Latinos & Presidential Shootings

Regular readers of Latino Like Me might remember an earlier post on JFK’s last night alive.

In it I discuss how the night before he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, the President spent the evening at an event hosted by the League of Latin American Citizens, or LULAC. Along with LBJ and both their wives, the President spoke before LULAC, the oldest and, arguably, the most successful Mexican American civil rights organization in the U.S.  The long and the short of it is that Kennedy spent his last night as President addressing Latino issues.

Now you can understand why this slideshow from CNN took me by surprise.

The images commemorate the 30th anniversary of the shooting of Ronald Reagan, on March 30, 1981. If you click to the second image you will see a copy of the President’s itinerary printed in a newspaper found in the hotel room of John W. Hinckley Jr.–Reagan’s would be assassin.

Notice anything?

It seems that the morning of the 30th, just before he went to the Hilton Hotel to give a speech, Reagan met with “Hispanic supporters.”  Upon exiting the hotel, after his speech, Reagan was shot by Hinckley in the chest.

Just an interesting little historical coincidence.

JFK’s Last Night Alive

JFK spent his last night alive with a room full of Mexican Americans!

The above photo was taken at the Rice Hotel, in Houston, on the evening of November 21, 1963.  JFK and LBJ and their wives were the guests of honor at an event sponsored by LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens.  Both the President and Vice President addressed the gathering of Mexican American activists.  The First Lady even offered some brief remarks in Spanish.

Considering I am a historian of the 20th century US, with a specialty in the history of Latinos, and with a fixation on the Kennedy assassination that stretches back to my childhood, I am unbelievably surprised that I didn’t know this before!

The story came to my attention because of a man named Roy Botello.  The 88-year-old, Mexican American from Texas was in the crowd that night and took some 8mm home movies of the evenings festivities.  The film was “sitting in a chest of drawers” in his living room for all these years.  Botello recently decided to donate the film to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, the museum dedicated to the assassination.

You can read more about the story here.

Why I Don’t Care (Much) About Hate Speech

Yesterday’s tragedy in Arizona is beginning to foster a national discussion on “hate speech” and “civility” in politics.  There is nothing inherently wrong in this.  I’d say its even welcome from the millions of Americans who feel politics has grown especially vitriolic in the past decade.

I do worry that too much will be given to such a discussion, as if the tragedy itself is the direct result of our political discourse.  It is an undeniable factor in what occurred, but focusing on “discourse” seems to hide as much as it clarifies for me.


WWII era poster, published by Seagram-Distillers Corp.

One of the disturbing trends in politics from the Right in the past generation has been a willingness to engage in what I call an inflammatory rhetoric of absolutism.  (Actually, “willingness” might be a soft word to use in this case because I think we have every reason to believe that it is a political tactic that is knowingly organized in its use.)  This language feeds off the idea of crisis, turning political debate into a “war.”  It frames the opposition as a threat to “your way of life,” not as a group of people with different ideas, analyses, or philosophies than you, but as “traitors” to the country.

This is where the absolutism comes into play.  In this way of thinking, there are only two ways to think: your way and the wrong way.  People who oppose you or don’t agree with you are “un-American”; they are “Socialists” and “Communists”; they are trying to “ruin our great country” and to “take away all that makes us great.”

All of the above terms (and more) are employed to end debate by excluding the authority of the opposing side to speak.  For example, somebody who advocates “un-American” ideas can not be rationally listened to.  So these characterizations become rhetorical tools to limit debate rather than foster it.  This is another form of its absolutism.

Of course, much of their language is imbued with the rhetoric of danger and violence, where people are encouraged to “take our country back” with allusions made to revolution, physical violence, death and blood, and the like.  These particular linguistic tactics convey the sense of urgency and crisis inherent in their absolutism.

Now this might seem like a defense of the current debate about rhetoric and language, but it’s not.

You see, while I don’t like to hear this language, and while I also think it contributes nothing positive to our political process, I don’t fear it or its use.  As a historian of the 20th century, I can’t tell you how many times the Right has policed activities of the Left on the basis of language.  Ideas and ideals like “civility” are as dangerous as ones of “radicalism” or “un-Americanism.”  The danger does not lie in these forms of debate and rhetoric but in the heavy-handed power that gets to label them and define them as outside the “appropriate” parameters of participation in our political system.

The danger is inherent in the ways power assigns “acceptability” and “unacceptability” to forms of discourse, in effect delineating who can and can not participate in the political system.

I don’t fear language. I do fear many of the ideas behind language.  I do fear many of the systems of belief which undergird our current political system and the positions of certain people in power.  But even ideas are not the problem.

Yesterday’s tragedy in Arizona wasn’t caused by language.  It was caused by the implementation of nihilistic ideas into our political system, comfortably and callously promoted by certain members of the Republican Party.  Language and ideas aren’t the real problem, except in how they let us understand the ways our system of power operates.  They become reflections of the problem in their use as rationalizing systems for power.

I don’t care if people go around saying they think Health Care for children is “the most un-American piece of legislation ever passed.”  It is hyperbole.  It is irrational and untrue.  If somebody actually believes it they are likely to be ill-informed.  But I don’t care if they say it or even believe it.

I do care when a mainstream political party who is in power makes a decision to deliberately use this hyperbole as a political tool to gain more power.  I do care when they implement their absolutism as the foundation of political debate in this country.

