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America’s Conspiratorial Imagination

ISSUE:  Autumn 1992

“That’s the struggle of humanity, to recruit others to your version of what’s real.”

—Augie March

Depending on to whom you listen, the American economy is either temporarily stalled or headed down the slippery slope, but nobody, absolutely nobody, doubts that conspiracy theory is a sure-fire moneymaker. Indeed, for those who specialize in new installments of “Who Shot JFK?,” conspiracy-spinning is a growth industry and this a boom time. One thinks, for example, of recent books such as Mark Lane’s Plausible Denial, along with a paperback reprinting of his pioneering Rush to Judgment; Charles A. Crenshaw’s JFK: Conspiracy of Silence; Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy; Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins; and Harrison Edward Livingstone’s High Treason 2, For those who prefer their paranoia on the silver screen, there is always Oliver Stone’s JFK, knock-offs like Ruby, and, no doubt, a half-dozen other docu-dramas about what really happened on Nov.22, 1963 being hatched up as I keyboard this sentence.

Small wonder, then, that it’s not hard to imagine the day when “Shots Heard ‘Round the World: From Concord Bridge to Dealey Plaza” will finally replace “From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf” as the survey title of choice. What worries me about this is not that one student-grabbing gimmick gives way to another, but rather that we no longer believe, as Emerson once did, in the possibility of public events being transmogrified into public poetry. Instead, we have increasingly private “takes” on reality itself, each more conspiratorial than the last and all of them dedicated to the proposition that official histories “lie” and that only alternative versions tell the truth.

Granted, no term is slipperier, more hotly debated, or more important than reality. As such, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953) is a case study in what its larky protagonist calls “the struggle of humanity”—namely, how others try to recruit him to their version of the real, and how he manages to squirm out of their respective clutches. Augie is, at one and the same time, eminently “adoptable” (a fact that does not go unnoticed by a wide range of would-be benefactors) and inclined toward “opposition.” Indeed, one could say the same things about Bellow himself. In an age where “brutal realism” strikes many as the only brand worthy of serious attention, Bellow’s fiction has, in effect, answered the question he first posed in Dangling Man (1944)—namely, “What in all this [decaying urban landscape] speaks for man?”

Granted, Bellow is a special case, not only because he is the only 20th-century American novelist who deserves mention in the same breath with William Faulkner, but also because he is one of the few contemporary American writers unafraid to use the word “soul.” However much Bellow anchors his fiction in the quotidian world, his inner eye remains fastened on airier, more transcendental realms. He has, in short, a decidedly mystical bent, one that unleashes great imaginative power, but that turns reality itself into the problematic. What, for example, is one to make of Angle’s insistance that the real world is simultaneously self-evident and unseen?

Everyone tries to create a world he can live in, and what he can’t use he often can’t see. But the real world is already created, and if your fabrication doesn’t correspond, then even if you feel noble and insist on there being something better than what people call reality, that better something needn’t try to exceed what, in its actuality, since we know it so little, may be very surprising.

Other writers have defined the “surprises” that life throws at artists rather differently. For example, a young whipper-snapper named Philip Roth put the matter this way in a 1961 essay entitled “Writing American Fiction”:

. . . the American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupifies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s one meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist. Who, for example, could have invented Charles Van Doren? Roy Cohn and David Schine? Sherman Adams and Bernard Goldfine? Dwight David Eisenhower?

Roth, of course, had burst onto the scene with Goodbye, Columbus (1959), a collection that gave social realism a suburban, Jewish-American twist and that earned its 26-year-old author a National Book Award. Granted, he took a certain amount of drubbing from those not amused by his satiric portraits of gold-bricking Jewish soldiers (“Defender of the Faith”) or adulterous Jewish fathers (“Epstein”), but those with an ear knew better. Here was a new, exciting voice, one that a subsequent Roth character would describe as “something that begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head.” Who better, then, to pontificate about the state of contemporary writing in the early 1960’s— especially since Roth was so good at what he called “reading himself & others”?

