At the end of the first week of May, 2020, a family member with whom I frequently correspond, caught up in the online pandemic brouhaha, startled me with the following question: “Why are so many people against ‘conspiracy theory’?” By way of a response, she proceeded to solicit from me something that could serve as propaedeutic to a subject about which she professed only a limited familiarity. While I did not feel confident enough to speak directly to the situation at hand, I did agree to furnish her with some of the fruits of a long-standing engagement with this problem.
The essay set before you is the outgrowth of my initial, faltering attempt to satisfy that request, which culminated in this string of loosely connected digressions on the use of the expression “conspiracy theory” and the attitudes that usage betrays. Over the course of its exposition, it touches repeatedly upon the treatment of conspiratorial thinking within the social sciences and by the printed and electronic media in the U.S., but notwithstanding its length, I would hardly claim it has done justice to the breadth and scope of the attention this subject has received.1 Nor has it set for itself the task of explicating the alleged rise in popularity of this brand of reasoning during the last few decades, though it does include remarks on why we must be cautious when we encounter analysis of this phenomenon in the mainstream media. But most importantly, as you will soon come to realize, should you venture further on, it pretends in the end to be no more than a sustained editorial on a political issue which has festered for years now in the U.S. like a wound that refuses to heal.
In the interest of being as forthcoming as possible, I am compelled to offer here advance notice that my thinking on this matter has been molded by more than five decades of inquiry into the events which transpired in Dallas on November 22, 1963, New York on February 21, 1965, Memphis on April 4, 1968, and Los Angeles on June 5, 1968: that is, the four major American political assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, respectively, which all occurred within a timespan of slightly less than five years and which may be said to stand together as a benchmark against which controversy concerning U.S. domestic conspiracy can be measured. I do not wish by this to indicate that no subsequent events either in this country or elsewhere are susceptible to a similar scrutiny, but only that the amount of material available on the former, especially the murder of John F. Kennedy, and the quantity of research that has been devoted to them, has provided us a more comprehensive context for appreciating how an argument for conspiracy may be legitimate. Furthermore, as I and others have contended, a real grasp of how and why these assassinations occurred and of what happened in their aftermath is historically empowering, and can unlock the significance of contemporary affairs in crucial ways unavailable to the less informed. It is well beyond the scope of this essay, however, to lay out the basis upon which I would argue it is valid to question the official explanation of those events. That would require several other lengthy essays.
I can only hope this disclosure will not lead my readers—to whom I would prefer to attribute a certain broad-mindedness—to brand me preemptively as undeserving of the time required to wade through what has admittedly become a much more prolix disquisition than was originally intended.
The title I have chosen for this excursus echoes that of a provocative item published at Common Dreams in 2007 by the Maine artist Robert Shetterly, “The Necessary Embrace of Conspiracy”.
All great truths begin as blasphemies.
— George Bernard Shaw
Conspiracy and the skeptic
Let me state at the outset that I would never speak of anything I happen to lend credence to as a “conspiracy theory”; for I do not reckon myself a “conspiracy theorist,” but a skeptic. Skepticism is, as most will concur, a prerequisite for doing empirical science, and it is in that spirit that I try to reserve judgment on assertions which are not grounded in demonstrable evidence, corroborated by independent sources and couched in a careful and precise methodology. Alas, I am, as are we all, not always successful in separating out the wheat from the chaff. And this is no doubt the major hurdle, especially when you venture into areas where you lack expertise. It is imperative to practice due diligence, or you may regrettably end up being snookered.2
When it comes to extraordinary or unobvious claims, one would be foolhardy indeed to base one’s judgment solely on trust of the provenance of an endorsement or the apparent believability of the source. Such a move is precisely what critical thinking is supposed to avoid. In the words of the legendary physicist Richard Feynman, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”3 As the conventional history of ideas would have it, before the 17th century, truth was largely a matter of auctoritas [authority]—in the sense of the canonical prestige accorded through written tradition4—and not of direct and reproducible observation; but the scientific revolution supposedly changed all that (though there is an undeniable filigree of traditionalism running through many strata of contemporary culture, which on the whole one would be hard-pressed to call scientific, if we can draw any inferences from the worldviews held by most of those born into it).5
That being said, the skepticism I speak of here differs from that of the scientist in one crucial way: it is directed not so much at the observation of nature as at institutional and corporate power. Einstein is quoted as saying that God is subtle but not malicious. But if nature does not act by design, people do. It is not enough to question what is orthodox or taken for granted, to doubt the capacity of people to see things accurately and clearly, or to reject what may strike one as a facile explanation of complex events; one must also distrust the pronouncements coming from those who have a vested interest in coloring information one way or the other. Those people are in fact liable, indeed could be said to have fostered the tendency, to label such mistrust of their intentions precisely as “conspiracy theory.”
Which leads me to my first point: what does that expression really signify? What is it meant to refer to? The fact that its use is so pervasive in today’s parlance is already a sure sign that something is out of joint. For very often one does not even know why what is called a “conspiracy theory” actually entails the notion of conspiracy. I will have occasion to return to this point toward the end of this essay.
As Robert Shetterly notes in the article from 2007 mentioned in the preface, the etymological derivation of ‘conspiracy’ [< Latin conspiratio] consists of the prefix con- [together] joined to the stem spir- [blowing, breath], meaning literally, “a blowing or breathing together, in unison.” As such, the term was often employed in various Latin contexts to signify unanimity, concord, or harmony, and not just to denote a plot or intrigue (the latter usage being synonymous with another Latin term, coniuratio [lit., taking a joint oath]). In English, the verb ‘conspire’ can in fact carry such positive or neutral connotations of “coming together,” not unlike instances one can find of its Latin counterpart conspirare.6 But let us leave historical linguistics to one side, adhere to the more commonly negative meaning of the noun, and simply define it as “the decision of two or more individuals to cooperate in secret in some way, usually illegally, in order to further their own ends or interests.” This is fairly close to the legal definition, for conspiracy is in fact a functioning juridical concept (for example, conspiracy to defraud a client), and if simply invoking it constitutes a conspiracy theory, then every criminal prosecutor in the U.S. at some point in his or her career can be accused of being a conspiracy theorist. Of course, when the term is used at large, its import usually transcends that of a case, say, where several people planned to rob a bank. And that is the heart of the matter, for it is only in a much broader context—one whose dimensions subsume the fate and fortunes of societies, nations or economies—that accepting the reality of conspiracies has become such a stumbling block, the poison apple that many are reluctant to bite into. The purely legal implications of conspiracy therefore bring us no closer to addressing that question, namely, why conspiracies whose ramifications are of some magnitude or which have to do with institutional or class power are held to be illusory. (Henceforth it should be assumed that this is the kind of conspiracy under discussion.)
Now one might immediately object that I have exaggerated the degree of antipathy to this idea, for it would seem that even in the U.S. media some claims of conspiracy at this level incite controversy while others are accepted without demur (e.g., Russian hackers). I would respond that this fact in and of itself is telling, and we will have more to say about it later. But one path toward a fuller understanding of the discomfort induced by this subject is to explore how historiography has been challenged by notions of conspiracy, for it is in that forum that a thorny theoretical issue has been explicitly raised: Does conspiracy ever offer a sound hypothesis for the modeling of momentous events? It can in fact be argued that the conceptual and evaluative boundaries delimiting today’s debate were first drawn in reference to this question by the social sciences after World War II.
History, society, and conspiracy
This is, grosso modo, the thesis set forth in “Conspiracy Denial in the Social Sciences,” the third chapter of Lance deHaven-Smith’s Conspiracy Theory in America (University of Texas, 2013) [76-105]. In the chapter just preceding this one, the author seeks to elucidate how the designers of the U.S. constitution were guided by a fundamental suspicion of secret factional agendas—in other words, conspiracies—that threaten to subvert the democratic basis of governance. As we move into the 20th century, however, this optimism about how the politico-legal system may serve to check corruption and collusion was challenged by the way monopolistic capitalism and the State had joined hands. The historian Charles Beard addressed this state of affairs by proposing that economic class interests had from the beginning motivated constitutional language (this view became known as the “conspiracy theory of the 14th amendment,” for Beard maintained it was specifically crafted in order to extend personhood to corporations, not just that it was twisted to mean this after the fact). Beard’s view of sociopolitical progress continued to be optimistic, positing movement in the direction of ever-increasing democratization, where governance would finally become fully divorced from wealth and property. For him, it was precisely elite conspiracy that represented the antidemocratic counterforce threatening an authoritarian backlash by the privileged. The task of historiography was then to expose these antidemocratic ploys.
But the early decades of the 20th century also rearranged the gameboard: the rise of totalitarian regimes drew impetus from ideologies which blamed calamities on ethnic or racial groups; most notably, Nazism took as one of its tenets the idea of an international Jewish conspiracy (also identified with Bolshevism). Not only did this open a substantially different window on the character of conspiracy, but argument for its existence now facilitated authoritarianism rather than serving to unmask it. It is during the period immediately following WWII, and in reaction to this phenomenon, that social historians began to speak critically of a “conspiratorial worldview.” deHaven-Smith focuses on two figures who were instrumental in shaping subsequent thinking about this topic, Leo Strauss and Karl Popper.
Both of these scholars work from the same assumption that the historical trajectory followed by a society is from closed to open: the foundational myths and religious principles that are unshaken in its primordial state become loosened by contact with other cultures as well as by the rise of philosophy and science. But, as deHaven-Smith argues, Strauss’s assessment of this trend is diametrically opposite that of Popper’s, even though both are concerned with how regression toward totalitarianism might arise within it.
A forebear of neoconservatism, Strauss accepts as given the hierarchical organization of society wherein elites have the duty to govern the masses, but he views the undermining of the belief system through philosophy and science as an avenue whereby that ruling class may lose respect for the law, ending in something like a gangster state.7 Like his philosophical precursor Plato, he therefore countenances the “noble lie” in order to camouflage the license necessary on occasion to break the established codes of conduct by assassination, fomenting war, framing opponents, and so forth, all in the interest of preserving the overall rule of law and of shoring up national piety and social cohesion. Strauss does not, as deHaven-Smith points out, use the word ‘conspiracy’, but nonetheless warns against exposing this reality, because divulging it would have the same destabilizing effect as science and philosophy; the author characterizes this as Strauss’s ban on “dastardly truths.”
For Strauss, then, elite conspiracy would fall under the class of violations marked by a Machiavellian necessity, condoned and kept concealed for the sake of preventing strong-man dictatorship.8 Such arguments do have an uncanny ring; think of how conspiracy theories are credited today with having eroded public confidence in government to the point of having enabled the seizure of office by obstreperous and deviant personalities. Yet more than Strauss, it is really Popper whose views have been most influential, whether directly or indirectly, on the contemporary conversation.
Taking the same point of departure in the way a society’s traditional beliefs get liberalized, Popper claims that the collateral effect of this process is to dislodge the privileged classes from their position of authority; threatened by this loss of power, these classes manipulate superstition, fear and ethnic prejudice in order to gain authoritarian control and return the society to its traditional praxes. In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper presents this strategy of conspiratorial blame as a secularization of religious superstition. He offers the machinery of ancient epic, for instance, in which wars are the result of the scheming of the gods, as a prototype, with the gods prefiguring powerful social groups. He goes on to use the term “conspiracy theory” pejoratively to refer to the precept whereby social phenomena are explained through the “discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence … and who have planned or conspired to bring it about” [quoted by deHaven-Smith, 92]. Popper is at pains to demonstrate that, even though conspiracies may occur, they mostly fail, thwarted by the institutional lines of resistance they may encounter, or simply by circumstance; the planners’ intentions are thus more often than not uncovered or left unrealized. Popper would argue then that because this method is not generalizable, it is invalid. Seeking out conspiratorial causes for social phenomena is further said to resemble the larger fallacy called “historicism”—the notion that history is working toward some goal, guided by some principle or intention, whether it be Hegel’s Absolute, Marx’s Class Consciousness, or Christianity’s Fullness of Time. “Conspiracy theory” thus forms the middle ground between tribal magical belief and abstract teleology. To see social history as the playing out of conspiracies is as faulty as historicism, he maintains, inasmuch as every event that occurs must then be taken as the outcome of design, not via impersonal forces, but through planning by groups or classes of individuals. And since human plans fail, so does the conspiratorial explanation in general.
