I. Cultural Context: Dallas, TX in 1963
Dallas in 1963 represented perhaps the polar extreme of America's right-wing animosity towards John F. Kennedy's liberal policies. A number of exhibits clearly reflect this exaggerated sentiment: 1. the Assault of Adlai Stevenson on October 24, 1963; 2. An eerily prescient November 17th article in the Dallas Morning News calling for an "Incident-Free Day"; 3. A "Wanted for Treason" pamphlet distributed week of visit; and 4. A "Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas" advertisement placed in the Dallas Morning News signed by Bernard Weisman. Let us examine each:
1. "Dallas Has Been Disgraced": Assault on Adlai Stevenson
On October 24, 1963 - a month prior to Kennedy's visit, U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was assaulted by hecklers outside Dallas' Memorial Auditorium Theater after delivering a speech on United Nations Day. Struck over the head by a picket and spat upon, the incident was condemned in an article in Time Magazine, an editorial in the Dallas Times Herald, and by Governor John Connally, who called what transpired, "an affront to common courtesy and decency". (Read the original Time Magazine article here).
One important takeaway from this earlier, more mild (but nationally noteworthy) incident was the reaction it provoked from Dallas civic leaders: condemnation. Though it seems obvious, that they didn't explicitly endorse the behavior illustrates a second dimension of our cultural analysis: while on the one hand there existed a streak of strong anti-Kennedy sentiment, on the other there also existed an ethic of hospitality to visitors and, more importantly, decorum and sanctity towards elected American officials. As I will discuss later, these two ethics were in irreconcilable conflict with one another, two sides of a cultural dilemma that would ultimately play out on a larger stage: an earthquake in culture, redefining American ethos.
2. "Incident-Free Day Urged for JFK Visit"
After the Stevenson assault, the potential to further jeopardize the national reputation and image of Dallas was clearly enough of a concern that on Nov. 17th the Dallas Morning News ran the remarkably prescient headline "Incident-Free Day Urged for JFK Visit". The article identifies both evidence of general preexisting animosity and the spirit of hospitality leaders wanted to preserve.
"The President of the U.S. represents the highest and proudest office in the world. And he will be welcome. Our reputation as the first city of Texas and the friendliest town in America has been earned and won by Dallas people through the years."
- Robert B. Cullum, President Dallas Chamber of Commerce
We now know, of course, a drama of the deepest national gravitas was about to be acted out on the Dallas stage. What is most extraordinary, given the above headline, was that tickets were sold in advance. Taken from a wide lens, the news of Kennedy's pending assassination was portended several days earlier in virtually every publication.
I will later argue this represents indirect evidence of premeditated and unconscious collective knowledge of what was to come, something I call Cultural Prescience. A watershed moment in American history was momentarily to occur; it is plausible that given the weight of the pending act, we might identify indicators of early unconscious collective recognition, worry/anxiety over pending danger, etc. Such headlines are, at a minimum, a recognition of elevated tension and agitation. Certainly we see unconscious remorse once the act is committed, something I will discuss later.
For now let this merely serve to illustrate the heightened state of animosity/tension surrounding Kennedy's visit to Dallas.
3. "Wanted for Treason"
This handbill was distributed in the streets of Dallas in the days preceding Kennedy's arrival, illustrating again the degree of hostility located at the extreme of the Dallas cultural spectrum.
Of particular interest in our analysis is the language of this and the following article. In the list of grievances, words pertaining to "Communism" occur with significant frequency (i.e.; "He is turning the sovereignty of the U.S. over to the communist controlled United Nations", etc.). "Communism" - rooted squarely in the middle of the Cold War - was a powerful cultural symbol, that is, an idea widely discussed/shared, emotionally laden - an integral component of the Dallas sociopolitical vernacular. That such a charged symbol might be idiosyncratically manipulated by one of its marginal actors should come as no surprise, as we will discuss in a moment.
Aside from the language, this and the following are examples - again - of the degree of hostility present in the political extremes of Dallas culture, and therefore represent a fundamental constituent of the spectrum of meaning associated with President Kennedy and his visit.
4. "Welcome, Mr. Kennedy, to Dallas"
This political advertisement, placed in the Dallas Morning News, also is heavily laden with "Communist" accusations, and on face value would serve only as additional evidence to substantiate the general anti-Kennedy animosity present in the Dallas cultural spectrum.
Its importance, however, extends further.
The advertisement had particular relevance to Jack Ruby (Oswald's assailant). The bottom of the page was signed by a "Bernard Weisman, Chairman of the American Fact-Finding Committee". Ruby, who was Jewish (Jacob Rubenstein) apparently worried that an advertisement disparaging the President had been endorsed by someone of Jewish descent. According to his later testimony, once the President had been killed, Ruby was fearful the assassination would somehow be tied to a Jewish conspiracy. Were he able to demonstrate - on his own - the loyalty and courage of a Jew, he would therefore be able to counteract this potentially devastating stigma.
