That’s What They Want You to Think

July 18, 2012

Multiple Pages
That’s What They Want You to Think

Oliver Stone finally has an entertaining movie—Savages—out in theaters again. It’s time to try to do something Stone can’t, which is think dispassionately about conspiracy theories.

As Kevin Spacey explained in The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.” Something similar could be said of how the labeling of any inconvenient idea as a “conspiracy theory” has evolved into a seemingly all-purpose refutation.

The flagrant stupidity of most conspiracy theories popular during my lifetime, as epitomized by Stone’s 1991 masterpiece/fiasco JFK (in which the entire military-industrial complex plots to murder John F. Kennedy by hiring some flaming French Quarter homosexuals), serves to inoculate the powerful against the suspicion that they have influence (or responsibility) regarding events.

It wasn’t always like this. Until recently, it was widely understood that numerous turning points in history—such as the assassinations of Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand—were the results of conspiracies.

Hardheaded insiders initially seemed to assume that John F. Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy. The new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, assumed what happened in Dallas was Fidel Castro’s payback for Kennedy sending the CIA to kill him. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy immediately came up with three potential conspiracies that he assigned his Justice Department confidants to investigate, the Mafia being the most likely culprit in his eyes.

“The labeling of any inconvenient idea as a ‘conspiracy theory’ has evolved into a seemingly all-purpose refutation.”

Oswald turned out not to be the right-wing extremist as was widely assumed and/or hoped. Instead, he had defected to the Soviet Union from 1959-1962, a horrifying revelation that raised the possibility of World War III. On November 24, 1963, Oswald was in turn assassinated by Jack Ruby, who had Chicago gangland ties.

After all these years, it appears that the best explanation we can come up with is that Oswald and Ruby each acted alone. But just because that’s the best explanation doesn’t mean it’s a very good explanation. It’s merely somewhat less absurd than all the other specific hypotheses.

Two Lone Nut Gunmen in one city in two days is rather odd. What’s even weirder is that both had connections to organizations that murder individuals as part of their business operations. Lots of people in Dallas owned a rifle like Oswald, but very few of them had defected to the Soviet Union. Lots of people in Dallas had a pistol like Ruby, but few of them were mob-connected.

Stylizing the facts heavily, there are only four possibilities:

1. Oswald was in a conspiracy; Ruby was in a conspiracy.
2. Oswald was in a conspiracy; Ruby was a lone gunman who happened to have conspiratorial connections.
3. Oswald was a lone gunman who happened to have conspiratorial connections; Ruby was in a conspiracy.
4. Oswald was a lone gunman who happened to have conspiratorial connections; Ruby was a lone gunman who happened to have conspiratorial connections.

None of these is terribly attractive, logically or aesthetically. Numbers 2 and 3 are internally and externally inconsistent. You would have to argue that Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire in Oswald’s case, but not in Ruby’s (or vice-versa). That doesn’t mean either 2 or 3 aren’t true, just that they are unappealingly contradictory.

Number 1 leads to the question: Were Oswald and Ruby in the same conspiracy? Two separate simultaneous conspiracies strains belief. But in this case, so does one conspiracy. What kind of plot encompasses communists and the Mafia?

That leaves us with Number 4: Two lone gunmen.

I guess that’s the best we can do. Yet it’s not such a satisfactory explanation that it should serve to permanently discredit the notion that not everything that happens is a random accident.

Beginning about 1968, conspiracy theories became highly fashionable—the more doubtful, the better. I suspect the key event in this trend was the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy the night he won California’s Democratic primary on June 5, 1968. As Oscar Wilde might have been inclined to say, to lose one Kennedy may be regarded as a tragedy, but to lose two looks like a conspiracy. Or that’s what many people concluded.

It’s largely forgotten today, but in the early 1970s, RFK’s murder was almost as popular an object of conspiracy theorizing about a second gunman as JFK’s was. This was even though Sirhan Sirhan, smoking gun in hand, was tackled by several B-list celebrities including Olympic decathlete Rafer Johnson, NFL star Rosey Grier, and bon vivant George Plimpton (who was possibly on the CIA payroll, but that’s a different story).

Part of the conceptual problem Americans had in dealing with RFK’s murder was that we didn’t have a convenient category yet into which to lump Sirhan, so he got dumped into the dubious-sounding Lone Wacko category. In hindsight, the Palestinian immigrant was obviously an Arab terrorist—he shot Kennedy on the first anniversary of Israel starting the Six Day War in vengeance for Kennedy pandering to Jewish voters by promising to send warplanes to Israel. But the notion of Arab terrorism didn’t emerge until later, and few Americans seemed to make the connection between Arab terrorism and Sirhan.

One unresolved question is whether the rise of conspiracy theorizing was a cause or an effect of the almost simultaneous outburst of popular interest in topics such as astrology, UFOs, Atlantis, exorcisms, ancient aliens, and so forth. Perhaps it was all the drugs, but it’s also plausible that the sudden emergence in 1968 of a vast market for anti-establishment credulity was in part a product of the increasing plausibility of conspiracy theories. If the authorities are lying to us about who killed the Kennedys, many reasoned, then they are also no doubt lying to us when they claim you can’t bend spoons with ESP.

The fervent audience for books about the paranormal and the occult suddenly dried up around 1981. This may have reflected a change in the national mood. Or it could have been that anti-establishment theorizing had dropped far down the social scale from university faculty in 1968 to drug-addled Vietnam vets by the 1980s. Or perhaps the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr.—almost undisputedly a Lone Nut Gunman obsessed with Jodie Foster—helped retroactively validate the official positions that Oswald and Sirhan worked alone, thus deflating the accompanying wacky theories about how talking to your plants makes them grow better.

By the way, Vice President George H. W. Bush almost became president because his boss was shot by the son of his friend and campaign donor John Hinckley, Sr. Was that a conspiracy to elevate Bush? Eh, probably not…George H. W. Bush has a vast number of friends both because he was born high up the pyramid of position and because he has the kind of friend-gathering personality that helped propel him even higher. (Or at least that’s what they want you to think.)

In contrast, there’s a conspiracy theory you’ve likely never heard: that George H. W. Bush helped the CIA with the Bay of Pigs invasion by providing his ships and his offshore oil rigs for supply purposes. The idea that a Skull & Bones man whose father was a US Senator and who himself would go on to be the CIA Director in 1976 was surreptitiously involved with the CIA is too plausible to be interesting.

Many of the best films of the vaunted 1970s had been conspiratorial in inspiration, and conspiracy theorizing remained highly respectable in Hollywood all through the 1980s. Moreover, much of what happens in Hollywood is due to obscure and complex plots, such as an inept actor getting a starring role in one movie because his agent surreptitiously put together a package deal with a studio, teaming him with the delivery of a stronger client for a more important film. And nobody who reviews movies knows much of anything about history.

Thus, Stone’s mega-movie JFK debuted to glowing reviews and eight Oscar nominations. During the long Academy Awards season, however, the Serious Press turned on Stone and eviscerated his movie’s historical accuracy, marking the end of the era in which conspiracy theories were tolerated in polite society.

I guess that was a good thing. Still, everything comes with a trade-off. For example, here we are a half-decade after the collapse of subprime mortgages in the summer of 2007, and almost nobody has gone to jail for it.


Daily updates with TM’s latest