Schwerner and Goodman, both white native New Yorkers, had worked for some time in the civil rights movement. They came to Meridian in 1964 and hooked up with Chaney, a black activist, who introduced them to Meridian’s local African American community. The three men and Schwerner’s wife, Rita, spent the earlier part of 1964 organizing black voter registration drives in Mississippi.* As spring waned, Goodman and the Schwerners got the idea of creating a space to serve as a headquarters for their voter registration efforts and other civil rights actions. Chaney subsequently brokered a deal with clergy and elders for space at Mt. Nebo Baptist Church.
Days before their disappearance, the three were in Oxford, OH where Michael organized training for new voter registration volunteers at Western College.** Just then, they received word that someone had burned Mt. Nebo Baptist to the ground. The three drove Schwerner's station wagon to Meridian to investigate. Shortly after their arrival, they vanished.
The Mississippi Burning case, as it came to be known, attracted publicity not just nationally, but globally during the forty-four days the three went missing. In one respect, the notoriety was unusual. After all, scores of real and suspected civil rights activists had gone missing by that point.*** None of them received any national attention. Yet, it became quite clear to those close to this case why the civil rights movement, and its martyrs hadn’t gotten this kind of publicity in the past: unlike Goodman and Schwerner, the others were all African American. In a television interview given to reporters Rita Schwerner put it tersely and bluntly:
It is tragic, as far as I’m concerned, that white northerners have to be caught up in the machinery of injustice and indifference in the South before people register concern. I personally suspect that if Mr. Chaney, who is a native Mississippi Negro, had been alone at the time of the disappearance that his case, like so many others that have come before, would have been completely unnoticed.
It would later unfold that on the night they went missing Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price arrested Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney during what appeared to be a routine traffic stop. They left after their release several hours later. Deputy Price followed Schwerner's station wagon in hot pursuit, along with at least nine other co-conspirators, all of whom belonged to the White Knights, a KKK offshoot.**** Participants shot Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman at point blank range, and buried them beneath a privately owned dam with the help of a bulldozer, which just happened to be standing by.
While the disposition of the murder and manslaughter charges has become the focus of history, one of the most bizarre aspects of this historical event occurred when it was still a missing persons case. As reported in a 24 June 1964 edition of the Guardian (UK):
President Johnson has sent Mr Allen Dulles, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, to lead the investigation. Some of the civil rights organisations see this as a curious choice, asserting that Mr Dulles has rarely shown himself as their friend.
The selection was curious indeed, on so many levels and for so many reasons. Dulles’ prior background as a civil servant was almost exclusively in the area of espionage. As an attorney, he was a specialist in corporate law, not criminal law. He had never demonstrated any public interest on the subject of African American civil rights. And in 1964, there were aspects of both corporate law and Intel that many Blacks and sympathetic Whites would have seen as either apathetic or antagonistic to their concerns.
Dulles not only ran the missing persons investigation, but apparently expanded his role in Mississippi. According to many sources, the former DCI took this mission as an opportunity to meet with African American activists, many of them from SNCC. The general thrust of these meetings consisted of Dulles’ efforts to sell the idea that Uncle Sam was indeed interested in advancing black civil rights. He also urged activists to tone down their more abrasive tactics.
If you’re thinking that a ruthless and dedicated cold-warrior such as Allen Dulles had some streak of morality that would lead him to champion racial equality, then the truth is going to let you down hard. Dulles actions, and the DOJ appointment, had little to do with fair play, or justice. Instead, it had everything to do with realpolitik.
You see, by 1964, African American civil rights had become a serious and urgent national security issue. The reasons for this are twofold, but both stem from circumstances brought about by the Cold War.
The first reason had to do with government fears that the USSR might effectively mobilize African-Americans as fifth columnists. During the 1930s, the Communists were the largest political party that openly advocated racial equality. As a result, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois and other black intellectuals took a long, sober look at communism as a possible solution to racial injustice; most subsequently rejecting it. Public officials began to worry that the more African Americans were mistreated at home, the more “susceptible” they could be to overtures made by Soviet agents, who could then recruit them into espionage, sabotage, propaganda efforts, you name it.
Just as bad was the possibility that Blacks could deliberately slow down production towards, and contribution to, current and future war efforts. One could easily imagine that someone repressed by his government wouldn’t just selflessly come to that government’s aid time and time again. In response to labor and civil rights activist A Philip Randolph’s declaration that African Americans should actively support US Cold War policy, a 26 December 1949 Militant editorial put the issue this way:*****
By this answer he [Randolph] gives a go-ahead signal to the very same ruling class that is responsible for the oppression and segregation of the Negro people at home—for a war that will be a projection on the international field of the same reactionary policies that they are pursuing in the United States.... Not only the Soviet masses but American workers and Negroes have a stake in preserving this system, for its destruction in a war by U.S. imperialism would mean a new lease on life for dying world capitalism. The strengthening of capitalism in turn would mean the strengthening of all its institutions, including the institution of Jim Crow which Negroes are fighting to end.”
The second reason involved the nature of the Cold War itself. As you probably know, a political rift between the US/UK governments and that of the Soviet Union led to what former Prime Minister Winston Churchill decried as an “Iron Curtain.” This ferric veil effectively separated Eastern and Western Europe into two spheres: the latter loyal to the United States and her allies, the former under the dominion of the USSR.
But that was just Europe. There were tons of other countries around the world in the Americas, Africa and Asia -- what many Westerners imperiously refer to as “Third World” nations. And the bulk of these states had abundant natural resources in terms of oil, agricultural products, minerals, labor, et cetera. Many of these places also held strategic value because of their ports, infrastructure, terrain, or some other reason.
If you are one of the two superpowers going strong in the wake of World War II, then it would behoove you to forge alliances with these non-European countries. That way, you can get the best trade deals from them. You might even be able to broker an exclusive deal with them, if the price is right. You can also solidify your military position if you can convince them to station your soldiers and hardware. You could also be in the position to exploit or take control of that country’s national resources if they lack the wherewithal to stop you.
Whatever you intend to do with this potential ally, you’d have to be aware that the other superpower is competing for the exclusive affection of that same non-European state. You’re then stuck in the position of having to sell your nation’s way of life over that of the other guy..
And that’s where the US found itself in deep, deep trouble. It’s kinda hard to sell the American way to someone who perceives the American way as hatred, domination, persecution and exploitation of people who look like her.
Early in the Kennedy years a black delegate to the United Nations landed in Miami on his way to New York. When the passengers disembarked for lunch, the white passengers were taken to the airport restaurant; the black delegate received a folding canvas stool in a corner of the hangar and a sandwich wrapped with wax paper. He then flew on to New York, where our delegation asked for his vote on human rights issues.******
To be clear, the machinations of such government actors as Dulles don’t imply that African Americans received equal accommodations and suffrage simply because Uncle Sam decreed it. Because of economic and historical factors, civil rights would have eventually come to the US through African American struggle anyway. We can more accurately see government’s participation here – and later in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act – as having a catalyzing effect. In other words, it simply sped up the process. Moreover, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and other astute civil rights leaders understood this dynamic, and deliberately leveraged the international situation to hasten the advent of legal equality.
Hence, the problem inherent in the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner became the global attention given to it. While world leaders might grant some forbearance to discreet civil rights issues in other lands, that support could continue so long as the violations remained discreet.******* These murders, on the other hand, were in the open, thanks in large part to the ethnicity of two of the victims.
So the big-time US government interest in solving the case should come to us as little surprise. But, of course, Uncle Sam never really solved it, and justice was hardly served. All local, county and Mississippi courts refused to prosecute.******** An all-white jury. which included a Klansman, convicted only seven of the indicted conspirators in a 1967 federal trial for the denial of civil rights. Three were acquitted. None of the convicted men served more than six years.
In 2005, an interracial jury convicted Edgar Killen, then eighty years old, of manslaughter and sentenced him to sixty years. I doubt he’ll serve the entire term, but eleven years later he’s still incarcerated at Mississippi State Penitentiary as of the time of this posting.
Meanwhile, Rita Schwerner attended Rutgers Law School, where she met her second husband, William Bender. She is currently an attorney practicing family law in Washington state, and soldiers on as a civil rights/social justice activist.
In 2014 Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. They have received memorials and honors in Mississippi, Ohio, Michigan, New York and elsewhere, including a cenotaph at the site of the new Mt. Nebo Baptist Church.
