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Monday, May 25, 2009

Case Closed -- Er, Open -- Er, Whatever

I recently read a couple books I'd acquired over the years pertaining to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. My curiosity about it had initially been stimulated by conversations I had with John Judge while in college. He co-directed an anti-militarist project that was housed in Penn's Christian Association. (I wasn't Christian, but had taken a work/study job there for 1981-82 because I knew a lot of progressive groups had their offices in its building.)

My predisposition was to be skeptical of conspiracy theories. In part this was because they cut across the structuralist sort of class analysis in which I'd been trained, and whose conceptual elegance (like that of philosophical materialism more generally) I found appealing. But I also noticed, in these conversations, evidence that John's perennially narrow focus on a conspiratorial world view (he said he was one of only a few people in the country to have read the entire Warren Commission report), had distorted his perception of things, giving him a sort of tunnel vision.

For instance, the subject of the social value of technology once came up, and I suggested that in general you can't characterize a technology as pro- or antisocial, because it depends on who's using it and for what purpose. As a counterexample, he said he didn't see what progressive use could be made of genetic engineering.

I was quite surprised by this statement, since one of the first things I'd ever read on that subject, an article in Newsweek, had described how it was anticipated that genetically engineered bacteria might be used to clean up oil spills. It seemed strange to me that John would be unaware of something as well publicized as this, if he cared so much about the potential uses of this technology. Evidently his conception of it had been shaped entirely by those who conjured up Hitlerian visions of engineered master and slave races and the like, and he hadn't even stopped to consider what other sorts of applications it might have, let alone read up on it.

Several years later I saw him again when he made an appearance on the Penn campus to present his views. These, by the way, cover a lot more territory than just the JFK assassination. He's part of a circle of people who think recent history has largely been shaped by an "international fascist network" that comprises various "neo-fascist" and military intelligence groups around the world, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Office of Naval Research in the US. They trace this network back to the 1920s with a grouping he refers to as "southern rim boys."

So I went to hear my old friend speak. But it wasn't long before I saw another example of how his conspiratorial obsession had resulted in a too-narrow range of knowledge. In connection with some cult-related tragedies (I think this may have been shortly after the Solar Temple deaths), John made fun of the phrase "murder-suicide." He asked, "How stupid do they think we are? How can something be both a murder and a suicide?"

I was really stunned by this one. I wondered how any literate person could not know what this phrase meant, since it had appeared over and over again in the press, usually in connection not with mass cult deaths, but individuals' going berserk after losing their long-held jobs, killing a bunch of coworkers and/or family members before killing themselves. The meaning was perfectly plain, whether in an individual or group context -- but not to John. Unfortunately my social anxiety then was too great to let me point this out during his presentation.

Despite my skepticism I was still curious to learn more about his ideas, and though I was too poor at the time to buy the book he was selling (a collection of talks and articles titled Judge for Yourselves), I did order it a few years later. If nothing else, it certainly makes for interesting reading. It includes lengthy pieces about both JFK and Jonestown, plus shorter ones on various other subjects, such as UFOs. (He thinks they're surveillance craft initially created by the Nazis and further developed by the military here after taking in some of the former after WWII. He likes to call them "unidentified fascist observatories.")

It was easy to see how, if one isn't trained in critical thinking, one might well be persuaded by this sort of thing. He obviously has done a lot of reaearch -- but the question is, what kind of research?

He likes to quote this saying by his friend Penn Jones: "Take one incident and research the hell out of it." But, almost as if in answer to this motto, a writer in one of the skeptical publications once pointed out that focusing too much on one incident is likely to lead one astray: any collection of facts will contain some seeming patterns which are completely accidental, simply because of the laws of probability. (Indeed, this is the key premise behind much of John Cage's art.) And, when you're focusing on one past incident, you don't have much opportunity to do hypothesis testing (not that I've seen any evidence that conspiracy theorists are wont to do that anyway). But you have lots of leeway to choose which avenues of inquiry to pursue, and favor those that appear likely to confirm your ideological predispositions. And afterwards, of course, you have leeway to report only on those connections that led to something that confirms those predispositions, further distorting the picture of reality you pass on to others. And all this, note, can happen without any intent to deceive -- it depends only on the researcher's lack of critical thinking skills. My impression is that typically conspiracy theorists not only lack such skills themselves but, because they don't understand the sort of cognitive malfunctions these serve to guard against, they never think to attribute others' errors (real or perceived) to such self-deception, but instead jump to the conclusion that intentional dishonesty and malevolence must be involved. Which further reinforces their conspiratorial world view, ad infinitum.

