Friday, November 22, 2013

Do you know the other famous people who died that day?

A shorter version of this appeared in at least one local newspaper; the longer version may come out in the C-J on Sunday and will come out in the Indiana Policy Review's journal next quarter. Enjoy!

November 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of the death of three highly influential people: Aldous Huxley, John F. Kennedy, and C.S. Lewis. Kennedy—in his life and especially in his death—is the most famous of the trio. But all three had an impressive impact during their lives and in the decades since.

All three have ancestral roots in Great Britain: Kennedy was a third-generation Irishmen; Lewis was born in Ireland and lived in England; Huxley was from England. Kennedy was a war hero whose family connections, wealth, and political aspirations led to holding office in the U.S. House, the Senate, and the White House. His assassination at age 46 is considered one of the most memorable moments in 20th century American history. Huxley and Lewis lived into their 60’s, didn’t have memorable deaths, and are not as well known—but have arguably had a bigger influence on the world.

Huxley was an author whose most famous novel, Brave New World, is routinely rated in the Top 100 of all time. Brave New World covers topics from eugenics to a State-enforced class system, from the massive use of prescription drugs to euthanasia. Alongside George Orwell’s dystopian novels, Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell and Huxley have served as prophets of a technological, totalitarian, and bureaucratic society. The thoughts behind these books have influenced generations of readers in a way that is difficult to measure.

Lewis was a Literature professor whose prolific writing ranged from academic to popular. He used a wide variety of genres: children’s literature, science fiction, allegory, poetry, and non-fiction Christian “apologetics”. Recently, his work has been a significant player in pop culture. Max McLean has had a long and successful run with his one-man play version of Screwtape Letters. Some of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia—a seven-book series that combines a children’s story with strong Christian references—has been the subject of high-budget films. (The first was The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.) Narnia has been a staple of family reading for decades, selling more than 100 million copies.

Lewis’ books on apologetics are more popular than ever. From the “modern” logical approach of Mere Christianity to the “post-modern” narrative approach of The Great Divorce, Lewis showed remarkable literary range as he tried to make the Christian faith reasonable and compelling—for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Lewis’ emphasis on “mere” Christianity is also important—focusing on the “mere” essentials of the faith, with its resulting pluralism and strong but broadly-defined unity.

The religious views of all three men were also interesting. I became aware of this coincidence of deaths through a neat little book by Peter Kreeft, Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death. Kreeft writes as if recording a discussion between the three as they await Judgment. For Kreeft, Lewis represents biblical Christianity; Kennedy represents “cultural Christianity” or a tepid Deism; and Huxley represents a combination of agnosticism and pantheism.

As for Kennedy, beyond his status as a historical figure and a cultural touchstone, his political impact was also significant. From one angle, we can see echoes of Kennedy in Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Both were effective with television and popular with the general public. And Kennedy’s muscular (if not always effective) anti-communist foreign policy and “supply-side” economics served as pre-cursors to Reagan’s policies.

Kennedy reduced corporate income tax rates and cut personal income tax rates dramatically across the board. (Kennedy reduced the top tax bracket from 91% to 70%; Reagan then reduced it from 70% to 28%.) As Reagan, Kennedy noted that in the presence of high tax rates, “the soundest way to raise revenue in the long term is to lower rates”.

Likewise, Kennedy’s most famous inaugural address line—“ask not what your country can do for you”—points to fiscal conservatism and relatively small government, at least by today’s standards. Tellingly, in a December 1958 TV interview, Eleanor Roosevelt said that she would do all she could do to prevent a “conservative like Kennedy” from being the party’s nominee. In these arenas, Kennedy’s distance from the bulk of today’s Democratic Party is noteworthy.
But in other ways, Kennedy was a precursor for those who led the charge for larger government and greater Executive Branch power. Using techniques made famous by subsequent presidents, JFK (allegedly) got the IRS and the FBI to target and wiretap groups that were hostile to his administration’s goals. 

In a speech to the National Press Club as he campaigned for President in 1960, Kennedy argued against “a restricted concept of the presidency”. Instead, a president “must be prepared to exercise the fullest powers of his office — all that are specified and some that are not.” Kennedy imagined a president who would “build more schools” (an interesting role for the federal government!), “be the center of moral leadership”, and who “alone…must make the major decisions of our foreign policy”. As such, Kennedy’s vision for a more powerful presidency governing a more expansive government has been prophetic as well.

As we observe November 22nd, we should give consideration to the work of all three men. Kennedy’s short presidency left a mixed legacy and his assassination is still the subject of sensationalism. But the lives of Huxley and Lewis have a more enduring legacy that should receive more careful reflection.


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