What's the Dealey-O? Why Is It So Uncool to Want to Know the Truth?
Human beings, as a rule, care a great deal about what other human beings think of them. I used to think that this was evidence of a general lack of individuality, as well as a disgusting display of conformity; but now, in my adult wisdom, I can see that this is deeply linked to survival. (This is, in fact, the entire premise of the aptly named television show Survivor.) What other human beings think about you (sometimes) determines whether you live or die, as well as frequently determining such important things as whether you get promoted, fired, hired, and whether or not you can find a suitable reproductive partner.
For this very reason, most of us are disinclined to be thought of as "Conspiracy Buffs" or "Kennedy Buffs." We are all familiar with the "type." It is possibly impossible to be this type of person and not be in some special category of "untouchable nerdiness," or perhaps, more aptly, "wienerdom" -- like the guy who runs the comic book store on The Simpsons, or, say, Trekkies.
At the same time, most people are similarly disinclined to be thought so impossibly naive that they buy the Warren Commission Report. Off the top of my head, I would say the most popular attitude adopted by people in general toward the assassination of JFK is one of more or less silent and knowing skepticism. Something, say, like this: "The whole thing feels crooked, the government, no doubt, is far more involved than they have ever admitted, in fact, the whole government sucks, but I'm not obsessed with it -- okay???"
I, myself, was pleased to adopt this very position, more or less, for most of my adult life. The first brush with "Critics" (as Kennedy Buffs are actually monikered by the CIA) was that guy in Slacker. I was in Slacker, too (Who wasn't? ha ha), and I remember thinking in my naivete that the Kennedy Buff Guy in Slacker was just some sort of homegrown crank spawned by UT, featured in the movie for his unique Austin, Texas-ness. ("Austin: Overeducated Weirdo Capital of the World!") Over time, I became aware that this person was not an individuated anomaly, but was indeed a type; moreover, a type that is best avoided because they are probably going to bore you horribly with their obsession, not unlike a recently born again Christian, for instance -- nothing against Christianity or anything.
Consequently, no one, at all, wants to be thought of as a Kennedy Buff. This denial, fraught with the threat of public humiliation, extends to not even wanting to be informed. God forbid you should be seen by people of the opposite sex reading a book about it.
Do this little experiment: Bring it up in polite conversation, like at a wedding. SEE yourself commit social suicide! (Circus Barker Voice.) WATCH others move away from you physically. HEAR your own voice nervously try to make amends for your gaffe, "I'm not a Kennedy Buff or anything, heh heh, I just ... blah blah blah."
The funny thing is, the very people who suddenly develop an aversion to you where none existed before may very well agree with the Critics. If they were filling out a poll, most Americans today, even conservatives, think that, at the very least, the actions of the government are highly suspect, and that the explanation that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, the Magic Bullet Theory, is an insult to human intelligence.
Okay, so, skip forward in time from Slackerland to, well, recently. My recently acquired husband, a man not from Texas, has never lived so close to Dealey Plaza. He says to me, "Let's go up to Dallas on Nov. 22 and observe the gathering of the Kennedy Buffs." (You will note his degree of separation to ensure not being counted among their number, as in, "I'm not a Kennedy Buff or anything, but I am interested in them. It will be interesting to hear what they have to say, especially if it is really over-the-top Nutbag stuff.")
Sounds like fun! But in order to do this, I find I have to get the day off from work and notify a few people that I will be out of town for the day. Naturally, I tell them why, that I am going to the anniversary of the JFK assassination in Dallas. I thought that sounded pretty middle-of-the-road. Even now, I cannot believe the extent to which this announcement suddenly made me socially smell bad. Without exception, even strangers regarded me narrowly upon making this (apparent) confession. And in the eyes of my closest friends, whom I think should trust me, a look of panic sprang up, silently pleading, "You haven't turned into a Kennedy Buff, have you? Am I going to have to be embarrassed of being your friend?"
I found this very weird, because my friends are counterculture types of the first order: musicians, anarchists, graffiti artists, record producers, grill cooks. I really didn't expect any reaction at all, and when I felt the extreme bad smell reaction, I heard my own voice furiously backpedaling.
But from what? I wasn't espousing any belief or anything. All I had said was that I was going.
Let's think about this for a minute: Regardless of what you think "really happened" in Dallas on November 22, 1963, isn't the act of visiting the memorial of a fallen president sort of, well ... patriotic? If I go to the Lincoln Memorial, or visit the Ford Theatre, isn't that sort of patriotic? Apparently, going to Dallas to mourn JFK -- a historically important, recently fallen, great man -- is seen as cranky and unpatriotic. Now I think that is a little strange. Especially since the question "What were you doing when Kennedy was shot?" is recognized by almost everyone living at the time as a definitive moment of national and personal significance.