I subsequently bought a couple other assassination books that I happened upon -- High Treason by Robert Groden and Harrison Livingstone and ZR Rifle: The Plot to Kill Kennedy and Castro by Claudia Furiati. Only in the past few months did I get around to reading them.

The former has a lot of sources, but I noticed some signs of sloppy research. For instance, there's one section in which Groden and Livingstone enumerate what they consider instances of missing or destroyed evidence. In several cases they mention the same example twice within the space of a few pages, as if they were listing two separate items (thereby multiplying the apparent evidence of cover-up). This doesn't exactly inspire confidence: if they can't even keep track of the information as they're putting it in their book, why would I trust the procedures by which they assembled and verified it in the first place?

They also make a number of tendentious inferences. For example, discussing the Oswald backyard photos, in which he holds a rifle in one hand and a radical newspaper in the other, they say, "It is unlikely that anyone would be reading both the [Stalinist] Worker and the [then Trotskyist] Militant, since the two papers are of opposing ideologies -- unless that person was involved in an intelligence operation."

Whoa! Haven't Groden and Livingstone ever heard of exploring a range of ideas? Well, perhaps not. Maybe they're the sort of people who only read things they expect to reinforce their current view of things. This would come as no surprise, given my experience with John Judge. This dubious inference on their part serves as additional evidence that conspiratorial thinking often reflects (and in turn reinforces) poor cognitive habits.

Furiati's book is less substantial. There are no endnotes, and much of the text reiterates the putative findings of US-based assassination researchers. The new part is based on Furiati's interview with Cuban counterintelligence chief Fabian Escalante. Although the book's cover says, "Cuba Opens Secret Files," these files are not reproduced in the book, aside from a couple brief passages quoted. The appendix features several reports from Cuba's State Security Department, but only the top page of each one; the captions don't indicate how long they actually are. So most of the book's new material is Furiati's paraphrases of what Escalante told her.

What he told her -- only some of which directly pertains to the Kennedy assassination -- sounds interesting, but clearly it's coming from an interested source. While it's possible to make a strong case against the US economic embargo and other hostile policies toward Cuba without being a supporter of its present government (and many of their opponents do so), it's also clear that they might see propaganda value in linking their opponents with Kennedy's assassination.

So, having now read several pro-conspiracy writings -- and found them intriguing but not quite persuasive -- I decided it was time to check out the other side of the argument. So I borrowed Gerald Posner's Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK from the library.

This was a rather different experience. It's generally very well sourced, and he refrains from tendentious inferences (at least with respect to the assassination itself; he's a little less careful when discussing the conspiracy theorists). The most notable difference may be the huge amount of space he devotes to Oswald's biography, compared to the paltry treatment the conspiratorialists give him.

This was, in fact, the part of the book I found most fascinating. And not only fascinating. The first chapter, covering Oswald's childhood, was anxious-making, because all too often aspects of his home environment were reminiscent of things I'd experienced, as were his psychological responses thereto -- though neither were as bad for me as they were for him. It made for some very difficult reading; I felt like putting the book down a few times because of how uncomfortable it was making me. The scary thing was not that Oswald as assassin was incomprehensible, but that he was too easy to understand.

In addition, from the outset and often seemingly without trying, Posner makes apparent the dishonesty of some of the conspiracy theorists. On the first page he describes Oswald's arrest in the Texas Theater -- how a police officer approached him, how Oswald assaulted the officer and only subsequently, when the fight wasn't going his way, put his hands up and said, "I am not resisting arrest!"

