Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: History, Politics — Rick Moran @ 12:07 pm

It used to be that the conspiracy bug was almost exclusively confined to right wing extremists - Birchers, Klansmen, McCarthyites, and a mish mash of anti-government, anti-communist (where many believed the commies had already taken over the US government), and anti-UN psychopaths. According to the eminent historian Richard Hofstadter’s brilliant essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics , these pathetic people felt that they had no control over their lives, that “an invisible hand” was directing their destiny and the destiny of the nation.

Scholar Daniel Pipes expounded on this theme more recently with his book Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From. Pipes traces the history of conspiracy mongering from the Middle East, to Western Europe (where regular pogroms against the Jews were the result) and it’s arrival here in America with its roots in the anti-Masonic, anti-Illuminati groups of the 19th century.

Now James Piereson, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, president of the William E. Simon Foundation, and former executive director and trustee of the John M. Olin Foundation, has written a book that posits the theory that the JFK assassination “compromised the central assumptions of American liberalism” thereby devastating the left as no other event did before or has since. This led American liberals to several wrong historical conclusions which gave flight to a conspiracy culture of their own.

The book, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, is not the first effort to use the Kennedy Assassination as a starting point to show where liberalism lost its way. Theodore H. White’s brilliant autobiographical In Search of History made basically the same point; that the unfulfilled promise of the JFK presidency haunted liberals down to this day. From tragedy, there emerged a culture of paranoia that saw the “invisible hand” at work - not of Masons or Communists, but of right wing extremists both in and out of government. White also commented on the takeover of the liberal ideology - his ideology - by hard left Stalinists as New Deal Democrats like Humphrey were marginalized as a result of their support for the Viet Nam war.

John Miller interviewed Piereson for the National Review. It should be noted that Piereson is a well respected academic whose main interest over the years has been to promote an ideologically neutral atmosphere in our educational system - in other words, a “classically liberal” education. While he is generally identified as being a moderate conservative, Mr. Piereson has not been shy about taking on the right over issues such as teaching evolution in classrooms and prayer in schools.

Miller begins the interview by asking how the JFK assassination changed American politics:

JAMES PIERESON: Kennedy’s assassination, happening the way it did, compromised the central assumptions of American liberalism that had been the governing philosophy of the nation since the time of the New Deal. It did this in two decisive ways: first, by compromising the faith of liberals in the future; second, by undermining their confidence in the nation. Kennedy’s assassination suggested that history is not in fact a benign process of progress and advancement, but perhaps something quite different. The thought that the nation itself was responsible for Kennedy’s death suggested that the United States, far from being a “city on a hill” and an example for mankind, as Kennedy had described it (quoting John Winthrop), was in fact something darker and more sinister in its deepest nature.

The conspiracy theories that developed afterwards reflected this thought. The Camelot legend further suggested that that the Kennedy years represented something unique that was now forever lost. Liberalism was thereafter overtaken by a sense of pessimism about the future, cynicism about the United States, and nostalgia for the Kennedy years. This was something entirely new in the United States. It was evident in the culture during the 1960s. George Wallace tried to confront it in the electoral arena in 1968, as did Richard Nixon — though it was somewhat difficult to do so because neither Lyndon Johnson nor Hubert Humphrey represented this new orientation. It was not until this mood of pessimism was brought into the government during the Carter administration that it could be directly confronted in the political arena, which is what Ronald Reagan in fact did.

Miller challenges Piereson on the notion that 11/22/63 meant more than 9/11:

We know from looking back over the decades that Kennedy’s sudden death cast a long shadow over American life, which I have tried to describe. Many of us thought that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 would also have great consequences for the way Americans looked at politics, the parties, and national security. In particular, some felt that the attacks might drive out of our politics the tone of anti-Americanism that had been a key feature of the American Left from the 1960s forward. That did not really happen. The liberal movement today remains far more the product of the 1960s than of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath. Indeed, the terrorist attacks now seem to have had very little effect on the thinking of American liberals who view the war on terror and the war in Iraq through the lenses of the Vietnam War. That is not true of conservatives. In that sense, the terrorist attacks have simply deepened the divide between liberals and conservatives. What is surprising, then, is what little enduring effect the terrorist attacks have had, particularly for liberals.

I have written many times on this site with all the earnestness that I can muster that it is absolutely imperative that if we are going to survive as a nation and win this war against the terrorists and the states that continue to enable them, the left simply must join this fight. Until liberals embrace the notion that the War on Terror or whatever you choose to call it is real and not some political ploy designed by President Bush to win elections, or set up a dictatorship, or destroy the left itself, we have no hope of either confronting the menace or winning through to victory. The intellectual framework for the survival of the west has always been best outlined by classically liberal writers and thinkers. Today, they are missing in action and it hurts the cause terribly.

