Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Day the Universe Changed: November 22, 1963

The Day the Universe Changed was a BBC / PBS tv series by science historian James Burke. His premise was that there are particular events in history that have far-reaching and unexpected effects on the way we view the universe, a concept he has developed further in numerous books and tv programs since then. Wikipedia says that "The title comes from the philosophical idea that the universe essentially only exists as you perceive it; therefore, if you change your perception of the universe, you have changed the universe itself." In the final episode of the series, Burke predicts the democratization of knowledge (and thus power) through advances in communication technology. In other words, he was looking ahead to pretty much the online landscape we have today.

It's great stuff, but only indirectly related to tonight's entry. I'm borrowing his title in reference to two particular days that did pretty much what Burke was talking about in the 1980s. The events that made them so important took place thousands of miles apart, 45 years ago this weekend. They changed our universe in completely different ways. Tonight I'll cover the first of these, and in my next entry I'll talk about the second one.

A portrait of JFK at Pima County Democratic Headquarters.
You can just about make out the reflection of an Obama volunteer also.

For Americans and much of the world, the date that still resonates, still matters to us, is November 22, 1963. Those of you who are old enough to remember anything from that year undoubtedly remember that day. I was only six, and didn't fully comprehend it until much later, if ever. It was the day President John F. Kennedy was shot. My mom picked me up from school that afternoon and drove me to the Hall of Languages at Syracuse University, where my dad was an assistant professor in the Speech Department. I sat in a large, empty classroom, drawing headstones until my parents were ready to take me home.

To get an idea of what it all meant to adults at the time, take a look at a series of nine videos on YouTube, comprising over an hour's worth of the unedited CBS network feed from that day. The quality of the sound and picture is fair at best, and the technology is astoundingly backwards by today's standard. But once it gets going it's surprisingly contemporary in what is being reported, and emotionally riveting even today.

The black and white footage begins with almost nine minutes of As the World Turns, featuring discussions of why some guy who looks like Richard Long invited somebody-or-other to Thanksgiving dinner. We see commercials for starch and fabric softener, and then a simple news bulletin appears, over which the unmistakable voice of Walter Cronkite announces that President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. Incredibly, the network shows a little more of the soap opera and a few more commercials, punctuated with more bulletins from the still-unseen CBS anchor, all frustratingly scanty in their information. Eventually, though, Cronkite gets on camera, and we see him pulling together the story from wire service printouts, voices of others standing nearby, and live reporting from the Dallas venue where JFK had been scheduled to speak. Cronkite reports that a couple was being questioned on the grassy knoll, and that someone thought he saw "a colored man" (if I heard that correctly) shoot from the Texas School Book Depository. Reports vary as to which floor held the window where a rifle was seen. We hear that Governor Connolly was also shot, and eventually that he is in surgery. We hear that the President collapsed into his wife's lap, and that he's been taken to Parkland Hospital. Early reports are that he's still alive. We hear that Kennedy was in Dallas to try to restore unity in his splintered party, calming the concerns of right-wing Democrats. We hear that U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was recently hit on the head on Texas by a right-wing woman with a picket sign, but that Kennedy had received a "warm Texas welcome" from cheering crowds. From the hospital, unseen on camera, are reports that two priests have been sent for to administer last rites. Live footage from the speech venue is of a prayer by an attending clergyman, followed by the meeting's dismissal. By that time, the Dallas station is saying that a Parkland doctor, in tears, has told a reporter that the President is dead. This is not told to the people at the speech venue, and CBS awaits confirmation. Eventually Cronkite reports that an arrest has been made, but police are still looking for another suspect; and that Dan Rather of CBS has also reported that JFK is dead. Let's pick up the story there, in Part Seven of the YouTube posting:

The footage continues here.

The assassination sent shockwaves around the world, and we still feel the ripples. They rebounded on us twice in 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were shot. We felt a weaker tremor when Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt. For some of us now, all these years later, there's a renewed worry of major aftershocks. In the wake of spurious claims that President Elect Barack Obama is a secret Muslim who pals around with terrorists, wants to destroy Israel, etc., a frightening number of people believe that the next President of the United States is an anti-American terrorist foreigner who should probably be killed. I doubt that many of JFK's detractors believed anything quite so spurious, but enough people from Texas hated him that Cronkite spoke about them at some length on that day. 45 years later, radio talk show hosts, right wing web sites and anonymous email forwards spread the hatred far more efficiently than the right wing groups of 1963. Precautions are taken, reports of threats and conspiracies are investigated and a few arrests have been made, but still I worry for Obama's safety. I really do.

The next day, on November 23, 1963, a black and white children's science fiction drama premiered on the BBC. Such a event seems ludicrously trivia compared to the assassination of a U.S. President, and yet its effects are still profoundly felt in the realm of British pop culture, and by science fiction fans around the world. I'll have more to say about that later today, but for now, enjoy this fan-made "trailer" for the first season of that landmark tv series:



Bea said...

I was ten years old when President Kennedy was assassinated... I remember it vividly. We were sent home from school early that day... and there was no school the next day. People cried openly, adults. I felt sad as well because I loved our president... in much the same way I am experiencing our new president of 2008 elections. I live in the (relatively new) projects, in Manchester, New Hampshire at the time. My son shares his birthday with this historic tragic event. THanks for sharing the Dr Who trailer... I had no idea that Dr Who went that far back!! I did not see my first Dr. Who until my own son was about 10 years old, when he started watching it. I think the Actor with the head of curly hair was in the role of the illustrious and adventurous doctor. Great entry.

barrettmanor said...

Ack! How did my comment to this post end up way down the page? I told ya my sinuses were acting up! Sorry about that.

Call me Paul said...

I am fascinated by the cult of JFK. The man has posthumously been granted a virtual sainthood. His short presidency was a mixed bag at best, but Americans seems to think he would have been some kind of saviour, had he lived.