We can certainly appreciate why Popper sees in the hunt for conspiracies a hazardous potential to underpin totalitarianism—we need only consider the supremacist movements that have recently been on the upsurge, and which repurpose some version of the same ethno-ideological pseudo-history as the National Socialists of 1930s Germany. Popper’s theory is nevertheless not unproblematic. Not only does the grouping together of vague ethnic or racial conspiracies with intrigue on the part of power brokers seem skewed and under-analyzed, but, as deHaven-Smith rightly points out, there is also a logical flaw in Popper’s reasoning, for belief that some events have conspiratorial causes does not by necessity lead to the conclusion that all events do, and just because conspiracies often fail does not mean that they never succeed. Furthermore, and ironically enough, Popper’s etiology of conspiratorial belief paradoxically appears to postulate its genesis in nothing less than a class conspiracy to delude the masses.
It is deHaven-Smith’s opinion that the shift in perspective represented by theorists like Popper (along with a refocusing of the social sciences toward behaviorism) left historians and social critics unprepared to resist the wave of anti-conspiratorial sentiment that ensued during the 1960s. Whether this is true or not, we must agree with him that
Journalists, public officials, and scholars who ignore the lessons of Charles Beard, who do not remain on guard against potential intrigue by dominant classes to preserve their political power by rigging the system while they still can, and who dismiss conspiracy beliefs as outlandish and pernicious are actually embracing Popper’s theory unawares, assuming elite conspiracies cannot succeed or be kept secret and failing to consider whether ... there is any empirical evidence to recommend this theory … .
deHaven-Smith’s chapter omits a development which also has, in my opinion, a non-negligible bearing on the attitude that prevails in the U.S. today within the walls of academia. The decades after the 1960s witnessed the ascendency, particularly in the humanities, but also in the social sciences, of a very different tradition of thought, one molded by post-war European thinkers whose philosophical pedigree not only traces back to Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger, but whose paradigms were also filtered through structural anthropology and linguistics. The impact of “post-structuralism” has been as profound as it has been heterogeneous, but from the perspective of methodology, one of its principal effects can be pinpointed in the privileging of system over subject, of impersonal, material and cultural determinants over individual agency or intentionality.9 It should for this reason come as no surprise that students trained in those disciplines which practice this genre of criticism would be less preoccupied with gauging the reality or appraising the efficacy of hypothetical conspiracies than with unearthing the conditions and factors which lead individuals to think in terms of conspiracy and to behave as if they existed; in other words, they would be less predisposed to see conspiracy as an actual motor of history and more inclined to treat it as a construction—or, to use Foucault’s terminology, as the enunciation of a particular cultural discourse.
Regarding the role of the subject in political history, analogous sociological premises that take freedom of thought or action to be constrained by formative environment or restricted by systemic rigidity can also come to preside over deliberations about conspiracies (particularly assassinations). For instance, the idea that individuals rarely act counter to the norms or outside the value parameters of their class or social milieu has been used to argue away any motivation for the removal of John Kennedy from office by his establishment peers.10 Conversely, some assume the power structure to be ultimately impervious to the fluctuations which any single individuals in positions of influence, however non-conformist, might generate, and thus would downplay the momentousness of their actions (and thereby of their elimination). To return to the JFK assassination: it is curious that mainstream historiography on both Right and Left has been reluctant to take stock of how that event did indeed affect the political and economic landscape as well as the balance of power (see further at n. 40). The strategy on both sides has been to deny that anything essential was altered by it. But resorting to a lack of change in order to certify that there was no conspiracy only makes sense if one accepts that conspiracies could in fact have systemic repercussions; otherwise, one is caught in self-contradiction. If such were not the case, the reputed continuity of the status quo could indicate either conspiracy (in spite of the evidently misguided expectations and superfluous actions of the conspirators) or its absence, so it ends up indicating nothing at all. One last, purely theoretical remark in this regard: Putting “conspiratorial” exegesis into stark opposition with “systemic” analysis skirts or oversimplifies the dilemma posed by the interaction at a given point in time between concrete instances of elements in a system and the structure of the system as an abstract whole, a problem recognized (but left largely unsolved) by the early structuralists as the intrinsic puzzle of how to unify the two orthogonal views they designate as synchronic and diachronic.11
Of those whose politics would, according to the customary classification, fall on the left, I would estimate that most are inclined to advocate for such systemic understandings of socioeconomic reality and are thus also prone to be dismissive of the search for conspiracies past or present. Not all proponents of progressive or radical viewpoints, however, step into this trap. One of my favorite exceptions is the long-time labor activist, prolific critic of militant imperialism and corporate hegemony, Michael Parenti. (You can search for him on YouTube and listen to any one of scores of talks he has given over the past three or four decades.) Responding to the tendency to treat the social order as the product of abstract forces alone, Parenti has openly disagreed with his colleagues on this count:
Unfortunately there are some individuals who believe that a structural analysis demands that we treat conspiracies as imaginary things, and conscious human efforts as of no great consequence. They go so far as to argue that we are all now divided into two camps, which they call the structuralists and the conspiracists. ... I consider conspiracies (by which most people seem to mean secret, consciously planned programs by persons in high places) to be part of the arsenal of structural rule. No social order of any complexity exists without the application of conscious human agency. Ruling elements must intentionally strive to maintain the conditions of their hegemonic rule. The social order of a society does not operate like a mystical abstracted entity. It is directed for the most part by people who deliberately pursue certain goals, using all kinds of power, including propaganda, persuasion, fraud, deceit, fear, secrecy, coercion, concessions, and sometimes even concerted violence and other criminal ploys. Rather than seeing conspiracy and structure as mutually exclusive, we might consider how conspiracy is one of the instruments used by the dominant interests in political life. Some conspiracies are imagined; some are real. And some of the real ones are part of the political structure, not exceptions to it.12 (my emphasis)
In one of the talks available on YouTube, Parenti has this to say about how anyone attributing organized planning to the upper classes automatically is accused of believing in a “conspiracy theory”:
Whenever you ascribe conscious intent and pursuit of self interest at the top, you will hear someone say: “What are you, a conspiracy theorist?” You can say farmers consciously organize to pursue their interests and everybody will say “Uh huh, farmers are organized.” You can say machinists or auto workers are organizing and everybody will say “Uh huh, they’re consciously organizing and pursuing their own interests,” or school teachers, and other people. But if you say the people who own most of America and most of the world—if you say they consciously organize and pursue things to get what they want, then you hear people saying, “Oh, you have a conspiracy theory? You think they really do that?”
The alternative to a conspiracy theory is an “innocence theory.” That is, they do all of this stuff but they’re not pursuing self-interest. They just do it, you know. The other alternative is a “somnambulist theory.” Somnambulism is the tendency to walk in your sleep. David Rockefeller gets up in the morning and says, “What am I going to do, to advance and protect my interests? No, no, that would be conspiratorial.” Another alternative would be “coincidence theory”: it’s just coincidence that this happened. A variation of “coincidence theory” is “uncanny theory.” Then there’s “stupidity theory” and “incompetence theory.” There’s also “stochastic theory.” [...] It means everything happening by random ... there’s really no causality, as such. Stuff just happens. History is just these eventualities that tumble down on top of each other.13
Beyond the obviously parodic drift of the second passage, Parenti is merely voicing a commonsense precaution, one reminiscent of Beard. But his words are also consonant with those of another luminary of U.S. social history who speaks largely the language of system. In his seminal work, The Power Elite (Oxford University, 2000 [1956; Chp 12]), C. Wright Mills differentiates between, on the one hand, the reality of a thorough-going interlocking of military, corporate and political elites into a single power structure, and on the other, any conspiratorial explanation of its nascence:
The conception of the power elite and of its unity rests upon the corresponding developments and the coincidence of interests among economic, political, and military organizations. It also rests upon the similarity of origin and outlook, and the social and personal intermingling of the top circles from each of these dominant hierarchies. This conjunction of institutional and psychological forces, in turn, is revealed by the heavy personnel traffic within and between the big three institutional orders, as well as by the rise of go-betweens as in the high-level lobbying. The conception of the power elite, accordingly, does not rest upon the assumption that American history since the origins of World War II must be understood as a secret plot, or as a great and coordinated conspiracy of the members of this elite. The conception rests upon quite impersonal grounds. 
But then he immediately qualifies:
There is, however, little doubt that the American power elite—which contains, we are told, some of “the greatest organizers in the world”—has also planned and has plotted. The rise of the elite, as we have already made clear, was not and could not have been caused by a plot; and the tenability of the conception does not rest upon the existence of any secret or any publicly known organization. But, once the conjunction of structural trend and of the personal will to utilize it gave rise to the power elite, then plans and programs did occur to its members and indeed it is not possible to interpret many events and official policies of the fifth epoch without reference to the power elite. “There is a great difference,” Richard Hofstadter has remarked, “between locating conspiracies in history and saying that history is, in effect, a conspiracy …” (my emphasis) 
In chapter 1, entitled “The Higher Circles,” Mills characterizes the “no conspiracies” version of history as one which attributes everything to “impersonal drift”, and anticipates the conclusions I have just cited by asserting: “To accept either view––of all history as conspiracy or of all history as drift––is to relax the effort to understand the facts of power and the ways of the powerful.” 
It is noteworthy today how much energy the mainstream continues to devote to repudiating the idea that history in its sweep and outline is a conspiracy. No serious scholar I know of actually entertains such a notion, so plainly such refutations are aimed at the putative convictions of a wider audience. Yet more often than not, framing the question this way impresses me as an attempt to set up a straw man rather than to establish an archaeology of shared belief. It serves as a more or less willful distraction from the real issue at hand: in Hofstadter’s words, “locating conspiracies in history.” In sum, I think it safe to say that any theoretical framework which categorically excludes from its purview the possibility of collusion, specifically among the power elite, not only risks appearing politically ingenuous; such self-imposed blindness may incur the danger of enabling the very thing it so adamantly refuses to see.
The uses and abuses of anti-populism
Having broached the question of political ideology, I would like to remain on this topic for just a moment longer, even at the peril of appearing unduly bent on disparaging one end of the spectrum, but pleading as justification the fact that it is only natural to be most anxious about putting one’s own house in order.
One of the interesting contradictions that inhabit the bosom of the contemporary Left in the U.S. is its relation to and outlook on populism. In the 19th century, agrarian populist movements in the U.S. were in fact progressive in some of their social and economic aims; they shared with the labor movements a common platform on a number of causes. But more recently, due to the emergence of a brand of popular protest often joined at the hip with a racism, xenophobia and virulent nationalism reminiscent of its European predecessors of the 1920s and 30s, and particularly in light of the fact that some of this “populist” foment is really the creature of moneyed special interests (remember the Tea Party?), the Left has come to regard this label with suspicion, and has sought to dissociate its own grassroots activism from it.14
It is my further contention, however, that the anti-populist strain on the Left equally derives from a desire to be associated with enlightened social critique.15 At its worst, such an attitude inadvertently breathes new life into the view of the masses, of whom the Left has supposedly cloaked itself in the mantle of guardian, as an uneducated rabble, spurred on only by instinct and impulse—a characterization found in nearly every conservative elitist historian from antiquity to Gibbons and beyond.16 But the urge to distinguish protest guided by reason and fact from one mobilized by ignorance and fear may likewise drive the Left to eschew the conspiratorial, insofar as the latter comes to epitomize for them the same surrender to the irrational.
