Saturday, November 25, 2006

Assassination in the Postmodern Age

In 1984, my late grandfather predicted that if Walter Mondale were elected, somebody would assassinate him in order to make sure that Geraldine Ferraro would be elevated to the presidency. Without context, somebody analyzing such a statement today would perhaps make the assumption that my grandpa was paranoid about radical feminism. In actuality, that had nothing to do with it--he was simply a cynical pessimist (I believe he likely voted for Mondale, as he refused to vote for any Republican after Watergate).

I remember as a six-year-old thinking that such a sentiment was very reasonable. (Growing up during the Cold War, going to Sunday School, and obsessively watching "The Superfriends," I was not naive about the presence of evil in the world). However, if the Democrats had an Obama/Rodham-Clinton ticket in '08, and someone suggested the same scenario, I would find such a sentiment unreasonable.

What changed? Me or the world? On the surface, it would seem likely that a six-year-old's view of reasonableness is more subject to change than an entire paradigm--that I simply outgrew a blind acceptance of my grandpa's unreasonable pessimism. But I'm not sure my grandpa's pessimism was unreasonable.

Consider that up to that point, 10% of U.S. presidents had been assassinated. When you further consider that Lincoln was the first, that means 17% from 1860 to 1980 had been assassinated. Consider further that the assassin need not be acting on behalf of an ideological groundswell--William McKinley was shot by a freaking anarchist. Consider further that six other presidents had been the targets of serious assassination attempts (defined by gunshots in close proximity) as of 1984. That means that a full quarter of U.S. Presidents were or nearly were assassinated. Starting with FDR, five of eight presidents were or nearly were assassinated (63%). (You could even make a case for Nixon to be added to the list, too). Factor in the slayings of Bobby Kennedy, MLK, Malcolm X, and John Lennon, and you could see why anyone in 1984 would at the very list refrain from dismissing my grandpa's prediction as blind pessimism (if there is such a thing).

However, things have changed today. Despite the polarized political culture we have, and the increased security in the wake of 9/11, assassination is just not something that is at the forefront of our consciousness. Why? I have a theory, but first consider the following statistics. Plug the following phrases into google and check out the results:

"I hate Bill Clinton": 1,460 hits "I love Bill Clinton": 13,400 hits
"I hate George Bush": 35,300 hits "I love George Bush": 20,900 hits
"I hate Paris Hilton": 12,000 hits "I love Paris Hilton": 14,900 hits
"I hate Britney Spears": 10,400 hits "I love Britney Spears" 15,500 hits
"I hate Osama bin Laden": 198 hits "I love Osama bin Laden" 3,820 hits

I think its significant that pop stars and heiresses are in the same ballpark as presidents and ex-presidents. How is it that Britney Spears engenders 5,280% more hatred than the architect of 9/11?

I think part of the answer is that in the last 20 years he have embraced postmodernism, and we've embraced it in multiple forms. We've elevated irony, detachment, the burlesque, and the carnivalesque. We've embraced the postmodern notion of diffusion of power and to some extent no longer regard people in power as true agents of power. In a culture in which entertainment is pondered as much or more so than ideology, where passionate defense of any ideology is mocked, and where leaders are thought of as subservient to zeitgeist, why go through the trouble of assassinating someone?

(Of course, one need not go far in the "global village" to find cultures that are not postmodern. The "I love Osama bin Laden" hits mostly come from the Middle East, where assassinations occur regularly, where ideology is pondered more than entertainment, where passionate defense of ideology is celebrated, and where leaders are thought of as agents of power).

So does that mean that our postmodern culture is immune from assassination? Not necessarily. I'm going to follow my grandfather's precedent and make my own prediction. The next big American assassination, whenever it may occur, will not be made by a political dissenter. It will be made by someone who wants fame and recognition--a new currency for a new breed of assassin, one that even my pessimistic grandfather wouldn't have been able to foresee.


Anonymous Andrew H. said...

Don't forget Valdimir Arutinian's assassination attempt on the current president in May of 2005.

Interestingly enough, there was a film made by a British director called "Death of a President" that depicted the fictional assassination of President Bush and the after-math of it. However, from what I have read it is not that good of a movie.

7:06 PM  
Blogger Azor said...


The Arutinian case actually fits my theory perfectly...he comes from a part of the world where assassination is still seen as a way to achieve political goals.

10:02 PM  

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