Irrational, but nevertheless extremely important logic (i.e.; his) to what I will discuss in more detail later: Ruby's marginalized and distorted idiosyncratic expression of a cultural ethic shared by all.
CONTEXT ANALYSIS PART A: An Elevated Probability for Action
The Stevenson assault and the Kennedy assassination can be made similar by reducing our descriptive variables to more general ones. We find then they differ only in terms of amplitude:
By the above definition, the said ACTION described took place in Dallas once in October, then again in November. That one happened to be an assault and the other an assassination is, in the manner we have defined it, a matter of semantics - a difference only in amplitude. In short, a recurring phenomenon.
Now, we can reasonably assume not every citizen in Dallas was capable or inclined to club Adlai Stevenson over the head with a picket, and certainly not to shoot the president. It is thus likely neither Oswald nor Mrs. Fredrickson represented the average Dallas citizen. Something behaviorally idiosyncratic must have separated them from a normative mean (we of course know this was the case with Oswald; so far as I know Mrs. Fredrickson's past is unknown).
Despite a lack of familiarity with our beloved Mrs. Fredrickson, let us suppose both Lee Harvey Oswald and Mrs. Fredrickson occupy the margins of Dallas culture where this particular ideal is concerned. We will label them cultural extremes, following Ruth Benedict's (1934) category of deviance: an individual too much like the cultural stereotype or valued ideal. A cultural extreme is thus a person just like everyone else, only more so; a caricature of an ideal. "Anti-Kennedy" anger/hostility shared in varying degrees by all within the unconscious Dallas ethos is expressed and experienced more significantly in these particular actors. This may be roughly analogous in some respects to Devereux's (1956) analysis of "sacred" disorders:
...his conflicts are simply more intense than those of other members of his group, though fundamentally of the same type and involving the same segment of the personality, the ethnic unconscious. He is quite often like everyone else - 'only more so'.Under static cultural circumstances, a given ideal is generally not volatile enough alone to propel an actor - even one located on the extremes - into atypical or abnormal behavior. The likelihood for deviance, however, is increased significantly under conditions of cultural agitation such that existed in Dallas in 1963 as we have previously described. In the case of cultural agitation, all members are "buzzing", much like molecules in a heated beaker. The most marginal or unstable of those members - residing closer to the metaphorical "boiling point" - are most likely to deviate into unusual or atypical action:
From this pattern we might posit the following:
Hypothesis A: In 1963, general sentiment against Kennedy and his perceived agenda had reached a degree of amplification in Dallas culture, such that certain marginal actors within it - thrust into atypical circumstances - were more likely to cross normative behavioral boundaries.
Let us now look at the sources of this general cultural "agitation".
CONTEXT ANALYSIS PART B: Conflicting Pillars of Culture
To set the contextual stage of November 1963 in Dallas, Texas, we thus have identified the following ideals in conflict: 1. a component of extreme animosity towards President Kennedy and his politics; and 2. a contrasting component of cultural hospitality and American Patriotism, punctuated by a reverence/love for the sanctity of the highest American public office.
In this light, John F. Kennedy was both reviled and revered, loved and hated. His politics were treasonable; his office was sacred. It is this contradiction I argue was the true engine of elevated agitation in Dallas. A President as Traitor should evoke hatred, even violence. But a President as Sacred must be revered and respected. The two ideals were irreconcilable. Were culture a distinct, complex organism, these two fundamental and inflexible pillars would represent unsustainable seeds of internal conflict for which dramatic resolution was necessary.
Consider, if you will, a scenario in which the only amplified ideal present was "President as Traitor." Were there no ambivalence - no complementary component of "President as Sacred" - then the degree of cultural agitation would be significantly lessened. There would in fact be no conflict at all: the President is a traitor, he must therefore be removed/deposed. Once he was gone we would see no sadness, grief, or remorse; the act would be culturally approved, even rewarded.
By adding the dimension of Patriotism - of sanctity, of loyalty, of reverence, ultimately of love - we create true cultural conflict, both unsustainable and demanding resolution. (I will argue later the result of the Kennedy assassination was, in fact, a collective resolution of the above conflict).
There is another issue, however, we must address before we continue. One might argue it would be simplistic to reduce the "President as Traitor" ideal as one generally applicable to Dallas and not isolated to the radical far-right from which it originated. To this reasonable assertion we would respond by pointing to strong evidence of the ideal's cultural resonance. Though the intensity of the sentiment was greater to the right, the ideal was understood and grappled with - to varying degrees - among the full spectrum of Dallas culture.