Piereson believes a large part of the problem is that the left has their eyes focused on the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza:

Liberals who were rational and realistic accepted the fact that Oswald killed JFK but at the same time they were unable to ascribe a motive for his actions. They tended to look for sociological explanations for the event and found one in the idea that JFK was brought down by a “climate of hate” that had overtaken the nation. Thus they placed Kennedy’s assassination within a context of violence against civil rights activists. They had great difficulty accepting the fact that Kennedy’s death was linked to the Cold War, not to civil rights. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in his 1,000-page history of the Kennedy administration, published in 1965, could not bring himself to mention Oswald’s name in connection with Kennedy’s death, though he spent several paragraphs describing the hate-filled atmosphere of Dallas at the time — suggesting thereby that Kennedy was a victim of the far right. The inability to come to grips with the facts of Kennedy’s death pointed to a deeper fault in American liberalism which was connected to its decline.

Gerald Posner points out in his conspiracy debunking book on the assassination Case Closed that theorists have gone to extraordinary lengths to absolve Oswald of any connection to the crime at all. He traces the theories on Oswald’s involvement from the notion that he was an assassin hired by the CIA or FBI through the “patsy” phase to where now, Oswald is thought of by many conspiracists as an innocent bystander. Anything but the truth about Oswald’s political leanings.

To be fair, it is doubtful that Oswald really understood Communism or any other ideology for that matter. He embraced it because it set him apart, made him different. And for someone as brutally neglected as Oswald was when he was young, basking in the glow of attention as a result of his contrarian political stands - especially in the Marine Corps - it must have given him an enormous amount of satisfaction.

As historian William Manchester points out in his seminal work on the assassination Death of a President, “Lee Harvey Oswald shot the President of the United States in the back to get attention.” Rather than looking for complex, multi-level reasons for why Kennedy and Oswald’s paths crossed that tragic day in Dealey Plaza, sometimes the simplest explanations are the most plausible.

Piereson weighs in on Oliver Stone’s fantasy film JFK:

The Oliver Stone movie was foolish to the extent it was held up as an account of the Kennedy assassination. Using Jim Garrison as a credible authority on the Kennedy assassination is akin to citing Rosie O’Donnell as an authority on the collapse of the Twin Towers. It is not possible to claim that Kennedy was shot from the grassy knoll without at the same time claiming that the autopsy (which said he was shot from the rear) was wrong or fabricated. The conspiracy theories do not arise from any evidence but from a need to believe that Kennedy was shot by someone other than Oswald.

Garrison, the ambitious, homophobic New Orleans DA who prosecuted Clay Shaw for the murder of JFK made Mike Nifong look like a pillar of legal rectitude. The fact that the jury returned a verdict in 45 minutes of not guilty should tell you everything you need to know about Garrison’s out of control prosecution. (One juror said after the verdict that the reason they took so long was that several jurors had to use the washroom.) Making Garrison out to be a hero in the film was perhaps the most outrageous calumny in the history of Hollywood. The damage done to the historical record by Stone should never, ever be forgotten.

Finally, Miller asks Piereson about Jack Ruby:

MILLER: Would liberals have had an easier time of it if Jack Ruby hadn’t killed Oswald?

PIERESON: If Ruby had not intervened, Oswald probably would have tried to stage some kind of “show” trial in which Kennedy’s policies in Cuba would have been raised as a central issue. Oswald proudly acknowledged that he was a Communist. If the case had been brought to trial, Oswald would have certainly been convicted. In that case, it would have been far more difficult for liberals and the Kennedy family to maintain that JFK was killed because of his support for civil rights. There would have been less talk of conspiracies; less anti-Americanism from the left; perhaps it would have further reinforced the anti-communism of post-war liberalism. There is no question that Ruby changed the equation a great deal.

Recent theories about the Mafia’s involvement in the assassination include not only Ruby as silencer but Oswald as trigger man thanks to a distant uncle of Oswald’s who worked for New Orleans crime boss Carlos Marcello. The thought of any one of those gabby losers working for the Mafia on a hit the magnitude of the Kennedy assassination is outrageous on its face. Besides, federal agents had Marcello, Sam Trafficante, and Sam Giancana - all three implicated by conspiracists in the assassination - under close surveillance for years prior to the death of Kennedy and not a word was uttered by any of them that would prove they had anything to do with the murder.

I think Piereson is right. I believe that the assassination so unbalanced the left that they have yet to find their way back. Spinning ever more fantastic conspiracy theories to explain electoral losses, describe their political enemies, and generally view the world with a suspicion and paranoia once reserved for the mouth breathers on the right, the left has truly lost their way. Perhaps it will take someone like Senator Obama - a sunnyside up sort of liberal - to reinvigorate the movement and bring it back down to earth.

And then perhaps, we can all go to war together rather than the left hanging back while seeing monsters under the bed.


  1. And the best way to facilitate the left coming back into the fold is to call them every name in the book. Everyone knows that when some one is calling you every vile and despicable name they can think of you are listening intently to their message and not thinking anything about the stream of bile.

