The ethics of amplifying American Paranoia

There is a book on the effect of conspiracy-theories on history. It is called Political Paranoia. It has some good insights, including a chapter where talks about a movie made by director Oliver Stone, who treated truth as a relative value in speculating about John Kennedy’s assassination. Most of this post is straight quotes from the book, and I close with an obvious irony – the elephant in the room that Oliver Stone doesn’t see.

The authors say:

One of the most remarkable examples of conspiracy portrayed as entertainment is the film JFK, directed by Oliver Stone (Warner Brothers 1992)….
Films are not simply entertainment; they are also cultural, intellectual, and political influences. Research demonstrates the influence on beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and behavior of such films as the anti—nuclear war The Day After, the anti-Soviet Amerika, and the multigenerational saga of a black family, Roots… A survey and analysis of viewer reaction to JFK demonstrated that this film and others like it can produce ‘markedly altered emotional states, belief changes spread across specific political issues, and . . . an impact on politically relevant behavioral changes.’ [JFK viewers] reported emotional changes, [became] significantly more angry and less hopeful . . . Those who had seen the movie were significantly more likely to believe [the various conspiracies depicted in the film.]

Oliver Stone

JFK is not a historical film in the way that William Makepeace Thackeray’s Henry Esmond, Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers, and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind are historical novels. Stone does not take fictional characters and put them in a historical context, as the fictional Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are placed in Civil War Georgia. Stone takes genuine historical characters—New Orleans District Attorney James Garrison and civic activist Clay Shaw, for example—and presents his version of what happened. Films of this sort are called docudramas because they dramatize historical events and historical characters for the screen. A film like Gone with the Wind attempts to tell the viewer what sorts of things happened in a past historical period. In contrast, a docudrama like JFK attempts to convey a particular version of history; the film does not simply lay out the director’s version of history but also seeks to persuade the viewer that the director’s version is the truth.
Film as media presents opportunities and limitations that are absent in a written work. These strengths and restrictions were first demonstrated in D. W. Griffith’s seminal American film The Birth of a Nation (Epic 1915). This film, which set the “grammar and syntax” of cinema as narrative entertainment, carried a powerful racist message. It idealized the Old South, praised slavery, described Klansmen as heroic saviors of the white South from bestial blacks and their Northern white allies, and opposed racial “pollution.” Financially it was very successful. Politically it facilitated the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Its racism was so simplistic and offensive that, even in an era tolerant of racism, it was banned in several cities and became the object of small riots. Griffith saw himself as the victim of the forces (blacks and their Northern sympathizers) that he “exposed” in the film.
From The Birth of a Nation’s release in 1915 to the appearance of JFK in 1992, American historical films developed a cinematic pattern with the following characteristics:
• The story is presented in a filmic style of seamless visual and aural pattern; the viewer seems to be looking directly at reality.
• The story has a strong moral message.
• The story is simple and definitive. Alternate versions are rarely suggested; if suggested, they are dismissed or mocked.
• The story is about individuals, usually heroic ones, fighting for good in the interest of humanity (that is, the audience).
• The story has a strong emotional tone.
JFK adds several other techniques. It seamlessly interweaves newsreel footage from the assassination with fictional material, so that the boundary between historical fact and the director’s or writer’s fictional elaborations are progressively blurred. It is crammed with information, presented in words and suggested in pictures. It contains not only many short speeches and several long orations but much dialogue. More important, it includes many scenes without dialogue, some seemingly only one or two seconds long, which impart or suggest information. Not one locus of conspiracy is suggested but eight: the CIA, weapons manufacturers, the Dallas police, the armed forces, the White House, the establishment press, renegade anti-Castro Cubans, and the Mafia. The persuasive value of such an onslaught is to leave the viewer, if not convinced, at least believing that “there has to be something to it.” One viewer said that she and her companion “walked out of the movie feeling like we had just undergone a powerful ‘paranoia induction.’
These facts, inventions, and insinuations do not necessarily come from the director’s private beliefs. They are driven by the commercial and narrative needs of the form. Popular art requires continuity and order—elements generally lacking in genuine events. The film depiction of events must grab the viewer’s attention, keep him fixed in his seat, cause him to identify with the action and principal characters, and induce him to tell his neighbors to buy a ticket for the next performance. The paranoid perspective advances these commercial and artistic ambitions:
• It too gives a simplified view of reality. Indeed, the paranoid worldview demands coherence, even when such consistency is lacking.
• It too takes a moral stand: us against them, good against evil, openness against conspiracy.
• It too presents the “truth” as simple in essence but highly complex in details.
• It too describes a struggle, not between abstract forces but between individuals and groups.
• It too brings powerful emotions to the narration.
Thus, the paranoid message is uniquely suited to the form of a historical film drama, or docudrama. This message is seen most powerfully in JFK but also in other paranoid films: Silkwood, Missing, and The Parallax View.
The paranoid theme complements another influence: deconstruction, a prominent feature of late-twentieth-century criticism and art. The most important part of the deconstructive position for our purposes is its contention that “texts” (novels, films, poems) have no meaning apart from how they are perceived. If the audience receives the “true” story, then the “facts” in the text are true. Truth is itself a shifting concept whereby the political interests of the creator and the audience (generally expressed in terms of race, gender, and economic position) define what is true. If what is presented persuades people that it is true and if this truth is “politically progressive,” then the events presented in the text are true.
The political commentator Ronald Steel identifies this dynamic in JFK: “Because of the director’s ability to cut, splice, fuse, restage, and invent, it is virtually impossible for a viewer of his film to tell if he is seeing a real or a phony event. Stone mixes real black-and-white footage, such as the Zapruder film of Kennedy’s murder, with restaged black-andwhite episodes that may or may not have happened. The result is a deconstructionist’s heaven. Every event becomes a pseudoevent, fictions become fact, imagination becomes reality, and the whole tangible world disappears.
Stone acknowledges that what he shows as happening need not ever have happened. Asked whether he has a responsibility to historical fact, Stone replied that the questioner was getting “into the area of censorship” and that it is “up to the artist himself to determine his own ethics by his own conscience.” In any event, Stone argues that he was creating a myth that “represents the inner spiritual meaning of an event.
Stone’s reference to myth as central to the film is an appropriate one. Myths are meta-explanations: they explain beyond what we can see or understand. A paranoid message can also have a great role in developing and enhancing a myth.
The life of John F. Kennedy has become an American myth, symbolizing youth, vigor, progress, and glamour. In fact, the historical Kennedy was quite different from the mythic Kennedy, but for the most part the public has set aside the facts in favor of the symbols. There are many reasons for the generation of this myth in the face of the facts. The Kennedy family (and Kennedy himself when he was alive) and their partisans fostered it; they presented Kennedy as associated with other mythic figures (Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt), and they made use of mythic archetypes (New Frontier, Camelot). Most important, however, were the timing and circumstances of Kennedy’s death. Had Kennedy lived, he might be remembered as a successful or an unsuccessful president, but not as a legendary hero.

