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From Camelot to Conspiracy
Memory, Myth, and the Death of JFK

Why did JFK’s untimely death produce so many clashing interpretations of one of the most meticulously documented periods of history? This article examines the reasons shocking events like the Kennedy assassination give rise to conspiracy myths. Such stories, though based on ostensibly historic events, serve a contemporary agenda, namely by scapegoating a source of existential evil and promoting a paranoid counter-ideology to defeat it.

This essay appeared in Skeptic magazine 22.4 (2017) and was presented to the 2017 Concordia-Vanier Liberal Arts Colloquium in Montreal on March 31, 2017, based on a working manuscript titled: The Autopsy of a Modern Myth: Thinking Critically about the Kennedy Assassination.

In his 2007 book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, the political scientist James Piereson made this insightful observation about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy:

The assassination of a popular president by a communist should have generated a revulsion against everything associated with left-wing doctrines. Yet something very close to the opposite happened. By 1968, student radicals were taking over campuses and joining protest demonstrations in support of a host of radical and revolutionary causes. It is one of the ironies of recent history that many of those young people who filed in shocked grief past the president’s coffin in 1963 would just a few years later embrace as political activists the very doctrines that led Oswald to assassinate him.

Piereson concluded his soul searching analysis:

The various conspiracy theories that arose in the wake of the assassination must be viewed … not so much as efforts to discover the truth but as aspects of the struggle to find meaning in a seemingly senseless event.1

The sudden and violent assassination of President Kennedy elicited a number of conflicting narratives concerning his life, death, and legacy. On one hand, the Kennedy family and the Johnson administration eulogized the fallen president as a champion of civil rights gunned down by the forces of hatred. This was done partly to counter the claims of many conservatives and reactionaries who held that JFK had been part of a nepotistic Irish-Catholic “mafia,” a corrupt liberal dynasty hostile to traditional American values. Many progressives and leftists countered these popular myths by arguing that JFK had really been a man of peace seeking to end the Cold War and, therefore, fell victim to a secret coup d’état orchestrated by warmongering fascists inside the American political establishment.

Why did JFK’s untimely death produce so many clashing interpretations of one of the most meticulously documented periods of history? This article examines the reasons shocking events like the Kennedy assassination give rise to conspiracy myths. Such stories, though based on ostensibly historic events, serve a contemporary agenda, namely by scapegoating a source of existential evil and promoting a paranoid counter-ideology to defeat it.

The Legacy of “Camelot”

Few accounts of the JFK assassination present John F. Kennedy’s death from an emotionally neutral perspective. Indeed, for almost everyone who has studied the crime, there remains some sense that justice should have been served but wasn’t. There was not only something flagrantly wrong about the disturbing manner of Kennedy’s death; there was also little comfort to be found in the sudden elimination of the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

The murder of President Kennedy, and that of his murderer three days later, robbed the public of a clear explanation for Kennedy’s death. The fact that Oswald was neither a racist nor an organized criminal, but rather an openly Marxist lone wolf living in a very conservative state made the known facts of the event difficult for the public to contextualize. For many, the climate of rightwing hatred directed at the civil rights movement was, despite all evidence to the contrary, the likely cause of Kennedy’s death. Many in the media, government and academia explained it just that way. For newly sworn in President Lyndon Johnson, the fear of reigniting the McCarthyist red-scare or, worse, of engaging Cuba and the Soviet Union in a nuclear conflict — should it ever be found that the assassin had been following their orders — meant that Kennedy could not be portrayed publicly as a victim of the Cold War. Rightwing radicalism, the sort that had produced the “Irish Mafia” mythology and promoted racist hatreds, was an appropriate scapegoat.

The Warren Commission’s failure to properly contextualize Oswald’s Marxist worldview within the ongoing Cold War narrative2 led many to throw up their hands and accept the more comforting “Camelot” myth popularized by Mrs. Kennedy in the days that followed the assassination.3 In that story, JFK, the idealistic champion of civil rights, had been gunned down by the forces of hatred and bigotry and not by a Marxist terrorist striking a successful blow at the leading symbol of Western capitalism. As James Piereson noted:

Our retrospective view of President Kennedy is now filtered through the legends and symbols she [Jacqueline Kennedy] put forward at that time. The hardheaded politician devoted to step-by-step progress was transformed in death into the consummate liberal idealist. … Difficult as it may be to accept, the posthumous image of JFK reflected more the idealistic beliefs of Mrs. Kennedy than the practical political liberalism of the man himself.4

Henceforth, the distorted image of Oswald as a poster boy for madness and bigotry and as an enemy of civil rights (when in fact there was no truth to this) laid itself wide open to criticism. Those who saw themselves as victims of capitalism — old socialists who had suffered the witch hunts of the 1950s and the young adepts of counterculture angered by the war in Vietnam — were the first to lash out at this nostalgic myth of American progress, leading them, in the process, to sympathize with Oswald as a fellow victim of the establishment.

