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Yes, Minor

Posted By Don Boudreaux On November 23, 2013 @ 10:40 am In Complexity & Emergence,Myths and Fallacies,Politics | Comments Disabled

Aaron the Aaron e-mails to me his complaint that I did not “criticize” Steve Landsburg for yesterday “making lite of JFK’s assassination [1].”

Apart from the fact that it’s not my (or anyone else’s) duty to police the internet to discover and call out all offenses, errors, misinterpretations, and other missteps, I in fact agree with Steve’s post and do not believe that Steve in any way made light of that event.

Here’s the passage from Steve’s post that I gather Mr. the Aaron regards as offensive:

Fifty years ago today at 1:30 PM eastern standard time, a minor tragedy took the life of President John F. Kennedy. A little over an hour later, a major tragedy ensued, as Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in to replace him.

Apparently (and here I’m guessing, because Mr. the Aaron didn’t specify) it is offensive to describe JFK’s assassination as a tragedy that is only “minor.”  Yet I’m quite sure that that killing was indeed only a minor tragedy for all those millions of us who are not in Mr. Kennedy’s family or among his friends.

Every day, people are killed and otherwise die prematurely.  Each of their deaths is a major tragedy for them, for their families, for their loved ones, for their friends, and often also for their co-workers.  And because most of these people who die prematurely are productive members of society, the larger society suffers a bit when each dies.  But no one describes every death of every productive member of society as a “major tragedy” for society at large – and rightly so.  Society could not survive if it suffered every day numerous major tragedies.

JFK was no different.  I’ll refrain here from analyzing his merits and demerits as president of the executive branch of one level of government in the United States.  I’ll grant here for the sake of argument that, despite his chosen profession as politician, JFK was on net a productive member of society.  Nevertheless, his death was at most only a minor tragedy for society at large (if, that is, we ignore the major tragedy that, as Steve points out, was the resulting ascendancy of the scoundrelly and power-mad LBJ into the office that Kennedy held).  President Kennedy did not run our lives; he did not roll out of bed every morning to man the nation’s scores of factories; he did not fix breakfast for the nation’s children and send each of them off well-prepared for school in the morning; he held no secret formula in his head for the cure of cancer, the common cold, or erectile dysfunction.

Kennedy was, in short, an ordinary human being doing a job – and a job far less significant than is commonly presumed in what it can contribute positively to our well-being.  Kennedy’s being alive did not give any more life or vigor or knowledge or productivity to the nation or to the world than did the ‘being alive’ of each of millions of other men and women in November 1963, or than does the ‘being alive’ of each of millions of other men and women in November 2013.  So his premature death was no more of a tragedy than is the death of each of the countless other men and women who’ve gone, and who will go, to their graves prematurely.

Of course, JFK’s death – because he was a high-ranking politician – was mistakenly treated as a major tragedy.  The false impression that his death was a greater tragedy than was the premature death of some now-forgotten Mr. Jones or Ms. Smith, also in November 1963, was furthered by the Pharaoh-like funeral that Kennedy got (mostly at taxpayer expense).  (I recall well, as a five-year-old child, watching his funeral live on television.  It made quite the impression.)  This (admittedly impressive) theater and the many (admittedly often soaring ) encomiums for and eulogies to Kennedy should not fool us into believing that Kennedy was any more important to his fellow human beings than was the life of each of the hundreds of millions of other productive human beings then alive on the globe 50 years ago.

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[1] Steve Landsburg for yesterday “making lite of JFK’s assassination: http://www.thebigquestions.com/2013/11/22/this-day-in-history/

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