Looking Back and ‘Looking Forward’ with John F. Kennedy

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 22 Nov 2021

Gary Corseri – TRANSCEND Media Service

22 Nov 2021 – “The President’s been shot!” he shouted, clamoring his way down the stairs in the dorm.  The upper-classman!

I was making my way to the third floor, and he was rushing down, letting our small world know—startled, young faces peeping from behind closed doors, aghast and in wonder.

I got to my room, and my 2 freshman roommates were staring at the radio, dribbling out news.

“What…?” I said, and couldn’t finish my thought.  “How…?”

And the world changed in an instant—the clattering, rumor-mongering mills churned in our dreams.  It would never be the same again….  November 22, 1963….

In about an hour, the deep-throated bells in the watchtower were gonging, gonging, gonging, signaling mourning, mourning, mourning.

“Who…?” I wondered now….  And, more wonderingly, “Why…?”

It’s a place I like to wander to, and wonder about, these past 5 years: the Kennedy Center, posed majestically on a “grassy knoll,” overlooking the Potomac River; the façade of the building inscribed with the words of that doomed soul.

Is it not a wonder to think that we once had a President who could speak wisely, eloquently, about culture and Art?

58 years after that nefarious day in Dallas, how our language, purpose and goals have changed!  What president, what politician, what commentator, what “educator,” what “artist” probes the meaning of our lives and “civilization” now?

I was not old enough to vote for him—one had to be 21—and my parents were not politically inclined.  But I maintained my 1950’s childhood curiosity….

Not yet a teen, I had stared at the word “HUAC” in the “Daily News.”  HUAC—for “House Un-American Activities Committee.”  The “House” was investigating American actors, playwrights, “artists” who might be involved in “Un-American” (Communist) activities!  “But, how can an American be un-American?” I wondered.  “Isn’t that a contradiction?”
My father, the 8th, last child of immigrants, a veteran of the Great Depression and World War II, forced a sad, knowing smile.  “Life is full of contradictions,” he said softly.

And he said it again here: “I look forward…”!

Like another hero of mine from those terrible decades, like Martin Luther King, Kennedy dared to imagine–a better world where men and women could be judged, “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  A world in which “America”—the incarnation of the highest ideals of the “Founding Fathers” and brave, pioneer women—would not “be afraid of grace and beauty.”

And still, this visionary, prods us: after the dust of centuries, we will be remembered—not for battles won or lost, but “for our contribution to the human spirit.”

High talk, inspiring talk—as we almost never hear in these forlorn times….

     “Where have all the flowers gone?”  Pete Seeger sang….

What is our “New Frontier” now?  Sending the masses into space so they can see with their own eyes “the craters of the moon!”—as one gushing actress-politician giggled to her audience of child actors?

As a child, I remember a crowd of people standing in front of a window downtown, Queens, New York.  “What’s going on?” my father asked while driving.

“It’s television,” my mother said.  “They’re watching a set in the store.”

“What’s tell-a-bizh-on?” my younger brother asked, and we laughed.

Who could imagine the coarsening to come?

“The medium is the message,” McLuhan averred.  And we tried to find ourselves among the dancing dots on the screen.  And, understandably, without proper guides, we got lost.

“My esteemed colleague on the other side of the aisle,” Senator Dirksen said of Senator Ford.  And, “My esteemed colleague…” said Senator Ford of Senator Dirksen.  No politician or commentator then alive would dare to condemn half the US population as “a basket of deplorables!”

Not just what is said, but how the package is wrapped and presented shapes our perceptions, molds the generations.

Words can soothe.  Words can inspire: thoughtfulness; consideration; higher goals….  Words can inflame: Mr. Hyde, lurking in our souls.

Have we lost civility and common decency?

Before we inundate our children with “critical” “theories,” had we not better teach them how to be friends, how to play, good sportsmanship, respect for “the Other” and for oneself?

Critically, what role have our “artists” played in our negligence?  “Aim high,” Thoreau advised; for in the end, we “hit only what we aim at.”

Witnessing the follies of the HUAC hearings, our greatest playwright of that era wrote “The Crucible.”  We watched as Arthur Miller catapulted the public back to the horrors of the Salem witch-trials; back to the malignancies of gossip and false accusations.  Aiming higher, our artists, educators, commentators, informed and inspired; even elevated some to make their “contributions” to “the human spirit.”

One wonders if humankind can ever achieve the balance that the best philosophers in the East and West, and shamans Down Under and here and there, have always praised?  Can we balance the understandable desire to advance oneself in this fleeting world with the need to assist humankind to develop its best side?  Can we balance the eternal beauty of Nature with the fluctuations of science and enterprise; can we grasp our New Frontier?  Or, will we mourn with Yeats:

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

In the years that I taught—in an upper-middle class “white” high-school in Massachusetts; in a middle-class junior high in San Francisco; in a “black” junior college in Atlanta; at two prisons in Florida, and in four universities in Florida and  Japan—at some point I’d write the word, “education” on the board and ask my students what it meant.  They stared at my chalk marks on the blackboard (an ancient way of teaching then!)—as though they’d never seen such a word before!

