The Anniversaries of Empire

November 22, 2013

While I was in the front yard raking up leaves from the huge maple tree late this afternoon, I heard my 80 year old neighbor, Kathy, call out, “Look at the rainbow.” I glanced over my shoulder, and was much surprised to see a full arch opposite the glowing pink of the sunset. It lasted at least two whole minutes (4:47-4:48). I suppose if I were someone who believed in signs and portents, I might attribute some significance to the appearance of this rainbow. It does seem an unusual coincidence to have this rainbow appear on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, but it’s no more than a quirky conjunction. Even to categorize it in that manner, in fact, is to give it more credit than most people alive in the United States in 2013 would be able to apprehend. Of the people in Long Beach who saw this rainbow, less than twenty percent of them probably have a specific memory of where they were when they learned of Kennedy’s murder. It’s a rapidly dwindling generation of nostalgic grief.

The best books I’ve read about this event are Don Delilo’s Libra and Robert Stone’s Hall of Mirrors. Stone’s novel was published six months before the assassination, and there’s nothing in it that specifically hints at even the possibility of an attempt on a president’s life. Yet Stone’s story summons up New Orleans in the early 1960s with such palpable vividness that one can almost see Jack Ruby standing on a street corner as a nameless extra filling out a scene. Anyone who read the book from the mid-1960s on has the advantage of recognizing this retrospective cameo and the book’s vatic quality is amplified by an eerie recoiling sense of proleptic déjà vu.

The most discouraging coincidence of today’s anniversary is that the United States finds itself more enmeshed in empire mode than ever. A “security agreement” has been negotiated between Afghanistan and the United States that guarantees the continued expenditure of our nation’s wealth on a war that has no justification other than the maintenance of U.S. interests in the mineral and rare earth resources of that country. The likely Democratic candidate in 2016, Hilary Clinton, is no more likely to speak up against the occupation of Afghanistan than she was to object to Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The minimal number of people against the war in Vietnam fifty years ago had far more reason to be optimistic about the success of their movement than anyone currently dismayed by the fantasies of this nation’s military-industrial complex.