So I went to Dallas. The first thing that struck me was the distinct absence of any giant gathering of Nutbag types. In fact, the mood of the people in attendance was very somber, and I would have to say I didn't see even one classic Nutbag. (Believe me, I was looking, because I thought I could take some neat pictures.) I hesitate to say this, but the crowd that had gathered to pay its respects on the Grassy Knoll was more Norman Rockwell-ian than any other adjective I can think of (or make up, as I did that one). Literally, sad older couples in sweat suits holding hands, uniformed Cub Scouts laying flowers on the grass, little knots of men in overcoats discussing the shooting in what seemed to me to be a state of puzzlement. There wasn't even any proselytizing going on.
In a rare piece of amazing luck/government oversight/Dallas pride the entire Dealey Plaza area has been left almost exactly as it was that day. Other than an unobtrusive National Historic Landmark plaque erected in 1993, the only specific acknowledgment is on the asphalt where an "X" marks The Spot. In my tiny cynicism, I would have imagined that Dallas would have bulldozed it in various ways to "improve" the plaza, as Kent State University did at the site of their infamous shootings. It is impossible to stand on the Kent State grounds and truly picture how the students, the National Guard, and the bystanders were situated, to get any kind of feel for the historical moment. Not so at Dealey Plaza. Even the rickety "picket fence" behind which an assassin most likely stood is still there, as is Lee Bowers' railroad observation booth, and the school book depository, and everything. (Naturally, almost everyone goes and stands behind the fence on the Grassy Knoll and tries to see how easy would it have been to pick off the president from there.) How in the world the preservation of the historic site managed to happen, I cannot explain. But the cool thing is, you can walk around Dealey Plaza and really get a feel for the place, and form for yourself some kind of idea about what it was like to be there.
By far the defining moment of my trip to Dallas happened while listening to a speech given by Beverly Oliver, an eyewitness who actually was there. On November 22, 1963, Oliver was 19 years old. She was one of the bystanders closest to the motorcade and is easily visible in the now-famous Zapruder film. Like Abraham Zapruder, she also was filming the presidential motorcade with a home movie camera -- but because of her position, it is likely that her film showed both the Texas School Book Depository and the Grassy Knoll. It probably won't surprise anyone that her film was confiscated by "government agents" (one of whom she later identified as FBI agent Regis Kennedy) and that her film has never been seen or heard of again.
In the 37 years since the shooting, Oliver has grown grandmotherly in appearance. Her comments that day were brief, but what she said was extraordinarily apt, and went right to the heart of my own experience.
"They call us 'Kennedy Buffs,'" she said. "We are characterized as kooks and neurotics. They want us to be ashamed, to be embarrassed to stand up." I had to admit to myself, as I listened, that I was embarrassed, and anxious not to be thought of as a Buff, just like she said.
"All we want is to know the truth," she continued. "It is our right as Americans to know what is in the secret CIA and FBI files on the assassination."
I couldn't find any flaw in her logic. I want to know. That doesn't make me a wiener. Actually, it is kind of normal and sane, when you think about it. I certainly want to know about it a lot more than I want to know about President Clinton's Human Humidor and other sexual escapades, which lawmakers seem to think is my right to know about.
As I listened to Oliver speak, a gradual indignance began in the back of my mind. It hit me that this whole social embarrassment thing, this "I'm-not-a-Kennedy-Buff-or-anything ..." thing, is suspiciously bogus. Propaganda is one of the intelligence community's main tools; it would be the easiest thing in the world to make people think it is (raised eyebrows) "beyond the pale" to be interested in, well, any shit they don't want stirred. I feel manipulated. I had actually been controlled, despite my mental acuity, despite my counterculture credentials, and despite the evidence ... I had been controlled by my desire not to appear uncool. "Interested in who was behind the killing of John F. Kennedy? Only hopeless losers are interested in that ..."
But here's the twist -- the weird beauty of it all: It doesn't matter really what side you come down on. You are a hopeless loser if you are even interested.
Like many another Americans, I had unconsciously bought into this mindset and convinced myself that losers interested in the Kennedy assassination are only fit to be the butt of jokes, and that, of course, I'm not like them. If I were to become interested in the Kennedy assassination, I would be viewed by others as a totally uncool walking stereotype, and all my instincts are against letting that happen.
As are yours.
You might even feel uncomfortable reading this right now. The inclination to put distance between our daily lives and the Kennedy assassination (and its "Buffs") is very powerful. After my trip to Dealey Plaza, however, I question why it is so terribly uncool, so socially unacceptable, to be interested in finding out the truth.
And I think you should question it, too.
P.S. Dallas sucks.
Writer and singer-songwriter Kathy McCarty played in the legendary Austin band Glass Eye.