In this sense, if we view a change-state culture as one in motion (i.e.; perpetual transition) then what takes place on its periphery is extremely important to the normative whole, because its periphery represents a potential future: a frontier of uncharted psychocultural territory which - in the event said "migration" is sanctioned (via resonance) - will eventually become absorbed into the larger gestalt. Thus a marginal ideal, particularly if resonant, will receive unconscious attention and require cultural reconciliation before it might take its place among the existing emotional/symbolic framework. This is one of the ways we might explain a phenomenon such as Cultural Prescience: analogous to the extended "feelers" of a slug, exploring new terrain before committing to a given direction.
For instance, extreme cultural agitation (i.e.; revolution, war) might propel even normative types into "deviance", potentially allowing the eventual sanction of whatever might then transpire. Given, then, such potentially high stakes, as culture becomes agitated, sensitivity towards peripheral action takes greater import: a slug extends its feelers only when it begins to move.
To view the American President viscerally - as an enemy, a traitor - was something new in the context of post-WWII American affluence/jingoism. Though the bulk of this sentiment may have resided in the polar regions of the cultural ethos, that it resonated with the larger group - even in lesser degrees from its point of origin - required redefining the definition/emotional investment of the shared symbol "President of the United States" in the general sense. It was necessary, in a nutshell, for the general ethos to lose some degree of innocence, naivete, and ultimately cohesion, in order to cope emotionally with a future world of increased political polarization and - possibly - civil fracture. That we see similar patterns in today's political milieu - even after readjusting our degree of emotional investment in the office of President - pays homage to the prevailing strength of this long-standing cultural dilemma.
In any case, I digress. For the moment let us posit the following:
Hypothesis B: Dueling/Conflicting cultural components of animosity versus sanctity towards the symbol of "President" fueled general cultural agitation in Dallas, triggering idiosyncratic attempts at unconscious "resolution" among its peripheral actors.
Note that the problem, illuminated in this particular light, should be very troubling to anyone wary of reductionist cultural explanations for individual behavior. This concern I quite understand and share; however the ideas I will present, though focused on culture, I argue are no means mutually exclusive of person. Idiosyncratic personal expression is, in fact, vital to my analysis (perhaps explaining why I use the word "idiosyncratic" with such frequency!).
Preexisting examination of this event in American history has focused too vividly on the individual actors (in particular, fixating on what I would call their "manifest" rather than "latent" motivations), wholly neglecting the larger and more revealing cultural context. The only manner in which the larger context has been addressed (peculiarly, I will argue) is in the form of conspiracy.
In other words, there exists a collective suspicion of some larger framework lurking behind the Kennedy assassination, but this suspicion can only be expressed through a search for conscious, tangible connections, rather than in unconscious relationships. In a search for a collective culprit, we have persistently fixated on concrete red herrings (i.e.; "Oswald took orders from Castro!" or "Ruby was a hitman for the mob!") rather than uncomfortably acknowledge our own collective culpability in what was ultimately a necessary cultural "crime" fundamental to repositioning our collective psychology in order to adapt/cope/keep up with a changing world.
I have thus very intentionally framed the conflict as a collective one. These clashing, friction-causing pillars of culture, so situated, were not only the internal conflicts of the individual actors in question, but rather the conflicts of essentially all its cultural members - experienced in varying degrees and from varying perspectives - but understood by all. Everyone familiar with the Dallas milieu was confronted with some degree of unresolved, persistent conflict between two dueling, deeply ingrained values. In the context of post WWII jingoism, an American Patriot could not possibly view his/her President as a despised traitor, yet in a changing world of increased political polarization, it was precisely this possibility banging tirelessly on the door, begging for introduction into the broader cultural spectrum. Culture, in order to move "forward", required an essentially colder, less intimate view of the symbol, "President"; a cultural shift was necessary away from the degree of emotional investment required of its conventional placement in the collective psyche.
The myth of Camelot, in short, had to end.
What is most unusual is that a such a vital collective problem would be played out by the culture's most peripheral and marginal actors. I believe the reason for this is that culture is cruel: we nominate the weakest and most peculiar among us to do our dirty work.
Let us now examine the two most prominent of these actors, Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, each as a personification of the above components in conflict.
II. Lee Harvey Oswald: A Communist in Dallas
Given the context as I have described it, a Communist in Dallas is an oxymoron. That the assassin could have been a Communist seems (and seemed) absurdly misplaced; Dallas was probably the last place on Earth you might expect to find one. While we have identified preexisting conditions portending an act of violence, the source of said act should have - by all accounts - emerged from the extremes of the far-right, not the far-left!
So why didn't it?
The answer is it absolutely did.
