The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California on November 17, 2013 · Page 26
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The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California · Page 26

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A26 SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 2013 os Angeles (Times LATIMES.COM OP-ED The fading glow of Camelot DOYLE McMANUS Fifty years after the death of John F. Kennedy, there's no mystery about why his brief presidency remains an object of fascination: It was glamorous, photogenic, and cut short by an assassination that still seems an insoluble puzzle. Compared to the full-color images of Kennedy and his wife on our television screens this month, other figures of his era seem gray. Still, it's remarkable that Kennedy's iconic stature in the eyes of most Americans has weathered half a century of assaults, some of them from his own archives, as the less savory side of Camelot has slowly come to light. We've learned the details of his relentless womanizing, which extended to plying a 19 -year-old White House intern with daiquiris and then having sex with her. We've learned more about the perilous health of a man who in 1960 declared himself "the healthiest candidate for president," including that he had Addison's disease, a serious disorder of the adrenal gland, and that he relied on cocktails of painkillers injected by his physicians. Si SURVIVORS OF Typhoon Haiyan carry away sacks of rice from The language of By Rebecca Solnit A LIE REPEATED Often and confidently enough can become widely mistaken for the truth, becoming a belief that obscures the facts. False beliefs about disaster follow this model; their poison is concentrated in a few oft-deployed words, notably "mobs," "panic" and "looting." This poison is being poured out over the disaster zones of the Philippines right now as misleading coverage threatens to become its own disaster, augmenting the existing one. Attempts at survival are not criminal acts, yet that is how they are often portrayed in news reports suggesting the problem is out-of-control mobs or looting rather than that the largest typhoon ever to make landfall has left thousands dead and tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, without food, water or medical care. We have headlines like these: "Video Shows Looting in Tacloban Store" (from Euronews) ; "Looting, Gunfire Erupts in Typhoon-Hit Philippines" (the New York Post) ; and "Desperate Philippine Survivors Turn to Looting" (the Chicago Tribune). A story in this newspaper described "rampant looting and lawlessness." And a BBC story quoted an American missionary as saying, "I'm worried it may become a mob situation; we need the military to get there as soon as possible." Or take this from the Associated Press: "Mobs overran a rice warehouse" and "parts of the disaster zone are descending into chaos." As if being hit by 200-mile-an-hour winds that flattened everything they hit and snapped trees like toothpicks wasn't already chaotic. That AP story quotes a police chief saying, "There has been looting for the last three days," but it also quotes a congressman saying: "Some communities disappeared, entire villages were wiped out. They were shouting, 'Food, food, food!' when they saw me." Are these people desperately hungry or are they thugs? The And we've learned that historians don't think Kennedy was such a great president. As early as 1973, Harvard's Richard Neustadt, who was not only a Kennedy fan but an occasional advisor, concluded sadly that JFK's tenure had been undistinguished. "I don't think history will leave much space for John Kennedy," Neustadt said then. "History is unkind to transition figures.... He will be just a flicker." A 1988 survey of historians named Kennedy the most overrated figure in American history. Since then, the verdict hasn't improved much. "Most historians think of him as an average or even below-average president," said Robert Dal-lek, author of a widely praised (and largely admiring) JFK biography, "An Unfinished Life," and a subsequent book on Kennedy's Cabinet, "Camelot's Court." "He never got any of his legislative initiatives passed. He was the architect of a failed policy in Cuba. It's possible to look at his record and see it as a real misery." But that's not how most Americans see it. In a succession of Gallup polls, Kennedy is regularly ranked alongside Abraham Lincoln and story's language suggests the latter, while everything else suggests the former. Disasters have been studied very carefully since World War II. The sociologists who do so have concluded that most people are calm, resourceful, altruistic and generally more than decent throughout crises. But you wouldn't know that from much of the news coverage. Along with electricity and water, the media are too often a service that fails during disasters, spreading rumors and falling back on stereotypes and false beliefs rather than carefully reporting the facts. Should someone who steals food simply to survive a crisis really be called a looter? The incendiary word "looting," for example, is often used to suggest that something dangerous, vile and gratuitous is taking place, though it describes what in ordinary times would amount to non-newsworthy petty theft. And these aren't ordinary times; in a major disaster there is no electricity, so bank machines and credit cards are irrelevant; few if any shops are