*The voter registration drives were pursuant to advice given to civil rights activists by President John Kennedy. JFK was of the opinion that such tactics as Freedom Rides and sit-in demonstrations were counterproductive, and could not produce the kind of dramatic results as voting.
***Indeed, in the search for Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney, authorities found two such bodies belonging to college students Hezekiah Dee and Charles Moore, both of whom had disappeared a month earlier. They also found the corpse of a young teenager, Herbert Oarsby, whose disappearance didn’t seem to concern anyone outside his immediate community.
****There has been quite a debate over the years about how many people actually participated in this lynching, with some estimates doubling, and almost tripling this number. The indicted conspirators were Price, Travis and Horace Barnette, James Jordan, Jimmy Townsend, Edgar Killen, Billy Posey, Alton Roberts, Jimmy Arledge, Jimmy Snowden and Jerry Sharpe. The Department of Justice also won an indictment against Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, but failed to convict him. In all, authorities investigated twenty-one suspects.
*****The Militant was the official organ of the US Socialist Workers Party.
******I’ve heard audio accounts on various radio shows describing similar treatment to other foreign dignitaries visiting Washington, DC, with its surrounding segregated areas in Virginia and Maryland, but cannot find them to document them here. Apparently, the CIA and/or State Department sometimes had to intervene with restaurant owners and hoteliers so that these people had places to eat and sleep.
********Many point out that the government of Mississippi had a conflict of interest in the prosecution of this case. Not only were two law enforcement officers involved, but their intelligence on Michael Schwerner -- his whereabouts and activities -- were given to Deputy Price and Sheriff Rainey by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (Sov-Com). Founded in 1956 as a directorate of the Governor (i.e., as an official part of state government), Sov-Com spied on numerous civil rights activists and other supposed “communist agents.”
The implication of state government in a murder conspiracy could have possibly led, or at the least enticed, contemporary Mississippi courts to coverup the involvement of other conspirators. Even if Sov-Com played no role in the actual conspiracy to murder, or for that matter the arson of Mt. Nebo, it still gives the appearance of a conflict of interest. And the mere appearance of a conflict is a violation of many different professional ethics codes.
On 21 March 1965, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a white Detroit homemaker, political activist and NAACP member, drove her late-model Oldsmobile to Selma, AL so that she could participate in a series of civil rights marches led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.* Earlier that month, she had seen a similar march turn violent when local authorities attacked peaceful demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses, an event known to history as Bloody Sunday. A subsequent march two days later resulted in the brutal clubbing death of Unitarian minister Rev. James Reeb. Searing, outraged by the injustice as witnessed on her television screen, she made the decision on 16 March to join the effort.
The marches took place over four days, during which time Liuzzo joined other protestors, and stayed with African American families. On the last day of protests, 25 March, Dr. King spoke to the crowd of 25,000, noting the success of the protests which he called “a shining moment in American history.”
Liuzzo volunteered to drive demonstrators from the marches to their homes later that day, accompanied by a young black civil rights activist named Leroy Moten. They were nearly finished in this task when, driving along Route 80, a car pulled alongside them and shot a volley of bullets into the Olds, which subsequently came to a stop after crashing into a fence. Someone from the other car checked on the victims to verify they were dead. Liuzzo, suffering from two head wounds, had died instantly. Moten was uninjured. But covered in Liuzzo’s blood he managed to feign death long enough to fool the assailant, who then fled.
In the shooter’s car rode four men, all of them members of the Ku Klux Klan. Authorities took three of them -- William Eaton, Eugene Thomas and Collie Wilkins -- into custody the following day. President Johnson immediately announced the arrests, and commended the FBI in its speedy resolution of the case.
Today, those who’ve heard the name Viola Liuzzo know her as the courageous heroine she actually is. But that wasn’t the case in 1965. Contemporary accounts reported public antipathy to either her racial views, her commitment to them, or both. Many openly condemned her as a terrible mother, a petty criminal, a thrill-seeker, a junkie and, worst of all, a slut.
A 2 April 1965 Ladies Home Journal Article, “Murder in Alabama: American Wives Think Viola Liuzzo Should Have Stayed at Home” by Lyn Tornabene, quoted a focus group of eighteen “northern suburban housewives.” The author asked for their personal opinions of Liuzzo. Their responses:
[Respondent 1] She was wrong in leaving her home and going down there and meddling into something. I feel sorry for what happened. It was a shame, but I feel she should have stayed home and minded her own business.
[Respondent 2] In her mind she probably did exactly what she felt was right. But how could she do it, knowing the situation, and knowing there was a chance of her not coming back with children at home? [emphasis Tornabene]
[Respondent 3] She had no right being down there, whatever her feelings were. It wasn’t her situation. If it were something that happened in Detroit, then yes.
[Respondent 4 -- in a voice characterized by the author as ‘angry’] I want to know who was taking care of her children,**
[Respondent 5, replying to the above] It didn’t matter. A mother’s place is in the home.
The article then published the results of a nationwide poll to the following question:
No matter what your own opinions are on the question of voting rights, do you think that Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit civil-rights worker who was killed in the Alabama shooting incident, had a right to leave her five children to risk her life for a social cause, or not?
Nationally, 55.2% of those polled answered “no,” 26.4% said “yes” and the rest had no opinion. Regionally, the ratio varied dramatically, with 61.2% of southern respondents answering “no” compared to 15.6% yes.
Shortly afterwards, the KKK published a special edition magazine titled Nightriders: The Inside Story of the Liuzzo Killing. Adorning the cover was the gory, blood-spattered image of Liuzzo’s corpse slumped slightly to the right in front of the Oldsmobile’s steering wheel. Inside were salacious accounts of her heroin addiction and black boyfriends in Detroit. One story featured a photograph of two models, a black man and a white woman, making out in the grass. Someone circled the woman’s head and wrote above it “Is this your mommy?” on a copy before mailing it to Liuzzo’s surviving children. The clear implication was that Liuzzo didn’t travel all the way to Selma for any noble cause. Instead, the trek from Detroit was little more than a sexual holiday with Moten and a host of available black studs.
And where did all this BS on Liuzzo come from? As it turns out, the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In his 2005 biography The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo, Dr. Gary May (History, University of Deleware) disputed the FBI’s direct involvement in the smear campaign against Liuzzo, explaining that the slanderous reports originated in the investigation of Detroit police commissioner Marvin Lane, who compiled it pursuant to the request of Dallas Country Sheriff Jim Clark. Clark had solid connections to the KKK and the White Citizens Council.*** It’s thus Dr. May’s contention that Sheriff Clark got this information directly from Detroit, and spread it among his WCC and KKK friends.
Obviously, whatever Commissioner Lane sent might or might not accurately reflect Clark’s report of that info. Moreover, Lane’s information was probably inaccurate to begin with. Either way, the assertion is completely without merit. But the real problem with May's contention is that we can prove that the FBI actually spread false sexual rumors against its perceived enemies, as it did against actress Jean Seberg. We can also show that if the FBI didn’t directly peddle the narrative of Liuzzo as dope fiend and interracial nymphomaniac to the press, they certainly did so within the walls of the Department of Justice. In a 21 April 1983 op-ed column, Jack Anderson summarized the contents of formerly hidden FBI documents showing that the Bureau had an active role in defaming Liuzzo:
My associates Tony Capaccio and Indy Badhwar have examined hundreds of internal FBI documents, which make clear that the FBI’s behavior goes shockingly beyond negligence....
...Director J. Edgar Hoover marshaled the Bureau’s resources to blacken the dead woman’s [Liuzzo’s] reputation....
Within 24 hours of Mrs. Liuzzo’s murder, a summary document prepared for top FBI officials reported: ‘Mrs. Liuzzo had puncture marks in her arm indicating recent use of a hypodermic needle.'
In another FBI memo to Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach later that day, Hoover repeated the puncture mark story and added an additional item:
I stated the man himself [referring here to Viola’s husband, James Liuzzo] doesn’t have too good a background, and the woman had indications of needle marks in her arms where she had been taking dope; that she was sitting very, very close to the Negro in her car; that it had the appearance of a necking party.
This scandalous material, shunted about through the corridors of the FBI, had to have come from either Lane’s investigation or Clark’s characterization of its material, one or both of which were fraudulent.