That the Left would adopt, though perhaps fortuitously or not fully consciously, a position on conspiracy redolent of Popper is unsurprisingly coherent in this light. This solidarity is reinforced by Popper’s perhaps most well-known philosophical contribution, his definition of the scientific method as one grounded in falsifiability (i.e., there must exist a way to demonstrate a given hypothesis is wrong for it to be workable),17 a feature which conspiracy naysayers never tire of pointing out is conspicuously lacking in much of conspiracy theorization. And doubtless we have all been on occasion subjected to someone blathering on about current events, pretending to reveal “what’s really going on” and serving up a gloss which reminds us of that old joke about the beatnik standing at the corner of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, snapping his fingers and claiming thereby to be keeping the tigers away. (A passerby dissents, “But there aren't any tigers around here” and the would-be public guardian, in rejoinder: “See what a good job I'm doing?”) Yet however sensible in principle it may be to have misgivings of this sort about uninformed and glib theorizing, we would nonetheless be remiss not to acknowledge that scientific theory itself can fall short of Popper’s requirement, and that over the past few decades within the field of the history and philosophy of science the usefulness of this formula has been substantially reassessed.18
To be sure, the desire to distance oneself from the readership of the supermarket tabloid is not solely a trait of those on my side of the political fence. Many, I would venture, do not ally themselves with “conspiracists” simply because they have concluded, without knowing Popper’s arguments or having recourse to any special theoretical apparatus, that seeking out invisible agencies that act with a purpose to control our destiny (Darwinian evolution or the laws of physics are thus disqualified) is an inferior mental habit akin to belief in superstition or magic, or that it just represents lowbrow or lower-class resentment. From there, it should be simple enough to see how being called a “conspiracy theorist” is tantamount to being tainted with the odor of the peasant.19
Or of the mentally ill.20 It is hardly necessary to point out that equating belief in conspiracy with paranoia is a cultural meme. Their interchangeability has become a conceptual tic, a sclerosis of the intellect; it is nearly obligatory in any discussion of conspiracy, serious or humorous as it may be. (A few more remarks on this follow in the fifth section below.) But has this coupling merely emerged from within our collective imaginary,21 or has it to some degree also been weaponized? The larger question—how much of our anti-conspiracy posturing is the result of a common intuition that conspiratorial explanations are by nature fragile, and how much is actually the product of provocation or manipulation—deserves to be asked. For while this posturing may rely on and perpetuate a number of faulty assumptions about class distinctions, or make a leap to the pathological which is unwarranted, what is more appalling is the fact that there has indeed been a concerted effort to drive people away from a critical examination of oligarchy by preying upon these prejudices. That effort comprises some of the most egregious examples of duplicity that our mass media has been guilty of.
The great conspiracy leveling
Like many others, I am sure, my spouse Antonia and I relax in the evening by watching videos. Much of the time (though not always), we will choose for this purpose items of little substance, what I would call Hollywood junk-food. One such example we recently viewed again is the film Sneakers, in which the lead role is played by Robert Redford. As it happens, the film contains several clever jabs at the U.S. political Right and at the National Security State. For instance, as the final credits roll, we are led to infer, thanks to the microchip which he secretly withheld from the NSA, and which was supposedly capable of doing RSA decryption without a private key (this is before Peter Schor’s 1994 proof that David Deutsch’s model of the quantum computer could in theory solve prime factorization efficiently), that Bishop (Redford’s character) then managed to break into the Republican National Committee’s account and transfer the money to Greenpeace and the United Negro College Fund. Or when the NSA nabs his team of security hackers but is then blackmailed into paying for their silence by granting each one a wish, the non-sighted telecommunications wizard Whistler (David Strathairn) requests “Peace on earth, good will toward men,” and the NSA officer (James Earl Jones) replies, “We’re the U.S. government; we don’t do that sort of thing.” But the film also caricatures the “wacky conspiracy theorist” in the figure of Mother (Dan Aykroyd). In one scene, the ex-CIA agent Crease (Sidney Poitier) asks him, “Are you saying the CIA caused the earthquake in Nicaragua?” and Mother replies, “Well, I can’t prove it ….” Quite a bit of water under the conspiratorial bridge for Redford between this film and Three Days of the Condor.22 Another example, this one from the Disney studios: National Treasure, part 2, which invokes the JFK assassination in the same breath as Area 54, and makes fun of “inside job” conspiracy theories by having a history-literate Wunderkind (such researchers are all childish obsessives, aren’t they?) confront Nicholas Cage’s character Ben Gates with the (as I understand it, now mostly discredited) theory that the Lincoln assassination was a plot that originated inside Lincoln’s cabinet.23
Why, you may ask, am I wasting your time with Hollywood fluff? Because it is representative of nearly everything that flows through our waking consciousness from the media today concerning conspiracy. The engines of pop culture constantly churn together all conspiracies as if their factual basis and truth content were all the same. Any reasonable person, given just a little pause, can grasp that there is a world of difference between believing aliens are walking among us, controlling our thoughts or sending messages through the Dewey Decimal System, and holding that John Kennedy was assassinated by extremists in the National Security State. Yet that is one of the more effective ways serious questions concerning the secret conduct of policy in a supposedly democratic republic get squelched. You make the dirty truth look incredible by association with what most would judge to be fatuous and worthy of ridicule. It is powerful conditioning.
This happens in several different arenas. One is through playful mockery in films such as those cited above. Another is through television programs or YouTube videos which purport to be educational. About nine years ago, freelance author Frank Cassano penned several essays on Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine, and his attempt to prove how gullible people can be, how easily they can be deceived.24 Here is an excerpt from Cassano’s first foray into the subject:25
Shermer usually starts off his presentations right at the bottom of the barrel—with a supermarket tabloid newspaper (complete with wacky headline about aliens and space invasions). He then proceeds to guide the audience—most of whom appear sincerely suspicious of various “official stories” they’ve been fed by governments (and the media) over the years—through a demonstration which is designed to show how easy it is for the brain to pick up the wrong signals when processing information …
Shermer goes on to mention the Beatles’ famous “Paul Is Dead” rumors and how the phrase, “turn me on dead man” can seemingly be heard if you play the song “Revolution #9” backwards. He then plays the Led Zeppelin song, “Stairway To Heaven,” backwards, which seemingly reveals a long satanic message. (It’s really getting hilarious now, eh, Michael?) Well, this is getting so incredibly ridiculous and over the top that anybody with a half a brain and an ounce of common sense would be reduced to derisive laughter. And that’s exactly what unfolds—almost as if on cue. Audience members have been practically peeing on themselves ever since Shermer brought up those silly alien stories earlier on. But that Led Zeppelin example really takes that cake! To think that some people actually believe that stuff? Sheesh ... are people ever gullible, or what!
And then somewhere along the way—between stories about aliens, UFO abductions, brain functions, satanic messages in songs, and the like (and interspersed between all the derisive laughter)—Shermer quietly, without fanfare, slips in the JFK assassination and 9/11. (See Rule #6 in the Principles of Sleight of Hand: Misdirection. Followed by Rule #7: Switch.) He even tells the audience of the time when somebody in Dealey Plaza told him how President Kennedy was likely shot from a manhole cover. Can you believe these kooks—I mean, how ridiculous is that? (More laughter.) But Shermer, the pitchman, is not selling a product. He is selling a message.
Cassano goes on to opine:
… I, too, am a skeptic ... I don’t believe in UFOs. I don’t believe in alien abductions. I don’t believe in ESP or clairvoyance. I don’t believe in the Moon Landing Hoax. I don’t believe that the Bermuda Triangle is supernatural or evil. I don’t believe in the power of prayer. I don’t believe that the world was created in seven days by an omniscient being.
I don’t believe in the 9/11 Commission.
I don’t believe in the Warren Commission.
For Shermer and Randi to mention the John F. Kennedy assassination in the same breath as aliens and UFOs is a massive insult to the memory of the man—and the office. It is an insult, as well, to those of us who have smelled a rat for 47 years now and would like to see the true culprits brought to justice and an open and equitable democratic system of government restored to the people.
Cassano’s cry of indignation over the sleight of hand which wantonly confuses intemperate credulity with justified circumspection is uttered on behalf of the entire community of serious investigators. Yet there sadly do exist those among the critics of official narrative who start off on the straight way but then get lost in the dark wood, for one reason or another, be it lack of acumen, a certain willingness to accept alternative explanations simply because they go against the grain, or an opportunism and proclivity to capitalize on sensationalism. A case study, indeed perhaps the poster-child for the “if it is provocative it must be true” syndrome, is a professor of the philosophy of science with whom I once corresponded back in 2001. It is the story of how interest in the JFK assassination widened into an embrace of such bogus ideas as denial of the Holocaust, that Sandy Hook was a staged event, and that no planes hit the Twin Towers (see this essay). A cautionary tale about where this all can lead even someone with a mind honed on the whetstone of logic and a long academic career.
Conspiracy visits the analyst
The homogenization of the conspiracy pudding is only one of the techniques used to convince people that such suspicions about how power operates are foolishly simpleminded. There exists a veritable toolkit of pop-psychological explanations ranging from collective infantilism to national neurosis (if not mass psychosis) that the media and authors defending the official stories habitually select from, including:
- People can’t believe that an insignificant assassin could fell a figure of world importance and stature;
- Only a highly trained mind can handle randomness; thus the idea that events, especially violent ones, are random is hard for most people to deal with (poor Albert Einstein!);
- People feel comforted by the knowledge that there exists a force beyond their control responsible for such horrible crimes (call that the “we are all Manichean dualists at heart” explanation);
- (in a similar vein) People are childlike in their need for fairy-tale melodrama.
Of course, anyone who has spent any time with the JFK evidence knows which side of the bread the fairy tale has been buttered on; as he quips to documentary filmmaker Randy Benson in The Searchers, Mark Lane kept his copy of the Warren Report on the same shelf as his copy of the brothers Grimm. And notwithstanding the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, if the highest form of thought were simply to dispense with causal explanation altogether, then modern science has wasted its time in a futile pursuit. But such are the attempts to frame any departure from the accepted narrative.
Now not every interrogation of conspiratorial thought-process is necessarily disingenuous. I once had a dialogue along these lines with a friend who is an intelligent and well-read fellow I admire and respect, and with whom I have had many an interesting conversation. But you can see much of the same psychologizing clockwork grinding its wheels in his musings:
Q: The JFK assassination. I didn’t know you were interested in that area. I think it’s interesting how many theories arise around significant historical events like this. People have this intuitive sense that big conspiracies must accompany highly significant events; that a profound event couldn’t come from a meaningless act. It’s an interesting bias spawn, I think, from our sense of teleology—that everything happens for a purpose. What conclusions have you drawn so far?
A: All I will say here is that one can go round and round about “conspiracist” mentalities (what about the cognitive dissonances so blatantly demonstrated by the conspiracy debunkers?), the human need for teleological narratives, and so forth, but in the end all of that is quite beside the point. It is a matter of a criminal investigation, and what we have been given with the official story is a brief for the prosecution so full of holes that it would have been thrown out by any legitimate grand jury. To quote one well-known figure in this case, “the only people who claim to believe the Warren Report are those who haven’t read it”; or, in a slightly nastier vein, to paraphrase another well-known author: “Anyone who has read the Warren Report, compared its presentation of the ‘facts’ of the case to the Exhibits and Hearings on which it supposedly is based, and still believes it, is either cognitively impaired or lying.” Of course, there’s even more to it than that, uncovered by decades of diligent research, FOIA suits and declassification; but simply this much should be enough to brand the assassination a “false mystery” which we have been made to scratch our heads and twiddle our thumbs about for fifty years.26
Run, Forrest, run!
P.S. The question is not so much whether a profound event could come from a meaningless act, but whether it did. And in what way it was profound. I suggest an examination of U.S. foreign policy before JFK, during his presidency, and after his death might reveal something about why the assassination was indeed a profound event.
The sincerity of my friend’s question apart, such rationalizations are predominantly specimens of hypocritical psycho-babble originating with the media and the authors it promotes. Instead of asking the hard questions about what could make the presumption of conspiracy credible, the latter indulge in these specious reflections, to which not only the television-pacified viewer falls victim: the same familiar tropes have also been earnestly absorbed and appropriated by academic and artistic cultural criticism. Several years ago, there was an exhibit in New York on conspiracy thinking. Here is an article about it from The Art Newspaper:
And here is an excerpt from an email I wrote about it (Monday, September 10, 2018):
Take a look at this, from the monthly periodical Antonia subscribes to.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Art Newspaper (published in the UK) elected to feature MK/ULTRA, JFK and COINTELPRO, I can only imagine what the rest of the exhibit contains; more than likely a hodge-podge of UFO, moon-landing, Holocaust-denial, Dan Brown or A Beautiful Mind-type stuff. Especially because it mentions “two tracks” (forensic vs social psychology—uh-oh) taken by the artists.