Lee Harvey Oswald will forever remain a riddle as long as we try and decipher him as a true Communist (it should be noted every attempt to do so thus far has failed). Viewing him in this light is at best baffling and at worst comical; any close analysis has concluded his various attempts to adopt a Communist identity, while certainly not lacking in panache, were a dismal and complete failure - nothing short of a joke. The pursuit of Oswald as a legitimate Communist is a small sanguine fish by any other name.
We only begin to understand Lee Harvey Oswald when we consider "Communism" within the context of the culture from which he emerged. The symbolic location of "Communism" in 1963 American culture was laden with a laundry list of stigmatic linguistic associations. This very stigma, combined with the allure of a powerful, enigmatic, foreign movement placed in opposition to all that threatened him - was precisely what attracted Oswald. "Communism" was Oswald's bedfellow solely because of its uncanny similarity to his own troubled interpersonal history and oppositional frame of reference. He was not a Communist at all; he was a marginalized personality desperate for an identity to empower his own need for grandiosity and place. For this reason he could never genuinely embrace life in the Soviet Union; it ultimately didn't interest him. His true interest was in a fantasy of antithesis to his own culture - nothing more.
Hypothesis C: Lee Harvey Oswald was not a Communist, but rather gravitated towards the stigmatized role and location of "Communism" within his own culture, because it reflected and reinforced his own marginal and rejected place within it.
The True Identity of Lee Harvey Oswald: A Dallas Misfit
Oswald's self, defined in opposition to the shared modal type, only underscores its inescapable and vice-like hold on him. As such, his identity can be measured only by the Dallas cohort, rather than by the farcical "Communist" costume he was trying so unsuccessfully to wear.
Thus his adoption of a "Communist" identity in a fiercely anti-communist environment is a peculiar means of expressing unconscious allegiance towards the very ideas he seemed so adamant to oppose. Given his psychological instability, it should come as no surprise that collective expression would resonate most strongly and peculiarly in this particular actor.
Note also it is not a coincidence that the language contained in the far-right handouts and newspaper advertisements were riddled with references to "Communism" while the eventual assassin was similarly decorated. That they stood in ostensible opposition is a falsehood, a triviality; both were saturated in the web of meaning surrounding the core cultural conflict in question.
If his motivation was to oppose his own cultural milieu, his fight was a futile one. In truth he was more vulnerable and susceptible to its suggestions than perhaps any other actor within it. He was fundamentally weak: an impressionable personality with no solid emotional ground upon which to stand, and thus highly susceptible to the “Cultural Agitation” present in Dallas in November of 1963.
Hypothesis D: Lee Harvey Oswald - not a Communist, but a Dallas misfit - was subject to his own culture's ideals and in fact more vulnerable to their amplified internalization and idiosyncratic expression.
The resonance of general sociopolitical "anti-Kennedy" agitation would have taken particular strength in his troubled character. The subsequent expression of that impetus, while extreme, might be viewed (from someone very cold and objective) as nothing more than his continued idiosyncratic manipulation of his culture's symbolic lexicon, in a failing effort to resolve interpersonal conflict (of course Oswald, given his grandiose needs, tended to prefer the biggest fish in the lexical pond). Just as he manipulates the cultural symbol of "Communism" to suit his own unique psychological purposes, so does he also manipulate the symbol of the "President of the United States".
The common thread of his symbolic manipulation is grandiosity. He did not quietly become a "Communist"; his defection received national attention. His choice of symbol was intentionally provocative to his peers. Nor, of course, did he quietly shoot a public figure; it was this element of attention, of notoriety - more than any other - that drew him to a target otherwise difficult to explain.
His true motives become particularly clear in analyzing Oswald's actions after the assassination. It seems odd Oswald did not make any serious attempt to flee; in fact he did rather the opposite. Savvy enough to escape the Texas School Book Depository (even after being stopped by an officer), he went to his apartment, took a pistol, and essentially returned to the crime scene. That he was able to initially escape undetected but then be captured so shortly thereafter (after shooting a police officer, no less) demonstrates his true psychological need in committing the act to begin with: recognition. His calm, confident, and almost smug demeanor after his arrest is further evidence of the psychological gratification his capture provided him. It was ultimately what he wanted and why he did it. He seemed to be enjoying himself because he was.
THEORETICAL APPLICATION: Why Kennedy?
Let us examine the second most important mystery of Oswald's act: Why Kennedy? (The first most important question, Did Oswald have any help?, I address later as the crux of my argument).
When viewed from our initial, erroneous position - "Oswald the Communist" - the facts just don't add up. In the months preceding the Kennedy assassination, Oswald attempted to shoot and kill General Walker, a right-wing zealot Oswald considered a "fascist". Despite gallant conspiratorial efforts, no one has been able to successfully explain why Oswald would suddenly shift from a radical right-wing assassination target to one located squarely on the left (A "Frontline" special on this topic did their very best to dramatize this dilemma to full effect: asserting it was a question Oswald "had taken to his grave" and ending with a macabre shot of his tombstone).
