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The Tin-Foil Fedora

June 30th, 2012 - 3:08 pm

Edward J. Epstein, author of James Jesus Angleton: Was He Right? frequently sends me links to his newest articles. Epstein has been interested in the Kennedy Assassination for nearly 50 years. On a recent blog post he reviews the movements of Lee Harvey Oswald prior to that fatal day in Dallas.

But it’s not just ancient history that concerns him.  Epstein was also one of the few who believed from the first that there was more to the Dominique Strauss Kahn case than a lecher in search of a quickie. Epstein wrote Three Days in May: Sex, Surveillance, and DSK and reprised his ideas in what Martin Peretz of the New Republic called a “truly dazzling take-up of the entire case. It was published in the December 22, 2011 issue of The New York Review of Books“. The Amazon blurb of Three Days in May sums up Epstein’s thesis.

Epstein shows that DSK, then managing director at the IMF and a leading contender to unseat Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France, was under close surveillance both before and after the incident. Just two days before, French authorities intercepted a sensitive phone conversation with DSK in Washington, DC. It looks as if he was carrying his own bug: a smart phone.

At the time I too believed that DSK was just another elitist predator who was literally caught with his pants down. Now like Peretz, I’ve realize that I was wrong. The collapse of the case strongly suggests that the DSK story is more complicated than it seems.

But to confess such a belief, is like expressing any lingering doubts about the Kennedy assassination, an invitation to ridicule. As Martin Peretz puts it succinctly, you can’t do it in polite company.  “The New York district attorney’s first story still has party-line currency. Also try mentioning Edward Jay Epstein’s proven thesis, James Jesus Angleton: Was He Right?, available at Amazon and on Kindle, at a dinner party. The guests will think you a nut case.”

In most cases the guests will be right to reject someone who starts talking conspiracy.  Conspiracy theories have a bad rep — even when, as is the case of with Edward J. Epstein’s books, there is nothing obviously wrong with the chain of reasoning or the facts on which they are based. The result of reading something like James Jesus Angleton: Was He Right? is to start thinking the unthinkable.  The experience produces a curiously bifurcated state of consciousness. At level you believe the case offered by Epstein; on another level one you can’t, otherwise, as Peretz noticed, the dinner party guests will think you are in line for a vacation at the funny farm.

Why are conspiracy theories regarded as a form of lunacy? The probable answer lies in what they are. “A conspiracy theory explains an event as being the result of an alleged plot by a covert group or organization or, more broadly, the idea that important political, social or economic events are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public.” Thus to advance a conspiracy theory is to suggest that the world is not as it seems. It is to posit the existence of vast forces which which work together to create a synthetic normal. And that kind of thinking is very close to what bona fide insanity really is.

I remember walking through a cemetery with a childhood friend in order to visit his father’s grave. The friend had long had a problem with mental instability. While were yet a good 500 yards from the graveside, a group of gardeners came into the view in the distance.

“They are talking about us,” he said.

“Who’s talking about us?” I asked.

“Those groundskeepers over by that tree.”

“No they’re not. They don’t even know us. They couldn’t even recognize our faces at this distance,” I replied.

“Oh yes they are,” he added. “I can hear them.”

That was insanity. Insanity is a the condition where reality is ignored and the observed effects are attributed to fantasy. The friend who was hearing the voices was clearly losing it. But history also provides many instances of conspiracy theories becoming accepted fact. Historians call it this process “delegitimization”.  In fact almost every revolution in the history of the world was the consequence of what was heretofore regarded as unthinkable suddenly becoming all too obvious.

It is sobering to recall that the Nazi Death camps were thought by many of its victims to be something that couldn’t possibly exist.  It was just too fantastic to conceive. Many Jews continued to believe that what the authorities told them was the truth, often in despite of their own senses. Only when the Nazi government had been thoroughly delegitimized was it possible for these reflexively law abiding citizens to finally realize that what they regard as fiction was the actual truth.

In many cases, the deportation orders were given to the Judenrat suddenly, often around the Jewish holidays when awareness was reduced. Local police were charged with carrying out the Aktion (round-up of Jews) and the Jewish police was also tasked with participating in the round-up. The Jews were ordered to gather in a specific location, usually close to a train station, and to bring with them only a few possessions …

The powerful mechanism of murder employed throughout Europe relied upon various deceptions and lies … The Germans would begin the deportations with the weaker strata (the poor, refugees). The other sectors of society held on to the illusion that they would be left alone. After the initial deportation the ensuing stages would follow – until the complete liquidation …

The rumors about the death camps were usually greeted with disbelief, as ordinary logic and the human mind refused to grasp the very possibility of what was rumored. Thus, Nazi Germany managed to mislead the masses until, literally, the last moment.

Hitler in fact believed that the more monstrous the conspiracy, the less likely it was to be uncovered.  In Mein Kampf he wrote: “in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation … in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation.”

And so it proved — for a time at least. In more recent times the evolution and ascendance of the term “mainstream media” represents the transformation of what was once a conspiracy theory to a broadly acceptable proposition. When the media’s prestige was at its height, Walter Cronkite was considered to be the “most trusted man in America”. Whatever Walter Cronkite said was instantly believed by millions. That is no longer true today. There are now many individuals who now accept the proposition that the “mainstream media” lies to them quite frequently and that things are not quite as they are described.

Large news conglomerates, including newspapers and broadcast media, which underwent successive mergers in the U.S. and elsewhere at an increasing rate beginning in the 1990s, are often referenced by the term. This concentration of media ownership has raised concerns of a homogenization of viewpoints presented to news consumers. Consequently, the term mainstream media has been widely used in conversation and the blogosphere, often in oppositional, pejorative, or dismissive senses, in discussion of the mass media and media bias.

Elite media such as CBS and the New York Times set the tone for other smaller news organizations by creating conversations which cascade down to the smaller news organizations lacking the resources to do more individual research and coverage, that primary method being through the Associated Press where many news organizations get their news. This results in a recycling effect wherein organic thought is left to the mainstream that choose the conversation and smaller organizations recite absent of a variance in perspective.

The discovery of the actual mechanism for coordinating “talking points”, such as the Journolist forum, are really the equivalent of Edward J. Epstein’s recitations of Oswald’s movements or the peregrinations of Dominque Strauss Kahn’s Blackberry.  They shed a fleeting light upon the shadowy backstage and by their transience suggest there is more to be seen.

The transformation of the the concept of the “mainstream media” as an organ of manipulation from a conspiracy theory to a grudgingly accepted serious proposition is reflected in the polls. The Gallup organization finds that close to 60% of respondents trusted the media “not very much or not at all”.

The history of conspiracies theories shows that while some remain fanciful forever, a significant number make the ultimate leap into accepted fact.   John Adams was utterly astonished by the speed at which widespread loyalty to the British crown was transformed into opposition to it. “I am surprised at the suddenness as well as the greatness of this revolution.” And in another place he wrote, “what do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760–1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.” What he was describing a paradigm shift. And in that shift the conspiracy theory became the Declaration of Independence.

Conspiracy theories have always been with us. Some of them remain just that: fanciful explanations for which simpler causes are available. Others turn out to be a better version of the truth than the received wisdom. Which of the two they are is determined by experience. and is validated by history. For the American colonists the paradigm shift came in Philadelphia. For European Jewry, it came at a gate lettered, arbeit mach frei. Too late, but hey, that gate wasn’t supposed to exist in the first place.

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