And in fact it seems to me the LHO exhibit (which dates from 1976 ... I don’t know what its original context or intention was) is framed as if to equate the JFK assassination with A Beautiful Mind (“the way conspiracy feels”).
I guess I should not be surprised by all of this. These are my ex-cohorts going to work at cultural criticism. Except, in this case, I think they are not just analyzing what they feel is popular mentality; they are substituting for it the dubious meant-for-mass-consumption notions typical of pop-psychological media-generated pabulum.
One thing particularly caught my eye though: the reasoning that MK/ULTRA and the Black Panther op are somehow different from the JFK assassination. Dunno, maybe I’m reading that language wrong, but that’s what I gather: the government “hasn’t revealed itself” about JFK the way it has in the other two cases; meaning, if there was anything to it, it would have come out by now, the way MK/ULTRA did.
Now you and I know how many ways this is wrong:
- First of all, the fact we know anything about MK/ULTRA is something of a fluke, since Helms ordered all that stuff destroyed in the early 70s. And we still really don’t know the full extent of the program.
- Isn’t believing in MK/ULTRA even zanier than believing in a plot to assassinate a US political leader? But if the former was reality, then why is it so hard to think the latter is? It certainly finds even simpler analogues in the assassinations conducted by CIA elsewhere. Or are we to believe that somehow such things as assassination of Black leaders or mind-control experimentation on Americans, in many cases unbeknownst to them, are to be expected, but presidential assassination isn’t? Or maybe all these exhibit organizers think the way Chomsky and Cockburn do: why would these guys want to kill one of “their own”? Good grief.
- Finally, and most importantly, the exhibit spokesperson simply does not understand how much we do now know about JFK. The curator has confused what the media talks about with what has actually been established. Forensics, indeed.
So it is not enough the media and the academic establishment say we are deranged. Now the artists do, too. Of course, the “timeliness” of this exhibit is attributed to Trump and the kooks he has brought out of the woodwork. But does anyone remember what was going on under Obama? The exhibit was conceived of in 2010. Cass Sunstein and Adrien Vermeule first wrote their junk in 2008, and it started getting noticed even more in 2010. Quite a coincidence, I would say.
Part 2 (in reply to a question)
As I said, I may have read the statement wrong.
But what does this mean: “looks like conspiracy theory the way we recognize it?” What was the trope for paranoid delusion in A Beautiful Mind but the assemblage of cut-and-paste elements on the wall, a chaotic and suffocating collage purporting to demonstrate ties of the most remote or tenuous kind?
And what of “will never be verified in the ways a covert government operation was eventually made known”? i.e., it’s all vague bugaboo.
Compared to: “Hampton was too dangerous for the establishment.”
That’s what my ear hears. Is it really tin?
Without seeing the exhibit, I can’t say what value it has. I can only react to the write-up. Which definitely falls on the side of “crazy conspiracy theories that see everything connected to everything else.” I think they sandwiched JFK between MK/ULTRA and COINTELPRO to show people what the JFK conspiracy isn’t, not what it is. That is very misleading.
Decades ago, Umberto Eco beat the organizers of the Met Breuer exhibit to the punch. His second novel, Il Pendolo di Foucault (Foucault’s Pendulum), which appeared in 1988, is an adroit and highly amusing, but also deadly serious, burlesque of “paranoid” hermeneutics and history, and (at least in my own reckoning) also probably furnished, along with their mutual source, that mother of masonic conspiratorial nonsense from 1982, the Lincoln-Baigent Holy Blood, Holy Grail, inspiration for Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. It is a propensity like Eco’s to put all such conspiracism under a satirical microscope (not inappropriately, I hasten to add, when it comes to such far-fetched inventions) that in my experience prevents most of the culture-critically attuned intelligentsia from giving any quarter to those who insist that the assassinations of the 60s should not be taken at face value. It is a real shame, too. I have been rather flummoxed by this resistance among my own colleagues, and have actually ruined a few friendships over it.
[April 9, 2022. A (partial) retraction.]
I never had the opportunity to visit the Met Breuer exhibit, which is unfortunate, as it has now come to my attention that my assessment of its nature and purpose was in all likelihood unduly hasty and unfair. In his recent book, Unanswered Questions: What the September Eleventh Families Asked and the 9/11 Commission Ignored, Ray McGinnis spends about a page and a half reviewing it. Here is some of what he reports:
It was advertised as an “alternate history of postwar and contemporary art that is also an archaeology of our troubled times.” Seventy works by thirty different artists “explored the hidden operations of power and the symbiotic suspicion between the government and its citizens that haunts Western democracies.”
The artists were working as citizen journalists, questioning the official stories of record between 1969 and 2016. Another curator of the exhibit, Ian Alteveer, detailed in a promotional video some of the pieces on display: sculpture, video, drawings, and questions of who killed JFK; revelations about the black sites used by US government agents for torture; New York real estate records in the 1970s detailing the practices of slumlords; the attacks on the Black Panther movement by the US government; the AIDS crisis and subsequent response of the Reagan administration, and more. A series of paintings by Sue Williams showed the Twin Towers with the word “nano-thermite,” somewhat smudged out, hovering almost playfully above them.
The curators of the exhibit praised the artists for unearthing “uncomfortable truths.” They alerted visitors that “the exhibition reveals, not coincidentally, conspiracies that turned out not to be theories at all, but truths.” [291-292]
It would therefore seem that my diatribe against the curators and artists of the exhibit was nearly entirely misdirected. What nevertheless continues to be symptomatic is that this false impression was engendered by the way the exhibit was framed in the Art Newspaper article I had read and on which I based my critique. My sense of what is going on there remains unaltered. And apparently, that article’s reservations were quite mild compared to the one in The Nation also discussed by McGinnis, who laments that the latter’s author “scolds the Art of Conspiracy curators for valuing the pursuit of ‘scavenging through the most contested chapters of American history to find plausible alternatives to today’s hard truths.’” He continues: “The article is a prime example of the phenomenon where a journalist presents their beliefs as ‘hard truths,’ while anything they distrust is characterized as ‘conspiracy theory.’”  The approach of the Art Newspaper is not as blatant or absolutist, but is perhaps all the more insidious for it.
From sociology to shibboleth: the rise of “conspiracy theory”
If what I have just written comes across as philistinism, permit me to clarify that I hardly mean by it to dismiss as utterly worthless all efforts to bring present-day mentalities into focus through the lenses of semiotics or sociology. With respect to the latter, and looking at things from a particular angle, you do have to admit that, on the average, it seems as though in the U.S. the public is much more apt today to contemplate all manner of things implausible than in previous generations. What this might correlate with is a harder question to answer, though. Does it have something to do with the shifting fault lines in our social terrain? Can Durkheim’s anomie27 be adduced to account for it? Perhaps it is the long-term effect of a constant diet of junk-thought and entertainment as propagated by commercial television? And is conspiracy mongering peculiar to the U.S., or has it also made itself perceptible elsewhere in the post-millennial world? On the other hand, what could be in essence a persistent phenomenon may just have become more visible (and by extension, according to one line of reasoning, more contagious) thanks to the increased democratization of communication via internet and social media. I am also unsure if or how it tallies demographically.
What I find problematic are not these modes of analysis per se, but the promptness on the part of the media to pursue them to the exclusion of, or in order to obfuscate, other factors which should also come into play. As previously alluded to, it is not uncommon to read today how this attraction toward conspiracy-thinking is destroying the ability of our democracy to function (recalling Leo Strauss). Yet is it not realistic to expect, after decades of scandal followed by scandal, the eventual erosion of confidence in public institutions? Vietnam, Watergate, the revelations of the Church Committee, Iran-Contra, the stealing of two elections, phony WMDs, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the arrogation by the executive branch of the right to “assassinate” U.S. citizens, suspension of civil rights and persecution of whistleblowers, and so on ad infinitum et ad nauseam … under such circumstances, one does not need any special pleading to convince people not to trust the appearance of democratic process. But who is inevitably targeted with the brunt of the blame? Those, of course, who have offered up alternative explanations for major political events, most notably the JFK assassination. The blame is never laid at the door of the institutions which have done their utmost to prevent transparency or accountability. A further cause for consternation is the way this accusatory stance is always accompanied by an insistence that any doubts these critics could have are entirely groundless and preposterous. It is here that we are spoon-fed the compensatory socio-psychological pap pretending to provide some deeply insightful glimpse into our culture or mindset, where most of the time it is nothing but unconvincing and ultimately irrelevant hogwash. For a good example of what I mean, read this essay about a feature story that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly back in 2017 (and see now this follow-up). What demands to be counterposed to this drivel is the obverse side of the culture-critical coin: when the same newspapers or magazines also publish articles about corporate mythopoesis, about how the mass media constructs or props up the mythologies of capitalism and of the purity of our supposedly free institutions, then such excursions into the popular mind may be more readily accepted in the spirit of “balance.”
But the media is anything but balanced. When next you find yourself sniffing mainstream flatulence about current affairs, I would urge you to count the number of times a bloviating commentator or interlocutor prefaces his or her remarks with “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but ….” This has become practically de rigueur if you expect to be granted a hearing concerning any opinion which may lie somewhat outside the norm. “Conspiracy theory” has come to be used so loosely, has lost so much specific meaning, that, in one sense, to be called a conspiracy theorist ends up as nothing more than being called an outsider, being denied membership in the club. Or as Joseph Green has written, the expression often performs like an imprecation or magical oath, providing a way of closing off debate or discussion. “That’s just a conspiracy theory.”
How did this rather peculiar usage take hold? It is not difficult to imagine that once “conspiracy theory” entered the everyday koiné, the spontaneous processes of linguistic evolution went to work, wherein the affinity between “conspiracy” and “sinister intentions” was semantically close enough that substitution of the prosaic “So you think there is something nefarious behind this?” by the catchier or more hip “So you have a conspiracy theory about this?” felt quite natural. But one also cannot ignore the sardonic undertone with which that substitution is invested. And that is the point: We are not just dealing with simple denotative assimilation, because it is the rhetorical force of this displacement that is never lost and that is its very raison d’être. All the more so when this terminology gets transferred to any idea that may be considered the product of an overactive imagination or beyond the pale simply because it challenges approved or received wisdom. Whatever linguistic pressures might have contributed to it, that figurative slippage retains all the power of a studied poetic turn.
From the connotative and illocutionary contours this expression has acquired, one possible sociolinguistic deduction might therefore be that in point of fact it emblematizes, in counterpoint to any pretended surge in popularity, a widening attitude that this mode of conjecture (and anything likened to it) is by nature risible and unworthy of attention. But together with the increased frequency of occurrence, which already lends itself to being read as a barometer of sorts for our society’s fixations, the reality underlying the use of this idiom nevertheless calls for closer inspection. We are in fact left asking precisely how it came to haunt our political and cultural vocabulary in the first place. For language, like society itself, can at times be consciously, not just unconsciously, driven.
The statistical fact of the matter is that the English phrase “conspiracy theory” was rather unusual up until the late 60s. In the introduction to Conspiracy Theory in America, deHaven-Smith asks how the label came to be applied so ubiquitously:
Most Americans will be shocked to learn that the conspiracy-theory label was popularized as a pejorative term by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a propaganda program initiated in 1967. This program was directed at criticisms of the Warren Commission’s report. The propaganda campaign called on media corporations and journalists to criticize “conspiracy theorists” and raise questions about their motives and judgments. The CIA told its contacts that “parts of the conspiracy talk appear to be deliberately generated by Communist propagandists.” In the shadows of McCarthyism and the Cold War, this warning about communist influence was delivered simultaneously to hundreds of well-positioned members of the press in a global CIA propaganda network, infusing the conspiracy-theory label with powerfully negative associations. 
