Hero worship is politically debilitating, undermining grassroots organizing and impeding honest intellectual practice. A good example is the case of John F. Kennedy. A political assassination is both a personal tragedy for loved ones and an attack on democracy, and the anniversary of JFK's assassination is a time for reflection on that brutality. But it should not be a time to revive the myth of Kennedy's "Camelot," nor to indulge the historical distortions necessary for such hero worship.
JFK's presidency may have been more stylish than what came before and after, but it produced few progressive political advances. Look beyond style to the record, which includes the facts that JFK: invaded South Vietnam, using chemical warfare and bombing civilians, both war crimes; supported repressive governments throughout Latin America, employing anti-communist rhetoric to continue a policy of making the region safe for U.S. business; pursued a relentless terrorist campaign against Cuba, signaling that no challenge to U.S. regional dominance would be accepted; lied about a "missile gap" in the 1960 election, intensifying irrational fears of a potential Soviet attack on the United States; and dragged his feet on civil rights, offering rhetoric but little political action.
This mythologizing is not only an offense against honest history, but part of a regressive tendency in U.S. politics that valorizes charismatic leadership rather than building truly democratic movements that can challenge power.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of Arguing for Our Lives: A User's Guide to Constructive Dialogue, and other books.
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