Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Nature of Parahistory, Part Three

The prevailing wisdom has a seductive charm. To accept it means one does not have to endure the scorn that attends departing from the herd. The prevailing wisdom is usually fairly simple and straight-forward and non threatening. Its better to think that one lone nut somehow got lucky and killed a president than that there could be powerful forces out there that can accomplish this, hide their tracks, and go on to accomplish their ends. It is known that in the heat of the Cold War that the CIA bought off some journalists, and some have said the practice was more widespread than admitted and that it continues. This suggestion is disquieting because we would be more comfortable believing that most journalists really want to be investigative reporters and that they are busy safeguarding the republic through their sleuthing.

Thomas Jefferson said that “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” Given this definition, he would be considered a conspiracy theorist today. Americans forget that there was a time early in the Twentieth Century when leaders spoke against conspiracies against the people.
Some of the biggest men in the United States, in the field of commerce and manufacture, are afraid of something. They know that there is a power somewhere so organized, so subtle, so watchful, so interlocked, so complete, so pervasive, that they better not speak above their breath when they speak in condemnation of it.

These were the words of one of the tamer of these leaders, Woodrow Wilson in “The New Freedom “ (1913) Since then concentrated corporate and money power has grown far greater, as has the mechanisms of the national security state. Yet, we have been so inoculated against conspiracy theory and related speech such as “class envy” that we would reject a politician as a dangerous extremist if he used similar words to discuss gasoline prices and how they can jump a dime in a twenty-four hour period

There has been a rash of conspiracy theories in the last 40 years partly because the US psyche had experienced so many traumas and because people have learned the hard way that those in government frequent lie to them. The media appears to have become more and more disinclined to track down the lies or dig up inconvenient truths. In 2002 and 2003, the mainstream press aided and abetted the Bush administration in peddling fabricated information about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, even though there were good reasons to doubt those claims.

Outlandish conspiracy theories often grow out of legitimate questions that emerge when the conventional wisdom is thin, overlooks obvious questions, or are clearly implausible in some regards. The outlandish explanations tend to explain too much on the basis of too little evidence, and they frequently trot out some historic villain or other, the Vatican, Free Masons, the Illuminati, the Rothschilds, or the Jews. Maybe they offer up-to date all purpose villains, such as advocates of the New World Order or Reptilian aliens, or just plain aliens. The existence of such outlooks strengthen the case of those who discourage questioning of the official story or the conventional wisdom.

The outlandish conspiracy theories are entertaining, and remind the reader that any story must be examined carefully. The trouble is that too often stories that contradict the conventional wisdom or suggest dangerous criminal conspiracies in government are simply ignored by the media. In January, 2008, the Times of London produced evidence that there was validity to Sibil Edmonds’ claim that high ranking figures in the State Department and Pentagon were selling nuclear secrets to other countries. The US media pretty much ignored the story.
When President Clinton appointed Webster Hubbell to a high post in the Department of Justice, he told him to get answers to two questions: are there UFOs and who killed John F. Kennedy. Of course, Hubbell could find answers to neither. We know what the simple answers to these questions are, but they are unsatisfying. Alternative answers are blocked by secrecy, missing evidence, and the unwillingness of “reputable” investigators to look into them. For that reason, we need something like’soft conspiracy theorists,” people who apply conventional historical techniques to investigations of these questions, insist upon plausibility, and and probably almost never come up with concrete, and full explanations. They cannot because there are so many barriers to their probing. The best they can do is learn which prevailing truths are least believable and perhaps suggest alternative explanations that are most worthy of pursuing.

There are many conspiracy theorists who construct massive interpretations out of very little evidence. They deserve sharp criticism. There are more than a few historians and journalists who do likewise; they are said to be wrong or “off-base.” There is what Alexander Cocburn called a ‘soft" version of the conspiracy theory” It raises questions, offers reasonable hypotheses about possible conspiracies, but seldom can offer rock solid explanations because complete evidence is rarely available. It questions “public truth” which so dominates our culture and offers the traditionally disempowered other possible explanations and challenges those who seek monopolies in the creation of public knowledge.

The work of historians and the conspiracy theorists both deal with the past. They could both be called “history.” The work of the outlandish conspiracy theorists do not deserve that name because they constitute very flimsy constructs. On the other hand, the soft conspiracy theorists carefully test information and only suggest fact- based possibilities that challenge “official” history. Although it relies too much upon inference and the assumption that people often have base motives, soft conspiracy theory probably falls within the boundary of legitimate knowledge but fall short of history as defined by professional historians. An appropriate term for their work might be “parahistory.” The trouble is that Peter Dale Ecott has used this term to describe the reconstructed histories of events that are based upon document once not available when the first accounts were produced. Scott is a good scholar, but is is mystifying why any term other than history should be applied to these revisionist accounts. Parahistory seems to be a good term to apply to tentative accounts, based on available knowledge, that raise the possibility of conspiracy.

The consolidation of media into fewer and fewer hands may make necessary some alternative to mainstream journalism. At this point in our history, government is anything but transparent and trustworthy. Some other approach to interpretating what occurs must be available as an alternative to approaches to rely too much upon official sources. Dr. Condoleezza Rice deliberately misrepresented the famous presidential intelligence briefing paper of August, 2001 to be a mere historical discussion about Al Qaeda when it really warned that that organization was now getting ready to attack in the United States. The president’s press secretary added to the lie by leaving out the word “in” from the title, which left the impression that Al Qaeda just wanted to attack the US. The proceedings of the 9/11 Commission made it clear that Condoleezza Rice was continually duplicitious in her dealing with it and that the Bush administration worked hard to prevent the commission from getting the information it needed. Its obsession with secrecy and track record for lying suggests that its official pronouncements cannot be trusted and the likelihood that it has much to hide. Fearful of being deprived of what information there is, the press has failed to get behind the regime’s spin and dissembling. Under these circumstances something like parahistory is necessary. Don Delillo has talked about that this does not really exist.

The trouble with relying on parahistory is that it leaves us in a situation where the public exists in a state of confusion because nothing can be known for sure. Perhaps it does little to reduce the political impotence of ordinary citizens, but it is an improvement upon leaving them to believe official lies doled out by government and the elite media and academy. Bill Moyers remarked, `Well, there's a legitimate government, but from time to time, to do a certain job, they hire a rather unseemly crew, and sometimes they get a little out of control and make trouble.' About the best the parahistorians can do is alert the public when this seems to be happening. The record shows that journalists and the academic historians will be the last to spot the problem.

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