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The American paradox

This article had already been written, proofread and printed before the shocking news of the assassination of Robert Kennedy. The article started as follows:

 

America, that country of paradoxes, never ceases to surprise. At the end of the first semester of 1968, America had experienced 88 interrupted months of economic boom, something unprecedented in the history of the United States, and unrivalled by any other country both for the duration and sheer dimension of this growth. Since 1961, the us gross national product has increased to approximately $300 billion, equivalent to 186 thousand billion lire: in seven years, the United States has added to its income the equivalent of that of Germany, France and Italy together. Notwithstanding this growth, today 8 million of the poorest Americans receive various forms of assistance from the federal or state governments (in 1956, this number was only 5.8 million). The thrilling turns of events of the 1968 elections brought to the forefront four or five “leaders” of a truly national standing who in varying ways represented and inspired much of American society, fostering political action in the most active sectors of society. While this beautiful and vivacious political battle is being fought out – tangible proof of the vitality of a true democracy – darker forces continue to agitate in the background (violence still seems to be an essential variable in the American equation).

 

No, I definitely did not foresee any assassination attempt aimed at Robert Kennedy; I could have imagined the assassination of Martin Luther King, and issues connected to the Negro problem, which is at the basis of this article; the Negro problem is an American problem, the ultimate test for the resilience of American society. With Kennedy fallen, we risked being overtaken by anguish and despair. And yet that impetuously solemn and at the same time popular and public chorus with which America wept and commemorated Robert Kennedy, brought about the rebirth of its more profound ideals; it showed the image of a country of contradictions, and despite its contrasts, still a powerful and profoundly united country; in adversity, still tremendously alive and vigorous. The assassination of Robert Kennedy – that great fighter, and intelligent inspirational leader – was a grave blow to American society, but it still harbours sufficient moral and civil energy to lift itself up and heal. Not even the Los Angeles assassination can destroy our hope and faith, even though our preoccupation and apprehension has grown. Thus we will take up the discussion of America and its problems once again. In the current scenario, we will examine the significance of the death of the second Kennedy. In the meantime we will continue along the lines of our initial investigation, beginning where it was interrupted.

 

That great man – Martin Luther King – was assassinated and dozens of cities are now in total upheaval from civil disorder, arson and looting; America prepares for a hot and troubled summer, almost resigned to its fifth season of riots […]. “Cross this great country from one side to the other – wrote James Reston – and what will you find? Fabulous riches, greater than the dreams of Kings, and the slums of Watts; the lowest unemployment levels for many years, yet the highest levels of young Negro unemployment and criminality in the history of the Republic. America’s paradoxes never end. We have never seen in our entire history such moral indifference together with such moral commitment. We have never seen such prosperity and at the same time, the poverty that we witness today. We have never seen so many problems and so many opportunities as now.”

America’s paradoxes do not end here. If an American Negro who had left the us ten years ago were to return today, he would find it transformed: universal suffrage, freedom to enrol children in schools and universities previously reserved for Whites, abolition of racial discrimination on transport or in public places. These and many other reforms would make America in 1968 a much more just and civil country for Negroes than the America of twenty or even ten years ago. […]

America is a country of paradoxes. I once happened to define America as “the country that knows itself”, like no other country knows itself. I have in hand a copy of the latest document on the America that knows itself. This is the Kerner Report, a document by the “National Commission on Civil Disorders” created by President Johnston on 29 July 1967, following the bloody week of riots in New York and Detroit. This report was published at the beginning of March this year, and a few days later a pocket but unabridged edition of over six hundred densely-packed pages was distributed in bookshops and drugstores. I learned from Businessweek that by early May, 1,100,000 copies had been sold. I read this report together with a series of newspaper clippings on the Negro problem that I had collected over the previous months (only essential documents, a dozen thorough investigations by American newspapers and magazines), and I read once more the 50 pages that Robert Kennedy had dedicated to the Negro problem, the crisis of slums and poverty in his book To Seek a Newer World. My head filled with numbers and figures, and these numbers and figures took me back to my investigation of four years ago on the “Deep South” and on the ghettoes of the North. I continued to repeat a phrase from that period: “Things will get worse before they start getting better”, and I found no consolation in that facile prophecy. Indeed, I asked myself: is this phrase still true? Will things – for example, the Negro crisis in America – still have to get worse before they get better?