Alternative Histories

Despite the ongoing popularity of Kennedy-related conspiracy theories, the mainstream news media and academic publishers have largely stayed faithful to the Warren Commission’s argument that the assassination was the work of a single man. But JFK conspiracy buffs like the filmmaker Oliver Stone explain this away as yet more proof that the media are being manipulated by some powerful secret cabal. In a 1992 public debate over his film JFK, Stone offered the following remarks concerning the educational media’s endorsement of the “official story:”

It makes me doubt all our history; all our history. I grew up…reading the Random House series of books on American history. I’ve come to have severe doubts about Columbus, Washington, the Civil War being fought for slavery, the Indian Wars, World War I, World War II, the supposed fight against Nazism and/or Japanese control of resources in Southeast Asia. I doubted everything; … I see the two paragraphs of American history on “Oswald did it alone,” and that’s all we get. These kids are not getting an alternative version of American history.5

In his numerous public orations,6 Stone indicts more than just the federal government, its law enforcement agencies, or the vaguely defined “military industrial complex” as accessories to Kennedy’s murder. To be consistent, his conspiracy theory must also embrace, among others, the world of educational publishing. Indeed, he seems convinced that a large number of journalists, academics, and educators deliberately and collectively misled the public by refusing to teach “alternative versions” of the past.

This concept of alternative histories is a recurring theme in many popular conspiracy theory sources.7 Kennedy conspiracy enthusiasts often display the same type of hostility towards historians that pseudoscientific communities such as UFOlogists, young-earth creationists and proponents of alternative medicine direct towards widely accomplished mainstream scientists. Indeed, many conspiracists profess a transcendental theory of knowledge similar to those of religious cults such as Scientology, Gnosticism, and Falun Dafa, which claim that the visible world is little more than a house of mirrors shaped by malevolent entities.8 Less extreme conspiracists habitually claim that most of what passes for “official” history in textbooks or on television is a subtle form of mind control orchestrated by rich Western powerbrokers to enslave the masses. This idea has become so all encompassing that the Lone Gunman Theory defended by the Warren Report has now become subsumed into a wider paranoid matrix: an epic global deception that threatens to eradicate all freedoms, lest it be exposed by a committed “resistance” (a favorite term of conspiracist radio host Alex Jones) of “open-minded” researchers. It is a story built on their fear of authority and held together by a singular thread — that of conspiracy — which connects all major historic events, from the rise and fall of ancient empires to the latest news bulletins.

This is one reason why JFK assassination theories continue to spark interest among each new generation. Through this notion of “false history,” Kennedy’s assassination has become a sort of gateway drug into a widespread anti-establishment culture. It invites its adepts to pursue their quest for a “higher truth” through selfguided research of other conspiracies, a “truth” that can only be grasped through a radical paradigm shift. It becomes, simply put, something akin to a cultish religion: a culture of enlightened initiates whose primary goal is to liberate the minds of the masses from the control of the establishment, and whose highest sacrament is systematic doubt of everything.

What conspiracists seek, ultimately, is not truth in the form of a set of objective facts, but validation of their feelings of alienation, a validation that rests on a set of presumed facts. This can rightly be called a myth, one that legitimizes their conviction that they are the victims of history, and that by ascribing blame to some external malevolent entity, justifies their claim to the moral high-ground in their life story.

In using the word “myth” I am not suggesting that such a story has no basis in reality. Nevertheless, myths do not chronicle past events objectively or dispassionately. What makes them myths and not legends or histories is the fact that the believer usually assumes that the story is true due to its explanatory power. If the myth can confirm the believer’s impression that she is the victim of some powerful clique (which conspiracy theories do quite well) then the theory is simply assumed to be true because it offers the victim of alienation what “official” history cannot: simple answers, personal innocence, and a singular source of evil to blame.

