Sunday 3 June 2018

The Wisdom of Cooke

This morning on Radio 4 I caught a rebroadcast of Alistair Cooke's brilliant Letter from America on the assassination of Bobby Kennedy (50 years ago this Tuesday), which he witnessed close up. I've written about this before – and about Donald Justice's poem on the assassination – but what struck me this time as I listened to Cooke's Letter was the unflinching honesty and wisdom of its closing paragraphs. In these days when self-flagellation is a reflex response to terror attacks and, in the eyes of many, simply to be white is to be by definition privileged and guilty, those last words seem sadly prescient...

 'I have no doubt that this experience is a trauma and because of it, no doubt, five days later I still cannot rise to the general lamentations about a sick society. I, for one, do not feel like an accessory to a crime. And I reject almost as a frivolous obscenity the sophistry of collective guilt, the idea that I, or the American people, killed John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and Robert Francis Kennedy.
I don’t believe, either, that you conceived Hitler, and that in some deep, unfathomable sense, all Europe was responsible for the extermination of six million Jews. With Edmund Burke, I do not know how you can indict a whole nation.
To me, this now roarlingly fashionable theme is a great folly. It’s difficult to resist because it deflects an attack on one’s own conscience to some big corporate culprit. It sounds wise and deep but it is really a way of opting out of a human situation, a situation that includes pity for the dead Kennedy, sympathy for the American nation, and the resurgence of its frontier traditions in a later time. And, not least, compassion for Sirhan Sirhan.
I said as much as this to a younger friend and he replied, "Yes, and I too, I don’t feel implicated in the murder of John or Bobby Kennedy, but when Martin Luther King is killed, the only people who know that you and I are not like the killer are you and I."
It’s a tremendous sentence and exposes, I think, the present danger to America. The more people talk about collective guilt, the more they will feel it. And after 300 years of subjection and prejudice, any poor Negro or desperate outcast is likely to act as if it were true that the American people, and not their derelicts, are the villains. 

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