“I can’t look and won’t look,” the renowned historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is reported to have said when photographic evidence was presented to him contradicting the accepted belief that President Kennedy had been shot by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. As recounted by Schlesinger’s son in a disturbing history of the infamous CIA Director Allen Dulles, The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot, “the historian simply didn’t have the ‘emotional resources’ to confront the sordid facts surrounding the assassination.”
The distinction between “fake news” and “real news” has come to the fore. It is more and more obvious that what we hear and read about can be easily manipulated. Public relations guru John Rendon’s 1996 proclamation that he was an information warrior and perception manager seems simplistic today. Notions of objectivity and “all the news that is fit to print” have been exposed as banal narratives that often mask more complex subjectivities. Even in physics, thanks to German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, we recognize that the act of looking at something changes the nature of what we are looking at. Our perception of something and the object we are looking at cannot be separated.
But why should we look? What are we looking for? Are there objects or truths that we don’t want to see? What makes the Schlesinger statement so revelatory is that the Harvard professor and award-winning historian admitted that he could not, would not look at a picture that called into question the official version of the Warren Commission that Kennedy had been shot by a lone gunman. Handicapped by emotions, the famed historian refused to probe for the truth, refused to want to know who really killed his president and close friend.
Are there simpler truths that each of us is unwilling to look at? Each year I prepare my speech after winning Wimbledon. When we look in the mirror in the morning do we see our aging and recognize the inevitability of our future? About how many things do we consciously or unconsciously say: “I can’t look and won’t look.” Why are certain people able to be more rational (‘colder’) and less emotional than others?
Donald Trump is convinced that he is a great president. I am convinced that one day I will win Wimbledon. Whereas I can be rational in demystifying the first statement, I am emotionally hindered in denying the second. (I can be somewhat rational at times realizing that my damaged shoulder will never be able to serve again, but still…)
Hope is based on emotions. It allows us to overcome adversity and move forward. Not all truths can be examined. In the case of the Kennedy assassination and the existence of a deep state and conspiracy to kill the president, which Talbot carefully lays out in detail, I wonder about how much we really want to know. There are obviously those who do, who continue to question the official version and follow various plots. Most people, however, accept the Warren report.
Some illusions are beneficial. My dream of winning Wimbledon gives me hope for the future. However, Trump’s illusion of himself as a great president is not beneficial for him, the country or the world. Schlesinger’s refusal to know the truth may be beneficial to him, but it certainly is not helpful to the country or the world. There are some truths that should come out, no matter how painful they may be. Talbot’s book is a step in the right direction. But, how many of us really want to know what happened?