Too many people in the GOP have been willingly promoting this nihilistic political analysis in order to gain a greater position in the government.  I don’t doubt there are many ill-educated or dimwitted Congresspeople who actually believe Obama is trying to dismantle the country, but most of them do not.  Most who are engaging in and promoting these ways of thinking have been doing so while know all along that they lack credible foundation.

Most of the GOP opposes Obama’s health care plan because they want to defend the profits of tremendously powerful corporations and because they don’t want a Democrat in the White House.  As they nurture a context of crises and political radicalism they do so for the most traditional of reasons–to protect power.

And this is the real danger.  This empty and inflammatory political rhetoric is not the reflection of a real political analysis of our present but a tool in order to protect the status quo.  People are being mobilized into a political frenzy by people who are trying to limit their real political efficacy.

Congresswoman Gifford wasn’t shot because of rhetoric.  She was shot because people in power have made stupidity seem rational, just to protect the powers they serve.

Whether or not politicians believe in white supremacy, vigilantism, armed revolution, that “God hates fags,” or that Obama is a muslim is irrelevant in our present situation.  Whether or not they advocate for the killing of Democrats is also.  But each must ask themselves if they are comfortable attracting the support of people who do.  Each politician must account for their own political ways of thinking which resonate with the kinds of movements that are the real threat to our democracy.

We lose much more than we gain when we live in a society that wants to police rhetoric for inclusion and exclusion in our political realm.  That absolutism is bad on both sides of the spectrum.

As a democratic society, we have an obligation to openly debate policy, sometimes by confronting radical, revolutionary, fringe, or extreme views.  But this isn’t what we have been doing.  Instead, we’ve been using these views as a priori conclusions in order to stifle the free exchange of ideas.  We’ve been subverting the heart of the democratic process–the free and open exchange of ideas–by limiting that debate with a fascist tactic of absolutism.

One cannot openly advocate and institutionalize a philosophy of absolutism, crisis, and panic and not take responsibility for the results.  Those who have done so must now face the consequences.  If those entail a national litmus test for “civil” and “uncivil” ideas–an emboldened absolutism–then we have all lost.

Death, John Lennon, and Nostalgia

I don’t want to seem heartless when it comes to the death of John Lennon. While I was only 8 years old when the musical legend was gunned down, I remember it as a sad event, mostly for others, but also for me.

That said, as the 30th anniversary of his murder is being commemorated today in both the mainstream press and blogosphere alike, the thing I can’t get out of my head has little to do with the man and his death and so much more to do with the dominant generational culture.

It’s widely understood that the assassination of John Lennon represented a critical introspective moment for the Baby Boom generation. One follow-through of this line of thought is that the primary significance of his death was for them.

This is simplistic analysis, to be sure. In the big cosmic scheme of things, the story of John Lennon is nothing more than the the story of a man being shot dead in New York city on December 9, 1980. I doubt he was the only man shot dead in New York, or the world, that day. But I am also sure that it was more than one generation’s personal interest that turned this routine death into a story of significance. He had an expansive reach, having lived a life and participated in crafting a culture that touched millions (and continues to do so today).

But the heart of the Baby Boom analysis is, I think, true. His death meant something particular to them, this meaning was critically significant at that moment in history–both our collective one and their generational one.

I don’t begrudge them their nostalgia on this day, nor do I lump all those who are nostalgic and sorrowful today as being Baby Boomers. But the way this commemoration is unfolding says a lot more to me today about that generation than it does the man they remember.

If you read my blog often, you know one of my current obsessions is the way the Baby Boomer generation continues to construct themselves and their sensibilities as something that stand in stark contrast to their actions over the past 30 years. This isn’t about hippies becoming Reaganites as much as it is a core of white, upper class Americans projecting their experience onto the lives of millions who were not them but lived with them; of a generation of senior citizens who continue to live and think in ways that allow them to not confront the fact that they are senior citizens; and a ruling plurality who continues to see themselves as the marginal players in a system they have built and maintained but continue to pretend was dropped in their laps.

This hybridity of amnesia and nostalgia are all over the place today in Boomers’ reflections on the death of John Lennon. In some ways I wonder if their frame of reference and expression aren’t so dominant that many of us outside the generation have no conscious choice other than to recycle it further.

I don’t know.

The Legacy of Harvey Milk

harveymilk

November 27th is the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Harvey Milk, San Francisco politician and activist. The first openly gay man to be elected to office, he analyzed the significance of his election as follows:

Somewhere in Des Moines or San Antonio there is a young gay person who all of sudden realizes that she or he is gay; knows that if the parents find out they will be tossed out of the house, the classmates will taunt the child, and the Anita Bryant’s and John Briggs’ are doing their bit on TV. And that child has several options: staying in the closet, suicide. And then one day that child might open the paper that says “Homosexual elected in San Francisco” and there are two new options: the option is to go to California, or stay in San Antonio and fight.

Two days after I was elected I got a phone call and the voice was quite young. It was from Altoona, Pennsylvania. And the person said “Thanks.” And you’ve got to elect gay people, so that that young child and the thousand upon thousands like that child know that there is hope for a better world; there is hope for a better tomorrow. Without hope, not only gays, but those blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s: without hope the us’s give up. I know that you can’t live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you, and you, and you, you got to give them hope.

In many ways elaborating on the above point, Milk recorded some thoughts on his career, in the event of his untimely death. They were featured in the 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk”:

While this time will mean many things to many people, I hope it can also be a time to savor the victory that can come with people united in movement. At their most meaningful, these victories are not about representation or simplistic political gain: they are about life and hope.