“Official” history — the sort that is subject to peer review and rigid standards of evidence — does not usually offer its reader much comfort. It tells us that life is unpredictable, unfair and complex, that tragedy can strike anyone at any time, and that cycles of violence often spill out on undeserving bystanders. It teaches us that no one is entirely good or evil; that yesterday’s victims can be tomorrow’s abusers; that a crowd can be just as malicious as a tyrant. It tells us that, given a certain alignment of unfortunate circumstances and poor choices, each one of us is a potential Brutus, John Wilkes Booth, or Lee Harvey Oswald.

“Alternative” history, on the other hand, can be morally freeing and rather simple to grasp, much like ancient pagan mythology. Indeed, it seemed obvious to ancient societies that unscrupulous gods were in charge of the world and that humans were either to serve them or suffer their whims. Likewise, if one begins with the assumption that cabals secretly hold infinite power over our world and that all we have been taught is a lie, there is little reason to look inside oneself for the causes of one’s misfortune, and even less to blame bad luck. When the entire record of history becomes suspect, any new interpretation of an event becomes merely an alternate viewpoint, a possible truth that has just as much weight as the reigning consensus — or what conspiracists call the “official record.” When we assess the truth-telling value of these alternative histories — when we examine whether their claims are logically and factually consistent — they usually turn out to be as jumbled and knotted as old balls of yarn.

Seen thus, conspiracy theorizing is the ultimate buck-passing device, serving a similar purpose for contemporary malcontents as the fatalistic doctrines of paganism in ancient times. To the modern conspiracy mythmaker, the power brokers of our secular age are bankers, weapons manufacturers, corporate lobbyists, amoral bureaucrats, shadow governments, and spies of all sorts. They may not be gods in the ancient pagan sense, but they do fulfil the same narrative role as the gods within modern conspiracy folklore. Indeed they are often depicted this way, holding superhuman powers of mass persuasion and evidence tampering. If, as I have suggested, we understand conspiracism as a modern and secular form of pagan religion — one that is deeply subjective but not particularly self-reflective; and one that seeks to attain justice and happiness now, not in some kind of afterlife — we can better comprehend why conspiracy theories remain so popular in an age like ours in which faith in a divine moral order and hope in its ultimate victory over evil, have been largely abandoned in favor of a cold and impersonal scientism.

The Substitute Victim

In their attempts to make sense of their anger and grief, conspiracists often fall prey to emotional reasoning and various forms of self-pity. In virtually all of the accounts of JFK conspiracy advocates I surveyed, Kennedy’s death is depicted as if the researcher’s own brother or father had been discovered one day hanging from the rafters of the family barn. Police, government, media, and academic investigations that peg the blame on an “angry lone nut” offer such authors little emotional closure because they fall short of balancing the ledger of their moral outrage. The onus thus falls on the shoulders of the victim’s admirers to reject all expert conclusions and re-investigate the case on their own. After all, only they know that JFK’s death could not possibly be the result of an accident, or incompetence, or the work of a lone sociopath. No, it had to have been the result of a finely coordinated plot against their “family” — that is, against whatever set of values the conspiracist has projected onto the fallen hero as an idealization of their own self.

In perceiving Kennedy’s death as a personal tragedy, one whose “official” interpretation does not cohere with their own expectations, conspiracists build their case up from the narcissistic conviction that somebody somewhere is lying to them. In this respect, JFK conspiracy buffs are not so much like sober-minded investigators as they are like a generation of grieving Bobby Kennedys taking up the charge of restoring the family’s honor, no matter the method or cost.

Of course, John Kennedy was no ordinary mortal. The handsome and charismatic Catholic statesman and his presidential court (later dubbed “Camelot”) provided real-life theater to a great many people. In a world not yet filled with reality shows, the Kennedy family fulfilled a popular thirst for voyeurism, much as the British Royals or Donald Trump’s tweets do today. This is one reason why the mythic King Arthur could believably serve as an icon for the late President, one whose legacy was still largely a blank page. Rightly or wrongly, the Kennedy White House had come to symbolize all of the social changes hoped for by that revolutionary young generation that, on November 22, 1963, was left in a state of shock. So it is to be expected that spending long hours reflecting on Kennedy’s unfulfilled legacy and untimely death would make any wide-eyed idealist feel like a collateral victim. The assassination of President Kennedy has thus become a religious event in the minds of many secular progressives, much the same way that conservative Christians view the crucifixion: an event whose full significance can only be grasped through a leap of faith that compels the believer to take sides in a war for the fate of humanity. The major difference, of course, is that JFK could not be made to rise from the dead. The conspiracists’ hope for the future therefore solely resides in their hands, not in any higher power, which helps explain the desperate and pessimistic tone that permeates their literature.