I say fraudulent because the FBI’s own investigation flatly disproved the innuendos. According to the autopsy, Liuzzo had not engaged in recent sexual activity. While she did have puncture marks in her arm, these were not caused by hypodermic needles, but rather very fine shrapnel caused when the bullets shattered her car window, as easily determined by the post mortem. And there were no traces of either illegal narcotics or alcohol inside her body at the time of death. And the fact remains that parked cars don’t crash into fences. Liuzzo and Moten were clearly in motion at the time of the shooting, and it’s kinda hard to steer when you’re necking with another person. So despite the fact that they immediately knew these allegations against Liuzzo were untrue, the FBI continued to circulate this story for some time after, and made no attempt to correct the misinformation given in popular media.
Question: why would the FBI spend so much of its time, brains and money to demonize, by all other accounts, a decent human being?
Answer: the Bureau had something to hide. You’ll note that four men were in the shooter’s car, but only three were arrested. The fourth man, Gary Rowe, was an undercover FBI informant, who had infiltrated the Klan under the government’s direction. Rowe immediately reported the Liuzzo shooting to the FBI, thus explaining how the Bureau captured the others so fast.
So why not acknowledge Rowe’s contribution to the case? Some would undoubtedly see him as a hero.****
Rowe was himself a complex figure, and it’s murky to this day whether his first loyalties were to the FBI, the Klan, or himself. Worse still, the public didn’t know at that time that the FBI had infiltrated the Klan. If they knew, then Susie Q Citizen could legitimately question why Hoover didn’t move to arrest Klansmen for the many, many violent crimes they committed during the late-1950s and early-1960s. She could also criticize the Bureau’s seeming indifference to preventing future crimes. She could subsequently wonder if the Bureau really wanted to encourage violence against those advocating racial equality by protecting its personnel when they incited and participated in criminal acts.
Even worse, Rowe’s information failed to result in a conviction of Eaton, Thomas and Wilkins for murder. After a hung jury led to a mistrial, a second jury acquitted them of all charges. The defense made copious use of the slander and libel against Liuzzo to influence the jury, who in effect seemed to say that she got what she deserved.*****
But there was something even deeper, something darker. According to Thomas, Wilkins and Leroy Moten, the shooter was not Eaton, as many had thought, but Rowe himself.
In addition to the eyewitness statements, there were other reasons to think that Rowe might have pulled the trigger. Dr. May wrote about how the Klan constantly challenged Gary’s loyalty, a dicey situation due to the fact that he actually was an FBI informant. He also mentioned Thomas’ contention that a murder would prove Rowe’s loyalty to the Klan once and for all. Most important was a telephone call to his handler shortly before the shooting, in which Rowe said that he was about to commit some violent action.
Slut-shaming Liuzzo let the FBI off the hook, in a manner of speaking. Focusing on her, and depicting her as sordid deflected more pertinent questions about the FBI’s sponsorship of and failure to stop Klan atrocities.
Sadly, Liuzzo and her surviving family were neither the first nor last to suffer this form of defamation. The same people who accused her routinely denounced other white women working for the civil rights movements as “sluts,” and/or any other contemporary synonym. This was especially true of Freedom Riders, many of whom hailed from non-segregated states. The depiction of northern white women as randy sex perverts sometimes strained credulity to the point of being humorous. In his 2004 book Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption, Professor Randall Kennedy (Law, Harvard) quoted Nettie Adams, a Montgomery, AL Police Department employee, telling Life magazine in 1965:
This one particular couple on the lawn of St. Margaret’s [Hospital] was engaged in sexual relations, a white woman [a skinny blonde] and a Negro man. After they were through, she wiggled out from beneath him and went over to another man.
Of course. Public interracial orgies in broad daylight must’ve occurred on a daily basis in Montgomery, AL during the early-1960s, right?
Actually, lynching was still an issue at this time. Southern black males would most likely be skittish to embark upon such an activity in front of hostile crowds and even more hostile police department employees. Moreover, Stokely Carmichael and other southern civil rights activists, knowing that the charge of “miscegenation” could undermine their work, openly discouraged interracial couplings, although they did not ban them. And some undoubtedly occurred between black women and white men, and between white women and black men; some of these liaisons resulting in marriage or other long-term relationships. But for segregationists, the exceptions proved that the white women participating in the civil rights movement were disreputable and of dubious character.
White clergy also fell victim to false charges of sexual impropriety during this time. John Howard Griffin, in later editions of Black Like Me, added several postscripts about his experiences after the first release in 1961. In one, Griffin told of a meeting with Dr. King and other Black leaders to discuss a crisis situation that had then emerged in New Orleans. A woman accused a local Jesuit priest active in the civil rights movement of fathering her newly born child. Although forensic tests excluded him as the baby’s father, the padre never quite got over the stigma attached to the charge, with some reckoning that he might have slept with her, even if he wasn’t the baby’s actual father. King concluded the meeting with the recommendation that they all should be careful not to interact with persons of the opposite sex unless someone else were there as well.
As it would unfold, Dr. King’s recommendation would prove ironic. Yet, he understood the destructive force carried by the false (or for that matter the true) allegation of sexual impropriety within the civil rights movement, especially when directed at white women and men of the cloth, two demographics characterized by the segregationist mind as paragons of chastity. For the bigot, this proved that the movement toward racial equality led to a societal or moral decay that corrupted even the most innocent of peoples.
For those who weren’t segregationists, such as those eighteen northern suburban housewives interviewed by Tornabene, the gossip about sex might not find its way into open public discourse. But it could certainly lead to a puritanical condemnation of civil rights activism, especially if one can mask the prejudice by basing their hatred on other grounds (in this case, bad parenting). Never in this Ladies Home Journal article or survey were respondents asked to comment on the morality of Jim Crow, voter disenfranchisement, the murder of innocent victims or so forth. In fact, the questions posed by the surveyors explicitly told them to disregard those judgments. The subsequent vilification of Liuzzo and others like effectively distracted attention from the real issues facing the nation and humanity as a whole.
So one could see why the FBI had no compunctions about slut-shaming Liuzzo, Seberg, and probably untold others. As a method for stifling unwanted future political actions, and for discrediting historical political struggles, it works.
*These marches were to protest black voter suppression that had nakedly occurred in Dallas County, Alabama specifically, and in the US southeast in general. These measures included intimidation through violence, or the threat of it, and literacy tests that were so difficult that very few of the Whites administering them could pass them. Usually these were only given to potential black voters. Sometimes, a much easier version was given to white voters. Click here to take the test yourself.
**In case you’re wondering, Liuzzo’s children were then, and would continue to be in the care of Viola’s best friend, an African-American woman named Sarah Evans.
***Currently known as the Council of Conservative Christians, the WCC supported the major tenets of the KKK, and sometimes allied with them. Unlike the KKK, the Citizens Councils historically consisted of more affluent and politically connected people (e.g. Pat Buchanan and US Sen. Trent Lott), prompting comedian Dick Gregory to describe them as “The Klan, but without the sheets.”
****Indeed, a 1979 television movie, Undercover with the FBI, starred former NFL quarterback “Dandy” Don Meredith as Rowe. The flick depicts him as the hero who thwarted the KKK, and gave justice to the Liuzzo family.
*****Federal prosecutors subsequently indicted and convicted Eaton, Thomas and Wilkins on a charge of conspiring against Liuzzo to deprive her of her civil rights. They each received the maximum sentence of ten years. One of their attorneys, Arthur Hanes, Sr., was the ex-Mayor of Birmingham, AL, a ten-year FBI veteran and a contract agent for the CIA. He would later represent James Earl Ray.
As mentioned earlier, I have found a certain profundity in the remarks of researcher Lisa Pease when she says that many good people simply “cannot wrap their heads” around the idea of conspiracy. I have wondered why for quite some time. You can easily see why some of the more whackadoodle and wingnut stories of conspiracy lore can cause serious minds not only to laugh them off, but to also dismiss any thought that strikes them as similar. Of course, they might not be similar in any real sense, but rather connected in various ways, most often by the lumping of all dissonant or parapolitical inquiries into the category of “conspiracy theory.”
In other words, my thought was that many intelligent people cannot consider a conspiracy argument because they have prejudged against it. They therefore don’t see any conspiracies. Ever.
Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, featured an episode that gave me a new idea about how to look at this problem. Conspiracy researchers, by and large, view the mainstream mindset as one of institutional (mostly media and academia) ignorance of, or indifference to, the evidence of conspiracy, and the validity of that evidence (when it is indeed valid). If institutions are aware of, and therefore understand the implications of, valid evidence, the tendency is to cover it up, and attack those disseminating the message.