What the author is referring to here is CIA Dispatch 1035-960 (transcription and original), dated January 4, 1967, which went out to “Chiefs, Certain Stations and Bases.” Some chronological context is in order. Journalists, lawyers and researchers like Joachim Joesten, Vincent Salandria, Mark Lane, Edward Epstein, Leo Sauvage, Harold Weisberg, Richard Popkin and Penn Jones had already published articles and books criticizing the Warren Report (the appendix to the dispatch enumerates some of them). Garrison had been investigating behind closed doors since the fall of 1966, but was being spied on and the story was about to break in the New Orleans States-Item (February 17, 1967). Before the year’s end, Josiah Thompson’s Six Seconds in Dallas and Sylvia Meagher’s Accessories After The Fact would both hit the presses. And critics were banging their fists, asking why the autopsy photos and X-rays had never been consulted by the Commission, compelling then Attorney General Ramsey Clark to convene a panel (known as the “Clark Panel”) to review them (behind closed doors, of course).28 At this juncture, the CIA had already penetrated the TV networks and newspapers (it was called “Operation Mockingbird”), and as Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame revealed in a 1977 article for Rolling Stone, according to findings of the Church Committee, the CIA had by the time of those hearings over 400 assets across the country in major media outlets.
As deHaven-Smith further demonstrates, occurrence of the term “conspiracy theory” in the New York Times and Time magazine then grew—nearly exponentially in the former—from that point onward, with a major jump in the aftermath of Oliver Stone’s JFK.29
The two words, “conspiracy” and “theory,” now seemed to form a stable lexemic compound, for which a great deal of energy would be required to break the bonds holding it together. Henceforward, there were to be no conspiracies that were not just theories—at least as far as mainstream commentary, especially in the mass media, was concerned.
Moreover, for us in the U.S. old enough today to have watched the television specials of the late 60s, the upshot of this propaganda program has over our lifetime actually been ambidirectional. No matter what its subsequent frame of reference, the phrase “conspiracy theory” always carries a residual trace of its point of origin. Whenever we hear it, we are tugged backwards, if only subconsciously, to the first link in its chain of allusion, the JFK assassination. It nearly works like a post-hypnotic suggestion, triggering via this recollection a sense that all such indictments of “idle speculation” are also an admonishment against overthinking that archetypal event upon which they have been made to rest.
It was undoubtedly easy for this CIA directive to fall upon receptive ears within the U.S. corporate media, where there appear to operate unwritten rules about the acceptability of opinion.30 In 1986, the professor of communications Daniel Hallin wrote a book, The Uncensored War, about the media coverage of the Vietnam war, in which he argued that the predominant source of information used by journalists (official U.S. government channels) tends to predetermine how any issue may be presented on the air or in print; he schematized this using concentric spheres:
It would be a truism to state that, when it comes to events like the assassinations of the 60s, conspiracy has never really fallen within the narrow sphere of “legitimate controversy,” but always has been pushed to its rim and beyond, into the sphere of deviance. In recent times, this has nearly calcified into a full prohibition. Where before the end of the 1990s, critics were sometimes represented on TV shows dedicated to the JFK assassination—though the amount of time allotted to them was always disproportionately small compared to the time spent trying to debunk them—the anti-conspiracist bent has finally won out, insofar as it is almost impossible these days to get any hearing at all.31
Of further note is that, more so than anywhere else, it is in the U.S. that the inadmissibility of such opinions has become nearly doctrinal with respect to the mainstream appreciation of the power structure. This has repeatedly been underscored by critics of the Warren Commission, and is well worth pondering. Concomitantly, and as others have also pointed out, the idea that conspiracies might occur elsewhere, in other countries, with other political systems, does not cause our media commentators to flinch in astonishment or guffaw with disbelief.32 The climactic sequence in JFK has Jim Garrison saying pretty much the same thing: if the assassination of a Soviet leader had been attributed by Pravda to a lone discontent, the West would have immediately suspected that a power shift had just taken place.
Nor does the press really have an objection to a conspiracy when it harmonizes with a U.S. perspective of the world. What were the events that transpired on September 11, 2001, according to the official story, except the result of a conspiracy of terrorists? What fuels the “War on Terror” but the fear of ongoing secret plans to bring harm to the U.S. by its presumptive enemies? Here the entire category of conspiracy is placed under erasure; the term is not even employed to characterize such activities. Granted, one of the axioms concerning the kind of conspiracy impugned by the media is the intention to keep it secret, so once a conspiracy is revealed (as they loudly proclaim all “real” conspiracies eventually are), it loses its conspiratorial aura. And with political terrorism—whether authentic or manufactured—the modus operandi is not to keep its origins or motivation hidden after the deed has been accomplished, but instead to declare them to the world. So it is to some degree excusable that the conspiratorial element would be glossed over in those instances. In others, however (like the unproven allegations of Russiagate), such considerations do not really hold. But remember: for the media gatekeepers, there are no conspiracies unless they are just theories (which always implies “suppositious” or “unfounded” if not downright “imaginary”). It takes some doing to escape the conclusion that what really is at stake is not at all an epistemology of history, or the application to human affairs of Occam’s razor (another misinterpreted and terribly abused concept often tossed around during discussions of conspiracy),33 but rather that the Rubicon is crossed whenever the integrity of U.S. institutions is questioned.
How the media shapes the national discourse34 goes well beyond the limitations implicitly imposed on its own discussants, because it also instills mimesis of the same practice in its audience. We unthinkingly replicate the same rhetorical gestures, parrying objectionable thought by using the same potent labels, and numbing ourselves to the possibility that some truth could reside in opinions which are not those bouncing continually off the walls of the corporate media echo chamber. At the same time, the counterintelligence program outlined in dispatch 1035-960 has been reborn in such latter-day infotech avatars as the Obama-era proposal by Cass Sunstein for “cognitive infiltration” of the internet in order to defeat 9/11 conspiracy theories. Sunstein also coauthored a book which rehashes the anti-conspiracy arguments I have laid out here. And the beat goes on with social media. Much as I find the more visible conspiracist figures to be extremely dubious, not to mention being revulsed by the right-wing ranting many of them engage in, what else do you call their being kicked off Facebook but an act of censorship?
In the end, though, the efforts exerted by the media and by officialdom to deflect interest in potential institutional-level conspiracies are entirely wasted on that segment of our society—and believe me, there are many in this category—that still puts its faith in U.S. Exceptionalism: to wit, that our leaders and institutions would be incapable of such heinous acts; that, in the words of Warren Commissioner John McCloy, “America is not a banana republic, where a government can be changed by conspiracy.”
Those authors with whom I share the certitude that the assassinations of the 60s entailed high-level planning often take comfort in the fact that the polls in the U.S. show the public on their side. Yet I can only wonder about what this really means to this ostensible majority of citizens, when this knowledge seems to have had little if no radicalizing effect on them. People have not, for instance, been led to demand either drastic reform or total elimination of the agencies the polls say most of them supposedly accept as having been complicit.† Perhaps my fellow nationals are stymied by a sense of resignation, by a sense that those events are no longer relevant, or by an inability or refusal to do the necessary arithmetic.
Or perhaps the pundits are right after all: conspiracy just makes for a good story.
†(As I review and edit this essay for posting, a bill has been introduced into the House, in response to nationwide protests calling for the defunding of the police, to cut discretionary military spending by $350 billion. While it is heartening to see that at least a small contingent of our representatives are willing to try to reverse this seventy-year budgetary hysteresis, this will indubitably end as just another quixotic joust.)
(And, predictably, here it is—July 22, 2020: House Bill to Reduce Military Discretionary Spending by 10% Voted Down 324 to 93.)
Sham’st thou to show thy dang’rous brow by night,
When evils are most free? O, then, by day
Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough
To mask thy monstrous visage? (Julius Caesar II, i, 79-83)
I resist the phrase “conspiracy theory.” As Joseph Green writes: There was a conspiracy to assassinate John Kennedy (and Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy), but I am not a conspiracy theorist. Or as Jim DiEugenio likes to assert: I don’t discuss conspiracy theories, I discuss conspiracy facts.
Not all conspiracies are created equal. The flimsy and at times loony conjectures that find their way into the public domain (there are myriad examples, but I suppose QAnon most immediately comes to mind these days) only complicate the issue, and give a bad name to serious investigations of high political crime.
But a knottier problem has to do with discriminating conspiracy from the broader sense of how power is constructed and plays itself out. To follow again C. Wright Mills: much of what takes place in terms of the political and economic elite need not imply a specific, premeditated decision to subvert the rule of law or to stack the deck in their favor. Most of the time, the policy decisions made by boards of directors or congressional committees are conditioned by a common habit of mind, and move naturally along the lines of least structural resistance, lines which in a capitalist system inherently favor the accumulation and concentration of wealth by a very small sector of society. When the World Bank forces its debtor nations into austerity measures, we cannot properly call that a conspiracy. Nor can we really call it conspiratorial when the FDA pushes through untested pharmaceuticals on behalf of the corporations that could be said to own such regulatory agencies. But here we begin to cross over into that grey area between the structural and the conspiratorial which practices like lobbying and backroom dealing introduce into the equation. It can perhaps be said that in such cases the conspiratorial has in fact become systemic. Returning to our reflections on the press may help shed further light on the liminal nature of the relationship between praxis and intention crucial to the distinction under discussion. There, a professional disinclination toward certain ideas (which is to some degree learned) tills the soil to receive corporate directives (on behalf of stockholders or sponsors) which in turn are on occasion seeded by counterintelligence programs (CIA memos).35 I would propose that it is only to this latter gambit that one may properly attach the notion of the conspiratorial. Thus if the term is to retain any real descriptive force within a critique of socioeconomic power, it needs to refer to something more precise than just the collusive potential built into the system as a whole. As the last example suggests, the most apposite model for understanding conspiracy in our contemporary world is none other than what in the jargon of intelligence is called a covert or “black” operation.
What dictates my approach to conspiracy is therefore something quite straightforward. Safeguarding democracy requires vigilance against alliances which can crystallize around powerful interests for the purpose of achieving ends that lie outside those strictly possible through legal or constitutional process. The existence of state organs which can facilitate and empower such concealed alliances spells nothing if not imminent disaster for the general polity. In this regard, what is often referred to as the invisible government,36 or the National Security State, is quite literally institutionalized conspiracy: it limits sensitive planning to a small number of individuals who need to know the details, and involves whoever else needs to be involved indirectly, often without revealing the true or full purpose of their participation to them, in order to maintain plausible deniability. The centrality of keeping secret in perpetuity both the sponsors of these plans and their intentions further undergirds the equivalence between covert operations and the type of conspiracy this essay has been treating. We sanction this clandestine (and mostly criminal) behavior at the heart of a government which ought to be entirely transparent, and as voters have no control over it. To paraphrase what one CIA officer said to an investigator for the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 70s: presidents come and go, representatives come and go, but we remain. They are the corporate mafia, the organized crime syndicate37 that serves the plutocrats (as some have facetiously observed, CIA really stands for “Corporate Interests of America”), and which we continue to permit to rot the body politic, the worm of corruption that gnaws at the cadaver of the commonwealth which has long ago been laid to rest in the whited sepulcher of our nation’s public institutions. This is the core conspiracy we need to worry about, from which all the real conspiracies of our recent past have, like so many heads of the hydra, sprouted.
The difficulty then rests in developing, case by case, palpable proof for the illegal covert activities commonly dubbed conspiracies, and in bringing it into the light of general public awareness. While the first step is an arduous one, it is not impossible, as the many private citizens who have devoted their lives and livelihoods to that undertaking have made plain, and who for their undaunted perseverance are deserving of our fervid admiration and praise. But it is the second step which can pose a nearly insurmountable obstacle, for it involves scaling the wall guarded by the national media and the publishing houses with which they are conglomerated.
The fourth estate has by and large abdicated its duty to hold government accountable, especially this secret government, which is otherwise accountable to no-one. And so the beast has found a cavern dark enough to mask by day its monstrous visage, whilst it surreptitiously continues to extend its tentacles and consolidate its power unabated.
