The care and feeding of unsolved mysteries

We recently ran an excerpt from the History News Network about a controversial article on the JFK assassination written for the Nation magazine by Max Holland. We included, with certain gratuitous glee, a snipe of two at the Nation which has long struck us as a bit too close to the foreign policy establishment.

We subsequently received a nice note from the Nation’s publicity director pointing to a number of letters highly critical of the Holland piece. It is all, in the best manner of JFK assassination literature, complex, contentious, and highly time consuming. The links are below

But our own complaint is not with Holland’s conclusions about the assassination but with the contemptuous tone in which he writes about the matter. A sample: “Then-Senator Gary Hart was more responsible than most of his committee colleagues for twisting unpalatable truths into the logical equivalent of pretzels and milking the tragedy for political gain.”

In any one of the great mysteries of our time, there tend to be a number of conclusions worthy of consideration. The one thing many have in common is that they are more worthy of consideration than the accepted wisdom on the matter as approved by official commissions and so forth.

It is safe to say that we have not found the full story behind the JFK assassination, the TWA 800 crash, Vincent Foster’s death and a number of other matters. In fact, this verges on conventional wisdom outside the mainstream media and other establishment circles. And even within the conventional media there is an ambivalence or even acceptance, witness this comment on JFK by the Washington Post’s Stephen Rosenfeld more than a decade ago: “That the assassination probably encompassed more than a lone gunman now seems beyond cavil.”

It is also safe to say that there is no common understanding of what the rational explanation of these unsolved mysteries is. Intelligent inductive thinkers will continue to come to differing conclusions as long as the mysteries remain.

Finally, it is safe to say that those who ridicule these inquiries, describe their researchers as conspiracy theorists, and are generally dismissive of any residual curiosity fall into a number of categories themselves including fools, CIA or similar operatives with a vested interest, sedated members of the establishment, or those fearful that the land of Oz may not, after all, exist and would like to postpone their acceptance of the fact.

The very use of the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ is an anti-intellectual attempt to silence argument for which the labeler has no factual answer. Ironically, it is often the very accuser who is more inclined to believe in conspiracies, albeit benign ones, because it implies a small number of people deciding the course of history, which is how these critics were taught in college that society properly functions. They are, after all, more likely to be Skull & Bone or Council on Foreign Relations members than they are to be social historians or anthropologists who view change as occurring in less elite ways.

Thus anyone who attacks someone else as a conspiracy theorist should be ignored on grounds of simple incompetence with the possible additional liability of disingenuousness.

At the end of the film Match Point is an instructive episode involving two detectives. As described in the Movie Spoiler: “The police know about the affair from Nola’s diary, but do not suspect him. Then, that night, the lead detective has a dream, and wakes proclaiming that Chris Wilton murdered Nola and the old lady. When he gets to the office the next day, he details out exactly as it happens to his partner. The partner says that would be a plausible story, if they hadn’t already solved the case. The night before, a robber was shot after burglarizing a house. In his pocket was the old lady’s wedding band, engraved and everything. Case closed.”

What is striking is that neither man berates or disparages the other. They act like good detectives rather than like spoiled members of the establishment. What determines the outcome are the perceived facts of the matter (with the emphasis on perceived).

If Max Holland does not believe the CIA was involved in JFK’s murder then he should prove it, understanding, however, that the proof does not in any way lie in the personal imperfections of, say, Mark Lane.

The same applies to anyone investigating anything. To do the job right, one must follow the evidence and be clear when it stops. The rest is theory or hypothesis, acceptable and worthy of debate, but in a lesser category than fact. We know, for example, that it is highly likely that Oswald did not act alone. But were the other parties connected to the Mafia, rightwing Cubans, or the CIA? The facts overwhelmingly suggest that Vince Foster was not killed at Ft. Marcy Park. Did he commit suicide in some inconvenient locale or was her murdered someplace else? And if so, why?

We don’t know yet. But the massive effort to stop people from wondering about such matters is itself reasonable cause for suspicion to the inductive mind since the effort relies so heavily on ridicule and so little on fact. Not probably of the result of a conspiracy, mind you. More likely, one might theorize absent further evidence, just common stupidity.


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