For the most part, my feeling is that coverups are actually pretty rare. Because those in managerial roles have to internalize the codes of power within their profession in order to get promoted, or pats on the back, there rarely needs to be anything that formal. Institutions are more likely to censor themselves without prompting than to get censored by some powerful external entity.
Be that as it may, the Threshold Model of Collective Behavior (Threshold, for short) offers a pretty interesting take on this. It’s quite possible (and just my own experience and academic research bears this out) that there are many institutional actors who give varying degrees of credence to the notion of conspiracy, whether they say so or not – or for that matter whether they condemn “conspiracy theory” or not.*
Gladwell used the story of Wilt Chamberlain to illustrate the concept. On 2 March 1962, in a game against the New York Knicks, Wilt, playing for the Philadelphia Warriors scored, by himself, 100 points in a single game – a record that still stands. To do this, he made twenty-eight out of thirty-two free throws, or 87.5% of his foul shots. For those who know the game, what made this all the more remarkable was the fact that Chamberlain was one of the worst free throw shooters in the history of the NBA, averaging just over 50% during his lifetime. But he shot a little over 61% in 1962, his best free-throw year ever. The reason was simple: for the first, and only time in his life, he shot his free-throws underhanded, what players refer to now as “granny-style.”
Rick Barry, briefly Chamberlain’s teammate with the Warriors, learned the underhand technique in high school at his father’s insistence. Because it’s much better aligned with the natural movement of the human body, it’s a far more accurate way to shoot. Not surprisingly, Barry became the best free throw maker in NBA history, shooting 89% lifetime from the stripe.
Chamberlain stopped shooting underhand free throws in 1963. His rate plummeted until it reached an all-time low of 38% in 1968.
For many, the question would be why a player wouldn’t continue a technique that proved successful, especially if it helped his stats (which could have earned him more money) and might have potentially helped his team win more games. It’s not a question of ignorance. Chamberlain knew the benefits of shooting underhand. But in his 1992 autobiography A View from Above, he explained that shooting underhand free throws made him feel like a “sissy.”
No other NBA player shot underhand at that time. And when Barry entered the league in 1965, no other player picked up on the style. At that time, many associated underhand foul shots with women’s basketball. Hence, no one followed Barry’s lead, even though many could have arguably done better than Rick had they adopted his technique.**
In a 1978 paper titled “Threshold Models of Collective Behavior,” Dr. Mark Granovetter (Sociology, Stanford) explained the adoption of behaviors involves a social dynamic that includes what can best be described as a cost-to-benefit ratio. If the potential benefits exceed the potential costs, as determined by the individual, then she or he is more likely to engage in a risky behavior. If the costs outweigh the benefits, then he or she is less likely to engage in a risky behavior.
In a group situation, however, the evaluation of costs and benefits can change depending on the people surrounding the actor, and the actor’s personal Threshold. Here Threshold means the point at which the benefit outweighs the cost. This will vary from individual to individual. For some people, it doesn’t take much for them to embark on a risky endeavor. Grenovetter would describe that person as having a very low Threshold. He calls such people “instigators.” These are people who might say something like “I have nothing to lose,” or “What’s there to lose?” before taking a bold action of some type. These are people who don’t have much anxiety about what others think of them, so they don’t care if they’re the only person doing it.
For others, it takes a whole lot more for them to engage in that behavior. This person would consequently have a very high threshold. Grenovetter describes such people as “conservatives.”*** These are people who do care about what others think of them. So in order to engage in a behavior, they will have to see a many engaging in it before they even think of joining in. With respect to a basketball player like Chamberlain, we can see that he was in every other aspect of the sport arguably the greatest player of his era. He would have a lot of prestige to lose, versus the benefit of improving what he probably thought of as a minor area of his game. However, if there were a lot of other NBA players doing it, he would probably have continued doing it. It’s just that he didn’t want to be singled out as a “sissy.”
One of the things about collective action is that it can serve to minimize risk to the individual participant. If “everyone’s doing it,” then the risk is shared, thus lowering the personal liability of the actor. But the shared risk does not diminish the expected benefit to the same extent, thus making the participant more willing to take the risk.
Granovetter cited studies of 1960s inner-city riots to demonstrate the point. Imagine a hypothetical situation where there are 100 angry people in an area, each with a different Threshold (as quantified by the numbers zero to ninety-nine). The person with zero Threshold throws a rock at a window, thus breaking it. The person with a one Threshold finds it easier to repeat the action, and subsequently breaks another window, thus prompting the person with the two Threshold to follow suit, whereupon the three and four Thresholds do it too. At some point, the participation is going to reach a critical mass to the point where even the ninety-nine Threshold will start hurling rocks. To an outside observer, this group of 100 might look like a lawless, unreasonable mob.
Yet, say instead of having a group with 100 different Thresholds you have a group where there’s someone with a zero Threshold, a couple of two Thresholds, and no ones, with everyone else a three to ninety-nine. Would the riot still occur?
Utilizing a number of statistical analyses, Granovetter shows that the riot would probably not occur under those circumstances. The zero Threshold would go ahead and throw the rock. Even though they might want to repeat the action, the twos need someone else to do so before they do anything. Since everyone else has a higher Threshold, they won’t take action either. So, to an outside observer, this group of 100 would seem peaceful and rational except for an angry lone nut.
You’ll note that I used the term “probably” in the previous paragraph. As it turns out, the mathematical models also point to an exception. While the sheer number of people doing something might encourage a person to react, conservatives might take on the risky behavior more quickly depending on the identity and status of those at lower Thresholds. If the first five people to throw rocks at the windows were, say, a respected businessman, a doctor, an attorney, a movie star and an Olympic gold medalist, then the Threshold for person ninety-nine becomes much lower, because the risk now seems lower, making the action appear more profitable. This also works if those of lower Thresholds are personally known to ninety-nine, especially if they have special status (e.g., the pastor of one’s church, one’s grandmother, et cetera).
True, doing conspiracy research within academia is different than throwing rocks at a window, or for that matter shooting foul shots. Still, it’s easy enough to apply the principal. We can see such researchers as Professors Cass Sunstein, Adam Vermeule and Popper as occupying the more conservative side of this continuum. Drs. Judy Wood (Mechanical Engineering, Clemson) and Jim Fetzer (Philosophy, University of Minnesota, Duluth) represent the other side as true instigators, with such academics as Dr. George Marcus (Anthropology, Rice University) occupying a space somewhere in the middle.
In terms of cost-to-benefit ratio we can see that, like Wilt the Stilt, the star professor and the rising grad student have mad skillz, for which they receive kudos, prestige, and, in the case of the latter, golden letters of reference. Weigh that against the potential cost of losing tenure, or not being renewed the following semester and the certainty of losing prestige among one’s colleagues, and one can see that in terms of risk, many academics would understandably not risk giving voice to or openly researching taboo subjects.
One can also surmise that the cost-to-benefit ratio is extremely high in other institutions, such as within mainstream media and government.***** In all cases, the primary risk and costs are to the actor’s social status within a group of peers, whether they be scholars, NBA stars or politicians and their constituency. Like Wilt, they don’t want their colleagues to see them as intellectual or professional “sissies” either.
_________________ *For example, in his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies, Dr. Karl Popper (Psychology, University of New Zealand, Christchurch) railed against what he termed “conspiracy theories” because of their tendency to foster totalitarian regimes. In context, however, Popper’s notion of “conspiracy theory” somewhat overlaps the current popular usage of that term, but is not synonymous with it. His usage of the term more closely denotes what Dr. Richard Hofstadter called the “Paranoid Style in American Politics.”. And Popper acknowledges the fact that conspiracy in and of itself is quite real, writing:
I do not wish to imply that conspiracies never happen. On the contrary, they are typical social phenomena.
Conspiracies occur, it must be admitted. But the striking fact which, in spite of their occurrence, disproved the conspiracy theory is that few of these conspiracies are ultimately successful. Conspirators rarely consummate their conspiracy.
**The podcast quotes Shaquille O’Neal as saying that he’d rather miss all of his foul shots than throw underhand. His career average was 52% from the line, only slightly better than Chamberlain’s.
***The term “conservative” has no bearing on ideology here. Dr. Grenovetter points out that instigators and conservatives more or less equally populate the right and left sides of the political spectrum.
