Being 22 and of British heritage, I shouldn’t be interested in John F. Kennedy. I have no real knowledge of his political life or his personal background. I’m aware of that candid photograph of him sitting in the Oval Office with his son playing underneath the desk, but that’s about it. Any other information I know of JFK are a few of his speeches and his role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I mainly learnt these bits through the last X-Men film and, as ever, Family Guy.
But of course, I know the one thing about JFK that is seemingly the only thing worth knowing anymore – the way he died. So much of JFK’s death has entered into folklore that the life he lived before has become but a footnote – a foreword to the main event. For people of my age, JFK was never a political powerhouse. He was never the charismatic figurehead so synonymous with Cold War defiance. JFK has become a fiction of modern times. Every Remembrance Day (or Veteran’s Day in the US) we all vow never to forget the very real and visceral act of dying for others. Yet, JFK is never thought of in this way, at least not anymore. JFK was instead the man who gave birth to the modern notion of conspiracy – his death signalled the beginning of an age where questioning is commonplace and cold, hard fact is damn near impossible to attain.
Any YouTube video of the JFK assassination proves this, with each commenter disagreeing with the one above them. Each has their own theory of how it went down and why it was covered up. You’re fairly hard-pressed to find a person who believes that his death was open and shut. But generally, when you find yourself scouring the internet for that coveted ‘slow-motion’ video of JFK, you already know you’re looking for more than one man shooting another. You’re hoping you’ll come across a theory that resonates with that little part of your brain that wants this soap-opera to continue. It’s exciting, and you love to weave that fabric.
It is believed that the death of JFK triggered a culture of conspiracy and that his death marked the point at which ordinary citizens could publicly denounce any event in regard to its authenticity. This culture of conspiracy has evolved into the modern surveillance state we see today. Angela Merkel will testify to that, I’m sure. In terms of the amount of differing accusations, public outcry following JFK’s death was the first of its kind in modern history. But why did the JFK assassination cause cause such a culture to emerge, and why has the event now become a staple of conspiracy fiction rather than political legend?
America loves celebrity. So much so that the American Dream is almost synonymous with it. Before Reagan took the idea of celebrity status a little too literally, JFK acted like a man of the people, allowing himself to the masses while keeping a healthy, elitist distance. JFK permeated a sense of connectivity with the people. A connectivity never really before seen from a president. We can talk of the movie stars of the 30’s and 40’s, but these people were the elite, they glanced across the vast gaping hole that divided the rich from the poor and they laughed. The 1950’s, with it’s consumerist progression and the emergence of a new ‘middle class’, meant that the lovers of celebrity were not so far removed as they once were from their idols. For once in their lives, they were within touching distance of the elite. JFK was the bridge and the middle man. For the first time, he made presidency and celebrity work in tandem, all the while retaining that one characteristic that made him America’s most popular commander in chief – his accessibility.
People still approach JFK with this oversubscribed sense of celebrity. Even his death had about it a distinct air of celebrity. The greatest celebrities died very much the way they lived their lives – extravagantly. JFK’s death gave birth to the modern notion of conspiracy, surveillance and celebrity as we know it today. It did so because we have always wanted to probe it, to question it. The Zapruder film is the only real footage we have of JFK’s death. The rest of the evidence is based around hearsay and rumour. It is on these rumours and fabrications that conspiracies have been borne. And so, celebrity evolves into conspiracy. Curiosity turns into obsession. Fact turns into fiction.
What’s more, we’re allowed to question JFK’s death. We poke fun at it. We laugh at it. We take it in our hands and play with it. For the first time, people were allowed to publicly denounce such a delicate act of aggression. In questioning the JFK assassination, one is almost demonstrating the ultimate expression of free speech. In conspiring against it, one is actively questioning whether red is red, or black is black. The day JFK was assassinated remains the day public curiosity skyrocketed and the days of accepting events at face value were gone.
JFK’s death is so perfectly positioned in the chronology of conspiracy that it is difficult to disagree that it played a pivotal role in the development of mass questioning. Even this post keeps the liberalist dream of free speech and curiosity very much alive.
Disclaimer: With the recent developments over phone hacking and internet surveillance, I am slightly concerned that the tags attributed to this post include both ‘president’ and ‘assassination’. For the record, I have no intention of assassinating anybody, but if I do receive any correspondence from government officials, I will conclude that the conspiracy era that began with JFK’s death is still very much in its prime.