Fascinating logic: Once again, the New York Times has taken a trip back to Dallas.
This morning, the portrait is painted by long-time Timesman Sam Tanenhaus. During a nine-year reign which ended in April, Tanenhaus edited the Sunday Book Review section.
As so often occurs at the Times, we found ourselves struggling with Tanenhaus’ logic, from his fifth paragraph on. The Times may even have noticed this problem. A piece which may have been written for page one occupies A18.
Treat it as a reading assignment. How well can you articulate the overall point of this piece? How many of its various passages seem to make clear sense?
We found ourselves struggling throughout. We’ll cite two passages only.
This passage strikes us as astounding:
TANENHAUS (11/22/13): Kennedy hatred was deepest, perhaps, in the South, where civil rights battles had grown increasingly tense. “White violence was sort of considered the status quo,” Diane McWhorter, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and is the author of “Carry Me Home,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the racial unrest of 1963, said recently.In that passage, Tanenhaus describes the southern civil rights movement in this way: “Birmingham’s blacks struck back, attacking the police and firefighters and setting several businesses on fire.”
“There had been so many bombings that people had accepted it,” Ms. McWhorter said. But in May, the city’s blacks struck back, attacking the police and firefighters and setting several businesses on fire. In September, only two months before Dallas, white supremacists in Birmingham planted a bomb in a black church, killing four young girls.
Kennedy himself was a reluctant supporter of civil rights legislation, but when at last he called for it, many Southern whites were enraged.
Yes, that’s what he wrote! If you go looking for something more, you aren’t going to find it.
That's how Tanenhaus describes a movement which is revered throughout the world for its brilliant devotion to non-violence. As we’ve often noted, the New York Times, an upper-class club, can be extremely strange.
This passage, which instantly follows, strikes us as rather odd too:
TANENHAUS: Protest and rage advanced on other fronts, too. Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” published in 1961, lampooned the bureaucratization of the modern warfare state. Thomas Pynchon’s “V,” published in 1963, hinted of conspiratorial webs spun in “a howling Dark Age of ignorance and barbarity.” James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” a best seller in November 1963, explored the world of Elijah Muhammad, whose message to whites, Mr. Baldwin reported, was that “the sword they have used so long against others can now, without mercy, be used against them.”Were Catch 22 and V leading examples of the era’s pre-existing “protest and rage?” If so, we’d have to say there wasn’t a lot of rage in the air.
Stephen Harrigan, a novelist and journalist who lives in Austin, Tex., was a teenager in Corpus Christi, Tex., when Kennedy was assassinated. Dallas “was somewhere else,” a world away, Mr. Harrigan said. But when he moved to Austin, in September 1966, the city was recovering from its own catastrophic spasm of gun violence committed a month before when Charles Whitman, like Lee Harvey Oswald a former Marine, killed 17 people and wounded 32 others in a shooting spree from the clock tower at the University of Texas.
“There was a palpable sense that something had been let loose,” Mr. Harrigan said recently. “The Kennedy assassination had opened up this box of horrors.” But what had been let loose were forces already there. After Oswald and Whitman would come the macabre gallery of angry loners who gained celebrity from the famous people they killed or tried to (George C. Wallace, John Lennon, Ronald Reagan) or who went on mass rampages (at Virginia Tech; in Aurora, Colo.; in Newtown, Conn.).
Even stranger, Tanenhaus makes a peculiar flip in this passage, moving from types of social dislocation which preceded the Kennedy killing to those which came later. By the end of that passage, the Newtown killings are somehow offered as an example of “the forces that were already there” before the killing of Kennedy.
Do you really understand the logic of that passage? We’ll admit that we basically don’t.
The New York Times has had fifty years to get this week’s ruminations together. In this case, we struggled with Tanenhaus’ logic from his fifth paragraph on.
The basic premise he keeps mangling seems simple enough—sources of dislocation were present in the American bloodstream before the killing of Kennedy. That said, we frequently struggled with his logic, starting with paragraph 5.
“Birmingham’s blacks struck back!” Only in the Times!
We mentioned paragraph 5: For us, the sense of confusion starts in paragraph 5, where Tanenhaus quotes Dwight Macdonald from December 1963.
In context, MacDonald’s reasoning is crystal clear. For us, the logic became hard to find after a Tanenhaus edit.