I took an etymological approach and wrote the Latin root, “ducere” on the board: i.e., “to lead.”  And then the prefix, “ex”: “out,” or “out of.”

To lead out of what?  Darkness… Confusion… Misunderstanding… Mistrust. The Labyrinth of ideas and ideals, impressions–twisting and turning–imprinted in our minds and hearts from childhood onward….

We are in that Labyrinth now, in this “New Age” that is always old and always new.  And they walk with us now—Kennedy and King and the artists and savants–Miller, Richard Wright, Orwell, Huxley, Margaret Mead, Millay, Loraine Hansberry, Maya Angelou, Helen Keller and all those who have cast light on dark, churning waters.

“There is a connection,” Kennedy said, “hard to explain…but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the Arts.”

Have we progressed in the Arts?  Where are the great plays now; where are

our music, novels and Art to capture the angst of this Age?  Have we replaced the catharsis of a Sophoclean play, an O’Neil drama, with a cartoon meme?  Does the work of a scion of a benighted politician merit the attention of Picasso’s “Guernica” because he has mastered the trick of blowing bubbles of paint through a straw?

Connection,” Kennedy grappled, “hard to explain…but easy to feel…between achievement …and progress.”

One can’t help but wonder: Can we still “feel” our way to a New Frontier?

The Internet has accelerated our “connections,” while corroding our feelings!  We need no longer waste our time, arguing with Socrates in the agora!  The meaning of Life?  What is Truth?  What is Virtue?  What makes a good citizen?

We can Google an answer, unload a carton of memes, shoot a meme at our Inquisitor, turn on our TV sets and watch faux “commentators” and mis-communicators hyperbolize the others’ honest doubts, and dehumanize themselves in the process.

Kennedy was inspired by History, heard the great bells swinging back and forth.  “Hitch your wagon to a star,” Emerson wrote.  And, with similar ebullience, J.F.K. inspired the masses to move forward, to “dream the impossible dream,” to… to…

… to… and dreams were shattered from a “grassy knoll” in Dallas, from a schoolbook depository, from a mail-order rifle!  And the lies and the myths and all bedlam have been exploding ever since.

We have replaced “education” with “indoctrination.”  Not leading out of darkness, but imprinting one idea or set of values on the mind—not to be examined, not to be questioned.

The Age of Pericles was also the age of Socrates who staked his life and reputation on a sunbeam’s, on a candle’s, light: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Isn’t a “theory” something to be proven?  The word “critical” can mean “essential,” and it can mean “dangerous” when one is in a “critical condition.”  It can mean open to criticism and review.  “Critical race theory” is neither “critical” nor a “theory.”  It is a replacement of one set of prejudices with another.  The inquisitive bias of a Socrates replaced with the inquisitional biases of “educators,” “journalists” and  “artists” who blow smoke in our eyes and bubbles of paint through straws!

A real examination of “history” entails the varying factors that define an age, era or epoch.  A simplistic approach is faux history, faux science, faux life.

These are a few of the awful and profound challenges we face in our inner and outer worlds!

In the confounding Industrial Age of Empires and Wars, the poet, O’Shaughnessy wrote:

“… each age is a dream that is dying

Or one that is coming to birth.”

In a more hopeful time, in the blossoming of the “Romantic” era, Coleridge defined poetry as “the reconcilement of opposites.”

Can we reconcile the opposites?  Reconcile an individual’s striving for the best and highest goals for oneself, one’s family, one’s group with a nation’s, a region’s, a world’s need for peace and order to survive and thrive?

More recently, but really only yesterday, Robert Frost, a poet who read at Kennedy’s inauguration, reminded us:

“’Men work together,’ I told him from the heart

‘Whether they work together, or apart.’”

 ________________________________________

Gary Corseri is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment.  He is the grandson of Ukrainian-Jewish and Sicilian-Catholic immigrants.  Gary has performed his poems at the Carter Presidential Library and his dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta and in universities, high schools and Little Theaters.  He has published 2 novels, 1 full collection and 1 prize-winning chapbook of poems.  His poems, articles, fiction and dramas have appeared in hundreds of global publications & websites, including:  Countercurrents, Village Voice, Redbook Magazine, The Miami Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, and Transcend Media Service.  He has taught at universities in the U.S. and Japan, and in US prisons and public schools.  He has worked as a grape-picker in Australia, a gas-station attendant, and an editor. Contact: garyscorseri@gmail.com

(All photos are by Gary Corseri)


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 22 Nov 2021.