That his remarks about American reality and the individual American writer were much-quoted (indeed, that they helped to shape our critical agenda for nearly two decades) is now universally regarded as a cultural fact. And this before the days when novelists must have scratched their heads and wondered which of them could have invented Tiny Tim? Spiro Agnew? Richard Nixon?—much less the likes of Donald Trump, Ivan Boesky, or Al Sharpton! Indeed, however much Tom Wolfe might boast about the ways that The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) had taken on material most American novelists shy away from—either because they lack his journalistic skill or his artistic courage—the fact of the matter is that even Wolfe’s novel did not prepare us for Tawana Brawley’s tale of abduction and denigration, much less for the sad spectacle of her systematic exploitation when the “story” collapsed under the sheer weight of its desperation and calculated duplicity.

Still, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Wolfe’s wholesale attack on contemporary American fiction, knew how to make a literary splash. It had all the advantages of good timing and even better connections, of large, cheeky generalizations and even a few grains of truth. Consider, for example, these snippets from what the editors at Harper’s subtitled as “A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel”:

After the Second World War, in the late 1940s, American intellectuals began to revive a dream that had glowed briefly in the 1920s. They set out to create a native intelligentsia on the French or English model, an intellectual aristocracy—socially unaffiliated, beyond class distinctions—active in politics and the arts. In the arts, their audience would be the inevitably small minority of truly cultivated people as opposed to the mob, who wished only to be entertained or to be assured they were “cultured.” By now, if one need edit, the mob was better known as the middle class.

The lesson that a generation of serious young writers learned from Roth’s lament [in “Writing American Fiction”] was that it was time to avert their eyes. To attempt a realistic novel with the scope of Balzac, Zola, or Lewis was absurd. By the mid-1960s the conviction was not merely that the realistic novel was no longer possible but that American life itself no longer deserved the term. American life was choatic, fragmented, random, discontinuous; in a word, absurd. Writers in university creative writing programs had long, phenomenological discussions in which they decided that the act of writing words on a page was the real thing and the so-called real world of America was the fiction, requiring the suspension of disbelief. The so-called real world became a favorite phrase.

That Wolfe means to put forth The Bonfire of the Vanities as the Big Social Novel no contemporary American writer can match is clear enough; but self-promotion aside, was there anything in his critique worthy of serious attention? I think so, even as I would insist that there are mighty distinctions to be made between the social landscaping of, say, a Dickens or a Balzac and the thin gruel served up in Wolfe’s saga of how Sherman McCoy bit the urban dust. For one thing, Wolfe was dead right about those times, those places that gave birth to what John Barth called “the literature of exhaustion.” During the mid-sixties, experiments in radical reflexivity, in fiction about its own fictionality, seemed dazzling stuff indeed. Most of us did not realize, however, that a subtle shift in the collective literary sensibility was taking place under our very noses.

What Randall Jarrell, with at least as much misgiving as description, identified as the Age of Criticism (more or less the “age” in which I first encountered formalism and learned to think of irony, paradox, myth, and symbol as the stuff of which well-wrought urns are made) was slowly transforming itself—without ambivalence, without irony, and certainly without the slightest trace of humor—into the Age of Theory. I would like to count myself among those acolytes of Joyce and Eliot, of Hemingway and Faulkner, who would have given “theory” the bum’s rush in the 1960’s, but the bald fact is that theory, like Sandburg’s fog, crept in on cat’s feet and wearing a collar marked “post-modernism.” No matter that the term was, let us say, imprecise, or that it signaled a generalized cultural attitude rather than an entity one could point to—yea, even touch—like the great monuments of literary modernism; what mattered in those days was the giddy sense of release from all that had been established, domesticated in undergraduate classrooms, in a word, canonized.


That solemn, increasingly unreadable books about post-modernist experimentation continue to be written and published is true enough, but the phenomenon strikes me as more a comment on academic inertia than on our cultural condition. For the hot competition these days is one that divides those who retain a measure of allegiance to social reality and those who dismiss “reality” itself as yet another instance of the conspiratorial fog. In this sense, Roth’s manifesto about the dizzying nature of American reality has been replaced by a widely shared view that one conspiracy or another is the reality. I have in mind not only evidence from the arts—everything from V (1963), Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, to Oliver Stone’s latest film, JFK (1991)—but also the rising star of conspiracy theory itself.