I had no idea what to answer, but I was still not certain that the worst had passed, even though I realise that the level of morale and material support that the American people of 1968 were mobilising around the Negro problem was much greater than that of 1964. At the same time, there was also great awareness and desperation in the two years since that hot June day when Stokely Carmichael, speaking from a truck to a dense crowd of Negroes in Greenwood Mississippi, promised them Black power (and many understood and still understand that this was not just their due portion of economic and political power, but a revolution or insurrection of Blacks against the White oppressor); and the cry of Black power still conveys all that force. Thus, today’s America is facing that “American dilemma” that Gunnar Myrdal prophetically wrote about more than a quarter of a century ago; and if things do not change for the better, then things may become much worse.

I read the opening words of the introduction by the journalist Tom Wicker to the Kerner Report (Kerner is the Governor of Illinois: and one of the 11 members of the Investigatory Commission composed almost entirely of Black and White “Liberal Moderates”). “This report is the portrait of a divided Nation”. Wicker could not have summarised the significance of this document more appropriately. The same Kerner Report was no less pessimistic: “This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal… To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values”. Is there any alternative to this race towards disaster? The Kerner Report’s response was as follows: “This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible”. But this alternative “a commitment to national action – compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will. The vital needs of the nation must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new taxes enacted”. In short, another revolution will be needed; because, as John Kennedy said, the Negro revolution does not concern only the 20 million American Negroes: “We face… a moral crisis as a country and as a people”. Robert Kennedy said: “The most pressing problem that risks paralysing our capacity to act and to destroy our vision of the future, are the living conditions of the ghettoes, and the violence that has exploded”. “Discrimination and segregation – the Kerner Report writes – have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American… Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Let us reflect a little on these words. This is the mea culpa of Whites, not reactionary Whites but moderate, liberal Whites whose repent reverberates throughout America. If the Kerner Report had not given us anything more, this introduction would have been sufficient. True revolutions – those that really transform the life and power of men – are made by such confessions and by studies like the Kerner Report, an exemplary document of an “America that knows itself”, of an open and pluralist society that still believes (or as always, whose better part still believes) in those founding principles that are still valid and topical after two centuries, since they still have to be fully implemented. But this is the moment in which studies, acknowledgement, and action plans are not enough; real action is needed. This, and not Vietnam, is the most pressing problem that our new President has to face. Or perhaps it is also Vietnam, in as much as this Asian war, which costs $25 billion or more each year, makes any initiative to combat poverty impossible; if it is not resolved, the America that we know today will not survive. […]

“No Governmental programme presently being implemented – wrote Robert Kennedy in 1967 – proposes real solutions to combat unemployment in inner city areas”. Conversely, the number of municipal, federal, state or privately funded initiatives (defining these as experiments would be too little) is sufficient proof that ideas are not lacking. The new President of the United States to be elected in November will have no lack of choice when presenting, in his first “State of the Union Address”, that great programme of civil social and economic renewal that America expects from their President. And nevertheless this great programme for reconstruction of the American society, this “Marshall Plan” for Negroes and the poor people of America, is within the reach of today’s American economy, which is undergoing rapid development and continues to do so (gross national product has grown in the first quarter of this year by 6% in real terms). There are numerous variables, difficulties and obstacles with serious consequences to be tackled: extremely high military costs, a threat of inflation, difficulty in balancing salaries, and an impending need to reduce social cost. One year ago, Walter Lippmann wrote that a democracy cannot take on two overpowering problems simultaneously, by which he meant the war in Vietnam and the battle against poverty. With the numbers in hand, it is difficult to dispute the validity of his judgement.

Therefore we can conclude that only with peace in Vietnam will America be able to dedicate those immense resources that all experts judge necessary to the Negro problem. If there is no peace, or if it comes too late, will the new President still be able to source sufficient resources to start a “new effort” acceptable for the Negroes of the ghettoes, and sufficient to placate or reduce their desperation and revolution? In the meantime, what will happen in the summer elections; how will the Negroes and how will White Americans react? In what measure will the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the chain of reactions that it triggered, influence the evolution of this crisis, which is undoubtedly the most serious that the American Nation has suffered since the Civil War? When these divisions become deeper, will the bitterness between these two Americas become irresolvable?