****In several previous posts I wrote earlier about Sunstein and Vermeule’s “Conspiracy Theories” in which they outlined what they saw as causes and potential strategies for dealing with conspiracism. Dr. Wood stoked controversy by dismissing the official cause for the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11, instead hypothesizing that the buildings fell due to a directed free-energy technology. Dr. Fetzer has for many years researched the JFK assassination, and currently hosts his own podcast, The Real Deal, which covers such diverse contemporary topics as the Flat-Earth narrative and the Paul-Is-Dead rumor. Dr. Marcus edited a quite fascinating book titled Paranoia within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as Explanation, which offers a fair-minded critique of conspiracism in all its vices and virtues noting, as the title says, that paranoia can exist within reason.
*****One example: Former US Representative Cynthia McKinney (GA) lost her 2002 re-election bid after becoming a lightening rod for her outspoken parapolitical views. She was elected again in 2006, but lost her seniority in the House.
Although I cannot neatly catagorize it, I have gained insight from Malcolm Gladwell’s sparkling podcast, Revisionist History. Gladwell, a writer who stoked tremendous controversy in such books as Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), Blink, the Power of Thinking without Thinking (2007), and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), found success within popular markets, and some criticism among academics, who occasionally complain that he has distorted scientific findings by dumbing-down these tenets in presenting them to a general audience. Often, this takes the form of relying heavily on anecdotal evidence, that doesn’t always fit neatly with the scientific finding in question. And in a few instances, further research contradicted some of his claims.*
And yes, I think that some of the criticism leveled against Gladwell is valid. And while I wouldn’t recommend any of the above books, I would highly recommend the podcast, despite the fact that it’s derived from the same formula: the practical application of various socio-psychological research in viewing either past or the present day issues.
The point here is that although he seems to have a knack for over-reaching conclusions, the research he presents is valid and fascinating in its own right, and I feel compelled to give kudos to him for exposing me to it. And Gladwell’s contrarian take on conventional wisdom fascinates me. While I often have found myself at odds with Gladwell, I must admit that his counterintuitive, yet well reasoned arguments, merit careful consideration. To borrow from Dave Emory, I simply consider them food for thought and grounds for further research.
And it’s with this in mind that I want to look at one of the scientific issues raised by Gladwell in his first podcast. It’s the concept of moral licensing.**
Although a number of supporting studies appeared decades earlier, research in this area formally began at the turn of current century, in large part due to the research of Dr. Benoît Monin (Princeton, Stanford) began in 2001. Along with Drs. Daniel Effron (London Business School) and Anna Merritt, he published a 2010 paper titled “Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad,” in which the authors described the concept as the personal or cultural forbearance to engage in otherwise immoral behavior based on a prior record of good deeds.
Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.
The first example Gladwell used to illustrate this: the career of British artist Lady Elizabeth Thompson Butler. In 1874, she submitted a painting titled “Roll Call” to the Royal Academy of the Arts. In local exhibitions, the masterpiece had taken the country by storm.
Figure 1. Roll Call (click to enlarge)
In case you’re wondering, the nineteenth-century art world didn’t recognize contributions made by female artists. In fact, “Roll Call” became the first female work accepted by the Royal Academy. One could argue (quite easily) that the exclusion of women from the art world stemmed from sexism. On the other hand, the men populating the Academy in 1873 could counter-argue that no woman has ever met the very high standards the Academy explicitly laid out. So the following year, when they encountered a painting that clearly surpassed those standards, they were compelled to take it. Otherwise, they would have been guilty of hypocrisy, a moral failing.
If you think that this opened the door for Thompson, or women artists in general, then you’d be disappointed. The Academy denied her entrance into their ranks by two votes later in 1874, and wouldn’t consider it further. The committee likewise snubbed subsequent paintings by Lady Butler.
Had the Academy not accepted “Roll Call,” then critics could fairly say that it did so solely because of the gender of its artist. But afterwards, if they claimed later works simply not worthy (the evaluation of art is highly subjective, after all), then they could point to “Roll Call” as proof that they didn’t discriminate on gender grounds. In other words, their one-time acceptance of Thompson allowed them to bar her and future artists without having to admit their animosity to women.
Gladwell leaves the subject of moral licensing here.**** But in truth the concept is much deeper and touches a number of aspects of life, including consumer and lifestyle choices in addition to its implications vis-a-vis tokenism and gender/racial/sexual-orientation prejudice.
In aforementioned paper, a review of numerous empirical studies establishing the state of the science, Drs. Merritt, Effron and Monin outline the two mechanisms behind moral licensing. The first they call “moral credits.” One can think of this in crass terms as having a moral bank account – a good deed done in the past (a deposit, if you will), can be used later to pay for a naughty one (withdrawal) . Here, the person committing a transgression understands that he or she is doing wrong, but simply excusing it by pointing to something they did right, in effect canceling out the wicked deed. Everything evens out in the end.
The second mechanism, which they call “moral credentials,” is in many respects more pernicious and subtler. Here, the actor does not perceive her or his moral transgressions as such. Instead, such a person would look back upon their history of good deeds, confirm to themselves that they are indeed a moral person, and see the transgression more in terms of a judgment call that’s consistent with the actor’s values and previous decisions.
In popular discourse, we can see examples of both moral credits and moral credentials just about everyday. We can see the latter in such statements as “Some of my best friends are Jews,” proceeded or followed by a statement that is blatantly anti-Semitic. In this instance, the fact that he or she has Jewish friends establishes, in the speaker’s mind, their lack of bigotry. Therefore, the speaker contextualizes the offensive utterance in terms of past behavior, and thus denies its immorality to him/herself and to others.
In her 1945 book Our Inner Conflicts, psychoanalyst Karen Horney gave an example of moral credits, when noting that neurotically aggressive personality types (i.e., those who would most readily become bullies), tend to be quite polite, even generous:
Just as the compliant type clings to the belief that people are ‘nice’, and is continually baffled by evidence to the contrary, so the aggressive type takes it for granted that everyone is hostile, and refuses to admit that they are not. To him life is a struggle of all against all, and the devil take the hindmost. Such exceptions as he allows are made reluctantly and with reservation. His attitude is sometimes quite apparent, but more often it is covered over with a veneer of suave politeness, fair-mindedness and good fellowship.
This passage from Horney brings up a number of questions addressed by Merrit, Effron and Monin in “Moral Self-Licensing.” For starters, when we engage in moral licensing, are we trying to justify our actions to others, or to ourselves? How successful are we at it, and under what circumstances?
In regards to the first question, we obviously don’t want people around us to think that we are immoral. So naturally we engage in moral licensing because we fret about how others view us, what the authors call “self-presentational strategy.” Yet citing a 2006 study, they came to the realization that people also engage in moral licensing even when there’s no one around to watch.*****
Research suggests that licensing is not merely a self-presentational strategy – instead, it seems to reassure the self that subsequent behavior is legitimate. Monin and Miller...showed that licensing occurred even when the audience who observed the morally dubious behavior knew nothing of the prior, licensing behavior, suggesting that self-image played a role in the phenomenon...present more direct evidence by showing that individuals who imagined doing something altruistic rated themselves higher on items such as ‘I am compassionate’ or ‘I am helpful,’ and that this change in self-perception mediated whether participants then felt licensed to prefer a frivolous product.
So how good is moral licensing at helping us get away with bad behavior? Depends.
In a 2001 study, Drs. Monin and Dale Miller (Princeton) examined racial and gender attitudes in hiring choices.****** Given the resume of five applicants, respondents had to choose which candidate to hire. Each of the resumes contained a photograph of the applicant, one of which was either an African American male, or a Euro-American female. The rest were white males. The researchers skewed the resumes so that either the black or female candidate was undeniably better suited for the position. In this case, 83% of the respondents chose to hire the “star” candidate.
This is analogous to the Thompson example where the decision to employ a white male could only be reasonably construed as prejudiced, and thus immoral. Yet, part two of the study seemed to show that the willingness not to hire a white male gave license to express racist and sexist sentiment. In the follow-up, participants discussed the viability of candidates based on race within a specific scenario: a police department was so racist that its only black cop left; it’s now one officer short, and thus needs to hire a replacement. The researchers posed the question whether the position was better suited for a white or black candidate. As expected, the 83% of candidates who chose the African American or the white woman were more likely to say that a white male candidate was better suited for the job than a black one, whereas the 17% who refused to pick the star candidate in the previous scenario were more likely to say that race shouldn’t be a factor in the selection of a replacement.
Here, we can see that most of the respondents (who were, incidentally, primarily white) selected the outlier candidate when his or her superiority was quite obvious (the authors seemed rather puzzled that 17% still chose a white male candidate). This indicates that when the line between right and wrong is clear, most will do what they see as right. But when the decision became more morally ambiguous – i.e., when the respondent could reasonably or not point to factors other than race in defense of their action – the more likely we are to license our current behavior/decision based upon our previous behavior, and the more likely we are to get away with it.
