Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Not because they are easy...

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.

Initially, this entry was to be about something completely different, but then I realized that today is the 48th anniversary of an event defining for American conspiracy theories – the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. This, quite intriguingly coincided with me learning about this year's The Kennedys miniseries, and with a moment in writing my dissertation when I need to mention the event. And even though it might seem easy enough, the more one delves into any conspiracy theory, the more one learns that nothing is simple. In this vein, the following will be my take on how to write about problematic conspiracy theories.

Writing about the Kennedy assassination, as about any of the 1960s assassinations, is hard because they are, in their most basic form, highly politicized national tragedies. As such, they affected everyone, regardless of their ideological denomination. The amount of theories claiming to show the truth behind JFK's murder is staggering – virtually everyone with any shadow of a motive is, or was, seen as a culprit. Moreover, the murder came at the height of the Cold War, when the possibility of a nuclear confrontation was, in the public's eyes, quite real.

So, instead on focusing on the theories themselves, I found it better to look at the context and the reason for the number of the various citizen-investigators seeking the truth, even today. In a word, not the event, but the consequences.

One important element was the fact that suddenly anyone could spin a theory about the murder. So far, most conspiracy theory generating events were in a strict ideological context. Communist infiltration, fear of the Slave Power, a pre-Revolutionary distrust of British authorities. And even if there were many narratives, they were two opposing ones, like the anti-Abolitionist versus Slave Power one. Now, a number of texts were created, each fitting one's own needs of coping with the trauma. Conspiracy theory making went pop.

The reason for that lie in the unprecedented fall of public trust in the authorities. Not long after the Warren Commission report was published, over half of the American society did not believe in the Senate's version, putting in doubt the words of the so-called „experts”.The report's contents were dissected, while at the same time many other evidence was brought up, like the intriguingly careless security around the president just before and after the shots were fired. The Warren Commission decided that such details were inconsequential, but the public did not got for it.

And why would they? Most still remembered the years of McCarthyism and were to an extent aware of the shady deals of the FBI or the CIA. The long-smoldering vein of American anti-intellectualism was rekindled again. Suddenly, the conspiracy theorists started to be treated seriously – their words, regardless of veracity, could sway the public opinion immensely.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy is often dubbed „the mother of conspiracy theories”. It certainly belongs on this short list, along with the Pearl Harbor attacks and, recently, 9/11. The events in Dallas in forty-eight years ago deserve this name not because of the contents of conspiracy theories, but because of the circumstances surrounding their creation.

On a personal note, I find this a bit frustrating. Whenever I tell people that I write about conspiracy theories, they instantly ask me do I know this-or-that-one – and I, in vain, try to explain that collecting stories is not what I do.

Ultimately, what is important is to ask the question I learned at the star of my M.A. program – „What does it tell us about the culture?”

We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask "why not?".

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