    Comment by grognard — 6/19/2007 @ 1:31 pm

  2. It has always interested me that one of the earliest critics of the Oswald as lone assassin conclusion was Sylvia Meagher, a widow who lived in Greenwich Village and who had worked for the U.N. for a couple of decades. She was exactly the kind of liberal idealist who became disillusioned after Kennedy’s death. Her second book, Accessories After The Fact (1967)actually accused the Warren Commission members of actively covering up a conspiracy.

    BTW, Jim Garrison never appeared in the courtroom during Clay Shaw’s trial. He forced a couple of his assistants to actually try the case.

    Comment by Juan Paxety — 6/19/2007 @ 2:16 pm

  3. I think he has the wrong Kennedy. The pessimism of the left grew far more out of the assassinations of MLK and RFK than JFK.

    Comment by Steven Donegal — 6/19/2007 @ 3:08 pm

  4. Speaking of leftist conspiracy theories, the 9/11 “truthers” come to mind. I wrote about them a while back and also referenced Hofstadter’s essay:

    The Truth About 9/11 Conspiracy Theories

    My theory is that these people are unable to cope with the scary reality and so they turn to familiar demons.

    Pipes’ book, although a few years old (CSPAN recently replayed a 1996 interview with him on the subject) is also very useful. He wrote another one on the Mideast and conspiracism (his term) that’s quite apropos to today.

    Great blog, by the way. Will add you to the blogroll…

    Comment by Cinnamon Stillwell — 6/19/2007 @ 4:35 pm

  5. Interesting that you bring up some sort of bell wether notion bout the demise or shattering of Liberalism while the Rome of conservativism burns with Bush as Nero.

    Comment by the Fly-Man — 6/19/2007 @ 5:13 pm

  6. everything Grognard said, I second. The hard core conservatives have made a cottage industry out of ripping “the left” ( or anybody who doesn’t worship Bush)I don’t know what scares me worse, radical Islam or radical neo-cons. Both are nutty and dangerous.I guess I just can’t unite with a group that is CONSTANTLY questioning my patriotism. Tell ya what, when the neo-con crowd admits that Iraq was a horrible mistake, I’ll think about uniting with them. As a proud Democrat, the Rush Limbaugh wing of the gop is my mortal enemy until the day I die. Bush will burn in Hell!

    Comment by Joe Helgerson — 6/19/2007 @ 9:37 pm

  7. While Helgerson uses a little too colorful language and goes too far for my taste, I have to agree that it constantly amazes me that there is an assumption that liberals are anti-American. Kennedy’s assasination does NOT control my world view and, being in my 50s, I think I’m probably the “average” liberal out there. Liberals I know–the classic “government as a potential source of good for those in need”–are not anti-American. They may be unhappy with the direction America is going (has been taken?), but they don’t hate America. As for joining the war on terror, many liberals I know are extremely worried about the consequeces of Islamic terrorism. But few are convinced being in the middle of a civil war is the solution. One of the most liberal people I know–former head of an international NGO–worries all the time about terrorism. But he sees part of the solution in solving issues like AIDS, so that the terrorists don’t have a breeding ground in orphaned children. Or finding a way for the Palestinians to live in proximity to Israel–recognized by Israel. The list can go on, but the only solution, at least the one so vocally advocated by the conservatives, is to take up arms and fight. But fight who? We need to fight the reasons people are so desperate they will drive a truckload of explosives into a mosque, not arrest everyone who we think may want to do it someday.

    Comment by Larry your brother — 6/20/2007 @ 9:11 am


    I love the juxtaposition of a conspiracy theory and an obvious statement of geopolitical reality.

    Comment by Drongo — 6/20/2007 @ 10:04 am

  9. Very clever article, for some no doubt. Typical (Anti) Defamation League type syndicated put down. Does not deal honesty with any of the material covered, only mulling over, with a presupposed conclusion. Please let me know if you ever deal with these issues honesty. I would like to know how you explain the magic bullet, the fact JFK was very clearly shot from the front, or any of the other countless inconsistencies in the Warren cover up. Mulling over like this is not enough, when there are now countless web sites that show the truth. Argue with them, not yourself. Verbal arguments are no longer convincing. You must deal with the facts, and showing total disregard for realities, weakens everything you say.

    I give you 9 of 10 for verbal skills, 1 out of 10 for reality principle.

    Comment by Robert Francis — 6/20/2007 @ 1:02 pm

  10. @Larry your brother: “But he sees part of the solution in solving issues like AIDS, so that the terrorists don’t have a breeding ground in orphaned children. Or finding a way for the Palestinians to live in proximity to Israel—recognized by Israel.”

    Okay, I call BS! What proof is there - ANY proof - that Islamic terrorism has anything to do with AIDS, that orphaned children are a “breeding ground,” or that Palestinians would EVER give up their religious mandate to exterminate the Jews? I totally agree that world conflicts are never simple and fighting is not the only answer - and often is not the best answer - but the whole idea that Middle East conflicts would end if only the U.S. would change its foreign policies is just fantasy.

    Comment by elisa — 6/23/2007 @ 11:22 am

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