By framing Oswald correctly, we might provide a more satisfactory answer.
If we examine Oswald as a "Dallas misfit" - vulnerable to the general collective ethos - his choice of target makes perfect sense, no more or less logical than Mrs. Fredrickson hitting Adlai Stevenson with a picket. As a marginal actor - a cultural extreme - in the Dallas milieu, the "anti-Kennedy" ideal had potential to make the strongest unconscious impression upon him. "Anti-Kennedy" fervor - cultural agitation - was the perfect blanket to settle over his grandiose interpersonal needs. His conscious motivation (to be someone, to do something extraordinary) masked his true unconscious motivation (to express/actualize a valued cultural conflict/ideal).
His plan was impulsive. The path of the motorcade past the Texas School Book Depository was pure happenstance (proof of this lies in how his job there was arranged: spontaneously, by his wife's friend Ruth Paine two weeks prior to the motorcade). In his desperate search for a target, one magically presented itself to him (thus were the motorcade route never printed in the newspaper, the assassination would never have transpired). The target resonated not only because of the elevated status of the President (appealing to his need for grandiosity) but also because of the general "anti-Kennedy" agitation in Dallas (resonating brightly within him and reflecting his ultimate and deep-rooted need for group inclusion, not exclusion). Because of his marginal location and fragile sense of self, Oswald was more susceptible to this agitation than most, so much so that he acted upon it.
Oswald, in this light, strangely and peculiarly personifies the ethic "President as Traitor". Violence was not Oswald's solution alone; it was a sentiment familiar to many within the Dallas milieu: voiced, desired, just not acted upon. The idea was an emergent property of individual thoughts and experiences; assassination resided in the organism of culture. Troubled, weak, needy, impressionable - it was Oswald who received the nomination to act out a terrible but necessary collective deed.
Once committed, however, the tables were immediately turned. Given the two competing/dueling ethics at work, the moment one was fully expressed, the other was allowed to grieve. "President as Sacred" - ultimately the loser in this battle - now had a brief, remorseful moment in the sun, not only for Dallas but the entire country.
This ethic too required a volunteer from the cultural margins. The sacred President was a value in equal need of personification. The full expression of both components of cultural conflict was vital to its resolution.
Enter Jack Ruby.
III. Jack Ruby: You Killed My President, You Rat!
In order to understand Jack Ruby and his actions with any degree of clarity, he must first be properly identified within his general cultural context - similarly to as we have done with Lee Harvey Oswald. Like Oswald, Jack Ruby was little more than a troubled, marginal character, vulnerable to a "buzzing" cultural ideal. Like Oswald, he is best understood as a cultural extreme, only his ideal was the complementary pair to Oswald's: the opposing pillar of culture - "President as Sacred" - in irreconcilable conflict with "President as Traitor".
Hypothesis E: Like Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby was also a Dallas misfit, more vulnerable to the amplified internalization and idiosyncratic expression of broader cultural ideals. The ideal "President as Sacred" was particularly salient to him, strongly resonating on both psychological and cultural levels.
Again, if we attempt to consider Ruby as anything other than a marginal misfit - whether a pawn of the mob or a hitman carrying out the final act of a conspiracy - we come up absolutely empty-handed. Despite a remarkably persistent effort (a persistence for which we can account for, as I will in a moment), repeated attempts to force Jack Ruby into some conspiratorial hole have proven futile.
When, however, we examine him as a troubled, marginal Dallas character, we are rewarded with tomes of supporting evidence.
The Effect of Kennedy's Death on Jack Ruby
It is reasonable to say Kennedy's death had cultural resonance; the profound effect of his assassination on the American populace is indisputable. But like any cultural event, how it was experienced varied among its individual actors, according to their location, degree of symbolic identification, relevance to individual psychodynamics, and so forth. The Dallas population was, for instance, perhaps generally more emotionally effected by the assassination, given their close proximity to it. Certainly the small group with direct contact to the Dallas Police station were exposed to an immediacy not shared by others and therefore had greater potential to experience the impact of Kennedy's death more profoundly.
Jack Ruby lived on the margins of this small "Dallas Police Station" group. His "after-hours" club, the Carousel (let's just call it a strip club, a rose by any other name), catered to Dallas police officers; for this reason he was well known among them. He served them gratis drinks, gave them exceptional treatment, etc., and in return they turned a relatively blind eye to his frequent and well-documented acts of temperamental violence. Ruby considered himself a friend of the police, and in fact he was. That he was granted such easy access to the Dallas Police Station only underscores their connection.