Kafka turned his world into mystery. By contrast, many contemporary writers are predisposed to explanation. And Roth, then and now, is hardly shy when it comes to justifying how and why he happened to write books such as Portnoy’s Complaint or the Zuckerman chronicles. Interestingly enough for the patient, meticulous E.I. Lonoff of The Ghost Writer, a life of “turning sentences around” is sufficient. He need not explain, much less defend, the work that has brought a younger, less confident Nathan Zuckerman to his door. But as Lonoff also points out, a writer of Zuckerman’s temperament requires a more turbulent life. The Zuckerman chronicles are a record of that turbulence, full of the sound, the fury, and the exclamation points that signify the Jewish-American writer’s essentially misunderstood condition:

Not everybody was delighted by this book [Carnovsky] that was making Zuckerman a fortune. Plenty of people had already written to tell him off. “For depicting the Jews in a peep-show atmosphere of total perversion, for depicting Jews in acts of adultery, exhibitionism, masturbation, sodomy, fetishism, and whoremongery,” somebody with a letterhead stationery as impressive as the President’s had even suggested that he “ought to be shot.” And in the spring of 1969 this was no longer just an expression. . . . Oh Madam, if only you knew the real me! Don’t shoot! I am a serious writer as well as one of the boys!

What Zuckerman craves, of course, is sympathy, but his spirited defense is also a mirror held up to the nature of American reality, albeit one filtered through Zuckerman’s admittedly wounded sensibility. What, after all, is Alvin Pepler, the Jewish marine snookered out of his 15 minutes of quiz show fame, if not a profile in paranoia, yet another instance of conspiracy theory-as-reality? Granted, Zuckerman Unbound makes it abundantly clear that while Pepler may be a comic character, he is hardly a reliable witness; but can one say the same for similiar characters in novels by Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo? Here we are meant to take the loopiest readings of history as simultaneously outrageous and darkly “true.” More important, where is “American reality” amid the charges and counter-charges that collect around everything from UFOs to AIDS, and that have been piling up since that fateful day in Dallas when President Kennedy was shot? Poor Zuckerman makes his way through the lunacy that is America 1950—1990, often turning whole lives, rather than Lonovian sentences, around in an effort to see the culture both steady and whole.

Nearly 30 years ago Richard Hofstadter identified the general impulse I’ve been addressing as “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” By “paranoid style,” Hofstadter meant to grab a term from clinical psychology and apply it, “much as a historian of art might speak of the baroque and of expressionist style,” as a way of describing how an increasing number of people on the radical right see the world. To be sure, the overheated suspicions of the clinical paranoid insist that the machinations of a hostile, conspiratorial world are directed against him; by contrast, spokesmen of the paranoid style argue that the plot “out there” is aimed at the culture at large, against the nation as a whole and the very fabric of life all right-thinking people hold dear. In this way Hofstadter meant to call attention to the “qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that clustered around a number of bad causes (e.g., opposition to community fluoridation projects or gun control legislation), and that spawned the likes of Joseph McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and the Goldwater movement.

Given the sheer range of conspiracy theorists, both right and left, in the years since Hofstadter first called our attention to the paranoid style, a reassessment strikes me as appropriate. My interest is directed less toward the strictly “political” aspects of Hofstadter’s thesis than to why America itself has proved so congenial to the paranoid style. And here I think our unique situation as a self-created land, as a concoction of myth as much as of history, deserves emphasis.

For we are not only the inheritors of everything our Puritan forbears packed into bracing phrases such as “a city upon a hill” or the “New Jerusalem,” but also of a Manichean vision that ascribes as much force to the powers of darkness as to those of light. In short, good and evil have always grappled for the American soul; and it may well be that that pitched battle is as accurate a way of describing the American sensibility as any. It is hardly an accident, therefore, that our classic writers were drawn to images of America as the New Eden or that “Adam” emerged as the quintessential American character; nor should it seem surprising that our greatest writers had differing views about our perfectability—an Emerson on one side, a Hawthorne on the other.

