The New York Times goes to Dallas again!


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.

“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.
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.”

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.”

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.).
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.

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.


  1. In retrospect, it seems noteworthy that the assassination of a beloved and idolized President by an avowed Communist and Castro-supporter didn't renew the McCarthy era red scare, which had ended a decade earlier.

    1. David, that is because people recognized that Oswald's actions were not ideological but deranged. Why is it that you acknowledged this yesterday but are now back singing the same old song? Do you think this scores points against liberalism?

      Speaking of the "red scare," with the release of communist-era documents by Russia, has there been any subsequent relevation that Oswald was a communist agent working in the USA, as there was for Alger Hiss and other suspected spies in the USA? No. That's because he wasn't an agent of a foreign government, not even Cuba (who didn't want anything to do with him). That's why people didn't consider this the act of an agent of a foreign government but rather the act of a single deranged person obsessed by a delusional system incorporating ideas about communism (he clearly didn't like the reality of it).

      Insisting upon a belief that is impervious to change when contradicted by facts is one characteristic of delusional thought. Is that you, or are you just trying to be annoying to others here?

    2. Something similar happened recently, DinC.
      An avowed "compassionate conservative" fucked-up the nation so badly, those from his own party now have to call themselves members of "the Tea Party".

    3. Yeah, that's interesting isn't it? Maybe the McCarthyites and Birchers and Nixon were too busy celebrating.

    4. AnonymousNovember 22, 2013 at 1:54 PM -- I didn't say Oswald was a secret Communist agent. On the contrary, I said he was "avowed." Check your dictionary. He was literally an avowed supporter of Castro, because he declared and acknowledged that fact.

      I have no idea to what degree Oswald's actions were deranged, rather than ideological. Since he was murdered so quickly, one can only guess as to what his motives were. However, more important than Oswald's actual motives were the way the media portrayed them. The Warren Commission and most of the media went with the "lone nut" theory.

    5. David in Cal, Charles Whitman was an avowed Boy Scout and ex-Marine.

    6. What a monstrous comment, but in retrospect that is the sort of comment you make repeatedly. How about not being a monster?

    7. Trollery such as yours is no virtue.

    8. David in CA, Oswald was an ex-marine too.

  2. The idea that some blow was dealt to America's consciousness of itself may be true for those who were teenagers at the time of Kennedy's death and became disillusioned by it, but older adults who lived through different times probably did not feel that way. The violence of the labor movement preceded that of later civil rights activism. Muckrakers were as aggressive as 60s complaint. There were actual fears of socialist overthrow of the government during the 20s & 30s, with riots and social disruption to support such fears. I think the importance of Kennedy's death is exaggerated because it was key for boomers, but as a demarcation, I don't see it as dividing anything significant. So, I guess I agree that whatever came after was already happening. Some historians speculate that LBJ's accomplishments would not have been possible without JFK's death. I see parallels with the failed attempts to compromise with recalcitrant conservatives. I think enthusiasm for Kennedy's "optimism" would have waned in a second term, just as it has with Obama, who similarly cannot get anything done as a centrist trying to negotiate with conservatives.

  3. I guess Dallas is to the New York Times what Finnish test scores are to Bob Somerby.

  4. Wow! If Tanenhaus were quoting Alexander Pope, he would probably write, "Learning is a dangerous thing." Tanenhaus must rely on Brent Bozell for dredging up his quotations without context. MacDonanld's piece has little to do with this country being innocent or "better;" MacDonald sees that this fictional innocence makes us more like Guatemala than England. Thanks for the link to MacDonald's piece, Bob. It reminds me of a time when smart people wrote with energy, clarity, and knowledge about public events.

    1. "A LITTLE [emphasis added} learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring."

      It means of course, don't learn a little bit then stop, thinking you know it all.

  5. I don't remember a prior anniversary of Kennedy's assassination that has been so focused on criticizing and pointing the finger at the local yokels of the region.

  6. More liberal company for the NY Times

    Friday’s Morning Joe on MSNBC ran a package that emphasized right-wing hate in Dallas while failing to mention Lee Harvey Oswald or his ideological leanings.

    Read more:

    1. Yes, if Republicans didn't actually shoot JFK, they were with Oswald in spirit.

      It's a retronaut version of the usual media blame-game, that conservatives have heretofore had to slough through in real time.

    2. Cecelia, I am of that particular age, and I can recall NO ONE blaming "Republicans" or even "conservatives" for the JFK assassination.

      I do recall everybody, regardless of political ideology, weeping and mourning together.

      And David, do you even realize how dumb you look by citing Newsbusters as a source?

      As far as Oswald's "ideological motives," I invite you to visit John McAdams' Kennedy Assassination Page web site. It is a treasure trove of documents, evidence, and real-time testimony, including everything that could possibly be discovered about Lee Harvey Oswald.

      To give you the Reader's Digest version, instead of being ideologically driven, Oswald was a pathetic little nobody with delusions of grandeur.

  7. Daniel Mendelsohn in his on line post for the New Yorker, "J.FK., Tragedy, Myth" concluded, "Millennia before they played out in real life, we were writing the scripts, waiting for them to come true."

    I commented there, "That is what has been documenting for 15 years. Bob Somerby has shown, again and again, how print and broadcast media, notably liberal(?) commentators, have sacrificed the truth to follow a script."

    1. Er, Big Guy? TDH assumes that rightard commentators follow scripts. In fact, that's what they do best. TDH's complaint is that liberal commentators shouldn't stoop to such behavior.

      You'be been reading TDH for 15 years and somehow you missed that?

    2. Well, perhaps if he would put his assumptions in words a long time reader would not miss them.
      Perhaps it is because the "righthards" are not youngish, female, and from and Ivy school. No need to mention those deficiencies when they are not present.