Of course, even that depends on whom the actor interacts with when engaging in moral licensing. If you begin a sentence with, “Now I have nothing against gays, but...” the licensed statement that follows might very well work with people who are not homosexual. If the recipient of the message is part of the LGBT community, however, they could very well interpret the licensing act in the opposite way. As Merritt, Effron and Monin explained:
This study examined Black and White participants’ reactions to a White target who made a potentially offensive claim about African-Americans, varying whether he preceded his statement with the disclaimer, ‘I’m not racist or anything, but…. ‘ When this preamble was added, White participants thought the speaker was marginally less racist, but Black participants thought he was significantly more racist.*******
There are many more facets of this concept that I don’t have space to go into here. But in short, we can see moral licensing as this mechanism that allows us not only to commit immoral behaviors without fear of judgment, but also to negotiate between what we want, and what we know we shouldn’t rightfully have. It’s a dynamic that is as flexible and persuasive as the individual actors engaged in it at the moment. Moreover, it’s universal. Drs. Merritt, Effron and Monin would tell you that it’s not even bad all the time. They argued, for example, that moral licensing allows for doctors to perform triage in combat zones.
On a much larger scale, I ponder the implications of this research as perceived by Gladwell. In all the years we’ve covered and looked into pretty violent historical events, I’m often at a loss to understand how people can treat others so callously, or so cruelly. The possibility that this lay in a mechanism that touches everyone puts this into a clearer perspective. So when we talk about such things as racism, especially as it exists in the Americas (note: plural), we’re talking about (1) dominion that is (2) enjoyed by majority society to the (3) disadvantage of minority society. Obviously, the desire to maintain this dominion runs counter to American ideals of virtue, freedom, fair-play, Christian charity and morality. Yet, the desire for dominion still remains.
In the past, and in the present, some have resorted (and still resort) to violent action to defend that dominion. But this then runs further afoul of what both majority and minority society would deem just, or acceptable. So one can see the advantages of, say, moral licensing over violence; hence it’s pervasiveness. And because it’s rooted in a mechanism that’s intrinsic to the human being, I can thus get a better handle on this cruelty for the machinery exists within me too.
*For instance, in Tipping Point, he wrote that the advancement of ideas “...is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular set of social gifts.” He divided these into three categories: connectors (people who network among many different social circles, and thus can bridge the gap between groups), mavens (people adept at introducing ideas and information), and salesmen (people with the charisma to promote the idea). Gladwell estimated that such people account for about 80% of the trafficking of ideas independently of mass media.
Several years later, research conducted by Dr. Duncan Watts (Sociology, Columbia) seemed to contradict this. In 2003, Watts successfully reproduced the results of Dr. Stanley Milgram’s (Social Psychology, City University of New York Graduate Center). Small World study, popularly known as the Six Degrees of Separation study. In Watts’ recreation, 61,000 participants managed to communicate an idea to eighteen targeted individuals through an average of six intermediaries. But only 5% of those relaying these messages met the criterion of either a connector, maven or salesman – considerably short of the 80% Gladwell’s hypothesis would have estimated.
**Sometimes referred to as “self-licensing.”
***Personal and Personality Psychology Compass, 4/5: pp. 344-57.
****Gladwell gave another example along the same lines, namely the tenure of The Honorable Julia Gillard, the first female Prime Minister of Australia (2010-2013). Gillard faced explicitly misogynist abuse while PM from political opposition that disguised that sexism with vague criticism supposedly about other things.
*****Drs. Uzma Kahn (Marketing, Carnegie Mellon) and Ravi Dharm (Marketing, Yale) ”Licensing Effect in Consumer Choice,” Journal of Marketing Research, 43/2 (May): pp. 259-66.
******”Moral Credentials and the Expression of Prejudice,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81/1:pp 33-43.
*******The study in question, “I’m not racist but....I’m a Racist,” was in the form of a poster by Alexander Czopp, presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Tampa FL, 2009.
We mostly deal with history on this page. While most people think of history as simply the past -- something done with, over, with no legitimate impact on the present – I would see it more in terms of a game recap. If you’re in the sixth inning of a baseball game, your strategy on what to do heavily depends on a continuing evaluation of history. For starters, the score, reflective of what occurred in past innings, can determine if you bunt a runner into scoring position or if you risk the double play by swinging away. Your decisions also rest in the past performance of a hitter or pitcher (the main stats), the past performance of a hitter or pitcher against a specific opponent, stadium or game condition (known in baseball as the “splits”), and history of all the games played up to that point.
Our only guide to the present and future is our past. Sure, the past is often misleading – especially when distorted by such things as passion. But it’s the most reliable guide we have. And such writers as Ray Bradbury and George Orwell articulated in many ways the latter’s statement that those who control the past, control the future.
It’s with this in mind that I offer below a few history podcasts that I have found interesting over these past two years. These are by no means exhaustive of the fascinating podcasts one can find. But these contain certain items that will be of import to the upcoming series.
Producer/writer/researcher and host Karina Longworth’s podcast centers on the history of Hollywood and the movie industry with rather lengthy series on specific themes. A couple of these involve X-Spot material, the first examining Charles Manson’s impact on late-1960s films.
The second, which more directly ties to the upcoming series, consists of a magnificent twelve-part chronicle of the HUAC/McCarthyism probe into the movie industry. Especially important is an episode that discusses the relationship and careers of two celebrities of that time, Lena Horne and Paul Robeson. While Longworth marbles its main themes throughout the series, this episode succinctly summarizes the very tight connection between communism and African American civil rights during the 1930s.
Obviously, one need not be a communist to support African-American civil rights. But the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) had made it a cornerstone of its public relations during the Great Depression, culminating with its political and legal support of the wrongly accused Scottsboro Boys. This would come to haunt Horne, Robeson, and a number of civil-rights activists during the 1950s as anti-black politicians and organizations exploited these earlier ties (which had mostly dissolved by that time) to cloak virulently racist agendas in the guise of anti-communism. Not surprisingly, Lena and Paul became targets of derision and subsequently blacklisted, despite the fact that neither were communists.*
Drs. Ed Ayers (University of Richmond), Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh (University of Virginia), host this podcast, which takes an academic look at a number of historical topics in sometimes surprisingly insightful ways. For one thing, the show features a wide diversity of breadth that encompasses the history of gay, non-white and female Americans not as token asides (although one can find specific episodes devoted to topics along those lines). Rather, their depiction of the US, since the Seventeenth Century, often takes a look at how events and conditions affected disparate individuals, groups and organizations. We also get to hear from their guests who offer an immense array of scholarly insight, and (IMHO) just as important, a wide range of demographic, personal and ideological diversity.
There are a number of episodes that will have some bearing on this series. But the one that I want to single out, “Grassy Knolls,” deals with the history of conspiracism. Although critical, the episode takes an unexpectedly fair look at the roles conspiracy and social paranoia have played in the development of the nation.
Currently hosted by Tracy Wilson and Holly Frey, this show exists within the constellation of Stuff, a network of podcasts highlighting arcane information. If you click on its sidebar, you can see that the homepage links to a number of sister shows that cover a number of different topics.
I once recommended this show to a cyberfriend, who sent me a nasty e-mail saying she couldn’t listen to more than five-minutes of it. She apparently found the hosts to be smug, arrogant, or perhaps superficially omniscient, and shallow in its coverage of historical events and context.
That’s hardly an endorsement. But I write the above to warn the reader that this podcast might not be everyone’s cup of tea (if any podcast can make that claim).
To be fair, the podcast has its strengths in that it offers a decent survey on a limited number of history topics. Think of it more as a sonic version of Wikipedia, one that only contains a few score entries.
Several episodes of importance for the current topic here consist of a two-part series on the topic of redlining, and another two-part series on the life of civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin. The first series relates the cultural, legal and economic conventions that supported racial discrimination and segregation in the US; this occurred not only the southeastern portion of the country, but nearly equally throughout the nation. The second spotlights the career of an intellectual whom authorities incarcerated twice for being (a) black and (b) gay on a sunny day. One of his most important contributions consisted of his role in helping to plan the historical 1963 march on Washington, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King would give the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Just as interesting were his later ties to the Central Intelligence Agency, and the neo-conservative movement that swept Ronald Reagan into the Oval Office in 1980.