Nevertheless, conspiracy theories do offer the victims of alienation a certain existential hope. Through the act of scapegoating, they give believers a simpler and more satisfying explanation for the problem of evil than do many philosophers, environmentalists, and mainstream theologians who claim that humanity bears a collective responsibility for much of the evil that affects us. After all, fear is more easily tolerable than a guilty conscience.

More evidence may yet come to light on Kennedy’s assassination. It certainly is possible that our understanding of the event will change again, as it did in 2007 when the CIA’s secret program to assassinate Fidel Castro was declassified and the reasons for which the Warren Commission’s failure to investigate Lee Oswald’s ties to Cuba became much clearer. But why should we assume that any new information would be accepted by conspiracists? Would it be a victory for them if it were revealed that Castro or Khrushchev made Oswald do it? Or that bureaucratic incompetence was mostly to blame? Or that Kennedy carelessly put himself in danger thinking he was invincible? None of these possible “proofs” for a cover-up would likely suffice simply because that isn’t the story JFK conspiracists want to hear. Such answers simply could not support their foregone conclusion that “fascists” inside their government are plotting to wreck their lives too. It would only reveal that the principal motor of their suspicions — their irrational fear of a bogeyman — is feeding them a delusion.

Conspiracy theories, including JFK myths, are not attempts to elucidate the past so much as they are efforts to exploit a certain interpretation of the past in order to assert oneself in the present. The past — even a false one — can be a powerful vehicle to frame ongoing discussions about who we think we are and what sort of world we want to live in, and to inspire the powerless to “speak truth to power.” Indeed, conspiracy myths offer believers something stronger than any historian can give them: an existential truth — that is, a sense of serving a higher purpose, which is hard to dispel with cold logic and data. END

About the Author

Michel Jacques Gagné is a historian and tenured lecturer in the Humanities department of Champlain College Saint-Lambert in Montreal, Canada, and the teacher of a critical thinking course titled: “Knowledge and Conspiracy Theories.”

References
  1. Piereson, James. 2007. Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism. Encounter Books, x, xvi.
  2. Olmsted, Kathryn S. 2009. Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories And American Democracy, World War I to 9/11, Oxford University Press, chapter 4.
  3. See Theodore H. White: “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue,” Life, December 6, 1963, available at: http://ti.me/2g05J89 and Piereson, op. cit., chapter 7.
  4. Piereson, James. 2013. “How Jackie Kennedy Invented the Camelot Legend After JFK’s Death,” The Daily Beast, December 12, http://thebea.st/2ukRpzC
  5. Stone, Oliver. 1992. “Hollywood and History: The Debate Over ‘JFK’,” Proceedings of a panel discussion on JFK at Town Hall, New York City, March 3.
  6. See for example Oliver Stone’s interviews with Charles Kiselyak (“Oliver Stone’s America”, Warner Home Video, 2001, http://bit.ly/1qDg1L7), Stone, Oliver. 2002. Interview with Ken Paulson at Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, CO, Speaking Freely, #312, March 1, http://bit.ly/2sZb5EY), Amy Goodman (“Oliver Stone on 50th Anniversary of JFK Assassination & the Untold History of the United States,” Democracy Now, November 5, 2013, http://bit.ly/2ubm8P1), and Tyrel Ventura and Sean Stone (“JFK and the Untold History of Oliver Stone,” Buzzsaw #75, November 6, 2013, http://bit.ly/2t5zZXm).
  7. Some notable examples are Alex Jones’ Infowars (infowars.com), Len Osanic’s Black Op Radio (blackopradio. com), Joseph Farah’s World Net Daily (wnd.com), Sean Stone’s (Oliver Stone’s son) Buzzsaw (thelip.tv/show/buzzsaw), and Cassim K. Igram ‘s (aka: “Dr. K”) Nodisinfo (nodisinfo.com).
  8. Heath, Joseph. 2016. “What makes someone a conspiracy theorist?”, In Due Course: A Canadian Public Affairs Blog, December 5, http://bit.ly/2g4bwGG
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