How do Groden and Livingstone present this? They only describe the second part of this incident; reading them, you'd never know that Oswald had put up a fight before surrendering. This is important because Groden and Livingstone present their version in support of the claim that Oswald knew he'd been set up as a patsy, and was avoiding a fight so as not to give the police an excuse to kill him on the spot and thereby silence him. This interpretation obviously falls apart when one reads the complete account.

Are Groden and Livingstone being dishonest? Probably not, in their own minds. They may have convinced themselves the first part of the incident never happened, and so see nothing wrong with omitting it. But a more intellectually honest approach would have been to tell the whole story as reported, and then explain why they think part of it isn't true.

Another thing that struck me was in Posner's chapter on Yuri Nosenko and the "war of the defectors." He mentions that Richard Helms, while heading the CIA, advised Earl Warren against taking testimony from Nosenko. I took note because Nosenko denied that Oswald had been a Soviet agent; his testimony would therefore weaken the case that Oswald had been that, as well as tending to discourage inquiry into any kind of conspiracy hypothesis.

Yet Groden and Livingstone clearly indicated that they consider Helms to be part of the assassination conspiracy. If they're right, it would have been in his interest to have Nosenko testify, not to prevent his testimony. (More on this below.)

Notwithstanding the title, Posner doesn't thoroughly address all the conspiratorialists' arguments. But he does make some important points. For instance, he points out that if Oswald had been hired at any of the several places he applied prior to the Texas School Book Depository, he wouldn't have been in the right building to shoot Kennedy (or to serve as a patsy for that matter, as some allege). Further, the people who helped him get that job were Ruth Paine, a Quaker, and her friends -- not likely participants in a right-wing conspiracy. He also shows that no "magic" is required to explain the fatal bullet's trajectory if one takes Kennedy and Connolly's body configurations at the time into account.

By the way, Oswald's posing with both Stalinist and Trotskyist papers has become totally unmysterious by the time one gets to that episode in Posner's book. It jibes perfectly with the political and psychological portrait he paints of him, based on a variety of documents.

Although I found Posner's book pretty persuasive, I knew a rejoinder to it had been written. So now I borrowed Harold Weisberg's Case Open from the library. This was pretty disappointing.

First of all, Weisberg's style is awfully off-putting. After averring in the preface that "nothing in Case Open is meant personally," he proceeds almost immediately to engage in harsh ad hominem attacks; on the very first page he writes of Posner's "little-man dirtiness," a phrase he repeats with variations throughout the book. Another thing that makes this book hard to read is Weisberg's frequent indulgence in extremely convoluted complex sentences, so that it's hard to even follow what he's trying to say.

A couple things complicated judging the book. One is that Weisberg is evidently criticizing an earlier edition of Case Closed than the one I had borrowed; once I realized this, statements that had initially struck me as willful misrepresentations, I had to set aside as possibly being accurate with respect to the original version of Posner's book. Nonetheless, the fact that Case Closed could remain as convincing as it is, even after possibly having been revised in the wake of Weisberg's criticisms, indicates the weakness of those criticisms. Put in the best possible light, they could be construed as, "Consider the source."

The problem with that argument is that it cuts both ways, and when it cuts Weisberg it draws blood. While another allowance I might feel obliged to make is that he was confined by infirmity to his bed when writing the book, and so couldn't access most of his own files and had to rely largely on memory, this doesn't explain away internal inconsistencies in what he could write.

For example, early in the book he accuses Posner of "withholding from his readers" the fact that he had the CIA's cooperation in interviewing Nosenko. (He actually goes further by saying the CIA "jumped in to help" Posner with the "gift" of Nosenko, although he cites no evidence that this was the CIA's idea rather than Posner's.) He repeats this claim of "dishonesty" on Posner's part several times.

And what does he do later on in the book? He complains about Posner's "incessantly" "boasting" about the the cooperation he got from the CIA to interview Nosenko -- diametrically opposite to what he claimed earlier! And now he repeats this claim several times.

