Thursday, June 5, 2008

Robert F. Kennedy, 1925-1968

I'm sure that many of us, especially in the United States, are today thinking of Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated forty years ago.

I am a bit too young to have lived through the very-public event of his death, as well as that of Martin Luther King, Jr., and of John F. Kennedy. However, growing up in a moderately-progressive Democratic Catholic family, the Kennedys in particular were a prominent part of my childhood political mythology.

I'd like to pose a couple of specific questions, and especially invite those who did experience this period, to share their wisdom.

1) While I grew up in the first post-Vietnam generation, these deaths and that war were still very present and raw in the minds of my mom, of my teachers, and most of the adults around me when I was a kid. Now that the second post-Vietnam generation is in college--what is the experience of teaching these events to them like? Is it just old, dusty history? Interesting in an old, antiquarian way like the death of Lincoln would be? Though this particular topic hasn't come up in the social foundations class for which I served as a TA, I feel that the civil rights struggles of the 60's had that same antiquarian feel for my students.

2) There are still many people who are not convinced by the official stories of the three shootings. Plenty of others are happy to call that group "conspiracy theorists," and group them together with alien abductees. Historians-as-public-intellectuals have a role in communicating to the public their best understanding of what-happened. Philosophers-as-public-intellectuals perhaps have a role in helping individuals recognize and respond to doubts they have in the face of official explanations of public events, and fashion an appropriate path of inquiry to respond to those doubts. I would submit that the philosopher has that responsibility to the doubter, whatever their own stance regarding the event in question.

3) The most troubling question concerns the present. There's a small, but not insignificant, fear that the hope and charisma of a contemporary young progressive Democrat will end with the same fate. Will teaching the events of the 60s lead to greater fear, and to a cynicism that "all the good ones get shot," so it's not worth trying to change the system?

1 comment:

leonard waks said...

Talk about the risks faced by Obama is all around us. Hillary Clinton's poorly chosen statement about the Kennedy asassination reminded everyopne who hadn't been thinking about it.

But I think Brian is right that for most people under sixty the events of the 1960s are vague somewhat lost in a fog.

I wonder whether now is the right time to bring up the murders of the Kennedys, M. L. King, Medgar Evers, the Mississippi civil rights workers, and other martyrs of that period. With the right selection of video clips, readings, and discussion periods, these events can be made vivid for our students. Real people can come to class to talk about what they meant in personal terms.

Would this raise the risk of copy cat murders, or alert our young people to the present risks and in this way help them to be on guard to prevent them?