From the Archive — From the November 2014 issue

Camelot Revisited

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We engage in political activity so that we may, as societies of men, deal with the world as it is. This is not a slight endeavor; the world as it is, experience teaches us, is not easy to deal with. Some men all of the time, and almost all men some of the time, try to escape from it, into dreams or fairy stories or myths, the subcreations that J.R.R. Tolkien has named Secondary Worlds; some men even try to carry these Secondary Worlds directly into the Primary World — the world as it is — and impose them on it. What many of the most vocal and disruptive of the political movements in the United States had in common during the second half of the 1960s was a radical failure to distinguish between these two worlds. People carried their Secondary Worlds directly into the Primary World, which is the proper care of politics, and tried to impose them on it. The politics of the United States became theater at its worst, psychodrama — and it has not yet recovered.

The Kennedys had an unusual impact on the social imagination of the American people during the years in which they acted — beyond the meaning of anything they did — and the force of that impact was to persuade the people either that the limits of politics could be transcended or that politics could transcend the limits of the commonplace world. The one place where these self-declared pragmatists did not feel at home, where they were not content to act, was in the world as it is. Even when, in their practice of conventional politics, which was also a part of their method, they had to bow to the world as it is, they still implied that it should, and that it could, be transcended. This was at the root not only of the politics of expectation but also of the politics of confrontation that this in turn spawned. Is this not the meaning of the graves, bitten with such panoply into the hillside of Arlington? Do they not celebrate a time when politics became an encounter of dreams?

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