Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Nature of Parahistory, Part Two

Only a few mainstream historians have not touched the assassination of JFK, RFK, or Martin Luther King, Jr. The exception is David Kaiser of the Navy War College, who has written a good book on the death of JFK that was published by the Harvard University Press. Questions have been raised as to whether Harvard should give legitimacy to conspiracy theory. He asked “Cui bono” and tackled a question that can probably never be resolved—two characteristics of “conspiracy theory.”

Historians have also steered away from 9/11. In all of these cases, there is not enough evidence to establish irrefutable cases that conspiracy was involved. By not seriously exploring those subjects, historians tacitly endorse the lone nut theory in respect to the assassinations and some implausible official explanations of 9/11. It is forgotten that George Orwell was not so wrong when he wrote, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful . . . and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He also said, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." This is why coincidences, discrepancies, and holes in official stories. We owe this to future generations.

Many leading historians were reared in a time when it was simply unthinkable that Americans, some of whom being security employees, would plot to murder a US president or prominent political figure. In dealing with a great deal of United States history, they could safely join A. M.Schlesinger, Jr. in accepting Blaise Pascal’s dictum that “Man is neither angel nor brute.” But there have been other times and places when the opposite might be operable: man can be both and brute. This was scertainly applicable to Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. One hesitates to place Oliver North and Dick Cheney in their company, but the possibility deserves examining.

In the 1950s, conservatives, led by Joe McCarthy, were propounding all sorts of conspiracy theories, and they enjoyed a lot of support in the mainstream press. Today, they offer knee-jerk denunciations of notions they violently oppose as “conspiracy theories,” and are joined in these comments by much of the mainstream press. They object to people who claim that some in government aim at enhancing the power and wealth of privileged elites. Of course, no one would gather in a Cabinet room, board room, or Pentagon office to strategize, plan, or conspire to accomplish goals that are not in the interest of most people. Watergate was not a conspiracy any more than effort to invade Iraq was! The suggestion that people at the top could have a secret agenda is usually met with a patronizing smile. We know they are just there to protect and serve.

“Conspiracy theorists” are said to be people who are inclined to doubt commonly accepted explanations of events and to look for more complex explanations. For example such people note that Winston Churchill’s grand history of World War II placed too emphasis upon the Soviet contribution to victory. They qestion the British official casualties figure for the third Battle of Ypres ( often called the battle of Passchendaele—238,000. Even General Haig put the figure at 500,000. The British Public Records Office is still sitting on records that could settle the matter. Even the cabinet records for 1914-1918 are still closed to the public. Since 1954, about 200,000 people in Guatemala have been tortured, raped, murdered, and disappeared. Much of this grisly activity was undertaken with the full cooperation of US intelligence agencies.

Our government refuses to open records on these deaths, though President Clinton reluctantly did open records on Americans who were killed there. More recently, the US seized the records of the thugs who ruled Haiti from 1991 to 1994 and has refused to return them. This is probably because those US-backed rulers killed 3,000 people and the records would show the complicity of our intelligence people. Who can forget Oliver North publicly explaining how he shredded hundreds of documents related to the Iran/Contra scandal? In all these matters, we are expected to accept the official explanation.
Most people would not object to the claim that the conspiracy theorists are probably psychologically disoriented in some way. The very term “conspiracy theorist” is a put-down and automatic dismissal and appeals to the belief that people work in secrecy very seldom, if ever. As William March said, “[G]ood people are rarely suspicious: they cannot imagine others doing the things they themselves are incapable of doing….” We don’t want to think ill of others, especially of those who rule. Most people are fundamentally decent and cannot imagine that elected officials would betray them in sinister ways. There are massive advertising operations, backed by deep research in psychology, that persuade people that nothing is amiss. A third rerason for being hostile to so-called conspiracy theories is that knowledge brings with it the responsibility to act on what we know.
We Americans know that in repressive societies the truth is manipulated on a daily basis because the ability to shape what is perceived is true is the untimate power mechanism. In a democracy, this cannot happen because we have an inquiring press and a well-informed public.

Over the years, the United States has become a national security state. To build this state, officials repeatedly relied on th eir own conspiracy theory, asserting that there was a communist conspiracy to take over the world. and domestically more and more power has been gathered in fewer and fewer corporate hands. These developments made it necessary and possible for the national security mechanism and the corporate powers to manipulate opinion more and more. To acknowledge such is not a pleasant matter, and some people can do so more easily than others. Even Albert Einstein lapsed into conspiracy theory when he suggested that there were powerful interests that benefited by continuation of the Cold War: “The men who possess real power in this country have no intention of ending the cold war."

