Given the trustworthiness of government news sources – of government anything – why does burden of proof lie with people who say those sources are wrong? Consider Megyn Kelly’s interview with Alex Jones, where controversy after Sunday’s broadcast circles around Jones’s advocacy of so-called conspiracy theories. I should say to start, before we analyze social and psychological qualities of public criticism, that I don’t like to listen to Jones. I don’t want to spend time with people who put on airs, or with people who are boorish. Jones, obviously, is in the latter category. His show, Infowars, feels like relentless propaganda. We hardly need more of that.
Megyn Kelly can challenge Jones as she likes. She’s the interviewer, and Jones agreed to appear on her show. Both people in the conversation can say what they think. What’s interesting to me is that you see a headline at Newsweek.com, “ALEX JONES REFUSES TO APOLOGIZE FOR SANDY HOOK CONSPIRACY THEORY.” Why don’t we see a similar headline, “RICHARD CHENEY REFUSES TO APOLOGIZE FOR 9/11,” or, a few generations ago, “DWIGHT EISENHOWER REFUSES TO APOLOGIZE FOR ALLEN DULLES”? These ‘apologize’ headlines become tiresome.
More interesting, and less tiresome, are accusations that conspiracy theories are dangerous. I don’t remember anyone saying, in the 1950s or 1960s, that Allen Dulles was a dangerous person, though you would have a hard time now finding anyone who would say he was anything but a dangerous sociopath. The same goes for people who said the Warren Report was just a whitewash to protect the CIA, and all the other people who wanted Kennedy dead. In the 1960s, people who questioned the Warren report, like Jim Garrison, were called dangerous. Now they’re called patriots, and we wonder how we could possibly have maligned them so much.
For a school shooting that looks like a mass casualty drill, we need someone more well spoken than Alex Jones to speak up for those children and their families in Newtown. We need people like James Douglass and David Ray Griffin to explain, point by painful point, why things happened the way they did. No one needs to lead with the word ‘hoax’, especially not in this environment. In our heated political discourse, we need people who argue at a lower temperature.
So why do mainstreamers so readily call conspiracy theories dangerous? I can think of only one reason at the moment. They believe these theories discredit people who ought to carry authority. They believe that if too many people believe these theories, it could plunge the country into a highly dangerous situation. As J. Edgar Hoover said about Kennedy’s murder shortly before the Warren report came out, “If I told you what I really know, it would be very dangerous to the country. Our whole political system could be disrupted.” The same cautionary attitude appears to hold now: if we cannot find a way to suppress crazy conspiracy theories, the country might not recover from what would follow.
We see before us what happens when you do try to suppress people like Jim Garrison and David Ray Griffin. You bring on exactly the conditions you want to prevent: a total, absolute loss of confidence in people whose credibility you wish to preserve. You want to take those officials by the lapels and shout straight at them, “No one believes you!” “Why not?” they ask. “Because you don’t tell the truth!” When public officials lie about who killed the president, or when they point at destruction of WTC 7 and say, “That was not controlled demolition,” what do you expect people’s reaction to be? Do you expect them to believe you? About anything?
People who dismissed Jim Garrison as an unhinged prosecutor proved far more dangerous to our republic than Garrison or any other conspiracy theorist at the time could possibly have been. The same goes for every other political crime in our history, before or after November 22, 1963. I’d go a step further to recommend this principle of non-dismissal – of live and let live – as a primary source of safety for all in the public sphere – whether or not theorists who hold unusual views have the whole truth, part of it, or no part at all. Everyone has to feel safe in giving voice to doubts, alternate explanations, hypotheses that may appear dubious, and any other ideas that may lie outside the mainstream.
When you call certain ideas dangerous, you invite others to lay the same label on you. You can never guarantee your own safety for long, if you rely on mainstream currents of opinion to protect you. Robespierre laid out thousands of accusations against every enemy of the state he could imagine before he lost his own head. He called his council of accusers the Committee of Public Safety.
Do you want to wait for the day when someone like Alex Jones can say, “I told you so,” or do you want to decide for yourself which accounts feel most credible to you? People do not want to admit that gut instincts or movements of the heart affect their judgments, least of all their political intuitions, but these human elements take their place alongside rational, evaluative methods when you decide complex matters. Nevertheless, you do not need to let some kind of dramatic face-off between two aggressive journalists decide matters for you. Other sources exist, and you do in fact have the ability to make decisions for yourself.
Praise goes to those who decided for themselves after snipers opened fire on Jack Kennedy’s limousine in Dallas. Praise to those consistent critics who did not back down for fifty years. They conducted themselves with grace, decade after decade, while people who turned out to be wrong attacked and ridiculed them. That should be a lesson now, when we heatedly say critics of official accounts pose a danger to everyone else. Why after all is that kind of an accusation a rational response to people who ask us to consider another point of view? When you lay an accusation that someone’s views are dangerous, you say more about yourself than you might think. You suggest some views, and people who voice them, do not deserve protection.