Small wonder, then, that nightmare lurks on the other side of the American dream, or that when one Utopian project after another comes to ruin, it reestablishes itself over the next hill and with a new name. As Hofstadter’s article demonstrates, incarnations of the paranoid style surfaced as early as 1798, when Jedidiah Morse warned his congregants that “secret and systematic means have been adopted and pursued. . .to undermine the foundations of this Religion, and to overthrow its Altars.” But I suspect that a more thorough search of Puritan sermons would have revealed that Morse was hardly the first minister to worry about conspiratorial forces out to undermine communal welfare. Indeed, Bradford’s Of Plymouth Planation (1630—51) is a tale of Paradise founded, developed, and lost. In Bradford’s words “some kind of wickedness did grow and break forth here, in a land where the same was so much witness and so narrowly looked into.” Granted, Bradford did not fulminate about “secret and systematic means”—in this case, the enemy was nothing more, nor less, than private property and the enormous opportunities the New World presented “for the enriching of themselves”—that so weakened his church, but neither did he skimp on assigning the blame to what might be called the American condition. The City of God was best thought and talked about on board ships such as the Arabella (site of John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity”) than on the land Pilgrims discovered when they disembarked.

My point is not that America has a monopoly on manifestations of the paranoid style, but rather that the expectations which formed our national character can produce more than our fair share of conspiratorial drumbeating. Again, Hofstadter’s tissue of quotations—separated by 50 years and extending in a seamless pattern from Jedidiah Morse to Joseph McCarthy—suggests that intimations of the apocalypse can always be counted on to pack the house. But here is where Hofstadter and I part company, for I would argue that the years since President Kennedy’s assassination have significantly altered the general public’s perception of what “conspiracies” are and of how widespread they might be. Much of Hofstadter’s surveying effort netted such fish as the anti-Masonic agitation, those alarmed by the implications of Mormonism, and Populist writers who railed against international bankers. Nativists and Know-Nothings, it would seem, have always been with us; but there is a mighty difference between the internecine religious squabbles buried in our past and the deep distrust of government that is our present condition. In short, any contemporary conspiracy theory worth its salt finds its targets no lower than the highest levels. Granted, the slave-holding South did not hesitate to blame Lincoln for its woes, nor did the Far Right hesitate to take a Roosevelt—and later even an Eisenhower—to task for weakening America’s moral fiber. Still, in the years since the Kennedy assassination, not only has public distrust deepened, but more important, it has moved inexorably from the fringes to the mainstream.


At this point let me focus on three large cultural convulsions and suggest how they have become inextricably entangled with the American imagination. I begin with the kulturkamf that raged during the 1930’s and 40’s, and that sharply divided Stalinists from anti-Stalinists, anti-Communists from anti-anti-Communists, true believers from maverick radicals. Given recent events, many of the defining moments of earlier times, other places—everything from rallies to whip up sympathy for the Rosenbergs to orchestrated, pro-Soviet ventures such as the 1949 Waldorf World Peace Conference—must now seem of interest only to those plugging away on doctoral dissertations. Nor need one resort to a door-stopping tome such as Allan Wald’s The New York Intellectuals (1987) to realize that the impetus behind much of the polemical firepower often boiled down to these questions: was Stalinism, with its ugly purges and totalitarian excess, an aberration, or was it the logical, even predictable, result of ideas that could no longer be believed, much less served? Could one remain committed to the Russian Revolution by blaming Stalin alone for the crimes that had been perpetrated in the Revolution’s name, or was it possible that a genuine workers’ revolution had not yet occurred?

For those who manned the typewriters at intellectual magazines such as Philip Rahv’s Partisan Review or Dwight Macdonald’s Politics, such questions were hardly academic, nor were the polemics that resulted simply an occasion to show off brilliance. Rather, the anguish in the years before and after the Stalin-Hitler pact was part of a protracted struggle for the 20th-century’s political soul. At least that is how many of the New York intellectuals saw their fight against all that the word “Stalinism” represented.

Beyond the Hudson, of course, things were a good deal simpler. Anyone caught standing under a Marxist umbrella and throwing around terms like “dialectics” or “historical necessity” was a priori a suspicious, anti-American sort. Xenophobia explains the general animus that produced the Immigration and Nationality (McCarran-Walter) Act of 1952 and energerized the likes of Senator Theodore G. Bilbo, Congressman John R. Rankin, and Gerald L.K. Smith; anti-Semitism accounts for the particulars. As conspiracy theories go, the line about “international bankers” and “warmongering international Jewry” has had a long, shameful run in American history. And at least since the days of Henry Ford the old lies perpetrated in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion have been trotted out by one demagogue after another. As Ranklin put it, in sentiments widely shared by the Far Religious Right: American Jews are “[t]he same gang that composed the Fifth Column of the Crucifixion, [that] hounded the Savior during the days of his ministry, [and] persecuted him to his ignominious death. . . For nearly two millennia Jews have overrun and virtually destroyed Europe. Now they are trying to undermine and destroy America.” Hofstadter could not have hoped for a better, more pointed illustration of the paranoid style as it reared its head in American politics.