We should not be astounded by this acquiescence. As Upton Sinclair wrote, it is hard to make journalists understand something when their paycheck depends on their not understanding it. And in fact, the notion of the “liberal media” is a myth38 created by the Right to further keep any form of aberrant reportage at bay. There is no such thing and never has been. In the 20th century and up to this day, the U.S. media has been in the hands of the ruling class. And that class is the same one for which the intelligence community works. Media and intelligence form a natural coupling. More so than in orchestrating regime change or planning assassinations, the CIA’s true forte lies in the control and shaping of information. If you can control the information flowing out of and around an event, you control the event. This is why something like an assassination does not have to be perfectly planned or executed. What is paramount is to ensure the information channels are secured to your purpose.39 The democratically elected Jacobo Árbenz government in Guatemala was overthrown in 1954 without a shot being fired, thanks to the control the CIA, under the direction of David Atlee Phillips and Howard Hunt, had of the radio waves. Some have called it the CIA’s greatest success story (it was prophetically codenamed PB/SUCCESS).
It goes without saying of course that curtailing the influence of the CIA and other like-minded agencies, and even eliminating them, should not be regarded as a sociopolitical panacea, for they are but the strong arm of, and do not themselves constitute, the system they serve to protect when licit means do not suffice. Yet a frontal attack on them would severely weaken the defenses of the status quo. To draw a comparison which I feel is quite apropos: At the time of this writing, the defunding of armed police forces and their replacement by other forms of protection is being suggested by many who would also be the first to speak of the vital need to address our society’s structural issues. I do not believe the proponents of this course of action would go so far as to claim that the police represent the root cause of systemic racism, but it is also not difficult to understand how such a program might advance us in important ways toward more fundamental kinds of change. If that reasoning is at all valid, then it should a fortiori apply to the intelligence apparatus at the very hub of our hegemonic policing of both home and abroad.
Unfortunately, most of the progressive and radical Left in the U.S. has also withdrawn from head-on confrontation with secret government and the menace it poses, preferring instead to engage in a broader style of opposition. As cogent and timely as some of their efforts may be, it is nonetheless deplorable that a tendentious revisionism has crept into what could be called the “standard model” for the events of the 1960s that adherents of these political positions have adopted, muddling and even occluding the role played by clandestine forces in determining the outcome of that decade. In my opinion, this is more than just scholarly indolence; it amounts to nothing less than a trahison des clercs.40
But when all is said and done, and as we have been at present painfully observing, facts—not theories—are what this must be all about. It is hard work being a “conspiracist.” And that is as it should be. For when you stop being honest about evidence, and cut corners, cherry-pick or stretch it to fit a preordained pattern, then you do history as much a disservice as do those who would try to hide the truth in the first place.
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est (Aeneid vi, 128-29)
la via è lunga e ’l cammino è malvagio (Inferno xxxiv, 95)
... long is the way
and hard, that out of hell leads up to light (Paradise Lost ii, 432-33)
Albert L. Rossi
June 16, 2020
revised, September 21, 2020
Since 2001, Al has been doing software development at science laboratories. In a past incarnation he was a scholar of medieval European literature and culture. His LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cinodapistoia/
My attention was drawn today by an article which appeared on Consortium News to two brief papers from 2006 by Julian Assange entitled “State and Terrorist Conspiracies” and “Conspiracy as Governance” (both available here). Beyond the critical significance that the ultimate outcome of his persecution (I use the term with duly considered deliberateness) by the US government will have for freedom of information and the fundamental right to transparency which citizens of a democracy are supposed to enjoy, I believe Assange’s observations merit comment in that they speak to several of the central issues this essay has raised.
Assange sees secrecy as enough justification for classifying authoritarian regimes as conspiratorial:
Where details are known as to the inner workings of authoritarian regimes, we see conspiratorial interactions among the political elite, not merely for preferment or favor within the regime, but as the primary planning methodology behind maintaining or strengthening authoritarian power.
Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self-realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.
The linking of elite conspiracy with authoritarian rule reminiscent of Beard, and the emphasis on the covert nature of its exercise, are not the only points of contact with my own presentation. In a striking statement which might appear tautological, but which actually drives home a point which is not immediately obvious, Assange underscores that “[i]n a conspiracy, individuals conspire, while when isolated they do not.” This realization not only suggests to him potential strategies for undermining the workings of conspiratorial elites; it also makes apparent the fact that individuals in a conspiracy function as part of a structure, and that their actions are not simply dictated by personal initiative. Hence the hackneyed opposition between human agency and abstract system is once more contested by a view of conspiracy itself as a system of relationships, relationships which work within and constitute institutional power.
Most notably, Assange defines conspiracy in computational terms, as a “cognitive device” which takes as input information and outputs a result, the conspiratorial action. Appealing to graph theory, Assange conceptualizes this device as a connected, weighted graph whose vertices represent the individuals and whose edges represent the information flowing between them, the weight of the latter determined by the importance of the information exchanged. Moreover, the size of the conspiracy (the number of vertices in the graph) is not its best measure; it is rather the sum of the weights of the edges that constitutes its “total conspiratorial power.” As a corollary, this model would also imply that some nodes are central, some fringe, and that not all points are aware of all the others; in graph-theoretical terms, this would be equivalent to claiming that knowledge inside the conspiracy is not a transitive relation, a feature which may serve as a (pseudo-)mathematical analogy for what has come to be referred to as “compartmentalization” in covert planning.
In Assange’s slyly AI-inspired algorithmization of conspiracy, everything then becomes a question of information flow. He in fact proposes that the strength of the invisible government has increased precisely thanks to modern advances in digital information technology. As he states: “Conspirators who have this technology are able to out-conspire conspirators without it. For the same costs they are able to achieve a higher total conspiratorial power. That is why they adopt it.” By the same token, strategies for defeating conspiracies entail either breaking the connectivity of or decreasing the weight of the important edges in the information-flow. Wikileaks thus emerges within this paradigm as a weapon of anti-conspiratorial guerrilla infowar. The efficacy of this insurgency in defeating the conspiracy of governance, however, remains to be seen, particularly in light of the recent intensification in state-sanctioned censorship originating from and wielded by the corporate power elite.
1 As an example: up until very recently, I was entirely unaware of the extent to which a debate over the validity of conspiracy theorizing has been carried on during the past decade in philosophical circles; aside from academic journal articles, several collections of essays have been dedicated to the logical issues it raises. See the discussion and bibliography in Kurtis Hagen, “Is Conspiracy Theorizing Really Epistemically Problematic?” Episteme (May, 2020): 1-23 [doi:10.1017/epi.2020.19], which serves as a critical response to Keith Harris, “What’s Epistemically Wrong with Conspiracy Theorising?” in: S. Barker, C. Crerar and T. S. Goetze (eds), Harms and Wrongs in Epistemic Practice. Royal Institute of Philosophy Suppl. 84 (Cambridge University, 2019). Some of Harris’ points just appear to be more rigorously formulated versions of objections that we have been accustomed to hear since the 60s concerning, for instance, the use of evidence by critics and the reliability of the mass media. For abstracts of other articles and books on this topic by Hagen, see his website, “Let’s Get Philosophical.”
2 In this regard, I highly recommend reading James DiEugenio, “Beware: The Douglas/Janney/Simkin Silver Bullets,” which offers several invaluable examples of the scamming that can occur with respect to controversial subject matter.
3 From the speech “What is Science?” given at the fifteenth annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association in 1966. In the preface to the New Millennium Edition of his Lectures on Physics (Basic Books, 2010), vol. I, p. vii, the editor recounts a famous incident from Feynman’s correspondence: in 1975, a student at the College of William and Mary wrote him that his text contained an error which she had relied on during an exam. He responded: “Your instructor was right not to give you any points, for your answer was wrong, as he demonstrated using Gauss’s law. You should, in science, believe logic and arguments, carefully drawn, and not authorities. … I am not sure how I did it, but I goofed. And you goofed, too, for believing me.” (my emphasis)
4 This depends on the transferred sense of auctor common to the schoolroom of late antiquity and the middle ages, as in the accessus ad auctores [prefatory introductions to the “authors”]. See E. R. Curtius, European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages, trans. W. Trask [Bollingen Series 36] (Princeton University, 1973): 48-54. Alastair J. Minnis, Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages [Middle Ages Series] (University of Pennsylvania, 1988): 10-12, clarifies that auctoritas has both a specific sense (an excerpt or quoted passage from an auctor) and a general one, that of the veracity and sagacity with which such a text is imbued. For auctor as the model text to be imitated, see Douglas Kelly, The Conspiracy of Allusion: Description, Rewriting, and Authorship from Macrobius to Medieval Romance [Studies in the History of Christian Thought, 97] (Brill, 1999): 55-59 and passim. In this view, a source derives its authority in large part from its antiquity. Of course, these Latin nouns both have an antecedent application and a long afterlife in the purely juridico-political sphere, but that is not the sense I refer to here. For an incisive discussion of the opposition of auctoritas and potestas in the latter context, see Giorgio Agamben, Stato di eccezione (Bollati Boringhieri, 2003); State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (University of Chicago, 2005), chapter 6.
5 My feeble attempt at sarcasm here is not at all meant to discount the cultural “situatedness” of scientific argument. Even without entertaining a radical ontological equality between “nature” and “text” (or φúσις and λóγος), the role of bias in the selection and analysis of data must be acknowledged; see, for example, the exposé by the eminent paleobiologist Stephen Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man (W. W. Norton, 1996). Gould goes on in The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox: Mending the Gap between Science and Humanities (Belknap Press/Harvard University, 2011) to suggest that the breach between these fields of knowledge is largely a methodological one, a view not exactly coterminous with my own, but for which I do find a certain sympathy.
6 For instance, Macrobius (4th/5th century C.E.), in the preface to his Saturnalia, characterizes his enterprise this way: “tale hoc prasens opus volo: multae in illo artes, multa pracepta sint, multarum aetat[i]um exempla, sed in unum conspirata” [Such is the work at hand I wish to write: there should be in it many arts, many precepts, illustrations from many ages, but all breathed together into a single whole] (Praefatio 10, my emphasis). The study by Kelly cited in n. 4 develops this sense of “conspiring” into a theory of medieval literary imitation and rewriting (for which Macrobius provided an important set of models).
7 The view articulated by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in Dialektik der Aufklärung (The Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944), then expanded by Horkheimer in The Eclipse of Reason (1947), that “instrumentalized” rationality—represented by bureaucratization and the technological objectification of the individual, and resulting in the transformation of the rational into the irrational—is a necessary prerequisite for and prelude to totalitarianism, offers a significant contrast to Strauss’s vision of the dangers of reason, the latter betraying a more traditional anti-Enlightenment stance. On the Frankfurt School, see further n. 15 below.
8 What is ignored here is that such justifications very often disguise ulterior motives on the part of the elite; see, for instance, Michael Parenti’s vigorous and refreshing revision of the dynamics of the late Roman Republic, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome (The New Press, 2003), in particular his treatment of the Gracchi brothers, the Catalinian conspiracy, and the opposition to Julius Caesar.
9 Though somewhat outdated, useful overviews and bibliographies concerning the major figures and schools of thought can be found in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism, M. Groden & M. Kreiswirth (eds) (Johns Hopkins University, 1994). Contemporary currents in literary and cultural criticism (new historicist, feminist, LGBT[QN], postcolonial, and so forth) have each been energized by a variety of theoretical paradigms—structural, materialist-dialectical, and psychoanalytical—all of which to some extent place into question the autonomy of the subject, a perspective which is sometimes referred to as “post-Cartesian.”
10 There is a twin fallacy at work here, one general and one specific: (a) that “class traitors” are impossible (so what about FDR?); (b) that JFK was a member of the Eastern Establishment. Jim DiEugenio has repeatedly emphasized how the latter idea is erroneous; see, for instance, this presentation, particularly slides 20-21.
Though closely related to it, this issue is ultimately distinct from the rift put forward by Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Émile Benveniste between sign and reference (signifiant/signifié) on the one hand, or system and discourse (langue/parole) on the other.