Lee Harvey Oswald

What is required in myth-creating circumstances is a destructive force proportional to the event. A nerdish left-wing sympathizer who manages to fire a couple of lucky shots from a cheap mail-order rifle is not a suitable instrument for the destruction of a mythic hero. [So there is a ] natural inclination to believe in a conspiracy. It completes the story and fulfills the audience’s desire for understanding. People cling to this belief with remarkable tenacity. For example, Gerald Posner, who wrote the well-reviewed anti-conspiracist Case Closed, was the object of threatening telephone calls and picketing by demonstrators carrying signs saying ‘ ‘Case Not Closed.” Some conspiracists even advocated a day of national resistance to the book.

The authors don’t like this type of film:

The social harm that the film commits goes beyond the distortion of history. It creates a broader intellectual pollution. Each paranoid film gives weight to a popular mentality of paranoid belief, If event after event is “shown to be” the product of a malign conspiracy, then the public will accept that that is how the world works.

On reading the above, an irony occurred to me. The assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a hater of “decadent capitalism”, and had applied to be a Soviet Citizen. None of the conspiracies that Mr. Stone comes up with have to do with Lee’s ideology, even though President Kennedy had approved the failed invasion to topple Fidel Castro of Cuba. Jacqueline Kennedy didn’t seem too confused about who her husband’s killer was. “He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It’s — it had to be some silly little Communist,” she said shortly after her husband’s death. Also telling is the fact that a spokesman for the Soviet Union rushed to lay blame on “Barry Goldwater and other extremists on the right.”
Even today, Russian propaganda fuels paranoid ideas in the USA and elsewhere. Now there’s a conspiracy!

Political Paranoia” by Robert S. Robins and Dr. Jerrold Post M.D.

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