*Many continue to list Robeson as a communist. He was actually a socialist, who had many communists friends. He refused to name or denounce them during his Judiciary Committee testimony (he invoked the Fifth Amendment). He also refused to denounce the Soviet Union.
The health crisis I suffered back in September of 2014 forced me into a few lifestyle changes. For whatever reason, I’ve more or less stuck with them since. Call it habit.
Among other things, I’m required to exercise daily. I’ve thus taken to hiking six miles a day. While this has had its downside – the wearing out of shoes, the occasional injury, etc – it’s had one extremely large upside. I’ve gotten used to downloading a boatload of podcasts to accompany me on the journey.
The podcasts can be informative, naturally. They can just as often be mis-informative (this is the Internet, after all). More important, they have opened me up to a lot of diverse takes on some of the subjects I’ve pursued on The X-Spot, and some of the subjects I still wish to cover. Most, however, don’t have direct bearing on conspiracy stories. Instead they shed light on a lot of secondary topics brought up by conspiracy research.
Whether you enjoy podcasts or not, I’d like to share a select few that will have some bearing on the upcoming series. I’ll be separating some of these into categories over the next few posts, You might want to check out a few.
Out of all the genres of non-fiction that I read (and I mostly read non-fiction), my least favorite is the true crime genre. The stories typically offer very shallow coverage of what are often complex events. There’s a distinct right-wing law-and-order viewpoint of crime that tends to focus on the real (or alleged) pathology of the real (or alleged) culprit instead of on the complexities of human relationships that lead to violence. These consequently give us more presentation of story than evidence. And when you read about particular cases in other sources, you’ll find that the establishment of guilt is nowhere as certain as what a writer depicts it to be (which really becomes noticeable when a conviction is overturned after publication). Moreover, the victims usually serve only as props, with little understanding of who they are or their overall importance in society. Simply put, true crime stories usually contain biases that are absolute, and generally boil down to a single narrative: people who are somehow different, or who have not completely assimilated into society are not just dangerous, but evil.
On the other hand, I consume a lot of true crime books, television shows, and as of late, podcasts. While the genre itself has shortcomings that make my eyes roll, it does yield information about investigation methodology, police and prosecutorial procedure, and public reaction to facts. In short, true crime stories give us a baseline for what to expect in crimes, investigations and adjudications on an everyday level. So when you’re looking at cases with higher profiles, you can compare what authorities have done or not done with respect to their typical approach.
Co-created by Eric Mennel, NPR alums Lauren Spoher and host Phoebe Judge, this show looks at a number of issues involving a wide range of transgressions, from diverse points of views. Depending on the episode, you can hear extensive interviews with victims, the wrongfully accused, the guilty, and the families of each.
This series, created by host Mike Boudet, often suffers from one of the most irksome qualities of true crime: namely an exclusionary examination of the presumed pathology of the accused or perpetrator, sometimes to the point of taking armchair psychoanalysis to the extreme. His signature opening, promising to present a “...show that will reveal that the worst monsters are real,” misses the point that monsters neither exist, nor do they commit crimes. People do. Thus, the complexity of human interaction that so enriches Criminal is comparatively absent here.
Be that as it may, Sword and Scale has its laudable points. While it often wallows in the cheap and sensational aspects of a story, it doesn’t always. And Boudet and his staff (Heather Sutfin, Robert Walsh, and Jesus Rodriguez) routinely do yeoman’s service to ferret out information, and provide the listener with primary textual sources, including 911 calls and recordings of actual courtroom proceedings, with considerable context. And unlike many true crime producers/authors Boudet will address the nature of justice, and the frustrating plight of the wrongfully accused. And to his credit he has allowed space for skeptical (in the good and proper sense) examination of conspiracy stories, such as in his interview with Johnny Gosch’s mom, Noreen.
Like The X-Spot, Sword and Scale often contains graphically violent verbal descriptions, and is thus not suitable for children or the sensitive. It nevertheless gives a good deal of easy-to-understand information about both criminal activity and criminal investigation.
The now-familiar plink-plink of the piano has come to signify one of the most widely celebrated true crime narratives in recent memory.
And for excellent reason. Serial is about as good as true crime gets, and is very different in its scope, approach and outlook from other products of that genre, which in no small part explains a lot of its massive popularity. Whereas the genre typically features a smug certainty, producers Julie Snyder, Dana Chiwis, Emily Condon and host Sarah Koenig were anything but confident that they knew what happened on the night of 13 January 1999.
It’s this uncertainty that allows us a better grasp of a particular case. Very few things or events in this world are cut-and-dry, black-or-white. So while Koenig, her staff or we cannot completely dismiss the thought that Adnan Syed murdered his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, we can nevertheless concede that there were numerous, reasonable doubts that should have exonerated him in the first trial, among them the glaring mistake in the analysis of cell phone records, and the shakiness of the star witness for the prosecution. Exacerbating this lack of evidence was the manipulation of said witness (and other witnesses) by police and later prosecutors, the ineffectiveness of his primary counsel because of health reasons, and the overt anti-Muslim prejudice espoused by an early prosecutor, and (at least) one member of the jury.
For me, one of the key moments occurred during a conversation between Koenig and her private investigator, a former police detective, during which she blurted, “Aren’t all facts happy facts?” When her PI explained to her the policeman’s job more or less as serving the narrative by the prosecution that it should give everyone pause to think that such could lead to inaccuracy. And this is something that we see in both wild-eyed conspiracy tales and tone-deaf debunkers of conspiracy hypothesis–the exclusion of facts that give depth to, context to, support or prove an opposing viewpoint.
The second season of Serial, which focuses on the plight of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, is in many respects superior to the effort of season 1, but has not enjoyed the latter's wild popularity. If you haven't heard it, check it out.
We’ve explored here a number of parapolitcal topics over the past ten years. In each, the purpose wasn’t so much to prove, or disprove the specific conspiracy explanations of an event. Rather, the purpose was to clarify the issues involved.
The term “conspiracy theory” is misleading. There are few theoretical issues (in the academic sense) within conspiracy culture. One could more accurately call it speculative journalism or history. Mae Brussell, Alex Constantine, John Judge, David Emery and many others have devoted their lives and careers to finding out the hidden information, the lacunae, which riddle many official narratives. Most of this darkness comes about through deliberate and systemic efforts to keep information out of the hands of the public, whether through dint of official secrecy (i.e., classification) or through the propagation of comfortable stories to the exclusion and ridicule of others.
Much of the press and academia presently use the term “conspiracy theory” as a pejorative. Given some of the racist, nativistic and anti-Semitic ideation at the fringes of conspiracy culture-- a facet which gets a lion’s share of public attention--one can see why many good and intelligent people would understandably have a knee-jerk disdain (and sometimes disgust) for any explanation smacking of conspiracy. Yet this reaction is primarily an emotional one, not a rational one.
We like to see ourselves as reasonable, wise, and autonomous thinkers who can judge a story or issue solely on its merits. But it’s difficult to maintain objectivity if authorities of all stripes and flavors have deemed an entire line of inquiry “wild-eyed crazy” (pathological), “moronically oversimplified” (unintelligent), or “profoundly ignorant” (held by the un- or under-educated who don’t know how the “real world” works).
One finds great challenge in merely posing a conspiracy question within the media or academia without experiencing some degree of backlash--which sometimes includes the termination of employment and the resultant hardship to the professional involved and his/her family.* But the social sanctions against looking into possible conspiracy are usually much more subtle, entailing such things as glass ceilings, personal mockery, derision, mild harassment, but most critically ostracization. And no one wants to be “that guy” or “that gal” who’s “duped” by a lot of kooky stuff.
Conspiracy is hardly a kooky subject. On any given business day there’s some prosecutor somewhere in the USA who’s putting away a defendant on a conspiracy charge. Conspiracy, after all, is simply the agreement by two or more parties to perform an illicit act. There’s an inherent difficulty in proving conspiracy to a reasonable doubt standard because one has to show that the agreement took place.** Yet, it’s possible to do this when one has access to the necessary resources.
The assumption that conspiracies never occur within circles of authority might possibly stem from stereotypical notions of criminality. It’s common to see crime as part and parcel of a particular class or type of people, who often occupy society’s lowest rungs. In the popular mind, those who are well-educated, or from good families, or have high income (especially if they aren’t African American) are often not seen as criminals, even when everyone stipulates that they have committed a crime.*** Although we might laughingly joke that professionals lie (and in the case of attorneys cheat), we still don't tend to view these instances as criminal activity. And even when there is a provable criminal act among elected officials, or wealthy corporate types we tend to see it as an aberration, or not serious to begin with. Indeed, the prosecution of white collar crime is comparatively lax, despite the fact that it victimizes far more of us, and for far more money than street crime.