It seems that denial is the best unconscious psychic self-defense mechanism for many. It shields us from anxiety and guilt. Six years after the US invaded Iraq, most Americans believe Saddah Husein was involved in 9/11. Not to believe so could bring about guilt that we are not doing enough to demand honesty in government. Or guilt that we twice entrusted the executive branch to scheming liars. Or the recognition could bring on fear. If Cheney and his friends could lie about Saddam and Weapons of Mass Destruction, they might lie about other things. This is why people talk about “unpleasant truths.” Truth is often very unsettling, and sometimes there is little we can do about really bad situations. To protect ones self from disinforemation, spin, and manipulation does not mean believing everything that comes down the pike.

Truth has a great deal to do with keeping democracy alive. When people stop looking hard for it, they have surrendered their power to influence what government does. Without truth, democracy and republicanism begin to wither. If someone can contol our view of the present they control us. Orwell noted "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." That is why it is so important that historians and journalists construct an accurate account of what is goind on today so that republicans and democracy can survive into tomorrow.

Mathematicians have combinatorial analysis, combinatory, or combinatorie. It uses the mathematics of probability to learn how likely it is for certain configurations of objects and sets to occur together. If only historians had a tool that precise. We know that odd coincidences sometimes occur in real life and that sometimes simple, seemingly explanations are accurate. At other times, simple explanations see all too facile and the coincidences seem too many and too improbable. We know that eye-witnesses to traumatic and chaotic events are often wrong, but what should we conclude when many of them insist they saw the same thing which is flat out excluded from an official account. These involve matters of judgment. Oddly, there is one great similarity between some people labeled as “conspiracy theorists” and those who willingly accept even the most improbably official explanations. They both want simple, all inclusive explanations that are built on too few facts. Hence, some build elaborate explanations that always lead back to the Vatican, Jesuits, Jews, Freemasons, or a murky group called the Illuminati. Those who seek the simplistic, thin explanations going back to the Illuminati or some other demonic group might deserve the term conspiracy theorist.
The problem is that the term “conspiracy theory” is used to marginalize other people who advance reasonable arguments based more than a few facts that are contrary to accepted truth. People in government and their apologist most commonly use the term and apply it to those who rock the boat by doubting official explanations. In earlier times, people who doubted the conventional wisdom were called heretics and witches. Even though the conspiracy theorists can point to implausible aspects of conventional wisdom and too many coincidences heaped upon coincidences, those who go about labeling people conspiracy theorists are really saying that those people should not be listened to. The word “theorist” is used to suggest that these people construct explanations out of thin air; hence, their views are based on theory and not evidence. A careful examination of “conspiracy theories” suggests that they are almost always based on facts. The problem is that they often rely on facts that have been overlooked by those who construct the conventional wisdom.

So called conspiracy theorists are accused of being paranoiac. Poet William Burroughs said “`Paranoia means having all the facts.” Of course, in dealing with historical events, all the facts simply cannot be found. It is enough to have fore reasonable factual information than that possessed by purveyors of the conventional wisdom. That justified raising questions, and, if there is ample evidence, even hypothesizing on what could be other explanations. Those who crave the CIA+Watergate stumble over the truth, but they pick themselves up and continue on as if nothing had happened.” None of us are that good at finding the truth. If we don’t look and develop a reverence for it, we mill rarely make its acquaintance.

The label came into widespread use after the assiassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. The implication was that the findings of the Warren Commission were to be taken on faith, including the crazy lone gunman and particularly the magical single bullet theory that claimed that the same bullet, following a very odd trajectory, hit Kennedy and Connally came out in pristine condition and turned up on a stretcher at Parkland Memorial Hospital. This is the famous exhibit #399, the mysterious, undamaged bullet. Conspiracy theories often attribute events to concealed plots by individuals or an individual effect events in some way. In this case, it might boil down to whether the death of Joyhn Kennedy was the work of one man’s plot or that of several people or groups. The official story is that three shots were fired, with one missing. That left two to inflict seven wounds in Kennedy and Connally. The House Select Committee on Assassinations ruled in the 1970s that four shots were fired.

Today, those who question the official explanation of 9/11 are considered unstable conspiracy theorists. The evidence is clear that just as J. Edgar Hoover moved heaven and earth to steer the Warren Commission toward predetermined conclusions. 9/11 staff director Philip Zelikow worked overtime to produce a report that concealed the Bush administration's low level of interest in the terrorist threat. The record shows that a NORAD two star general told the commission that he was above Washington coordinating a response when Flight 93 was to appear in the area. The fact is that commission investigators learned from NORAD tapes that he was lying; the Air Force was unaware of Flight 93, which was to crash in Pennsylvania. The commission would not have learned that had it not finally screwed up its courage to subpoena tapes, which it was first told did not exist. The Bush White House stonewalled on every front from the beginning, and Speaker Dennis Hastert stood in the way of the commission even getting all the records the congressional investigators had acquired. Yet, the so called benighted conspiracy theorists are denounced for not being sufficiently trusting.