Nonetheless, the more theoretically inclined on the Far Left continued to operate on the assumption that what the age required was yet another ponderous recitation on capitalism’s collective failure. Others knew better. Cultural warfare requires that one tilt the playing field of culture itself—by holding better parties, writing better songs, and perhaps most of all, putting one’s faith in the imagination rather than the disembodied intellect. Whatever the shortcomings of the radical Left, however much internecine squabbles depleted ranks or turned firepower inward, it knew how to generate sympathy for “official” martyrs like the Rosenbergs. And as novels such as E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971) or Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977) make clear, what keeps the fires of true belief blazing is the conviction that conspiracy’s invisible hand has been at work in the highest reaches of government. Moreover, once the “new journalism” so blurred the line between fiction and fact that writers no longer had to worry about creating the imaginative plausibility of the former or adhere to the normal responsibilites associated with the latter, anything— absolutely anything—seemed fair game. So, despite the mounting evidence that Julius Rosenberg was probably guilty (and Ethel probably was not), Doctorow’s exercise in nostalgia on the left creates a thinly veiled roman à clef that only apologists of the first water could believe, and only the politically naïve could accept at face value.

If it is true that time blurs the outlines of history—and I would argue that this is doubly true in a land where ahistoricity has been the norm, and where mythologies weigh more heavily than fact—it is also true that time is the unwitting ally of those artists with highly selective (and often, self-serving) memories. One thinks, for example, of Lillian Hellman and the ways she systematically went about creating not only a “Julia” such as never was, but also a rendition of the McCarthy years that gives the term “whitewash” whole new meanings: “Most of the Communists I had met [Ms. Hellman argues] seemed to me people who wanted to make a better world; many of them were silly people and a few of them were genuine nuts, but that doesn’t make for denunciations.” Not so, Irving Howe replied in thunder, and in ways that simultaneously set the record straight and in the process, put the self-mythologizing Ms. Hellman in her place:

Most of the Communists Miss Hellman met may have wanted a better world, but the better world they wanted came down to a soul-destroying and body-torturing prison: the Moscow trials, the Stalin dictatorship, the destruction of millions during the forced collectivization, and a systematic denial of the slave camps in Siberia. . . . Those who supported Stalinism and its political enterprises, either here or abroad, helped befoul the cultural atmosphere, helped bring totalitarian methods into trade unions, helped perpetuate one of the great lies of our century, helped destroy whatever possibilities there might have been for a resurgence of serious radicalism. Isn’t that harm enough?

Granted, a writer such as Coover does not have the same apologist agenda. No doubt The Public Burning was intended to hold Nixon’s feet to the satiric fire; and given the sad debacle of Watergate, who can say that his instincts were wrong. But genuine satire is made of sterner, more disciplined stuff than the high jinks overpraised as postmodernism. Nor is Outrage alone sufficient—not for The Public Burning, and certainly not for Philip Roth’s sophomoric effort at Nixon-bashing called Our Gang (1971).

Meanwhile, something of the old, dangerously romantic beat goes on among those academicians who find themselves drawn to the victimized, persecuted, and oppressed—and who insist that conspiracies explain the cultural landscape in ways that realpolitik cannot. I am confident that one could trudge across each of the newly formed federated Soviet states without bumping into a single Marxist critic (at least one eager to engage in dialectical banter), but I can turn up at least three doctrinaire Marxists by simply stalling over to my college’s department of economics. I’m told that larger colleges are even luckier, and that our most most prestigious universities are packed with folks who make a good buck in “oppression studies.” I take a measure of comfort in this, because one sure way to know if an idea is inert is to ask if somebody can get tenure by perpetuating it. Apparently, Marxism and its cousin neo- have met the test and are doing quite nicely, thank you.