open; and many homes are simply gone, along with all the supplies in them. All of this means, of course, that there are lots of people without the essentials to survive. Taking necessary supplies from closed and wrecked stores and homes is how people have usually made it through the first days of a disaster, from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A widely circulated Agence France-Press story about the typhoon described a village councilor treading regretfully among the ruined houses and corpses to gather supplies to feed his family. The headline on the piece referred to his actions as looting. Why does this misrepresentation matter? Thanks to bad journalism, many readers come to believe that the storm victims are George Washington in the pantheon of great presidents joined in recent years by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Part of Kennedy's outsized stature can be attributed to his having been photogenic and witty, undeniable virtues in a chief executive. But the public also seems to give JFK credit for accomplishments that weren't actually his, such as the civil rights laws that Lyndon B. Johnson got passed. At the same time, he is not held responsible for the failures of his successor in Vietnam, even though he laid the foundation for an increased U.S. role in Southeast Asia. "Kennedy himself didn't know what he would do" in Vietnam, Dallektold me. "He might have tried bombing." There's at least one important issue on which Kennedy may deserve more credit than the public gives him: He helped remove nuclear weapons from the military options that presidents consider using. He took the first steps toward mutual arms reduction with the Soviet Union at a time when a nuclear war seemed plausible and arms control was politically risky. As Dallek has written, the Joint NOEL CELIS AFP Getty Images a warehouse in the Philippines. disaster criminals or thugs or mobs and that the situation is savage rather than tragic. That can affect relief aid, and it can also provide cover for a government to take the chaos of the storm as a chance to shift priorities maybe suspend the constitution, impose long-term martial law, prevent aid from reaching the victims or bring violence rather than help. Governments may do this partly because they believe the media stories. Thanks in part to rumor-mon-gering and demonizing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, many people in power were willing to believe the worst of New Orleans' residents. Stories suggested that survivors were shooting at helicopters and killing refugees in the Superdome, and the retractions that eventually came were too late to matter. The media can whip up another layer of suffering and destruction on top of an already dire situation, and they often have. Right now, they appear to be doing so again. More than 60 years of disaster studies suggest that actually we do govern ourselves pretty well in crises and in the absence of institutional authority. And most disasters give us more grounds to question institutional authority than to question ordinary human beings. As one journalist in the Philippines wrote privately: "When a man in devastated Tacloban takes food from the shelf of an abandoned grocery, he is called a looter and a thief. When a man in Manila takes money meant for the man in Tacloban, he is called a senator." When newspapers report on human suffering, they suggest we should care. When they demonize the same people, they suggest that maybe we don't have to, and when they focus on the status of material goods rather than that suffering, they suggest property is more important than people. Maybe these things are true, to them. Are they to you? Rebecca Solnit is the author, among other books, of "The Faraway Nearby" and "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster." When we mourn JFK, what are we really mourning? Chiefs of Staff in Kennedy's day routinely included nuclear bombs in their recommendations to presidents in conflicts including Korea, Laos, Vietnam and Cuba. Kennedy's resistance to his generals' pressure for escalation, especially in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and his decision in 1963 to negotiate a test ban treaty the first significant arms control agreement with the Soviet Union should be remembered as his most enduring legacy. But that's not what most Americans remember about JFK; the Cold War, all-consuming at the time, seems like ancient history now. Instead, Kennedy is revered for his image and his ability to deploy stirring language of destiny and determination. Look at those other names alongside Kennedy's atop the Gallup poll's list of most -admired recent presidents: Reagan and Clinton. What do they have in What do you owe your family? Is it OK to lie or even break the law to help a close relative? By Robert M. Sapolsky In the weeks leading up to 12 -year-old Rebecca Sed-wick's suicide in Floridathis fall, she was viciously attacked online by other adolescent girls, who told her she was ugly and urged her to "drink bleach" and kill herself. Then, after Sedwick jumped to her death from an abandoned silo, a shocking post appeared on the Face-book page of one of her harass-ers. "Yes IK I know I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but IDGAF I don't give a (expletive)." Appalled by the ghastly indifference of the message, the local sheriff arrested the 14-year-old, charging her with aggravated stalking. The