These are questions that still have no answer. The truth is that America has procrastinated in dealing with the problem of Negro integration in society, which is unlike integration of other ethnic or national minorities like the Irish, Slavs, Italians, or Jews. Negro integration is complicated not only by “skin colour”, but by another irrational element, which is implicated in the evolution of society and the economy. In today’s society, scaling the social ladder under these conditions is impossible; the “spontaneous will” of society and the strong economy are not enough to put the mechanism in motion to recuperate the masses that have been left behind; what is needed is an organised and multifaceted state-backed initiative and the allocation of sufficient funds for the successful implementation of this immense task. For this, (and this is the conclusion of the Kerner Report), American society must be convinced that “There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the nation’s conscience”.

The true problem therefore is political. Only the American people can decide if they truly want to resolve this “American paradox” and thus achieve the promise of the “American dream”. This is the theme underpinning this impassioned electoral battle.

 

Now Robert Kennedy is dead, and we live with the profound feeling of worry and political dismay which accompanies the anguish that this tragedy has generated in all of us. There is an unequivocal conviction, however, that no other aspiring candidate nor American politician has ever had such a clear perception of the necessity to focus all of the nation’s energies towards resolving the twofold problems of racial integration and poverty. No one else has been more profoundly convinced that, by employing all civil economic and moral resources in this effort, America would be able to overcome the crisis and indeed emerge from this crisis profoundly stronger, and finally united.

We can assume that the above conclusion from the Kerner Report (that “There can be no higher priority for national action”) is the exact political message that Robert Kennedy would have brought to the Nation. Just a few days before his death, talk was had of Kennedy’s role at the house of Peccei [Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrialist and philanthropist] with a fellow Senator for the State of New York, Jacob Javits. Bobby – said Javits – is convinced that today, the resources of 80% of rich Americans should be dedicated with absolute priority to raise 20% of America’s poorest from poverty. He is convinced for his own moral reasons (because “Bobby cares”, and takes the problems of the humble and forgotten to heart); he is convinced, and so for this reason he conducts his merciless political analysis to better understand this situation. For Bobby – repeated Javits – this conviction has taken on an almost obsessive importance; it is a political stance that in the end damages him, because a large portion of rich America does not share his sense of urgency and wants to look after its own concerns; Bobby knows that if he moderated his message it would receive more popularity, but he is convinced he is right; and he will not change his direction nor ideas for ambition nor for electoral interests. These were the words that Jacob Javits spoke.

But I was surprised that an almost identical judgement was pronounced by Furio Colombo, when reminiscing on his last conversation with Bobby Kennedy during the electoral campaign in Nebraska. The “American paradox” had become almost an obsession with Bobby Kennedy, and all those who followed him during the 80 days of electoral campaign saw his determination become ever more solid; his meeting with the popular passions was like the crucible in which iron becomes steel. For the rest, the political history of Bobby Kennedy is the story of the progressive refinement of political ideas that progressively became more coherent, more organised, and more systematic. This process had already started during the 1000 days of the first Kennedy; so what had started as a great personal adventure, gradually became a historical enterprise.

The search for a “New Frontier” spontaneously and gradually directed him towards his new and more specific political objective.

But this all brought a certain radicalisation in Kennedy’s political message; starting from the first to the second Kennedy, this message had become more and more ideologised and radical; he has amalgamated within himself with the cahier de doléances of Black America, the preoccupations of masses of university students; he had reacted to this moral ferment by elaborating an ideology of a “participatory democracy” dominated by his almost obsessive social inspiration.

This was Bobby’s Kennedyism, not a purely negative passive reaction to America’s problems, but something more creative; so much so that he was able to gather around him and use these destructive and subversive forces, transforming the juvenile protest or the Negro protest into constructive energy towards a better society.

So, what is left of Kennedyism without Bobby? He was a great motivator, he was an “organisation man”. The organisation still remains, the energies that he invoked and organised are still all there; but we ask whether this energy and organisation can still continue to impact on American society, at least in the short-term, as they would have under the guidance of Robert Kennedy. Thus, this was a fatal blow, a profound wound that almost reached the heart of American society. What will happen after Robert Kennedy? Who will fill this void, who will return to organise and rally around himself intellectuals, students, experts, the masses, in that singular combination of energies that constituted the Kennedy movement? Who will take upon his shoulders this enormous task of advancing the transformation of America?

I have no answer to these questions.

The assassination in Los Angeles pushed America once more towards the brink, it brought to the forefront a future filled with unknown problems and negative potential. The tempest had taken away the helmsman, or at least him who heartened souls, organised his men, and traced out the ship’s route between perilous rocks toward salvation. Now the leader is no longer, but only his ideas and his moral passions remain. Can someone else step into his shoes to bridge that chasm?

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