In the old days of kulturkampf—when cultural warfare still retained a more than passing acquaintance with the reality principle and when the stark evidence before one’s eyes counted for something—people modified their positions, adjusted their verbal fire, even “broke ranks.” As such, the Stalin-Hitler pact became an occasion for anguished soul-searching about a Marxist god that had clearly failed; and later, the uglier aspects of the New Left caused many to forge new alliances during the 1970’s. Now one can become what Hofstadter would have reckoned impossible—namely, a guerrilla with tenure.

In this sense, Hofstadter’s thesis, restricted as it was to the machinations of the Far Right, tells only a partial tale. The bald truth is that, during the decades between, say, 1935 and 1955, there was bad faith and deep suspicion on both ends of the political spectrum, as those who worried about Commies under their bed were matched by those equally worried that any criticism directed at Moscow was tantamount to fascism. But the fringes were precisely that—extremes meriting attention, as, say, Joseph McCarthy merited attention—but that did not speak to the mainstream.

Those unwilling to give up their fascinations with the “evil empire” of communism are of course still with us, even if communism per se is not. After all, nothing quite explains our collective mess—the agitation for gay and lesbian rights, the abortion rights movement, or federally funded pornographic art—like communism. To imagine other possibilities is, in effect, to deny a life’s work devoted to standing four-square against the devil incarnate. So, those who once linked flying saucers and assorted UFO’s with communism on an extra-terrestial scale or who equate the mass media with left-liberal indoctrination see continuing evidence of the old plots. But that said, how is this very different from those with an equally compelling psychological need to believe that the Rosenbergs were framed or that every Red scare (and every Red) was, at bottom, a right-wing fabrication? The former produces copy for supermarket tabloids such as the National Enquirer; the latter, leaden ideology between hard covers.


Meanwhile, newer, shinier conspiracy theories have rolled off the assembly line. Young urban blacks, for example, have been especially susceptible to those who can spin out facile plots with the reckless abandon and imaginative daring that once went into “playing the dozens.” Nothing, it seems, is too far-fetched, too outlandish, to get a hearing—be it Chicago politician Gus Savage’s claim that AIDS was invented by Jewish doctors bent on black genocide, or Professor Leonard Jeffries’ much-publicized division of the known world into “sun people” and their icy counterparts. But however much the individual plots may differ, what they have in common is a belief that black troubles are the result of conspiracies hatched “out there”—by the white world in general and Jews in particular.

Small wonder, then, that Malcolm X has been rediscovered by a generation proud to wear an X baseball cap or a T-shirt with Malcolm brandishing a firearm over the words “by all means necessary.” As Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing stridently insists, Martin Luther King, Jr. pales when compared to Malcolm X in much the same way that “We Shall Overcome” is no match for Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” In much the same self-styled arithmetic, Alex Haley’s Roots has taken a back seat to the more memorable, in-your-face sections he recorded in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Given these realities—and the realization that militant posturing is a special prerogative of the young—what can one who happens to be white and of a certain age say? That The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a tale of several Malcolms, not only the one who railed against the “white devil” and the sham of integration, but also the one who came to embrace much deeper, more compassionate, more genuinely religious visions in the months before his assassination; or that black history is filled with personalities (one thinks of W.E.B. Dubois, of Richard Wright) who were every bit as complicated, evolving, and important as Malcolm X? Unfortunately, the Zeitgeist seems in no mood for such instruction. Conspiracy-hawkers are in the saddle, and they ride us, blacks as well as whites.

Consider the current ballyhoo about Afrocentrism. Would that it serve to swell the enrollment of black students in classics departments or, better yet, inspire them to pursue careers in the sciences. But the sad truth is that while studies such as Martin Bernal’s Black Athena have sparked serious debate about what we know, and do not know, about classical antiquity, their dubious claim to fame is that they convince those who know little Sanskrit and less Greek that Eurocentrism itself is a lie, and Western culture essentially a theft. Indeed, in the hands of charlatans like Professor Jeffries, Afrocentrism quickly degenerates into demagogery. No doubt his unabashed opportunitism must strike serious black scholars as an embarrassment, in much the same way that I used to wince whenever pundits floated the idea of Meir Kahane as a “spokeman” for the Jewish people. The difference, however—and it is a crucial one—is that the mainstream Jewish community did everything it could to distance itself from a dangerous bigot like Kahane and to disabuse the general public about his clout By contrast, most black scholars have been conspicuous by their public silence.

