Sunday, August 30, 2009

The End of Camelot

I didn't want to write about the Kennedys. This Irish Catholic family from Boston has dominated the politics of my generation, for better and worse. I voted for Jack in 1960, hoped to vote for Bobby in 1968 before he was killed, and with others I thought Teddy would continue his brothers' legacy of inspiration in the White House until Chappaquiddick a year later ended that possibility. As the Senate's "liberal lion," Edward Kennedy has practiced the politics of redemption for forty years with many accomplishments. But when I contemplate that "one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot," the primary feeling I have is disappointment.

"Camelot," the musical about the court of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, opened on Broadway in December 1960, just weeks after JFK's election. Jackie made the mythic connection between King Arthur and the Kennedy White House in comments to a journalist not long after her husband was assassinated, and the link stuck. I was 21 when Kennedy was inaugurated, and he put an end not only to Dwight Eisenhower's drab Republican administration (personified by Veep Nixon) but to the cultural doldrums of the 1950s as well. Like Vatican II several years later, the new president opened the windows of the White House and let fresh air flow in. The Kennedys were sophisticated and intelligent and surrounded themselves with "the best and the brightest." There were then no dragons that these guys could not slay. President Kennedy created the Peace Corps which would allow idealistic Americans to serve the world, persuaded Britain and the Soviet Union to sign a partial nuclear test ban treaty, sent troops to Mississippi to protect blacks integrating the university, and promoted programs to explore space and establish a "New Frontier" to fight what he called the "common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself."

In Cuba and in Vietnam, Camelot ended long before the shots in Dallas cut short JFK's life. While Cuba's isolation because of Castro's revolution, and America's involvement in a Vietnamese civil war after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, happened on Eisenhower's watch, Kennedy and his Round Table failed to see the consequences of the Bay of Pigs and the military escalation he ordered in Southeast Asia. For me, this blindness forever tarnishes his record. Robert Kennedy at first functioned almost as a hit man for his brother, and as attorney general he sanctioned the wire taping of Martin Luther King at the urging of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover who thought the civil rights leader was a communist. But I think Bobby eventually learned from JFK's mistakes, and as a senator from New York he spoke out against poverty in America and the war in Vietnam. But like his brother, RFK's life was cut short by an assassin's bullet. I cannot emphasize too strongly the effect that these killings (including that of the Rev. King) had on me and my generation. It told us that Camelot was a fairy tale fantasy but the dragons were real.

At his brother Bobby's funeral, Teddy attempted to keep hope alive:
My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not."
These words could be applied to all of the Kennedy brothers. And the politics of redemption was the foundation of their good works. The family's fortune came from liquor sales (legal and illegal), real estate and banking transactions. Joseph Jr., the scion of the family, died during World War Two, leaving Jack to carry the flag. Although various children have taken positions in politics to continue the Kennedy legacy, none show signs of capturing the culture's imagination as did Jack, Bobby and Teddy. So while Camelot died on the beach of the Bay of Pigs and in the rice paddies of Vietnam, the presence and impact of the Kennedy dynasty will not fade quickly for those of us born just before and after the second world war in Europe and Asia. It made realists and cynics of most of us.

Once again the U.S. has a president who holds out hope to a world battered and bruised by wars and economic instability largely due to policies of the previous occupant of the White House. Obama is certainly intelligent and inspirational and his choices for members of his administration seem based more on competence than on ideology. But...we old farts have seen it all before. Bill Clinton and even Jimmy Carter came to Washington to make a clean sweep of the halls of power. Both were largely defeated by the institution of government that is controlled more by corporate power than good and decent men who attempt to right wrongs. America remains stuck in the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, and appears unable to steer Israel toward a lasting solution in Israel/Palestine. The very money manipulators who disrupted the world's economies with their greed have been rewarded (rather than punished) by extravagant bailouts at the expense of taxpayers. And the prospects of universal health care, not to mention controlling the rising medical costs that benefit corporations and insurance companies, seem slim. What happened?

Maybe the answer is that America's stewardship (to put it nicely) of the globe is finished. On this side of the Pacific, most Asians believe the future is in the hands of India and China. The dollar's demise will mean poverty for me, but a new world currency, along with an end to the U.S. as the buyer of last resort, could result in a relatively stable new order independent of Wall Street and its lapdogs in Europe. This will certainly not guarantee world peace or an end to social injustices. China's record on human rights is poor, and society in India, as I've seen it, is an ungovernable chaos. Neither country will do much to end the rush toward global warming and world ecological disaster. I've been reading about the ugly history of Thailand's neighbor, Burma, and the 45-year military dictatorship that has impoverished and decimated its population. Both China and India have invested millions in Burma's economy (I've decided to no longer use the name "Myanmar," invented by the generals). Despite the moral example of Aung San Suu Kyi, any hope for eventual democracy in that country appears fanciful. America's demise and replacement as a world power will not change that.

Is my pessimism and cynicism showing? Maybe it's the chest congestion that began last week after I spent a long day at my university's new campus near Ayutthaya listening to talks and discussions in Thai that were mostly incomprehensible to me. The topic was Knowledge Management (KM), and that label on the slides at least was in English. I couldn't translate the details, but I've gotten very good at looking interested. In the classroom, even though there is a microphone, I have difficult hearing (from weakened eardrums) and understanding (from mangled pronunciation) my students when they make their weekly oral presentations. Last week they talked about whether they believed in ghosts, and what I was able to hear was fascinating. Since I want to encourage their speaking and give them confidence, I act as if every word is golden, even if much of it sounds like gibberish. Most are knowledgeable about grammar but are too shy to speak. KM sounds like another management technique similar to TQM, which was very popular at UC Santa Cruz. It's probably designed to get more work out of employees while fooling them into thinking they have increased power. At our small group meeting of English teachers, a proposed description of courses in both Thai and English was discussed. I saw that the syllabus for the two classes I've taught was not very useful since it left out most of what I've been teaching. I was an active listener.

