John F Kennedy at a press conference in August 1963. Photo: Getty
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Where were you when JFK was shot?

Bonnie Greer remembers how “Mom and Apple Pie America” came to an end with the assassination of John F Kennedy fifty years ago.

The question “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” is becoming one of those archetypal measures of age, place etc. There are more people now who can’t answer than who can because either they were too young or they weren’t born.  But I can answer. I know.

A lot has been said about us baby boomers, mainly because most of us are still alive. Humans on the whole have never lived as long and as healthy as us, nor been as wealthy and active. It was all set up to be like this by our parents. We were the hoped-for babies after the catastrophe of total war and genocide. Our births would erase the horror of man’s inhumanity to man and so we were given golden childhoods. We boomers were brought up in a sunny Fifties and early Sixties “everything-for-the-kids” time.

Fathers and mothers were just that – with all of the safety/coddling and security/overprotection those two words imply if you’re old enough to remember “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” or the original “Mickey Mouse Club” or Alfred Hitchcock scaring the hell out of everyone weekly on TV.

Black, white, Latino, rich, poor, no matter, all of our parents tried their best to make our lives as sweet and as safe as possible. Yes, we had the threat of atomic annihilation hanging over our heads – “duck and cover” and the shrill alarm that went off every Wednesday afternoon to tell us to prepare for “the Russians”.

Protecting us from Khrushchev and his minions was an old guy in the White House who was like a grandfather and his wife Mamie who wore pearls all of the time and smiled a lot. How could we know that President Eisenhower had been Supreme Allied Commander in WW2? We weren’t around then, so who cared? That made John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Senator from Massachusetts mine and my fellow baby boomers’ first president.

We were kids and young teens during his campaign and so didn't know much about the politics. I’m from Chicago and my hometown played a huge part overtly and covertly (nothing’s ever straight forward in Chi-town ) in getting him elected. His picture was everywhere. I was a young black girl with a dad who’d grown up in “Mississippi goddamn” as Nina Simone called it so I watched the Civil Rights stuff in the south on TV with a particular interest.  

All that mattered and at the same time it didn’t.

JFK seemed to be a breath of fresh air, a new deal. Maybe he could bring equality – help little black kids like me go to school in the south without an escort from the National Guard. Plus he was young, cute, his wife “Jackie” was beautiful and young and wore fab clothes and they had a sweet little girl, Caroline, and Mrs JFK was about to have a baby. If you’re a typical teenage girl – and I was – what’s not to like?

I had just turned 15 the week before the assassination. Chicago is in the same time zone as Dallas. I was at school in the middle of a lesson, Latin, I think. It was a girls’ school, the last fee-paying school that our dad could afford. The following year I would have to transfer to the local high school, leaving all my girlfriends behind. I was very focused because I didn’t know what my education would be like after the following June. In addition, I was one of a handful of black girls there. It wasn’t easy.

Suddenly, we were all called to assembly. I walked past an open door and peered into the empty classroom. I saw one of the nuns crying. I had never seen that before. Not a good sign. Had the Pope died or something?

After we sat down, we were told that the President had been shot. One of my friends (I was going to say “black friends” but we had no white friends) asked the principal if we black people were now going to go back into slavery.  It was a stupid question and embarrassing, too, but for a second I knew that all of us black girls had asked that inside of ourselves. We finished with a prayer and then were dismissed for the day.

It was raining outside, just like in a corny movie, and people were crying in the street. It was lunchtime and folks were just milling around in a daze. Some guy tried to hit on me and I told him off. He hadn't heard the news.

When I got home, Mamma was in front of the TV. Suddenly, Walter Cronkite, the most respected journalist in America – in short, God – announced that the President had just died. And I still remember this: Cronkite looked behind his right shoulder at the clock on the wall, turned back to camera, and slowly took off his glasses. Mamma and I broke down.

JFK was assassinated live on lunchtime TV. Lee Harvey Oswald – his supposed assassin – was gunned down – on live TV, too. Somebody else – we figured – pulled all of this off. Somebody Big.

My generation – whether left , right, or nothing – started developing a deep, deep distrust of “The Official Version”.  What Ed Snowden discovered doesn’t surprise a boomer one bit, whether they admit or not. We’re all conspiracy junkies. And we’re all a bit crazy, too. Because our golden childhoods got literally blown away. While we were at school.

“Mom and Apple Pie America” ceased to be on 22 November, 1963 at about 1pm CST right after our sandwich, apple, and milk.

I was there. I saw the end. Like Jim Morrison sang.

 

Bonnie Greer is a playwright, author, and the Chancellor of Kingston University.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle