Montréal, le 14 août 1999
Numéro 43
  (page 6)
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 by Ralph Maddocks
          The unfortunate death of John F. Kennedy Jr. released yet again an outpouring of public emotion and sympathy. The event seemed to be tailor made for TV news channels like CNN, FoxNews and the like. It suited their format very well especially since, as one cynical editor phrased it, « Ever since Kosovo ended, we have had practically no hard news. » It happened also on what is known as a « Slow news day ». The major weekly magazines were also quick to increase their print runs which contained pieces reiterating the sad history of the Kennedy family and even the internet chat-rooms showed a rapid rise in interest.  
          The world is divided into those who will never forget the poignant image of the three year old John Kennedy saluting his father's coffin on its final journey to Arlington, and those too young to remember. In fact it was probably this image, still engraved in the memories of ageing editors, that was largely responsible for the outpouring of much of the sentimental material we saw. 
          The inevitable comparisons were drawn between young Kennedy's death and that of the Princess Diana. There were, in normally cynical New York, mourners laying flowers outside his apartment as well as in other places with Kennedy associations, Washington and Boston. In many ways young Kennedy differed from Princess Diana in that he very seldom used his celebrity to further his own ends. Unlike Diana he tried to create something durable even though his magazine George was in dire financial straits at the time of his death and its future seemed quite uncertain. Apart from the flower laying and television watching there was little other public display of interest. Perhaps the family's decision to hold private funeral services did something to dampen the emotions. A decision which perhaps avoided the kind of excessive communal orgies of second hand feeling and grief which have accompanied the deaths of other celebrities. 
National psychotherapy 
          In our times it seems that emotions are to be worn on one's sleeve and not concealed.  Books are being published such as « Emotional Intelligence », « Know Your Emotional Quotient » and « Emotional Literacy ». It appears that one must display one's feelings openly in public if you wish to be considered a modern adult. While this phenomenon of public confession seems first to have appeared on those dreadful, exhibitionist American chat shows, it is spreading to Europe as well. Never slow to pick up on a trend, politicians are leaping to use this politically correct psychobabble, and if you listen carefully you will hear such words as « empathy », « caring », « sharing » and « reaching out ». At the end of the twentieth century we are being treated to a sort of national psychotherapy where moist eyes are being substituted for common sense. Perhaps Canada has escaped much of the worse aspects of this phenomenon simply because we haven't had any really major tragedy to mourn over. The nearest we came, here in Quebec, was the famous ice storm of 1998, when a few of our politicians tried to appear sympathetic to the plight of those who were victims of the indifference of their and previous governments. For a few days there was a palpable feeling of community, a feeling which was quick to disappear. 
          Accompanying this phenomenon of political emotionalism is the wearing of ribbons. Where this began I don't know, perhaps during the Vietnam war, but it was certainly visible in 1980 when the American diplomats were taken hostage by the Iranians. Wearing a ribbon presumably gives one a feeling of identification with others. Since 1980 we have seen ribbons of various colours being worn for all kinds of events. Pink ribbons for breast cancer charities in the USA, green ribbons for those who sympathize with the cause of the IRA prisoners, black ribbons for anti-ETA campaigners in Spain, red ribbons for people identifying with AIDS victims and so on. The bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma, in which 164 people were killed, provided a choice of coloured ribbons depending upon which of the victims you sympathized with the most. US President Clinton chose white; as he said, « for the children ». 
 « At the end of the twentieth century
we are being treated to a sort of national
psychotherapy where moist eyes are being
substituted for common sense. »
          Is there an explanation for any of this? There seems to be some correlation between the rise of the politics of emotion, and the decrease in popular interest in politics. A British study in 1997 found that the turnout for the election that year was the lowest since 1945. Compare this to the huge outpouring of emotion for Diana. The same phenomenon is certainly true of the USA where voting totals fall with each successive election. In Europe too, as the recent European parliament elections showed, there is also a steady decline in the numbers of those who cast their ballots. 
          More and more there is mistrust of politicians and political institutions, in many cases with reason. Belgium showed this in its « White March » when it excluded politics from the demonstration and whose participants showed an intense degree of mistrust for political parties; many believing that the child murderers were being protected by politicians and officials. Similarly, the view that Diana was killed by security services to prevent her marriage to a Muslim was rumoured throughout the world. The TWA crash in Long Island Sound is still viewed by some as the result of a missile being fired by an American ship. Denials by the FBI and others have simply fueled this view. Even the conspiracy theories surrounding President Kennedy's assassination in 1963 still linger. 
Emotionalism replaced patriotism 
          With this mistrust of the authorities there is a growing feeling of powerlessness. The victim seems to have become the image to be venerated and these outpourings of emotion reflect the sense of identification many people apparently feel with the victim. Collective displays of emotion bind a splintered society together, at least momentarily. Whereas in former times, even as late as the Second World War, patriotism could be found present in North American society, it disappeared at the time of Vietnam. Patriotism is a quality few under the age of sixty can understand and its disappearance undoubtedly results from this growing feeling of powerlessness and alienation.  
          All this emotionalism is able to thrive because it doesn't really threaten the vested interests of the political establishment. In fact, it is ably exploited by many politicians with the willing connivance of the mainstream media which, because of the declining influence of the politicians, tends to have a disproportionate effect upon the public. A rather disturbing prospect.  
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