BURKE: Contextualizing conspiracies in light of the classified JFK assassination documents released

We must utilize our skepticism to push our institutions to improve, to be more responsive and less secretive


What will the released papers from the Kennedy assassination tell us about conspiracy theories? 

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Of all of the strange news stories surrounding the Trump White House at any given time, the forthcoming release of previously classified documents pertaining to the Kennedy assassination immediately captures my imagination. Unfortunately for those expecting a dramatic revision of history, it seems unlikely that these documents will be of great impact to our understanding of that fateful day in Dealey Plaza. The University’s own Larry Sabato — a leading expert on John F. Kennedy — is less worried about what will be released than what might not be, warning that withholding any of this last batch of documents will only provide more fodder for conspiracy theorists going forward. Sabato is also not shy about pointing out President Donald Trump’s open relationship with conspiracy theories. Whether it be by his role in the birther movement, or his appearance on The Alex Jones Show, Trump has cultivated his “ultimate outsider” image by setting himself against this swamp, and subsequently promising to drain it. Adrienne LaFrance’s recent piece in The Atlantic does a great job of illuminating the importance of Trump’s use of conspiracy theories. This particular incident provides us with a unique opportunity to explore the strange phenomena of conspiracy theories. It is important we examine conspiracy theories with rigor and an open mind — such theories thrive on denial and dismissal, and can only be nullified by the truth. 

It is not hard to see the more general appeals of conspiracy theories. Certainly there is a feeling of discovery and mystery, a warping of fact and fiction which is inherently interesting and exciting. Conspiracies also tend to play off of each other, either directly or indirectly setting off a chain of mistrust and investigation. To put it more plainly, they don’t call it “falling down the rabbit hole” for nothing. Perhaps the most important appeal of conspiracy theories, however, is the feeling of empowerment. You are finding out what others don’t want you to know. You are waking up, taking the red pill, “breaking the conditioning.”  

The great difficulty in dealing with conspiracy theories comes from the fact that we have great reason to distrust our leaders and institutions. Things like MK-ULTRA and Operation Northwoods prove that the government has a truly awesome capacity for deception, subversion and manipulation. Once one has acknowledged these and other historical cases, it is difficult to put anything past the powers that be. What is needed is a healthy kind of skepticism which takes into account human error. We can remain rational while acknowledging that our government is not above blame or suspicion.

It is important to understand why simply dismissing conspiracies outright is not an effective means of dealing with them. Indeed, if any given theory were true, then this is precisely how one would expect the guilty party to respond. Though it will be impossible to satisfy all skeptics, to dismiss their demands entirely often exacerbates the problem that they represent. That problem is, more specifically, the endemic distrust in our leaders and institutions. As previously implied, this distrust is not entirely unwarranted. It is this general aura of opaque bureaucracy surrounding our government that allows even more outlandish conspiracy theories to take root. Though it seems that every administration makes “transparency” a priority, there has been little tangible change. Now more than ever, Americans are disconnected from their representatives, from their laws and from their institutions. The long term solution to the growing conspiracy epidemic is less secrecy, less bureaucracy and more openness. In the words of Kennedy, “the very word secrecy is repugnant in a free and open society.” Though it may serve to advance a political goal today, Trump’s decision to release the Kennedy files is a small step in the right direction.

There is an adage known as Hanlon’s razor which says: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Like so many great quotes, however, there is some important context left out. The complete quote ends with the qualification “but don’t rule out malice.” This is important, as it reflects a commonly misunderstood aspect of general skepticism. Given our understanding of human nature, some propositions are more likely than others. Even so, skepticism is still an attitude worth hanging on to. A certain level of suspicion should always be leveled against our institutions and leaders. As the federal government grows increasingly more unwieldy and unaccountable with each passing year, we would do well to resist its power with a bit of aporetic inquiry. If something seems off about an official explanation, one has every right to demand something more satisfactory. Though it may often be more reasonable to believe that stupidity lies behind the convoluted problems surrounding the government, malice should never be ruled out. We must utilize our skepticism to push our institutions to improve, to be more responsive and less secretive. We might just prove some crazy theories right along the way.

Ben Burke is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He may be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com

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