Ruby was thus a marginal member of the group with closest proximity to events and characters surrounding the assassination. Such membership, however, was far from sufficient criteria to shoot someone. There were certainly others similarly situated (even other marginal members, I would imagine) who would never have killed Oswald. We must therefore assume that in order for Jack Ruby to commit such an extraordinary act - to so grossly violate existing social norms - Kennedy's death had to resonate within him more significantly than with those sharing similar proximity to the event itself.
Let us consider the cultural and psychological dimensions behind this exaggerated resonance.
Cultural Resonance: Like Everyone Else, Only More So
Jack Ruby exhibited a number of peculiar behaviors prior to his murder of Oswald illustrating how profoundly Kennedy's death effected him. Foremost among them was the closure of his business (it might be interesting to discover what percentage of Dallas businesses closed their doors, and for how long, following Kennedy's murder - I doubt many shut down for three days). In mood, he was said to have agonized over the assassination. Certainly, it received his undivided attention: Ruby attended all the various news briefings at the police station and lingered there constantly in the days following Oswald's arrest.
The actual shooting was spontaneous. Ruby placed a telegram next door to the station and in a span of 90 seconds walked down a ramp into the basement area where Oswald happened to be being escorted out at the same moment. The timing was serendipitous (perhaps not the correct word); Ruby simply pulled out his gun, pulled the trigger, and proclaimed, "You killed my President, you rat!"
Note Ruby did not say "You killed the President" but rather, "You killed my President". The location of "President" in Ruby's internal symbolic web was significant enough to warrant a place of intimacy and familiarity. Further, his identification with the police - the very band of characters whose role was to enforce the consequences of Ruby's own violent behaviors - allowed him indulge in a sort of delusional role-reversal. Suddenly, it was Ruby's turn to enforce an obvious and much-needed consequence, desired overtly by all. It was his chance to be a hero. Only he, Ruby, possessed the courage and gumption to act upon what everyone else ultimately wanted. It was this "buzzing" collective ideal - combined with a desperately desired positive/valued cultural role - that spurred Ruby to take matters into his own hands. Like Oswald, he was a marginal character, weak and (unlike Oswald) mentally unstable, the perfect candidate for an ideal to resonate with an unusual and peculiar brightness.
Again, the desire to shoot Oswald - the urge to act out this collective need for vengeance - was by no means Ruby's alone. When it was reported Oswald had been killed, the audience outside the Dallas police station broke out into applause. After his arrest, Ruby received many letters expressing appreciation for his deed. In fact, directly after committing the act Ruby was convinced he would indeed be hailed as a hero. That he was arrested and charged came as something of a surprise.
Thus again we see a shared/collective ideal expressed through an individual actor. This alone, however, is not adequate to explain such an extraordinary deviance from normal spectrum of action; it is necessary to identify an additional layer of individual psychological resonance.
Idiosyncratic Vulnerability: Ruby's Ambivalence Towards His Jewish Identity
To compound his marginal status, Jack Ruby suffered mental instability at the time of the Kennedy assassination and during his imprisonment thereafter. Prone to paranoid delusions, his individual state of mind was such that we might understand more easily his idiosyncratic behaviors.
The primary expression of his delusions came in the form of a deep-seated ambivalence towards his own Jewish Identity.
For a Jewish businessman in 1963 Dallas, Texas, concerns over anti-Semitism were by no means unfounded. There were valid reasons and pressures to anglicize one's name; the result, however, was to present difficult and unique challenges in self-identity and place in culture. For Jack Ruby, ambivalence towards his own Jewish identity was only a small portion of a very troubled background for which again I leave to elsewhere. The reason I isolate this aspect of his person is because it comprised the idiosyncratic language and context of his symbolic manipulation.
Jack Ruby's idiosyncratic motivation was rooted in paranoid delusion. He believed that the killing of Kennedy would ultimately be tied to a local Jewish conspiracy, a fear connected to the name "Weisman" on the anti-Kennedy advertisement he had read earlier and been angered by in the paper. By killing Oswald, he could defend an unwarranted and brutal attack on Judaism (already taking place - in his mind - in the form of torture at the building where he was housed). His paranoia is evident in a letter to his brother Earl:
Thus the motivation behind Jack Ruby's spontaneous act of shooting Lee Harvery Oswald was compounded in layers from the idiosyncratic (exacerbated by mental illness), to the collective: a general resonance of grief and anger surrounding the death of the President, resonating within him with particular strength. Only in this manner - as a marginalized character personifying a shared ethic - are we able to explain his actions with any degree of clarity....you still may be able to save Israel. By getting to Miami either hitch-hike or some-way. You won't be able to fly because they will be watching for you. From Miami you must find a way to Cuba, by pretending to rent a boat to go fishing, and get to Cuba someway. From there you must find a way to Russia. Then you tell the Russians how Egypt has been using them all along, but they are much closer to Johnson, because of what is happening to the Jews in the U.S. Then they will understand what kind of person Johnson is, and then they may be able to save Israel.- Letter from Jack Ruby to his brother Earl
Two Troubled, Fragile Actors Residing on the Margins of Culture
We have identified both Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby as persons residing on the margins of culture, from troubled backgrounds, lacking psychological stability, desperate for identity, and thus susceptible to the idiosyncratic expression of shared ideals, particularly those strongly resonating with personal struggles/crisis, both real and perceived.
