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The Nation : Truth in a 'Conspiriocracy:' What Can We Ever Believe?

July 24, 1994|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (Anchor/Doubleday). He is now writing a book about Walter Winchell

NEW YORK — Now it's the bloody glove--the glove that seemed so incriminating just a few weeks back. As inveterate O.J. Simpson watchers know, the Simpson defense team is suggesting that Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman, who testified that he discovered the glove on Simpson's estate, is a racist and possible psychotic and that he might well have planted the glove on Simpson's property to frame the former football star. At last, a conspiracy theory!

It's about time. Every criminal event should have at least one conspiracy theory--if only because we are a nation of conspiratorialists. Conspiracy is one of our growth industries. Whenever a crime of national import is committed, newspapers, magazines and tabloid television wade into battle promising the "truth"--which usually turns out to be some Rube Goldbergian scheme involving the Mafia, the CIA, the former Soviets, black supremacists, white supremacists, Arab terrorists or any combination of the above.

But media don't so much create a thirst for conspiracy as slake one that already exists. Many, reasonably, date ours to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. A monumentally grievous crime. A wounded nation. A search for answers. As Gerald L. Posner has written in his definitive study of the assassination, "Case Closed," which concludes that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, these circumstances demanded a far more exalted explanation than the paltry one that an attention-starved ne'er-do-well killed the President by himself.

So we hunted for grand causes and great villains that could match the enormity of the crime. If we had to invent them, it didn't matter. Perhaps that is why director Oliver Stone, in defending his conspiracy film "JFK," described it as myth--like the Greek myths that functioned to explain the origins of the cosmos. In Stone's myth, the cosmos seemed to conspire to kill the President. But whether the idea that the President was victim of a rogue operation within the government was true or not, Stone had filmed a story that gave the assassination its proper magnitude. Like all conspiracy theories, it satisfied.

Once our innocence was shattered by the Kennedy assassination, or so one analysis goes, a disillusioned nation learned to seek conspiracies everywhere as a means of explaining what seemed to be the rampant social anomie of the 1960s and '70s. With the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and then Watergate, conspiracy theory was a way to bring order to disorder by attributing murder and upheaval to deliberate plans of nefarious figures.

It seems a valid conclusion that the Kennedy assassination was the trigger for the "conspiriocracy" we've become--but this is only partly true. In point of fact, Americans were conspiratorially minded long before President Kennedy's death.

After Abraham Lincoln's murder, there were rumblings of a conspiracy orchestrated by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Conspiracy theories have surfaced for nearly every major transgression in our history, from the Haymarket Square riots in Chicago to the Lindbergh baby kidnaping to the death of Jean Harlow--not to mention the various high crimes and misdemeanors supposedly perpetrated by the secret society of Masons throughout the 19th Century.

Indeed, if one is hunting for the roots of conspiracy-mongering, one might well look to the origins of our rough, egalitarian democracy. America was born out of two powerful contradictory impulses. On the one hand, there was the desire for freedom so beautifully articulated in the Declaration of Independence. On the other, there was the fear of what freedom entailed if one were to unleash its forces beyond the ruling class. Many of America's political institutions were expressly designed to hold those forces in check--a nation theoretically circumscribed.

As the country grew in the 19th Century, this tension between property and people, between an elite ruling class and the great mass of ordinary Americans, evolved into a cultural as well as an economic divide--vestiges of which survive today.

The eruption of Jacksonian Democracy may have been the most dramatic manifestation of the antagonism between the elites and the people, but there would be many others, and with them came deep suspicions--for the elites, over what havoc the people could wreak, for the people, over what stratagems the elites would design to retain power against the popular will. The elites had something to hide, something they dare not let others see. Thus was born the conspiratorial mind.

There was, indeed, a great deal to be suspicious about in the 19th Century--everything from financial shenanigans in government to official versions of history. These suspicions would intensify in the 20th Century, even as the old sense of class conflict dissolved into a myth of a classless, socially mobile society.

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