It gets reinscribed into social history as the disjuncture posited by the Annales school (see further n. 19) between rapid and slow change, or foregrounded events and stable background (histoire événémentielle and longue durée). Michel Foucault turned the problem on its end to yield two competing modes of cultural (re)presentation, genealogy and archaeology. The way that such schematizations tackle the interplay of continuity and rupture could adumbrate a similar approach to the relationship between conspiracies and the social or political order. And, in fact, this is not far from the strategy adopted by Peter Dale Scott, who in his Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (University of California, 1996) proposes that conspiracy can serve as a mechanism whereby the system “self-corrects.” Whether or not one endorses the specific arguments made by Scott concerning the JFK assassination, this idea does commend itself as a fairly clever reply to those who maintain that conspiracy is incompatible with a structural theorization of political activity. The chosen conceit, however, draws somewhat less upon the discourse of social and cultural history than upon the modeling of dynamical systems in the mathematical or biological sciences, with its concepts of phase shift and feedback. Of course, one must not lose sight of the risk such a conceit runs of reifying an abstraction to the point of obscuring the fact that there were conscious agents involved in the planning and execution of a crime, lest one diffuse culpability to the point where only the system itself can be indicted. More on the conspiracy vs. structure problem in the following note.
12 Democracy for the Few, ninth ed. (Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011), preface, p. xi. Parenti further explores the conspiracy vs. structure pseudo-conflict in his Pacifica Radio talk “Conspiracy and Class Interest”; this is perhaps the most comprehensive on-line treatment. Several of Parenti’s other books address this issue as well; Dirty Truths (City Lights, 1996) contains two well-known essays on the JFK assassination; both are also available on-line: “The JFK Assassination I: Defending the Gangster State” (153-171) and “The JFK Assassination II: Conspiracy Phobia on the Left” (172-191). The present essay overlaps with and is in essential agreement with much of what Parenti writes on this subject.
13 Transcribed (but somewhat cleaned up) from the YouTube presentation, “Understanding Deep Politics,” at 16:40-21:55
14 Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Vintage, 2008 ), argued that McCarthyism had its roots in the radical agrarian movements of the 19th century, but Michael Rogin, The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter (M.I.T. Press, 1967), basically demolished his arguments about the Populist party of the 1890s. The quest to clarify these differences has become all the more topical in the age of Trump. See, for instance, this piece by Charles Postel in The American Historian; also Corey Robin, “Michael Rogin’s relevance in the Age of Trump.”
15 I intend this in only its loosest sense, and not with reference to any particular philosophical or historical estimation of reason or rationality. However, the influence of the Frankfurt School (Critical Theory) on the Left in the U.S. may not be entirely inapposite. While Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s dialectical problematization (see n. 7 above) of Kant’s Vernunft was reevaluated and reformulated by subsequent theorists like Habermas and Marcuse, Critical Theory’s embrace of rationality as emancipatory appears nevertheless to be foundational (and for that reason is targeted for criticism by Derrida and Foucault). See Claudio Corradetti’s interesting summary, “The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory,” under the section “The Idea of Rationality: Critical Theory and its Discontents.” Quoting Honneth, Corradetti emphasizes that “[o]ne point shared by all critical theorists was that forms of social pathology were connected to deficits of rationality which, in their turn, manifested interconnections with the psychological status of the mind.”
16 It is not my purpose to become embroiled in one of the more vexed issues in the history of Marxist thought, but it is important to recall that the view of the plebs as an unprincipled rabble also underlies Marx’s and Engels’ characterization of the Lumpenproletariat, which they denounced as a “tool of reaction” in the revolutions of 1848 and as a “significant counterrevolutionary force throughout Europe.” Suffice it to say that much of the same problematic concerning the class consciousness, educability and organizability of the “underclasses” can also resurface in critiques of populism. For background and further discussion, see: Robert L. Bussard, “The ‘dangerous class’ of Marx and Engels: The rise of the idea of the Lumpenproletariat,” History of European Ideas 8/6 (1987): 675-692; Raymond Huard, “Marx et Engels devant la marginalité: la découverte du lumpenprolétariat,” Romantismes 59 (1988): 5-17; Jean-Claude Bourdin, “Marx et le lumpenprolétariat,” Actuel Marx 54/2 (2013): 39-55.
17 See The Logic of Scientific Discovery (English edition, Routledge, 2002 ). On Popper see the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
18 The concept has largely fallen out of fashion there; see Hagen, “Conspiracy Theorizing,” p. 3, quoting Harris (see n. 1 above): “’[R]esilience to falsification is hardly unique to conspiracy theories. Scientific theories in general are resistant to falsification. This point is emphasized by Imre Lakatos, among others ... The need to conjoin theories to auxiliary hypotheses to derive testable predictions ensures that scientific theories are not straightforwardly falsifiable’ (Harris, 2019: 245). This is refreshing. The purported unfalsifiability of conspiracy theories continues to be used against them even though falsifiability has, in the philosophy of science, been repudiated as a useful criterion for literally decades. Indeed, the theory that unfalsifiability renders theories unwarranted is itself unfalsifiable, and thus is self-refuting.”
19 “Peasant” or “popular” mentality has been differently construed by various schools of thought at different times. In the sphere of European history, particularly that of the middle ages, this question gained increased attention thanks in good measure to the circle of French historians known as the Annales school. Aside from contributions in this area by Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel, Jacques Le Goff, Georges Duby, and Philippe Ariès, perhaps the most salient were those of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (see The Peasants of Languedoc [1966; trans. U. of Illinois, 1976], and esp. Montaillou, The Promised Land of Error [1975; trans. George Braziller, 2008]). Carlo Ginzburg also explored the problem of “popular culture” through the lens of Inquisitorial documents concerning a 16th-century Friulan miller in his noted study The Cheese and the Worms (1976; trans. Penguin 1988). And see further in this regard the work of Aron Gurevich, e.g., Medieval Popular Culture: Problems of Belief and Perception [Cambridge Studies in Oral and Literate Culture 14] (Cambridge University, 1992). One of the conclusions reached by scholars like Ginzburg and Gurevich is that of fluidity and interpenetration rather than brittleness in the demarcation of social strata with respect to their characteristic conceptual or perceptual patterns. To give a common and perhaps obvious example: the condemnation of magical practice by the doctors of the church does not so much represent a conflict between literate rationality and illiterate superstition (the purported power of magic not being called into question) as it does one over the legitimacy of its source and the authority to wield it. But beyond the degree to which lower-class belief systems may have clashed with or resisted the dominant ideologies, the question of peasant subservience vs. resistance in more strictly material terms has also held the attention of historians; since Engels, for instance, the Peasant’s War in Germany (1524-1526) has been revisited frequently (see this article for bibliographic indications). An interesting look at the 1381 Peasant’s Rebellion in England and the historiographic issues it raises is given by Steven Justice in Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 [The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics, ed. Stephen Greenblatt] (University of California, 1994). Samuel Kline Cohn Jr. provides a critical review of primary materials on popular uprisings and protests during this period in Popular Protest in Late-Medieval Europe: Italy, France and Flanders [Manchester Medieval Sources] (Manchester University Press, 2005); see further his study Lust for Liberty. The Politics of Social Revolt in Medieval Europe, 1200-1425: Italy, France, and Flanders (Harvard University Press, 2006). Outside the domain of European history, Yale professor James C. Scott, much of whose work focuses on Southeast Asia, has examined the imposition of “rational” (both market- and state-centric) economics on pre-colonial agrarian cultures in order to clarify both the nature of the bonds holding them together as well as how and why their disruption leads to unrest and resistance. To cite but three of his studies: The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 1976); Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale University Press, 1985); The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia [Yale Agrarian Studies Series] (Yale University Press, 2010). All of this simply by way of reminding us that the disparagement of “the popular mindset” carries with it a good bit of preconceptual baggage and that it is instead quite possible to inflect “thinking like a peasant” to mean something liberating.
20 The similarity between so-called “primitive” forms of thought and schizophrenia has actually been the subject of discussion in both psychiatry and anthropology since Lévy-Bruhl’s La mentalité primitive (1922; reprint Wentworth, 2018). For a review, see Richard C. Keller, Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa (U. Chicago, 2007), chapter 4, esp. 135ff.; see also Andreas Heinz, “Savage Thought and Thoughtful Savages. On the Context of the Evaluation of Logical Thought by Lévy-Bruhl and Evans-Pritchard,” Anthropos 92.1/3 (1997): 165-173. In a slightly different but related vein, the ambitious structuralist program based on the two linguistic poles of metaphor and metonymy as set forth by Roman Jakobson finds, among other things, analogies in both the unconscious’s quasi-linguistic processes of condensation and displacement (as per Freud, but more explicitly developed by Émile Benveniste and most fully by Jacques Lacan, in articles appearing in La psychanalyse in successive years, 1956 and 1957) and in the two kinds of magical praxis (imitative vs. contagious) described by James Frazer in chapter 3 of The Golden Bough. See the famous essay, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances in Fundamentals of Language,” in: Selected Writings II (Mouton, 1971): 39-59; discussion in Hugh Bredin, “Roman Jakobson on Metaphor and Metonymy,” Philosophy and Literature 8.1 (1984): 89-103. Within this taxonomy, only a small step is required to arrive at what could be termed the trope of conspiracy in its guise as a form of paranoia (a hypertrophied metonymy where everything is potentially connected in some way).
21 Hofstadter’s aforementioned 1964 book certainly gave currency to the pairing of paranoia with conspiracy in the domain of political science and journalism.
22 James DiEugenio, The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (Skyhorse, 2016), chapter 14: 393-413, explores how the CIA strengthened its presence in Hollywood during the 90s.
23 Both National Treasure films are insidiously manipulative. The first one sought to head off at the pass the wave of religious-institutional doubt being put in motion by The DaVinci Code (whose cinematic rendition would soon follow) by taking the quest for the Grail on a patriotic detour in order to validate the U.S. as final resting place of Western culture, with this translatio imperii et studii refigured as the transmission of an ever-growing Citizen-Kane-like heap of fetishized objects (what indeed do scrolls from the library of Alexandria betoken for an archivist who collects George Washington campaign buttons?) whose value in the end is reduced to its potential purchase price of $10 billion (all of our Western heritage is evidently worth less than Jeff Bezos’ net assets). Of course, we (our hero and the FBI) graciously decide to share this treasure with the rest of the world’s museums, but we are not to forget that our Founders were its custodians, that it was deposited in its entirety here, in a subterranean vault near Wall Street. As if that weren’t bad enough, the sequel would then have us reread an act of cultural desecration as one of cultural preservation: the defacement of what was sacred Lakota ground by the superposition of a monstrous white patriarchal iconography (Mt. Rushmore) is revealed to have been a ruse to hide (but from whom, exactly?) a fabled remnant of Native (more precisely, Meso-; so how did that get to the Black Hills?) American civilization, now made good by its rediscovery, as if in expiation for our genocidal past. Talk about the devious pathways of popularized, remythologized history.
24 It is ironic that Shermer would, among other things, choose to illustrate deception using the indirection of the magician, because writers like Milicent Cranor and Lisa Pease have appealed precisely to the magician’s craft to explain how the assassinations of JFK and especially of RFK were choreographed; or, as Bob Dylan recently wrote, “Greatest magic trick ever under the sun/Perfectly executed, skillfully done.” Note also that the first section of Jim Garrison, A Heritage of Stone (Putnam & Sons, 1970), is subtitled: ILLUSION.
25 “The Illusion of Michael Shermer.” See further by Cassano: “Update: Shermer Takes the Message Wide”; “Michael Shermer Strikes (Out) Again: Review of Michael Shermer’s CBC documentary, Conspiracy Rising.” Also, David Mantik, “Anti-Conspiracy theories: Why the media (and Shermer) believe the implausible”; and this response from Germany to Shermer’s CBC documentary, “Citizen Wilcke Dissents.”
26 This last sentence alludes to the manner in which Vincent Salandria characterized the phony debate induced by the Warren Commission, which has entangled generations of even the most well-intentioned critics in meaningless arguments over minutiae, while the proof of conspiracy has been obvious from the very outset. Salandria was the first objector to the official pronouncements concerning the JFK assassination to demonstrate how the very evidence the Commission claimed supported their conclusions in fact does precisely the opposite—that is, to use its own evidence against it, without having to look beyond the pages of the 26 volumes of hearings and exhibits. He was also the first to understand (and declare) what happened on November 22, 1963 as a high-level plot by the National Security State, and to insist that the question of why is what we should be concentrating on, not the purposely distracting puzzle of how, which has engendered a spectacle of indefinitely deferred conclusions and inaction. Salandria, humble in his contentment to ply his sharp analytical skills offstage and generous to others in their efforts, passed away on August 23, 2020 at age 92. You can listen to this four-and-a-half hour tribute to him on BlackOp Radio (mp3 here), and read this essay on him by Jim DiEugenio. Some of his more significant work was collected together as False Mystery: Essays on the Assassination of JFK (Square Deal Press, 2004), edited by John Kelin with an afterword by Martin Schotz. In 2017, David Ratcliffe expanded this with additional material and posted it in electronic form at ratical.org.