girl's parents quickly came forward to insist that their daughter's Facebook account must have been hacked. She couldn't have posted that message, the parents said, because they carefully monitored her social media interactions. "I would check her Facebook every time she would get on it," the girl's mother told ABC News. Maybe the posting really was written by someone else. But it's also possible the parents lied to protect their daughter, and if they did, their action raises vexing questions about loyalty and responsibility. Is it OK to lie or break the law to help a close relative? Among non-human primates, kinship is the primary determiner of whether to cooperate or compete with others. But humans have some unique social constructs: devotion to the state and to society, empathy for victims and a belief in trying to prevent further victimization. These factors can complicate decisions. Consider the 2011 trial of Casey Anthony, who was charged with murdering her 2-year-old daughter Caylee. One piece of evidence against Casey, who was ultimately found not guilty of the murder charge, involved a search that had been performed on her computer shortly before Caylee's death. Someone had used the computer to search for "how to make chloroform" and "neck breaking." Casey's mother, Cindy Anthony, took the stand to insist that it was she, not her daughter, who had entered those search terms. The prosecutor presented evidence based on time sheets and computer logs from the mother's employer that she was at work at the time the searches were performed at her home, and therefore couldn't have done them. But Cindy Anthony stuck to her story. Was she lying to protect her common? Not much, except that they cast their presidencies in terms of hope, not retrenchment. (Indeed, Reagan and Clinton consciously borrowed from JFK's rhetoric.) And in a sense, they all got lucky: Their successors didn't fare as well. When we evaluate past presidents, we reconstruct our opinions retroactively. Kennedy wasn't universally popular when he was in office, Reagan and Clinton even less so. "Kennedy is remembered as a success mainly because of what came after," Dallek noted: "Johnson and Vietnam. Nixon and Watergate." When we mourn Kennedy, we mourn the lost promise of the early 1960s, when the American economy delivered a good middle-class living to many and when American power believed itself capable of pacifying the world. Kennedy's tenure turned out to be the hinge between an age of optimism and an age of chaos. "And it didn't hurt that he was assassinated," Dallek said. "He's frozen in our minds at the age of 46." doyle.mcmanuslatimes.com Twitter: DoyleMcManus daughter? And if so, should we celebrate her or blame her for doing so? Sometimes societal bonds prove stronger than family bonds, as in the case of the self-proclaimed Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who killed three people and injured 23 with letter bombs he sent to protest the increasing reach of technology. He was apprehended after his brother David recognized the style and themes of the letters and alerted law enforcement officials to the possibility that Ted was responsible, an act that resulted in Ted's arrest. David gave his million-dollar reward to the families of his brother's victims, making it clear that he had not stepped forward to claim a reward but rather because he felt it was the right thing to do. The legal system is ambivalent about whether a person must choose criminal justice over a family member. In most states, a person cannot be compelled to testify against a spouse, but can be if the case involves any other relative. This is odd in a way because spouses don't share genes in the way other relatives do. For me, a particularly fascinating case of conflicting loyalties is that of Pavlik Morozov, a boy in Stalin's Soviet Union. Young Pavlik, at least according to the official story, was a model citizen, an ardent flag-waver and fervent patriot. In 1932, he chose state over family, denouncing his father for supposed black-mar-keteering. Pavlik's father was arrested and executed, but that wasn't the end of the story. Soon after, the boy was killed, allegedly by relatives who felt his loyalties were misplaced. The regime's propagandists embraced the story. Statues were erected to the young martyr who did his duty to the revolution. Poems and songs were written; schools were named for him. An opera was composed, a hagio-graphic movie was made about his life, and he became an icon for schoolchildren, a lesson about what constitutes the right choice. But what counts as a correct choice can look very different in different cultures, or even to different people inthe same culture. As Pavlik's story emerged, Stalin was told about the boy. And what was the response of the man most benefiting from such fealty to the state? Was it, "If only all my citizens were that righteous; this lad gives me hope for our nation's future"? No. According to historian Ve-jas Liulevicius of the University of Tennessee, when told about Pavlik, Stalin snorted derisively and said, "What a little pig to have done such a thing to his own family." And then he turned the propagandists loose. Robert M. Sapolsky is a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University and the author of "A Primate's Memoir," among other books. He is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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