Nellie Connelly kept notes on what she thought happened. She insisted that there three shots, but she seemed to reject the magic bullet theory.. The first bullet hit Kennedy, because the governor wheeled around and saw that Kennedy had been hit. The second hit John Connelly, and she said the third hit Kennedy in the head. New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison was generally considered a conspiracy theorist of the worst sort because his explanations of the assassination of John F. Kennedy seemed far-fetched. That judgment of Garrison was also rooted in solid fact and that there is a CIA memo dated April 1, 1967 reveals that the agency cranked up a disinformation campaign against Jim Garrison. When Garrison left office, his successor, Harry Connick, Sr., destroyed the records of the investigation.
TWA Flight 800, a 747-100, exploded over Long Island on July 17, 1996. 230 people perished. Scores of people saw something looking like a missile hit the plane. The official explanation was that the explosion was due to a bad electrical circuit. They were called “conspiracy theorists.” Three days after the crash, the Jerusalem Post reported that a French Defense official said the missile would have been US because terrorists weapons did not have the capability to do that much damage. .A retired White House press secretary, taken in by a former pilot trying to peddle a bogus radar tape, did himself some harm by claiming there was a cover-up and that he was privy to damning evidence. Two hundred miles south of the site and in September, 1996, two pilots reported seeing what they thought was a missile. We do not know if naval exercise were being conducted then, but they were underway when TWA exploded. Red residue was found in three rows of the plane, and some thought it similar to the color of rocket fuel. The NTSB report stated that Dr. Charles Bassett found that it was seat glue. However, the learned doctor later swore out a statement saying that was not what he found. . In this case, there probably is not enough evidence available to decide who is right or what happened. But if one persists in simply doubting what we have been told, one is a conspiracy theorist.

Some of us recall that The Washington Post insisted that those who claimed that Oliver North was engaged in illegal trade with Iran and forbidden supplying of right wing militias in Nicaragua were way off base. They were wacko conspiracy theorist. It even censored a Jack Anderson column on Iran/Contra. Readers had to be protected from conspiracy theorists! Then it distorted information coming out of Charles Rangel’s subcommittee investigation into the Contra drug trade and refused to print Rangel’s letter of complaint. More recently, the Post. joined the rest of the mainline press in protecting readers from information that the Bush Administration had lied about weapons of mass destruction in order to invade Iraq. There is a long history of the press avoiding such stories even though conspiracies of businessmen, politicians and others also have a long history. That’s how business is done here.

There is so much clamor about “conspiracy theories” that we have come to almost believe conspiracies do not occur. Adam Smith thought tradesmen got together to raise prices. There were all sorts of conspiracies to defraud US railroad investors in the late 19th century. In the early twentieth century, providers of electricity colluded to set p[ices and at mid century people met in hotel rooms to set prices in their bids for government contracts. How soon we forget. Watergate was a conspiracy, and who can be blamed for thinking there was a conspiracy to lead the US into invading Iraq. Someday, there might be enough printed evidence to prove this. At the moment, there are many intelligent people who canot figure out why the US made such a massive investment there. All they knmow is that the official story does not hold water.

Often so-called conspiracy theories gone too far in putting aside theories assign causation to large and distant social and economic forces. Conspiracy theorists prefer to look at concrete events and they believe that people are behind almost all events and that , as in the past, people have a way of scheming, lying, cheating, cooperating with others, and doing anything necessary to acquire money and power and then working overtime to cover their tracks.

If you were an historian writing a textbook about recent times, you might resort to stating that the US invaded Iraq, that the stated reason was belief that Saddam had WMDs, and that after the invasion many expressed doubts that the story about WMDs was fabricated. Rock solid evidence would not permit going much further. If one were to add a possible explanation that relied upon broad historical forces, or perhaps geopolitical theory, it would be methodologically acceptable and also could not be checked out. It can be argued that the default position for the historian is to fall back on official government sources and what is printed in newspapers of record. The method has a certain conservative bias. Four years after the invasion, the White House admitted that millions of its e-mails had inadvertently been lost. Are there aspects of what happened that could not be documented any other way than through those e-mails? Historians have a strong bias against conspiracy theories in part because they associate them with the ravings of the populists, Father Charles Coughlin, and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

On the other hand, leftists are not much given to conspiracy theories and are inclined to buy the official 9/11 story in its main outlines because they are more likely to think in terms of historical forces. A major basket of exceptions include the reasons for building and deploying the atomic bomb and US policy in t he early cold war. Perhaps some historians have come to consider conspiracies because a growing number of them no longer come from the moneyed elite, as had once been the case. It is still recalled with some embarrassment that a president of the American Historical Association nearly four decades ago worried about what would happen to the craft as Jews, Catholics, children of recent immigrants, and products of the working class entered the profession. Maybe these people would be less inclined to assume that those with power and wealth usually behaved as gentlemen and were animated by noblesse oblige.

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