After delving into this subject for as long as I have (almost twenty years now), it’s very curious (and often frustrating) to me that when evidence merely suggests conspiracy within lower elements of society, many will tend to shrug their shoulders and say something to the effect of “So what?” or “That makes sense. They couldn’t have done it by themselves.” But if there’s evidence that strongly suggests that those who have power over our lives might have colluded in criminal activity, many people will go out of their way to believe otherwise. This is something noted by others as well.****
So the story eventually becomes only partly about the event itself. Understanding also requires attention to why there is widespread belief in the non-conspiracy explanation even if it is irrational or implausible. There remain those informational gaps, and the speculation that covers them up, of course, but there’s often enough of the puzzle exposed to render non-conspiracy explanations highly doubtful, in an objective sense. And given that the missing information is often held by those accused of conspiring, commonsense would tell us that people do not tend to hide that which proves their innocence.
Some things eventually dawned on me.
At this time I feel compelled to digress to the topic of institutional betrayal at some length. But in the interest of brevity, let’s table that thought, at least for awhile. Instead lets start with an idea that everyone can agree on: namely, no one likes to get flim-flammed. Con artists realize not only this, but something much deeper, something critical to their success. You see, only about 7% of victims ever report the crime to begin with. The reason’s obvious. The admission that we’ve been taken usually elicits a far harsher judgment against us than it does the perpetrator. Friends, family and strangers who know about the theft will often ask something along the lines of “How could you be so f-ing stupid [or greedy, or needy, or lustful, or naive, or gullible or fill-in-blank]?”
There are usually many times during a con where red flags arise. The victim might have varying degrees of alarm about one turn of events or another. But a skillful grifter knows that in deceiving a mark, the mark is often a willing ally. The more deeply one invests in the con, the more impetus there is to find a reason--any reason--to believe that the false hope they actually purchased is in fact not false. Otherwise, they would have to admit to themselves that they are either f-ing stupid, or greedy, or needy, or lustful, or naive, or gullible or fill-in-blank. The confidence gamer is consequently quite aware that the victim will believe any lie that makes sense. They won’t question it. They won’t look into it further. In fact, victims, upon seeing problems within a con’s structure, often will not pull out of a fishy venture, or find some other way to mitigate risk. In fact, they’ll often double-down on the con, investing even more resources into it.*****
When it comes to institutional skullduggery, and our stake within it, there’s likewise the tendency to see something is wrong with an official view. Like the con, the signs and evidence of conspiracy are abundant, and foreboding. And for the same reason as the mark, many have a personal stake in the integrity of the institution’s promise, and thus will have compelling reason to believe anything other than that which would force them to admit that something untoward has happened. It should therefore come as little surprise that there are those who have made a cottage industry of promoting the stories that reassure us that criminal activity--especially of the coordinated kind-- has not occurred within officialdom.
Likewise, the degree to which some have bought into the notion that conspiracy explains everything are also prone to this type of reasoning. This is especially true in organizations like Lyndon LaRouche’s, where conspiracy is intertwined with dogma and a spiritual or quasi-spiritual belief. In either case, the investment in the conspiracy or anti-conspiracy point of view is so large, and the personal stakes for adherents so great that objectivity and facts cease to matter. Each side has skin in the game, and each will desperately dig in to defend these beliefs, so long as they have enough of a narrative or reason to continue believing.
Yet, there’s a fundamental difference between the con man and the institution when it comes to perpetuating a falsity. The institution has far more ubiquity, power, authority and resources than the swindler. The cheat cannot, to a large extent, legally forbid public disclosure of proof. Institutions can. And even if not legal, the institution can still have a better chance of getting away with it, and for a much longer time. In the case of governmental malfeasance the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the government is the only body legally authorized to investigate itself. Furthermore, institutions, through public relations, can enlist great public support for their version of events. All it takes is a willingness for large enough sectors of society to buy repeatedly the explanatory fictions that it provides.
The available tools of institutional deception include a number of items. For starters, there’s the power of the term “conspiracy theory” itself to steer discourse in predictable, and thus controllable directions.****** Another would be the development of straw men, or in other words citing (or perhaps creating) weak or tangential arguments that one can easily tear apart.
The most effective means for doing this consists of propagating texts that are emotionally gripping, and extremely well written. They read or come off as novels or dramatic works. And they all serve to strengthen the official or dominant line. Often these accounts have much in common with the most entertaining conspiracy tales in that they are very long on narrative, and very short on facts or evidence. And what little proof there is usually lies out of context, is often debunked by more compelling evidence, and sometimes made up out of whole cloth.
Before I conclude this post, I’d like to point out that when we talk about “official versions” we often should clarify what we mean. There is the “official story,” the story that becomes the dominant narrative because it is deemed true by police, courts or other official bodies. There are, what I like to call, “quasi-official” stories in which there is a dominant narrative, that is contrary to official findings. Often this occurs when public understanding about a topic comes chiefly from a pop culture source, such as a movie or TV show that takes dramatic license with the people involved, the context and the events. And then, there are stories where there are two or more official findings. As you would expect, these versions are often at odds with each other.
So, it’s with this in mind that I approach the next series to appear here on The X-Spot. It’s a story where the evidence for conspiracy is quite strong, and the evidence of non-conspiracy quite weak. It’s also an instance where there are three distinct official findings, two of which involve conspiracy explanations.
As you might expect, the two conspiracy explanations have, to date, received comparatively little discourse in mainstream venues.
And that prompts us to examine why that’s the case. It also compels us to wonder why the non-conspiracy finding has become the dominant narrative.
With one exception, the above were fired for either taking a conspiracy position, or for simply giving serious consideration to a conspiracy hypothesis. Harvard attempted to fire Dr. Mack because of his research into the possibility of alien abduction, but could not because of his tenure and exemplary record of research and publication.
**For a good example of a criminal conspiracy and the difficult FBI investigation that finally proved it, check out “The Fix Is In”, episode 168 of This American Life.
***I saw this on the local news a few weeks back. Despite the fact that everyone, including the culprit and his family, stipulated that he took a gun to school and shot up four (fortunately surviving) classmates, the shooter’s mom nevertheless declared that he “wasn’t a cold-blooded criminal.”
Well, since humans are by definition warm-blooded, and are really the only species capable of committing crimes (according to current law–past law is a different story), then that would seem to be true of all people who transgress.
Less flippantly, one is a criminal because he or she executes a criminal act. Note here that the mother’s concept of “criminal” had nothing to do with criminal activity, but rather a certain designation of person. You can probably take a good guess at the type of individual she would see as a true “cold-blooded criminal.”
****Researcher Lisa Pease has often made the observation that many good people simply “cannot wrap their heads around” the notion of conspiracy.
*****An excellent example: record-breaking swindler Bernie Madoff told the New York Times that the banks and hedge fund managers who invested, or encouraged others to invest in him, had to know that something was wrong:
In asserting the complicity of others, Mr. Madoff pointed to the ‘willful blindness’ of many banks and hedge funds who dealt with his investment advisory business and their failure to examine discrepancies between his regulatory filings and other information available to them.
They had to know,’ Mr. Madoff said. ‘But the attitude was sort of, ‘If you’re doing something wrong, we don’t want to know.’‘
In other words, these institutions and professionals knew that they had bought into a very dangerous venture. Yet, they invested even more money (one, up to $38 mil) despite these misgivings.
******In one example, Michael Hastings, an award-winning reporter for BuzzFeed and Rolling Stone, disclosed via e-mail to friends and colleagues, sixteen hours before his death, that he was under pressure and surveillance by Intel because of he was then working on a story about DCIA John Brennan. This was after he had written a well respected expose on NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal. Within a day after the fiery automobile collision that claimed Hastings’ life, a number of mainstream outlets were already using the term “conspiracy theory,” to describe potential dissenting opinions that could arrive in the future, after the public received all the facts. This effectively discredited any questions concerning a possible connection.
Granted, Hastings' death could have resulted from a car crash and nothing more (the official story). Yet, if someone writes that he is under pressure from the CIA and FBI, and then dies hours later, I see little imprudence in asking questions (of for that matter exploring it) about a possible connection between his demise, and pressure bought about by two institutions, whose relationship with the writer was evidently antagonistic.