As one cannot help but notice, the fiftieth anniversary John F Kennedy’s assassination is almost upon us. As a seminal event in the emergence of a more radical style of politics in the 1960s, it is rightly remembered far beyond the shores of the USA.
Much as I would like to explore JFK’s death and its meaning, I have not the knowledge to do such a thing, nor would I be able to say anything that hasn’t already been said: Robert Dallek’s fine biography is an excellent starting point for those who want to know about the man, weaknesses and all.
With that in mind, I am going to make a couple of observations that have been floating around my head this week as I have prepared for a talk I’m giving tomorrow at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin, on euroscepticism. I’m fully aware that JFK and eurosceptics do not make natural bedfellows, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some parallels.
The most striking of these is the notion of image: subjective representations are more important than objective realities. For Kennedy, the myth of Camelot and the endless appropriation of his life by all comers has made it almost impossible to discern the ‘true meaning’ of the man. Likewise, the EU is characterised as intrinsically good or bad, distanced as ‘Brussels’ or ‘them’: indeed its almost essential contestation in academic writing reflects our profound uncertainty about its nature (hence that old staple of EU courses around the world: “what is the EU?”).
In both cases, we see what we want to see, the man or organisation of our dreams or our nightmares.
So far, so post-structuralist: if we can’t determine the ‘truth’, then we have to start asking whether we have to accept multiple ‘truths’. I’m not suggesting that we do have to do this, but the question does still pose itself.
however, this feeds into a second aspect, namely the role of conspiracy.
Famously, Hofstadter’s “The paranoid style in American politics” was also published 50 years ago and its message about existential threats to the system and the need to fight them by all means available both informed and explained the huge industry of JFK conspiracies that thrives to this day (I still have a bit of a soft spot for the ‘Kennedy committed suicide‘ option).
But that paranoia and sense of dark forces working against ‘us’ (whoever ‘we’ might be) has also strongly influenced eurosceptics: whether it’s bankers or communists or religious groups (indeed all the old JFK favourites), the idea that the EU is structured to serve others is one that holds a lot of weight, especially in the UK, but increasingly elsewhere too.
And this is the final point. Such unorthodox voices – the conspiracy theorists, the sceptics – actually set much of the agenda.
The reason for this two-fold. Firstly, the orthdoxy – Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy, the EU is structured to make it hard to evolve from the initial agreement of member states – is rather dull, while the alternatives are fantastic (and fantastical): Herman van Rompuy suddenly looks more exciting if you say he is a puppet of dark forces, or if you note that his three part name is like Oswald’s three-part name (coincidence? (yes, it is)).
Secondly, it is the unorthodox voices that make the running. They are the ones out there, shouting at the top of their voices about how they have been cheated of the truth and how we must fight it. The orthodox – the establishment, if we want to use a more loaded term – either have nothing more to say, or are unwilling to invest time and effort saying it. If nature really does abhor a vacuum, then we should not be surprised that it is filled by what little there is, even if it does not bear close scrutiny.
The upshot is a distorted and misinformed public debate, as much as one exists. In the case of an historical event that might not be the most consequential of things, but when it concerns an organisation that is closely involved in the lives of half a billion people, then it is deeply worrying.
Dr Simon Usherwood is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Politics, University of Surrey.