Another thing that really undermines Weisberg's credibility is the way he ignores the biographical information about Oswald. He portrays Posner's entire case for Oswald's motive as having been based on a report on him as a boy made by a psychiatrist at a juvenile detention center. He then tries to discredit the psychiatrist, named Hartogs, by saying he'd engaged in sexual abuse of patients, without explaining what bearing this has on the reliability of his clinical observations, let alone how it would cause him to provide false testimony in support of an assassination conspiracy years before it was hatched.

But in reality, by the time one gets to the account of Hartogs' notes on Oswald, they don't even come as a surprise. After reading all the preceding material about the circumstances of his upbringing, and observations that others made of him, the real surprise would have been if Hartogs hadn't expressed some serious concerns (well beyond that he merely "behaved badly," as Weisberg dismissively puts it; that would by definition be true of anyone in juvenile detention, whereas Hartogs explicitly says Oswald is atypical).

As for Weisberg's argument concerning Nosenko, this seems to me like much ado about nothing. His claim is that Nosenko's maltreatment by the CIA began right after he told the FBI that the KGB had suspected Oswald of being a US intelligence agent; together with testimony that the FBI was known not to have any agents in the USSR, Weisberg describes this as "fingering" the CIA. Presumably he thinks this is also why Helms didn't want Nosenko testifying to the Warren Commission.

This seems pretty silly to me. There weren't many defectors from the US to the USSR in that period; it would not surprise me if the KGB had suspected all of them were US agents. The natural suspiciousness of an intelligence agency like the KGB hardly constitutes evidence "fingering" a rival agency. Yet this alone, according to Weisberg, is supposed to have motivated the CIA in their horrendous maltreatment of Nosenko (which he incomprehensibly accuses Posner of downplaying, though he specifies little beyond what Posner does).

Weisberg also frequently engages in double standards. He says without explanation that Posner could not possibly have read all the Warren Commission materials he says he did, and therefore must be working from what someone else gave him. Based on this, he derides Posner's claim to have made his own index of these materials to compensate for the bias he saw in Sylvia Meagher's index. Yet if one compares the time periods involved, there's hardly any difference -- Weisberg allows that Posner had as much as a year and a half to prepare his index, whereas there were also only a couple years from when the Warren Commission published its report to when Meagher published her index. So, why is what was evidently possible for Meagher, supposedly not possible for Posner?

One of the flimsy arguments Weisberg makes for Posner's dishonesty is based on the fact that in one interview, he said he'd intended his book to be an open-minded review of all the theories, to try and sort what was credible from what wasn't; while in another, he indicated he thought at the outset that Oswald may have been in a conspiracy with the Mafia, or possibly just a small circle of friends. Weisberg says this "proves" that Posner was untruthful when he claimed to have approached his subject with an open mind.

As with Groden and Livingstone's argument about the backyard photos, this may inadvertently say a lot about the way Weisberg thinks. What does it say about a person, that he thinks having any kind of opinion about a question makes it impossible to set that opinion aside and try to impartially examine all the evidence?

Meanwhile, Weisberg doesn't hold himself to the same standard. Although throughout the book he claims to only be presenting facts, not speculations, at the very outset he explains that he took up research on the assassination after having told his wife, during the interval between Kennedy's murder and Oswald's, that it looked like someone was trying to ensure that Oswald couldn't get a fair trial, and was probably going to kill him -- and then saw it happen. It never occurs to him that if Posner's having an opinion beforehand about what happened (supposedly) prevented him from examining all the evidence impartially, then the exact same argument would apply to Weisberg, who obviously also had an opinion before he'd done any research.

While there are parts of Weisberg's book that might look like a strong case for conspiracy -- if I could rely on his presentation of the facts -- his own inconsistency and his disregard for important facts in areas I already know about make it quite impossible for me to trust his presentation of evidence.

While I'm not in a position to totally rule out conspiratorial explanations in this matter, the evidence as a whole seems to weigh strongly against them. And after seeing so much sloppy research and reasoning on the part of conspiracy theorists, I'm not inclined to invest any more time studying them.

Eric Hamell

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