John F. Kennedy

One Nation Among Many

President Obama delivered remarks at American University on the significance of the Iran nuclear agreement and the consequences if Congress rejects it. August 5, 2015. (Courtesy:  whitehouse.gov)

President Obama delivered remarks at American University on the significance of the Iran nuclear agreement and the consequences if Congress rejects it. August 5, 2015. (Courtesy: whitehouse.gov)

Barack Obama’s capacious case for the nuclear accord with Iran (address at American University) contains an interesting treatment of the myth of exceptional America. “What separates us from the empires of old, what has made us exceptional,” the President declared, “is not the mere fact of our military might” but our advancement, since World War II, of an evolving system of international law “to prevent the spread of deadly weapons, to uphold peace and security, and promote human progress.”

It is unclear whether President Obama means the US in not an empire or that the American empire, unlike others, is a force for good. This point of ambiguity marks a tension between diplomacy and military force that persists throughout the speech. The President manages this tension in a way that makes the US more alike and interdependent with other nations than independent, distinct, above, or apart from them. In his words, “we live in a complicated world” where, despite our power, “we are one nation among many.” (more…)

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Cultural Contagion

The Triumph of Death, or The 3 Fates. Flemish tapestry (probably Brussels, ca. 1510-1520). (Credit:  Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)

The Triumph of Death, or The 3 Fates. Flemish tapestry (probably Brussels, ca. 1510-1520). (Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)

It is difficult to see beyond the reality of war. It is easy to believe that war is natural, destined, inescapable—a matter of fate. There is some question of whether in Greek mythology even Zeus could command the three Moirai, or fates, that spun the thread of life (Clotho), determined our lot in life (Lachesis), and chose the manner of our death (Atropos). The Moirai personified a harsh reality, an uncompromising truth, a grim inevitability.

That ancient cosmology is an example of what evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) called a “meme”—a self-perpetuating cultural belief, symbol, or practice that persists through ritual regardless of the harm it does. Another such meme “that can infect any society,” observes John Horgan, is “militarism—the culture of war” (The End of War, p. 102). (more…)

Spartacus

"Spartacus' Death" by Hermann Vogel, 1882.

“Spartacus’ Death” by Hermann Vogel, 1882.

In 1960, just before a new administration under John F. Kennedy was taking office, heralding the vision of a “New Frontier,” Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus premiered in Hollywood. The film’s screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, based on Howard Fast’s novel of the same name, written in 1951. Both writers had been blacklisted in Hollywood during the national persecution of writers and artists with past communist associations (Trumbo was one of the original group of the Hollywood 10). Both had been imprisoned during the Cold War era. (more…)

The Cuban Thing (Coda: Fly Away)

Douglas DC-6B, N6522C, Pan American World Airways (PA / PAA), August 1964. (Credit:  Ralf Manteufel / Wikimedia Commons)

Douglas DC-6B, N6522C, Pan American World Airways (PA / PAA), August 1964. (Credit: Ralf Manteufel / Wikimedia Commons)

Here is the story I promised in my last post. This is the way I wrote it in my unpublished book about Cuba, The Gospel of Scarface:

On 1 January 1961, exactly two years after the triumph of the Revolution, a lone Cuban refugee arrived at the Miami airport with one suitcase full of carefully bought new clothes and $5 in his pockets. He also carried with him the written address of relatives of a friend who were willing to put him up for his first few days in a new country. Wishing to save his money, he began to walk on the modern American highway leading out of the airport.

A police car stopped him. “You cannot walk on the freeway here.”

“I don’t have money for a taxi,” he replied in his broken English learned in night classes.

The policeman called a taxi cab. Did he have enough money to go where he wanted to go?

“$5 will be enough,” said the cabdriver.

When the cabdriver left him the fare had added up to $4.35.

When my father tells this story of his arrival to the U.S. he throws his hands up in the air in amazement and wonders, without self-pity, at the impossible situation that he faced starting a new life in a new country without friends, without a job, and with only 65 cents. But always the story resonates with a clear, silent message which is the reason why he tells it, an irreducible moral made all the more powerful by the fact that it is left unspoken: if ever you find yourself with only 65 cents, put your money in your pocket, keep on walking, and remember that you are a free man.

(more…)

The Cuban Thing (Part 2 of 2)

El Morro lighthouse is located inside the fortress known as the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro. This was built in 1845 and consists of an octagonal dome metal with specially designed to guide ships and aircraft crystals. Located approximately 45 meters above sea level, its light has a range of 18 nautical miles with two light flashes every 15 seconds , helping to avoid accidents as consequences of bad weather or poor visibility. El Faro, next to the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, has become the symbol of Havana capital of all Cubans. (Credit:  CO8MRF / Wikimedia Commons)

El Morro lighthouse is located inside the fortress known as the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro. This was built in 1845 and consists of an octagonal dome metal with specially designed to guide ships and aircraft crystals. Located approximately 45 meters above sea level, its light has a range of 18 nautical miles with two light flashes every 15 seconds , helping to avoid accidents as consequences of bad weather or poor visibility. El Faro, next to the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, has become the symbol of Havana capital of all Cubans. (Credit: CO8MRF / Wikimedia Commons)

Brief Fragments of a Personal Cuban History

  1. The flight of Fulgencio Batista from Cuba (“to avoid more bloodshed”) during the early hours of January 1, 1959, marked the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.
  2. The most comprehensive and best written history of Cuba in English is Hugh Thomas’ Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (New York: Harper and Row, 1971). Here is Thomas’ assessment of Cuba before the Castro Revolution:

Cuba’s social misery in the past was due to an extreme form of that public meanness and private affluence that characterizes North America as well as South. (p. 1487)

  1. Soon after Fidel Castro’s assumption of power, U.S. politicians condemned the new regime’s public executions of torturers, policemen, civil servants and suspected criminals as a “bloodbath.” Typically, Castro pointed out U.S. hypocrisy:

(more…)

Wall of Jericho and Woody Guthrie

"The Taking of Jericho" by Jean Fouquet, oil on canvas, c. 1452-1460. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“The Taking of Jericho” by Jean Fouquet, oil on canvas, c. 1452-1460. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

And it came to pass at the seventh time, when the priests blew with the trumpets, Joshua said unto the people, Shout; for the Lord hath given you the city….

And it came to pass, when the people … shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat.

Joshua 6: 16-20

A recent article in USA Today commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall characterizes the event with this headline: “Presidential words helped bring down Berlin Wall.” The sub-headline of the article declares that speeches at or near the wall by JFK and Ronald Reagan “proved the power—and the limits—of rhetoric in putting Cold War on ice.”

The article reflects the conventional narrative that has been adopted by U.S. political culture: Kennedy acquiesced to the building of the Berlin wall with words that seem quite sane: “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” (more…)