Perhaps the black scholars who built their careers on book after book are no better positioned to derail a conspiracy of such gargantuan proportions than I am. Indeed, they might well argue that black intellectuals lack the popular support of a charismatic, highly theatrical type like Professor Jeffries; but, if that is so, they should not feign surprise when African-American studies programs are dismantled in the next decades. For surely the claim that European culture is a lie is itself a lie that has no place among those devoted to pursuing the truth. But that said, how could one prove that the loopier claims of Afrocentrists are so much rot— especially when their claim rests on a belief that the glories of African culture have been systematically falsified or willfully erased. For the hide-bound conspiracy theorist, the very absence of proof is proof, yet another instance (should more be needed) of the insidious workings of one’s enemy. This, of course, is the paranoid style operating at its deepest level, and, given our deteriorating racial situation, one is hardly surprised to find Professor Jeffries’ pronouncements splattered across the pages of The New York Times. If he had not come along he would have been invented—no doubt by a novelist in the Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities mold.


Which brings me, at long last, to the “mother” of contemporary conspiracy theory—the Kennedy assassination. If Shakespeare is, as Joyce puts it in Ulysses, “the happy hunting-ground of minds that have lost their balance” and if Joyce himself became the modern equivalent for generations of dedicated, nit-picking Joyceans, what is one to say of the 600+ articles and books devoted to proving that Kennedy was gunned down by (a) the CIA, (b) the Mafia, (c) the Far Right, (d) the Far Left, or (e) all of the above? Those of us who lived through the immediate aftermath of that shattering event remember where we were and what we were doing with a precision not likely to be matched by any other single moment; and I suspect I am not alone in feeling that our world had been altered in the split second it took the bullets to make their way from the Texas School Book Depository to President Kennedy’s head. The fifties and all they signified— everything from innocence to the certainty of certainty— exploded, and we are still trying to awake from the nightmare that the history of Nov.22, 1963 created.

Indeed, as other assassinations followed—first Malcolm X, then Martin Luther King, Jr., and finally Bobby Kennedy— the words “We interrupt this broadcast for a special news bulletin” took on an ominous cast, one that has not completely disappeared from my consciousness or my viscera. As the decades passed, however, I began to realize that the date of Kennedy’s assassination had metamorphosed itself into an exam question which meant, of course, that a certain percentage of high school students would get it wrong—initially by one or two years, then five, until it finally settled comfortably into that all-purpose guess for everything from the completion of the Panama Canal to the gunfight at the OK corral: 1885. The sheer popularity of Oliver Stone’s JFK may change all that, although the cynical part of me suspects that students are more likely to remember when they saw the film than when Kennedy was assassinated.

More important, my earlier quarrels with novels that conflate history and fiction redouble when the issue turns on docu-dramas such as JFK. For whatever else Stone might be, he is a man with an agenda that goes well beyond the entertainment value of a well-made film. He not only means to raise questions about a wide-spread coverup, but also to tie the whole unseemly package to the war in Vietnam. As Stone would have it, a Kennedy on the verge of pulling our troops out of Vietnam was a Kennedy who had effectively signed his death warrant. The CIA was only too happy to oblige, and to pin the rap on a certifiable patsie like Oswald in the bargain.

That film packs a wallop print seldom matches is true enough; but when one so cleverly intersperses documentary footage with simulated action that audiences accept as real— especially for those who think a Zapruder is a German sports car—the net effect quickly becomes an exercise in manipulation. JFK means to sow doubt, and even Stone’s sharpest critics would admit that this is a case of “Mission Accomplished.” If the political primaries have taught us anything, it is that Americans are fed up and not about to take it anymore. It’s a dangerous recipe that makes for such unlikely candidates as Pat Buchanan or H. Ross Perot; and for political wannabes like Stone.

Curiously enough, Oliver Stone may be the most insidious of the bunch—not only because he knows how to project himself as Ron Kovic, the disillusioned Vietnam vet or Jim Garrison, the New Orleans attorney on a mission from God, but also because, at bottom, he sees himself as a Frank Capra for the 1990’s. The difference, of course, is that his Mr. Deeds is—indeed, must be—broken on the conspiratorial wheel. What Stone gives us is, in his words, an “alternate history,” one at once truer to the facts than the account served up by the Warren Commission and “truer” in term of the deeper rhythms of myth. For Stone, an event as decisive, as disturbing, as the murder of a President must have causations co-equal to the effect. A lone, crazed Oswald simply won’t do in much the same way that the “single [“magic”] bullet” theory won’t wash.