Viewing both characters as such results in a more robust explanatory framework accounting for the vast majority, if not all, of the activities and behaviors surrounding the assassination.
Why, then, the persistent and stubborn preoccupation with conspiracy? The exercise is riddled with inconsistencies, scrutiny in one area and leaps of faith in another. Such patterns are always indicative of a latent agenda. One of the odd aspects of our collective suspicion, for instance, is the imagined culprit: the identity of the "true" conductor(s) behind the orchestration of Kennedy's death really makes no difference to us. It could be the CIA, Castro, the Russians, the mob... Who cares? What is more important is that someone - anyone - else was involved in addition to these two miserable characters.
Indeed, when we look at them closely, do either of these two gentlemen appear to be candidates for the starring roles in a conspiratorial play? Were you coordinating an elaborate plot to assassinate the president, would either men come to mind in your casting of the most vital parts?
My suspicion is no.
And yet, that is precisely what we have done. We picked the most fragile and broken among us to do the work of the collective whole - to express in action an attempted resolution of a cultural conundrum.
What is most striking about our strong and lingering fixation with conspiracy is less what it has yielded in terms of tangible facts (essentially none), than what it has revealed in terms of residual collective need. Our collective psyche wants a conspiracy - demands it - but again and again an examination of the facts reveals nothing but a few flimsy straws. Even with the assistance of science to disprove empirically a number of the more originally plausible assertions (i.e.; multiple shooters, magic bullets), the suspicion of conspiracy persists. Why?
Hypothesis F: The search for a conspiracy will never be satisfied because, in fact, there was one: a conspiracy of culture.
It is this phenomenon which is the crux of my argument and one I would now like to examine in greater detail.
IV. The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: A Conspiracy of Culture
John F. Kennedy's murder did not involve the CIA or the KGB, a second shooter, or the grassy knoll. The assassination was executed by the general populace, an emergent property of our own collective psychology, in an effort to resolve an irreconcilable collective conflict. The unusually persistent quality embedded in our search for a conspiracy is, in essence, an admission of collective culpability and guilt.
The End of Camelot
John F. Kennedy's death was a defining and sharply transitional moment in American history, since described as "the end of Camelot". Indeed, the President and the First Lady, both young, attractive, and charismatic, were celebrated and romanticized much like monarchs of yesteryear.
Certainly, the connection to monarchy was not a coincidence. The symbolic language of Representative Democracy blankets nicely over longer-standing and more traditional forms of government. For this reason a "President" has historically resembled a monarch, or collective father figure, in terms of emotional identity among our culture's individual actors. This was particularly true among the jingoism and national affluence following WWII.
It was precisely this growing emotional investment which had to - facing a changing world - reverse course and assume far less significance in the collective psyche.
Kennedy's assassination was sobering and grave, not only because of his loss, but also because there existed a collective recognition that something had changed culturally. There was no going back to what was - a sort of naivete, an innocence, a denial of our society's capacity to inflict harm upon itself. That an American citizen - even a radical one, located on the social margins - could shoot an American president was an added blow to the grief and suffering caused from the loss of a symbolically significant person. It was this, more than Kennedy's death itself, which caused such extensive shock. Something in the act had compromised the general American cultural cohesion.
The moment marked the resumption of American political polarization, delayed by post-WWII jingoism and general material affluence.
The reason polarization had to resume was because the symbolic framework belied a cohesion in America that was no longer possible; it was now necessary for the extremes - given changing socioeconomic conditions, issues, etc. - to continue distancing from one another. What once had unified them had now to make way. The spectrum of culture had to be extended to accommodate both the changing world and the differing views regarding what to do about it. All corresponding symbols therein therefore required recalibration in terms of normative emotional investment.
Camelot had to end. Between these two conflicting pillars of culture, something had to give, simply because their inherent resiliency had made their dual existence obsolete and impossible.
The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in Russia in 1881 follows a very similar pattern. The Tsar, at the time, moved freely among the people - a fundamental and celebrated ideal in Russian culture. For what Tsar could not mingle among his subjects? He was, after all, ordained by God to rule benevolently, revered and admired by all, etc. And yet, at the same time, worsening socioeconomic conditions and inherent inequities had given birth to an oppositional cohort who viewed the Tsar as a bitter enemy and target. His assassination thus represented the end of a vital ideal: very simply, a Tsar could no longer mingle among his subjects because some of them wanted to kill him. The cultural spectrum has expanded to such a degree that what had once been a cherished value now had to be collectively (and, in some cases, bitterly) repositioned. The world had forever changed; Tsar Alexander II's assassination sent seismic waves in all directions throughout Russian culture with great future implications on policy, perspectives, and so forth.