27 See Émile Durkheim, Le Suicide. Étude de sociologie (Alcan, 1897); trans. John A. Spaulding and George Simpson (Free Press, 1951). The term is used to indicate a loosening of social regulation on individuals. In its broadest sense, it denotes a condition of instability due to rapid social change causing a disruption of the norms by which people are accustomed to identify themselves, without them having been replaced by a new value system, and thus leading to anxiety or despair. See Anomie. But for an alternative view of anomia, see Agamben, Stato di eccezione, chapter 5.
28 See Lisa Pease, “The Formation of the Clark Panel: More of the Secret Team at Work?”; Gary L. Aguilar, MD and Kathy Cunningham, “How Five Investigations into JFK’s Medical/Autopsy Evidence Got It Wrong,” Part 3.
29 To be fair, the statistical sampling presented here is a limited one and would benefit from broader confirmation. At the same time, one is also faced with a chicken-or-egg question as to whether the journalistic usage is to be construed as active or reactive. What the chart does reveal is inextricably tangled up with the after-effects of increased public debate generated by JFK, which was nothing less than a milestone in the way it raised the level of public consciousness. I have not done an actual study, but the explosion of conspiracy-themed movies and TV shows of recent memory I would guess could also be traced back to this epoch-making cultural event. It would also be of interest to see if something similar to what Jim DiEugenio explores in his essay, The Posthumous Assassination of John F. Kennedy, is relevant to the way films and TV shows have striven to dilute the unsettling effect that JFK had. The film I mentioned above, Sneakers, for instance, dates from 1992, and its snide commentary on conspiracy theory was without a doubt aimed at Stone’s film.
30 But at least some of this derives from more or less patent coercion when it comes to “toxic” subject matter; for revealing examples, see the anthology by Kristina Borjesson, Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press (Prometheus, 2004); e.g. Chp 6, John Kelly, “CRIMES AND SILENCE, The CIA’s Criminal Acts and the Media’s Silence”. An extensive review (and dismantling) of the arguments in favor of the reliability of mainstream reporting can be found in Hagen, “Conspiracy Theorizing”: 9-16.
31 The way CBS set the standard for this with its 1967 4-part series on the Warren Report has been written about copiously. See these essential treatments by: Jerry Policoff, John Kelin, and especially James DiEugenio (2016, 2019). An interesting conspiracy-neutral study of the press coverage of the JFK assassination which appeared just around the time Oliver Stone’s film was in the cinema houses is Barbie Zelizer, Covering the Body (University of Chicago, 1992); more recently, see the comprehensive study by Mal Hyman, Burying the Lead: The Media and the JFK Assassination (Trine Day, 2018); reviewed here.
32 This exceptionalist contrast with the rest of the world was in fact promoted by major newspapers in the immediate aftermath of Dallas. It was trumpeted by the New York Times as the title of a p. 9 article in its November 25th 1963 edition: “Lone Assassin the Rule in U.S.: Plotting More Prevalent Abroad.” The Times in this case had not set the trend; it was following the lead of John Hay (Jock) Whitney’s New York Herald Tribune, whose cover story on November 23 already asserted the same thing by alluding to the book The Assassins, authored by its former Washington bureau chief Robert J. Donovan. Allen Dulles handed out this book at one of the first meetings of the Commission (see Donald Gibson, “The First 72 Hours,” Probe 7.1 : 19).
33 For one useful look at the basis for and limits of its application, see Joseph E. Green, “Dulling Occam’s Razor,” in: Dissenting Views (Xlibris, 2010): 130-134.
34 Though mostly the complaisant steward of official propaganda and enthusiastic transmitter of cooked intelligence, the MSM is rarely itself the origin of outright fabrications, as the more fatuous adversaries of “fake news” would have it. Ignoring stories, omitting or suppressing critical facts, neglecting context or substituting an irrelevant or misleading one, coloring opinion as if it represented scientifically ascertained data, and in general framing or spinning information to support a preconceived conclusion are instead the more common ruses whereby journalistic “truth” is made to serve an agenda. As Hagen, “Conspiracy Theorizing,” p. 14, clarifies: “Although the media does sometimes significantly misreport facts relevant to conspiracy theories, perhaps the greater worry, leading people to seek additional information, involves what the mainstream leaves out or fails to emphasize. The media may faithfully report selective matters of fact that support a particular theory, while largely ignoring so-called errant data. … Finally, there is also the reality of spin. When purported ‘errant data’ is addressed by the media, it is not always addressed in a fair and competent way.”
35 Hagen, “Conspiracy Theorizing,” p. 17, asserts: “The model that governs the thinking of many, perhaps most, conspiracy theorists seems to be this: while some journalists may actually be intelligence assets, most are just trying to do their job responsibly. The latter type’s tendency to support, or at least not challenge, certain official stories can be explained as a combination of bias and some degree of career-motivated self-censorship.”
36 I have purposely avoided using the term “Deep State” in this discussion, for two reasons. First, I find that the concept is almost too all-embracing, and is capable of blurring as much as it illuminates. But secondly, it has become yet another example of hackneyed and abused terminology. Most journalists and politicians today who employ it do not evince a real grasp of its theoretical roots. In that respect, its commodification reminds me of what has become of the term “deconstruction.”
37 See the work of Douglas Valentine, especially The CIA As Organized Crime: How Illegal Operations Corrupt America and the World (Clarity Press, 2017).
38 See again Parenti, Dirty Truths: 97-105, “The ‘Liberal Media’ Myth.”
39 One of the common objections to conspiracy claims goes something like this: “Why are there conflicting indices or facts that don’t seem to fit the supposed ‘cover story’ put in place by the conspirators?” To quote once again Kurtis Hagen: “How do conspiracy theorists explain the existence of reports that seem to provide ‘errant data’? They may be reported before an official account has taken hold, or before it is clear that the information reported will support a counter-narrative. Or, they may simply be a manifestation of the fact the influence of the powerful is not complete” (“Conspiracy Theorizing,” p. 17, n. 37). What should further be stressed in this regard is that the capacity to steer any such information which may escape prior control is key to the success of any covert operation.
40 In a recent article which appeared on Consortium News, the Pulitzer-winning journalist Chris Hedges levied some rather mordant criticisms on what one might characterize as the “faux Left”:
The cancel culture, with its public shaming on social media, is the boutique activism of the liberal elites. It allows faux student radicals to hound and attack those deemed to be racist or transphobic, before these "radicals" graduate to work for corporations such as Goldman Sachs, which last year paid $9 million in fines to settle federal allegations of racial and gender pay bias. Self-styled Marxists in the academy have been pushed out of economic departments and been reborn as irrelevant cultural and literary critics, employing jargon so obscure as to be unreadable. These “radical” theorists invest their energy in linguistic acrobatics and multiculturalism, with branches such as feminism studies, queer studies and African-American studies. The inclusion of voices often left out of the traditional academic canon certainly enriches the university. But multiculturalism, moral absolutism and the public denunciations of apostates, by themselves, too often offer escape routes from critiquing and attacking the class structures and systems of economic oppression that exclude and impoverish the poor and the marginal. (my emphasis)
As much as his final assertion rings true, Hedges himself offers an eloquent testimonial to the difficulty even the more lucid critics of the inequalities baked into our system have when faced in turn with the assassinations of the 60s. Referring to another article of his on the horrors of MK/ULTRA, sociologist and political commentator Edward Curtin astutely accentuates how Hedges has never seen fit to include those murders among the criminal activities of the invisible government that he so rightly inveighs against.
What the motivation for this silence might be, as Curtin states, is hard to discern. Yet that silence is nothing if not typical. For instance, hewing to the official story that James Earl Ray was responsible, most on the Left still tacitly consider the murder of Martin Luther King an act of racial hatred, even though on the one hand the accusation of a homicidal racism against Ray has very little basis, and on the other, growing recognition has been accorded to the importance of King’s refocusing after Selma on more generalized socioeconomic issues and the war in Vietnam (cf. Shetterly’s remarks in “The Necessary Embrace of Conspiracy”). If the King assassination has to do with white supremacy, it is in the same way that King (and Malcolm X) spoke of the structural interconnectedness of racism, economic exploitation and militarism, and in the prerogative of violence exercised by the keepers of institutional power. The Malcolm X assassination is no less an example of this, despite the fact that his assailants were not white (see this essay by Karl Evanzz).
Yet my bitterest disappointment by far with the ideological journey taken by the Left in the U.S. over the past five decades is its near-total renunciation of interest in the legacy of John and Robert Kennedy or in their deaths. For despite a few idiosyncratic stirrings on the far right over the JFK assassination (see Quashon Avent, "JFK and Far-right Conspiracy Rhetoric"), the frontline advance on the Warren Report was mostly led by figures who today would be located somewhere on the left. In its February 12, 1964 article, “J.F.K.: The Murder and the Myths,” Time in fact dismissed such criticism (referring to books like Thomas Buchanan, Who Killed Kennedy) precisely as leftist conspiracy mongering (see Policoff, “JFK: How the Media Assassinated the Real Story”). While the more radical Left has always looked upon the Kennedys and their murders with indifference, by 1967 one did see Ramparts take up the cause, as well as figures like Carl Oglesby, at that time head of the Students for a Democratic Society. Even more striking in this regard is the largely forgotten work of Stanley Marks, whose viewpoint on the JFK assassination was in many respects ahead of its time (see this important essay on his life and writings by Rob Couteau). But, barring a few exceptions like Marks, all this changed after 1968, for various reasons, not the least of which was the way Garrison was mauled by the press. The attitudes of such figures as I.F. Stone and Noam Chomsky were indicative of things to come (see the important contribution in this regard by Ray Marcus and Martin Schotz, “The Left and the Death of Kennedy”). Also, see again the above-cited chapter by Parenti, “Conspiracy Phobia on the Left.” A representative picture of how the contemporary alternative media outlets deal with this question can be obtained by sampling some of the essays in this list.
Today, in its scorn for what in the 60s was called “liberalism” (facilely conflated with what is currently referred to as “neo-liberalism”), the Left has allowed itself to drink the Kool-Aid of historical distortion, disfiguring JFK into a quintessential Cold Warrior, a hesitant advocate of civil rights and an economic conservative, and viewing RFK's progressivism as a radical change of heart, the product of a Pauline conversion after his brother's death. Explaining how and why these views are gravely inaccurate and methodologically misled would require an essay in itself. Here I can only refer the reader to the indefatigable work of Jim DiEugenio, who has endeavored to shed a corrective light on our understanding not only of John Kennedy’s foreign policy, but also of his social and economic programs, as well as of Robert Kennedy’s own thinking and activities in these areas. His many articles and book reviews on this subject have not only unveiled the misperceptions and misrepresentations stubbornly repeated by mainstream historians, but have generated something of an alternative bibliographical base by bringing to the fore the indispensable work of scholars like Richard Mahoney, Philip Muehlenbeck, Robert Rakove, Greg Poulgrain and Donald Gibson; his four-part series, “The Kennedys and Civil Rights: How the MSM Continues to Distort History” is also a must-read.
(Addendum, July 25, 2020. See also this review by Jeff Carter of John Nichols’ book, The Fight For The Soul of the Democratic Party. Carter exposes the typical blind spot in it concerning the Kennedy presidency by pointing up, via Donald Gibson, how JFK’s economic policies moved along the same lines as those drawn by Henry Wallace but in a climate somewhat different from that of 1944. Though he does not state it this way, Carter’s juxtaposition of Nichols’ Wallace to Gibson’s Kennedy shows that one can lose sight of the full arc of history when one’s analysis cuts with an ideological blade which has not been adequately sharpened to the task.)