Conspiracy theorists suggested much the same thing as the nation mourned the death of Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth simply couldn’t have worked his way to Lincoln’s box at the Ford Theatre without a network of fellow conspirators and those in the shadows holding the pursestrings. But much as we yearn for bona fide martyrs (both as explanation and consolation), modern life is not Greek tragedy any more than the Kennedy years were Camelot. Moreover, even if Stone et al. get their fondest wish—namely, that every document, every scrap of paper, currently under wraps be released to public scrunity—I suspect that nothing would convince them that essential documents had not been altered or systematically destroyed. At a March 3, 1992 Town Hall Meeting sponsored by Nation magazine, Norman Mailer argued that our Hobson’s choice with respect to the Kennedy assassination was apathy or paranoia. I would respectfully submit that common sense and a healthy regard for what we do know about Nov.22, 1963 suggest another possibility—namely, that the Warren Commission’s conclusion was, in large measure, correct.

Granted, things as they are (or seem) are changed when played on what Wallace Stevens called “a blue guitar.” The imagination seeks a Truth deeper than truth, a Reality more patterned, more coherent, than the messy affair that brought a president and an Oswald to Dealey Plaza. But what if one’s imaginative musings turn naturally to conspiratorial visions? I am thinking, of course, about Don DeLillo and the fact that in his novels the word “plot” is more likely to be a dark pun on conspiracy than a description of “what happens next.” As one character in Running Dog (1978) puts it: “This is the age of conspiracy.” Indeed, visions of conspiracy dance through the eleven novels DeLillo has published since 1971; and given the sheer range of his subjects—football players, rock stars, mad scientists, television executives, college professors, professional terrorists—one can only conclude that what these disparate characters share is DeLillo’s insistence that “all conspiracies are the same taut story of men who find coherence in some criminal act.”

In this sense, Libra (1988), DeLillo’s contribution to our national obsession with Kennedy’s assassination, was a natural. He could not only put an imaginative spin on Lee Harvey Oswald, his mother, Marguerite, and Jack Ruby, but also add as many anti-Castro Cuban exiles, CIA operatives, and Mafia wheeler-dealers as the baggy traffic of a novel would bear. Better yet, speeches like the following seem to come with the imaginative territory, however much they smack of pure DeLillo rather than the cynical CIA agent who actually utters them: “The dangerous secrets used to be held outside the government. Plots, conspiracies, secrets of revolution, secrets of the social order. Now it’s government that has a lock on the secrets that matter. All the danger is in the White House, from nuclear weapons on down.” Those who raced in to disagree (America might be less than perfect, but it certainly wasn’t this bad) were met by rolling eyeballs and the all-purpose retort of the late 1980’s: “You just don’t get it, do you? . . . You just don’t get it.”

As I write these lines, the first wave of mainstream journalism is taking the measure of Susan Faludi’s Backlash, a book out to argue that the gains of the Women’s Movement were systematically undermined during the Reagan years— by “a kind of pop-culture version of the Big Lie” perpetrated by the Religious Right, the fashion industry, and perhaps most of all, popular films such as Fatal Attraction. At times Faludi seems to back off from calling the equation that “freedom equals unhappiness” a full-blown conspiracy, but it is hard to turn her 550 pages without feeling that feminists have been had. Indeed, her forays into history suggest that Backlash owes as large a debt to Richard Hofstadter as to Betty Freidan. I intend to stay tuned as the feminists slug it out in much the same way that I figure we have not heard the last from those tonguing a sore tooth about the Kennedy assassination. At the Town Hall meeting I mentioned earlier, Mailer also suggested that it might be interesting to speculate about the timing of the Watergate scandal, given Nixon’s movement toward détente. After all, if the Right feared that Kennedy would yank us out of Vietnam, the Right might also have been skittish about a Nixon playing footsie with the commies. Even Stone perked up at that one. After all, Hollywood directors feed on controversy every bit as much as media hounds; and at the moment nothing plays better in Dubuque than products of America’s conspiratorial imagination. Moreover, as Hofstadter knew full well, they always did.


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