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2 Responses to “Looking Back and ‘Looking Forward’ with John F. Kennedy”

  1. My dear friend, Gary,

    Thank you for this thoughtful and compelling remembrance of JFK and his sincere appreciation of the Arts and Culture. Our memories and longing for those days that more than ever seem like “Camelot” are surely shared by countless others of our generation. Those who lived by the ideals that John, Martin, and, if I may add, Robert expressed became the roots of our hopes, dreams, and actions. All three were mysteriously assassinated, almost as if it was planned by darker minds, those of the many Homo sapiens who continue to exist, a step or two above the Neanderthals, amongst we much fewer Human Beings.

    (Side Note: Science classifies the above two as the same, and science is wrong. There is an obvious omission: Human Beings are still evolving, not merely through technology but rather while continually being wary of tech’s own rapid evolution which creates more profit for those of us who are still merely half-conscious. These Homo sapiens are well portrayed in your article as, “Sending the masses into space so they can see with their own eyes ‘the craters of the moon!'” Human Beings are quite different; our main mission is to better understand each other and this magnificent mystery we find ourselves breathing and sharing. In short, a continual search for meaning, for the evolution of the Human Spirit/Being, as JFK seems to have seen it.)

    The distant lingering sadness of 1963 will remain with us as our generation prepares to depart from the current dissonance of these times―an age when it seems that everyone is throttling everyone else’s throats, including their own. Such are the natural instincts of Homo sapiens whose “mission” was well expressed by Darwin, who understood nature but did not consider the human spirit.

    Our sorrow is well portrayed in your two images of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The first with its weeping willows, the gentle twilight on the walls and slender pillars, and the fountains at half-mast, cast as memorial sculpture. The last image resembling a dream that now lies on the distant shore of a river that can never again be crossed. These images are fine bookends for the photographed quotations by JFK that adorn the Center’s marble walls.

    “Camelot! Camelot!
    I know it sounds a bit bizarre,
    But in Camelot, Camelot
    That’s how conditions are.”

    Yes, that’s how conditions truly seemed to be to college freshmen in the early ’60s, and again five years later when some hope was still in the air; three shots from the dark that changed our dreams but imprinted our idealism somewhere deep in our enhanced consciousness. This is expressed through your reflections and understandably frustrated anger at these tense, shallow, and highly combustible times we now share with younger generations.

    “The minefields of today are absolutely lethal, and one wrong foot, and it’s cancellation.” (Niall Ferguson, November 2021)

    We, the offspring of the American ’60s (at least those of us who were so very fortunate to not have been dragged into the psychoses of the Vietnam debacle) escaped with our ideals embedded somewhere deep inside till this day, now 58 years after the shattering of that sunny November afternoon in Dallas.

    “Life can only be understood backward, but must be lived forwards.” (Soren Kierkegaard)

    Seemingly, we of that generation were given a great human spiritual wealth of rich and rewarding experiences that many, perhaps most, have squandered on lesser motivations and monetary investments, thus allowing corporations to grow in wealth and power as the driving engines of greed and climate change. Much of the blame might well be placed on our shoulders.

    However, we who felt the flame being lit and then extinguished in the ’60s, simply had little strength of attempting to carry it any further. Idealism gave way to the machinations of existence, in accordance with Darwinian thought. Therefore, no one is to blame, and no one should do any blaming. The human spirit can only withstand so much pain. What has occurred since then has been in a normal flow with the simplicities of our human nature. Very few have been able to break through the mirror, now made even more attractive by the magnetic pull of portable Internet screens, where life itself is made insatiably interesting, exciting, and horrifying with every click we take.

    Perhaps rather than throttling throats, including our own, we now need to assist those whose fuller consciousness, Kennedy’s “human spirit,” was not enriched by having grown up from such nutritious soil. Particularly now that the human spirit is daily transformed into algorithmic zeros and ones, blacks and whites, far lefts and far rights, perhaps we now need to put our remaining ideals to back in action We, now the elderly trees that remain in this still yet fertile Earth, which is rapidly becoming Elliot’s Wasteland of “dull roots with spring rain.”

    Any thoughts other than those that are yet positive, idealistic, and humane belong in the dark unconscious shadows of despair.

    Sir Gary, although we have never met, nor spoken to each other, I find our email exchanges quite an enhancement of my spirit, and that includes this inspiring article by you. As we both know, all of this is due to Antonio C.S. Rosa and Transcend Media Service, through which we met.

    May others contribute to TMS by responding to your compelling and fine article on the way we were in Camelot, back when both time/space seemed limitless.

    Perhaps we need to remember that it still is.

    Roberto

  2. Gary Steven Corseri says:

    Compadre, Robert

    Your letter is a treasure trove!

    Very happy to find you here–after the absence of letters at this remarkable TMS site (because of technical difficulties). Letters, whether in agreement or disagreement with the originating piece, being vital for a serious website, aiming to encourage dialogue, discovery and mutual exploration.

    Of course, your letter is non-academic, authentic, smart–the kind of dialogue people like to pass around, encourage others to join in, aim higher and probe deeper.

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