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Rogue Cops and Shakedown Artists – The Nature of Conspiracy Theories

November 19, 2013

In an article for the Evening Standard Matthew d’Ancona looks at the impending anniversary of the assassination of JFK and attacks the culture of conspiracy theories and the anti-politics mood that tragic and seismic event caused:

In Kennedy’s case, the bequest of his violent death in Dallas is quite specific: the grassy knoll, the “magic bullet”, the “second” Lee Harvey Oswald, the book depository, the New Orleans connection, the Mob, the Cubans, and shelves full of studies supposedly proving once and for all that JFK could not have been the victim of a lone gunman. According to a poll conducted in April, a clear majority of Americans still believes that there was a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy, a folkloric orthodoxy reflected and reinforced most luridly in Oliver Stone’s epic movie, JFK (1991).

Into the yawning gap between the official Warren Commission and the prevailing conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s death tumbled postwar political culture. Vietnam and Watergate merely completed the process of disenchantment. Half a century of sleuthing, reconstructions, legitimate inquiry, pure conjecture, science and pseudo-science has become symbolic of a fundamental change in the way we see politics and politicians. Much more than a presidency ended in Dallas in November 1963.

As David Aaronovitch shows in his brilliant book, Voodoo Histories, conspiracy theories are at the heart of contemporary history and the way that we explain what happens to us and around us. The web has provided theorists on all budgets with the means of communicating instantly, sharing their often ludicrous ideas, and amplifying those that resonate in their digital communities.

I broadly agree with d’Ancona’s analysis here. As a teenager I was hooked on several conspiracy theories (I was never fanatic about them, mind you), but as I got older, I gradually shed these beliefs. If there is no proof, then there is no reason to believe in a conspiracy. Still, d’Ancona is rather condescending towards people’s fascination with conspiracies and overlooks how intelligent people can be inclined towards conspiracy theories. I’ve recently finished reading The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5  and was shocked by the chapter that dealt with the paranoia that inflicted Harold Wilson in his final days as Prime Minister in 1976 as he became completely obsessed with a false belief that the intelligence services were spying on him.

Then again, as much as we agonise over conspiracy theories of events in Dealey Plaza fifty years ago, there have been other shocking conspiracies exposed that are just as disturbing as the thought that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the lone gunman on November 22, 1963. Few people, I suspect, thought Richard Nixon would ever have to resign the Presidency of the United States due to events surrounding a burglary at the Watergate Hotel. But the term ‘conspiracy’ is not as easy to define as we might think. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was a conspiracy, although we tend not to think of it as such today as the word has become associated with shadowy intelligence agencies and reclusive billionaires secretly running the world. A plausible conspiracy theory needs to have strict borders, otherwise it veers off into the deranged ramblings of, say, David Icke.

One of my favourite novels concerning the Kennedy era and his assassination is James Ellroy’s American Tabloid (1995). In his prologue to the novel, Ellroy states his intention is to demythologise the ‘sainthood’ of Kennedy, and he also manages to demythologise a certain strand of conspiracy theory regarding Kennedy while rejecting the lone gunman explanation and presenting his own conspiracy narrative. As he put it in an interview with Ron Hogan:

I think organised crime, exiled factions, and renegade CIA killed Jack the Haircut. I think your most objective researchers do as well. When Oliver Stone diverged from that to take in the rest of the world (Lyndon Johnson, the Joint Chiefs of Staff), I lost interest.

American TabloidIs Ellroy correct in his vision of the JFK assassination? My feeling today is no. The truth, in its simplicity, is just as remarkable as any fictional portrayal. As Hugh Aynesworth, a reporter who witnessed the assassination, put it in a recent interview with the Telegraph: “We all love a conspiracy. No one wants to believe two nobodies [Oswald and Jack Ruby] could change the course of world history. But they did.” In a way though, this doesn’t impair the work of Ellroy as he is writing fiction, whether it ties to his or the reader’s beliefs is secondary as his portrayal of the era is gripping and convincing. You don’t have to believe in conspiracy theories to know that in the era of the late 1950s and 1960s, organised crime operated with relative impunity and Intelligence agencies had far less accountability to government than they do today. The prologue to American Tabloid could almost be compatible with Aynesworth’s anti-conspiracy stance. Ellroy argues that the men who defined the age were not in any sense powerful men who could control the country as simply as moving pieces on a chessboard, rather:

They were rogue cops and shakedown artists. They were wiretappers and soldiers of fortune and faggot lounge entertainers. Had one second of their lives deviated off course, American history would not exist as we know it.

It’s time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.

Here’s to them.

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