.

Ruby killed Oswald for the same reason I MYSELF would have killed him, had I the same opportunity.... Because we all know the little Rat Punk will never suffer a day in his life any differently than the day he was captured...

Three Hotts and a cott, and a lifetime of Twisted Celebrity Status...Sir Han Sir Han, Manson, Holmes, Major Hassan....none of them will ever be "punished", and we all know it.


So for some folks (like Ruby, or ME if you ever hurt someone I love) wont mind at all not getting away....Nothing else matters, but JUSTICE, when you know none will be forthcoming by any other means.

The only question for some will be, can I reallly REALLY get to him.

And if they can, God willing, they will...

Because Justice is more important than Law
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
"So why in particular was Ruby driven to shoot him?"

Why? Really?

Passion, and Opportunity.

Ruby killed Oswald for the same reason I MYSELF would have killed him, had I the same opportunity.... Because we all know the little Rat Punk will never suffer a day in his life any differently than the day he was captured...

A cell, three hots and a cot with no "final punishment" ever administered...a lifetime of Twisted Celebrity Status and Fan Mail to feed their pathetic ego...in otherwords, EXACTLY what they always wanted...

Add Sirhan Sirhan and Manson to that list, and of more recent vintage, the likes a Major Hassan, Jared Loghtner, James Holmes, or your garden variety Child Rapist or Cop Kill...scumbags you KNOW will never face any real punishment at the hands of an imasculated "justice" system that is DESIGNED to render the exact opposite anymore.

The Motive for most any normal person is there, the only Limiting Factor is a "real" Opportunity to be successful in the attempt

And some folks (like Ruby, or me if you hurt someone I love) wont mind at all not getting away....Nothing else matters, but JUSTICE, when you know none will be forthcoming by any other means.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks for a thought provoking interview on the beginning of the culture of pure fantasy we've suffered through since the '60s. I was 18 when Oswald shot Kennedy and I saw Ruby shoot Oswald as it happened on TV. I've never doubted that Oswald acted alone and have been immune from conspiracy theories, although leftist friends have tried to convince me otherwise.

I speculate that the webs of paranoia spun by the left serve a more nefarious purpose which is understood and exacerbated by liberal elites. They create an atmosphere of general suspicion so pervasive that it serves to muddy the waters enough that all truth is lost. The truth is the real enemy of the left because exposure would destroy them and their poisonous ideology.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
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