The Big Problem With Calling People “Conspiracy Theorists” What happens when smart writers choose to simply fall in line?

November 6, 2013

The Big Problem With Calling People “Conspiracy Theorists”
What happens when smart writers choose to simply fall in line?

Esquire Magazine
November, 2013
By Josh Ozersky

Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker’s resident sage and polymath, dilated at some length on the cultural legacy of JFK’s assassination. The piece was uncharacteristically lazy and weak-minded, a rare but complete relaxation of Gopnik’s usually vigorous mind. Gopnik is about as smart as they come, but the piece is dumb, little more than one long scoff. Insofar as it engages in the debate over JFK’s demise at all, it relies on a handful of weak debate points you’ve heard many times before. And there’s a reason you’ve heard them before. They were all originally crafted for public use by the CIA.

Gopnik, like nearly all of his fellow archons in the journalism business, has an unshakable faith in the consensus view of JFK’s assassination. As far as he is concerned, the facts of the case are in plain view and that only “conspiracy theorists” would think otherwise. His breezy, shallow essay urbanely hectors “the world of conspiracy buffs.” No argument on his part is required; these “obsessives” discredit themselves. If they were legit, he seems to think, they would have free run of The New Yorker’s pages, instead of lurking in “assassination forums and chat rooms.” Brilliant though he may be, Gopnik is in this respect every bit as dumb as any hedge fund manager or surly celebrity; like them, he thinks his place at the top is a testimony to his influence, rather than the cause of it. (His two essays in this issue amount to 11 full pages.) Big-bore public intellectuals tend to think of themselves as floating above the fray. But really, they’re no better or worse than the bloggers and cranks they despise. They only think otherwise because, as another, more cynical New Yorker writer, George Trow, put it, “the referee always wins.”

Take JFK’s murder. Gopnik mentions Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartman’s exhaustive study of the assasination, Legacy of Secrecy—a gigantic tome utterly devoid of drama, style, or speculation. The book is rigorous in its research and citation, but Gopnik just just shrugs it off. The fact that Legacy of Secrecy presents a sustained argument supported with hundreds of White House, FBI, and other documents attained via the Freedom of Information Act, not to mention countless interviews of living persons, just doesn’t matter. Waldron and Hartman are “conspiracy theorists,” too, and so not worth paying attention to.

“Conspiracy theorists” is a phrase Gopnik, to his discredit, uses without quotation marks; it’s a loaded term, as he surely knows. He might be less aware that it was, at least in its current weaponized form, an invention of the CIA. That body, when widespread skepticism of the Warren Commission’s findings first emerged, sent a memo, number 1035-960, to all its bureaus giving specific instructions for “countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists.” This naturally meant using assets such as “friendly elite contacts (especially politicians and editors)” who could be provided with ready-made talking points, magic bullets in their own right. They continue to be in regular use today, consciously or not, even in the pages of The New Yorker. For instance:

Memo 1035-960: “Conspiracy on the large scale often suggested would be impossible to conceal in the United States.”

Gopnik: “No matter how improbable it may seem that all the hard evidence could have been planted, faked, or coerced—and that hundreds of the distinct acts of concealment and coercion necessary would have been left unconfessed for more than half a century.”

Memo 1035-960: “Critics have often been enticed by a form of intellectual pride: they light on some theory and fall in love with it.”

Gopnik: “It is, in other words, possible to construct an intricate scenario that is both cautiously inferential, richly detailed, on its own terms complete, and yet utterly delusional.”

Memo 1035-960: “The Warren Commission made as thorough an investigation as humanly possible.”

Gopnik: “The first truth is that the evidence that the American security services gathered, within the first hours and weeks and months, to persuade the world of the sole guilt of Lee Harvey Oswald remains formidable: ballistics evidence, eyewitness evidence, ear-witness evidence, fingerprint evidence, firearms evidence, circumstantial evidence, fibre evidence.”

Gopnik doesn’t need a memo to parrot this line. He picked it up along the way as a consensus pundit. Such figures tend to be incautious about their assumptions, because they think they always know the score. (They keep it, after all.) They’re always right until they’re not; and then they knew it all along. Talk about your unreliable narrators! Centrist gasbags from Walter Lippman on down have been duped more times than Colonel Klenk. Look at the comedy they’ve played just in recent years. According to them, only nuts thought that the government faked the evidence behind the Iraq War. Only tin-hat wackos could believe that, get this, two billionaire brothers were secretly conspiring to fund the overthrow of the government. Or that giant banks were deliberately short-selling the housing market. Or that the NSA was reading everybody’s email. The consensus has a way of changing, but not soon enough, and its inhabitants never, ever learn their lesson. As I write, the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan are pouring millions of gallons of radioactive seawater into the Pacific, to the point that coastal animals in Alaska have fur loss and open sores and vast stretches of ocean have turned into biological deserts. It’s a huge story, but they never got the memo. Or, maybe, they did.

Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Award-winning food writer, B-list food personality, and noted polymath and deviant. The founder of Meatopia, he will answer all your questions on meat, food, food writing, relationships, restaurants, or cooking. He is also available for private tutorials.

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