I've spent the past couple of days in my room, taking aspirin and drinking lots of liquids. My inner thermostat seems a bit off but I can't label my dis-ease flu yet. I went outside to the store yesterday to buy ink from my printer and potato chips. Sometimes I hanker for American comfort food (I resisted the Oreos). so I understand my British friends whose food habits seem a bit strange given the Thai setting. Colin requires the Marmite of his youth, a spread for bread that I find bitter and, well, awful. He keeps a stash of it on hand at Ricky's II, the restaurant where he and my friend Marcus hang out after teaching English to coeds and ladyboys. The other day I was invited to lunch by Pandit Bhikku at a steak restaurant on the highway in Taling Chan between his temple and my apartment. Since he's a vegetarian, he ordered a salmon steak while I requested the T-bone on the menu. We began with a large order of French fries (which the British insist on calling "chips"), and I watched mesmerized as the monk made a sandwich of toast and chips. He seemed a bit miffed that I found this unusual. If there had been any Marmite, I'm sure he would have slathered it on the chips. I keep a supply of Skippy peanut butter and Smucker's jelly in my refrigerator (since the ants like it as well) and several times a week eat PB&J for lunch. Craving a snack yesterday, I bought a bag of Pepperidge Farm chocolate chip cookies. The cost was nearly $5. Because of my congestion, Nan insists that I drink warm water rather than cold, and I have tried to comply by making cups of green tea to drink while lying on the couch to watch movies. First I caught up on "Weeds" and "Mad Men." On Friday I watched a gripping Bette Davis film, "The Letter," from a Somerset Maugham story about a bad plantation wife in Malaysia, followed by "The Ugly American," with Marlon Brando as an initially clueless ambassador in a fictitious Southeast Asian country. Yesterday it was a fascinating documentary by Astra Taylor, "Examined Life," with comments about Socrates' advice from a group of philosophers including the charismatic Slovenian Slavoj Žižek. In the evening it was "L'heure d'été," the newest film by Olivier Assayas with Juliette Binoche, whom I love, in a tender tale of a family and the role art plays in its life.

On the subject of films, last weekend I went to the cinema to see Quentin Tarantino's new film, “Inglourious Basterds," which opened in Bangkok on the same day as in the U.S. It's a glittering cinematic achievement, a homage to war films filled with allusions and illusion by a master craftsmen who thinks violence is a theoretical position of merit. He knows how to rivet the attention of his audience and the first half hour is a bit like a shaggy dog story with a shattering ending. What holds it together is the performance of Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, the Nazi SS villain you love to hate. The premise now should be well known: Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, the white trash leader of a company of Jewish soldiers who kill Nazis behind enemy lines. That's it, and we're invited to appreciate the irony which is described in graphic detail, including the holocaust of the entire Nazi high command while watching a movie (film is never far from the plot). This is the kind of argument that makes revenge the epitome of morality, and after chewing over it for a week, I decided that Tarentino's movie was not a little disgusting.

On Friday I fly to Chiang Mai and Nan and her mother will meet me at the airport. I've learned that Nan's injuries in the motorbike accident were not as serious as I first thought; no bones were broken. But she was badly bruised and swollen, and her treatment at the local hospital included massage with hot bags of herbs (Baron treated me to a herbal massage on Sukhumvit Soi 8 last December and it was very soothing.) Last week her father was cremated and Nan fainted at the ceremony (she called it a "stroke" and I had to suggest otherwise). Nan's mother will drive us to some of the tourist sites on Saturday, including the celebrated Wat Rong Khun, the "white wat" constructed by a noted artist in the 1990s. I also want to see Mae Salong, the hillside Chinese village whose residents come from Yunnan province to the north. I will be in the Golden Triangle, not far from Burma where the military's war against ethnic minorities is heating up after a 20-year lull. Villagers in the north of Burma are fleeing from the fighting into China, up to 10,000 of them. There are a number of refugee camps along the border in Thailand for people displaced by Burmese oppression and I may learn more during my weekend in the north.


Janet Brown said...

Let me know if you need chicken soup--I can leave it with the security guard of your building.
Agree with you re Tarentino--the man enjoys violence far too much although I must as well I suppose since I never walk out of his movies and go to them all.
Your Kennedy portion of this post is brilliant--thank you for that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

"Since he's a vegetarian, he ordered a salmon steak"

Eh? That's a bit like saying, "Since he's a non-drinker, he ordered a round of beers"!

Now I know that only a tiny minority of monks in Thailand are vegetarian, and of course "only" eating fish is a step in the right direction (it was the step I took for many years until I became a real vegetarian), but take a look here to see how fish are also sentient beings just like us, with the same capacity for feelings and emotions:

Anyway, another excellent post Will! Seriously, you are the only news source I need when it comes to what's going on in American history and politics!

And the on-going details of your Thailand adventure are fascinating and inspiring.

Enjoy Chiang Mai, and all the best,