Deeply grounded ideals linger. They are both resistant to change and inflexible. Therefore, when placed under strain they at first do not budge an inch, even in the face of absurdity. When the strain becomes insurmountable, they do not bend, they shatter. The result is an abrupt, seismic shift in culture.
Let us look back at the assassination with the benefit of time and perspective, and ask ourselves how our collective perception has changed.
A Contemporary View
Today, we look back at footage from the Kennedy assassination with incredulity. Why? Because it strikes us as odd that a motorcade could parade through a city with a President so carelessly exposed: no shield, no bullet-proof windows, etc. Today, the President in his public appearances actually wears a bullet-proof suit. His vehicle consists of an "eight inch thick body, tear-gas cannons and inner Kevlar tires that keep moving after a burst". In other words, today we are less naive; we recognize the possibility - or inevitability, if given the opportunity - of potential political violence among the general citizenry towards its leaders.
Today, the polarized spectrum of politics in America is a reality we no longer question. There might be some form of residual collective longing for a more unified country, but even that seems to be waning. Harmony is hardly the new black.
In retrospect, looking back at the reaction of Walter Cronkite to the death of the President seems - while touching - almost sappy. We would be hard-pressed to find a contemporary commentator who, when thrust into similar circumstances, might genuinely express such sentiment (there certainly would be plenty willing to fake it). Today we are - again, in terms of relative degree - colder, harder, and more emotionally distant to our politicians.
Our culture has changed.
I don't intend to sound cynical, but rather to illustrate how difficult it is to find sustaining examples of "pre-assassination" political and social culture. Of course, we live in a different world for a myriad of reasons that extend far beyond the Kennedy assassination. The significance of the moment (and our subsequent preoccupation with conspiracy) is to show the collective roll of an abrupt cultural shift. So exaggerated and amplified were these events in our collective psyche, we are able to see hints of phenomena that are everywhere in our cultural and psychological lives.
I quote from an AP article written a year after the assassination, reflecting upon the prevailing sentiment:
...for the people, at this time, there is still nothing except the feeling of a cruel, blunt blow. It deprived them of an unexpected beauty. It removed, not so much leadership which Mr. Kennedy had scarcely begun to reveal and which is not lacking in the country now, but the promise of something quite remarkable. It was just possible, Americans now realize, that Mr. Kennedy would have rephrased their message to the world and to themselves in a way that would have made the changes they know to be inevitable not sad, not tortuous, but exciting. - AP, 1964, my emphasis
Conclusion: Understanding Conspiracy
Given that the actors in this play were merely extremes of the Dallas milieu - and, by extension, the American milieu - their indictment is ultimately an indictment of ourselves. Their actions were the logical expressions of cultural ambivalence towards a changing world. The casualty was a cultural symbol (sadly an actual person, John F. Kennedy). The perpetrators were the entire American Culture.
What followed – the search for a conspiracy – was a tacit cultural acknowledgment of the collective nature of the assassination. There was no actual conspiracy – no 2nd shooter,etc. – proven after decades poring over volumes of evidence; there was rather a cultural conspiracy, a sharp shift in culture making Kennedy's assassination one of the more important events of the 20th century: the end of Camelot, the collapse of the myth of President.
Going Further: The Potential Connection Between Cultural Prescience and Historical Determinism
Let us pretend, for a moment, we are Marxists (we probably aren't, hence the need to pretend). Nevertheless, if Marx was correct, and material conditions dictate the inevitable progression of social development, then it follows that on a psychocultural level we will be constantly left with lags - gaps between how we understand the world and how it really is. If materialism leads the way for sociocultural to follow, then we are forever (in a change-state society) in need of reconciling our collective psychology with new and ever-changing conditions.
Thus if determinism in the economic/materialist sense is grounded in empirical reality, then determinism in the psychocultural sense should also follow closely thereafter (That one might precede the other - and in which order - is an interesting and unanswered question, so far as I know). However, the larger point is that theoretically you cannot have one - economic/material determinism - without the other - psychocultural determinism.
In this sense, collective cultural events may be more preordained then we have previously imagined. Granted, a radical notion, but one - at a minimum - warranting extensive and thorough investigation.
From the point of view of Cultural Prescience, assassination resided in the organism of culture for a purpose: the unfortunate, tragic consequence of collective culture abruptly and seismically transitioning to a revised perspective more consistent with the pending future.
It is this aspect in particular of my humble analysis I intend to explore further, covering a wide-range of relevant topics.