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11 November 2007

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Tennent H. Bagley

It is refreshing and heartening to get this sensible, well-informed, and articulate review in timely fashion, before the Robert Stone documentary can become accepted as new "truth" the way Oliver Stone's film "JFK" was. Max Holland sees and exposes how the documentary has the effect, intended or not, of contributing to, rather than suppressing,the virulent epidemic of conspiracy theory. Well done!

Robert Stone

ROBERT STONE RESPONDS:

While you are well deserving of considerable respect for your many years of work in digging at the truth of the Kennedy assassination, there is one critical element that I feel you have gotten fundamentally wrong, and two additional serious misjudgments. They are important and they go to the very heart of your criticism of my film, Oswald’s Ghost.

First and foremost, four decades after the assassination of President Kennedy the cultural mythology surrounding this pivotal event in our nations history borders on the theological for a whole host of very complex reasons. To fail to recognize this fact, to ignore it, or to simply wish it were otherwise is to misunderstand what is perhaps the most important and pernicious aspect of this case. Your belief that all the damage can be undone by a clever and well-presented demonstration of the facts is as naïve as it is misguided. It’s akin to attempting to deny the existence of God by searching for conclusive proof that Jesus never rose from the dead. You may be armed with the facts but you’re engaged in a thoroughly a pointless exercise. There is a truth to what happened in Dallas and it's important. But you can't simply bully, belittle and carpet-bomb those who disagree with you and expect to win any hearts and minds. We've found that out the hard way in recent years in an international situation that's not entirely dissimilar. You would do well to take note of the results.

Secondly, your apparent belief that all those who promote the idea that there was a conspiracy to kill JFK are charlatans, dissemblers, prevaricators, or just plain liars is as absurd as trying to claim that all those who assert that Oswald acted alone are de facto righteous and just. If only this debate were so neatly defined in black and white. The problem of discerning what is the difference between “the charlatan and the truth-teller", between fact and fiction, is one that confronts every American everyday on an endless stream of issues. Nobody who doesn’t devote a good chunk of their life to this can independently know what happened in Dallas, the wealth of conflicting information out there is too vast. In this, like in most things, it comes down to whom you choose to believe, or disbelieve. Allowing an audience to discern for themselves who is more credible within the context of a carefully crafted narrative is my chosen method of persuasion, and I stand by it. In screenings around the country, many viewers have at least begun to question some of their preconceptions about the assassination as a result of seeing the film. When millions of Americans see this film on PBS/American Experience or buy the DVD, I’m hopeful that it will encourage a significant number of them to begin to reassess their views, or at the very least to question some of what has become “common knowledge” about the assassination.

Thirdly, you express a remarkable distrust for the basic common sense of the American people, and for Public Television viewers in particular. This perhaps is a basic philosophical disposition that I simply don’t share with you. If someone who watches my film can’t determine the relative credibility of Mark Lane and Robert Dallek for instance, then what on earth makes you think they’ll be swayed by the hackneyed “omniscient voice of reason” you so wish I had relied upon to enlighten them? In any case, how often have the American people been sold a load of rubbish with this same authoritative tone? Certainly, American’s basic common sense has taken a holiday under particular traumatic circumstances, this being perhaps a penultimate example, but that’s part of what this film is all about. To extrapolate that the majority of Americans are a bunch of ignorant dupes seems to me to be more than a little condescending. In short, your apparent belief that you have to be an idiot to believe there was a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy flies in the face of reality. This at least does not comport with my experience in talking to hundreds of people about this over the years.

The question arises then, how do you reexamine such a pivotal event in history in a way that can begin to chip away at the mind-boggling edifice of falsehoods that surrounds most Americans understanding the assassination? More importantly, how do you engage a younger generation of Americans who simply assume, without any knowledge of (or interest in) the facts, that the Government covered-up Kennedy's assassination - or worse? One place to start, in my opinion, is to explore and to explain the history of these ideas. How did they arise? Who propagated them? How did they take root? Why were they so widely embraced? What impact have they had? In this context, people like Mark Lane and Josiah Thompson are historical figures, regardless of what you may think of them and regardless of whether or not what they have to say is factually correct. Rightly or wrongly, their views contributed to how a great many Americans came to perceive the assassination of JFK.

You go to great lengths in chastising me for "empowering" Mark Lane and "rehabilitating" Josiah Thompson (I thought I just interviewed them) without bothering to even mention, except in distant a footnote, that the film prominently features interviews with conspiracy critics like Robert Dallek, Dan Rather, Hugh Aynesworth, Todd Gitlin and Priscilla McMillan. Didn’t I empower or rehabilitate any of them as well? I don’t think mentioning this important fact to your readers would have undermined the thrust of your critique, which I think is misguided for other reasons, but your failure to do so, I’m sorry to say, betrays a certain disingenuousness in the presentation of your argument.

Your dismissive claim that I have nothing new to say is also as inaccurate as it is insulting. Please point out any documentary film that has explicitly taken on the subject of the impact of the conspiracy theories on American political culture. I can't think of a single one. Is there a book on the subject? If so I can't think of one that does much more than mention it in passing. There have been articles and academic papers that deal with this (some by you) but that's about it. For the vast majority of Americans, discussion about the Kennedy assassination has been reduced to a mind-numbing debate over bullet trajectories and forensics or vague notions of conspiratorial collusion by the a veritable laundry list of evil-doers.

You state (wrongly) that the premise of my film is that it’s not important to establish a position on the assassination in order to make a film about it. I couldn’t disagree more. I can’t imagine making a film about this or anything else without taking a position on it. You then go on to admit, rather reluctantly, that I do indeed establish my position on the assassination but then belittle it by saying that “the damage is already done” by the time I get around to it. That I get around to collapsing the conspiracy theories throughout the entire last third of the film is reduced in your mind to a “contemporary conceit” and “fashionable nonsense.” This not so subtle attempt to peg me as a “politically correct” relativist simply doesn’t hold up. Only one reviewer has claimed that I fail take a stand on the assassination (it features prominently in a Google search) but that reviewer never even saw the film – he couldn’t have as his review was published days before the film was first screened and no advance copies of it were ever given out. So this idea that the film lacks a position is nothing more than recycled hogwash.

Finally, in a rather strange twist of logic, you attack me for being unfair to Jim Garrison because he's dead and can't defend himself. Garrison is the major target of scrutiny in my film not because I’m too timid to take on anyone who’s alive, but because of the way he was mythologized in Oliver Stone's "JFK", as well as for the fact that his investigation launched a thousand conspiracy theories that form the basis for much of the contemporary mythology surrounding the case. Far more Americans today were influenced by Oliver Stone's depiction of Jim Garrison than by anything Mark Lane or Josiah Thompson ever wrote. Moreover, I had cinematically clear and compelling evidence that he was a fraud. Have others employed the similar methods? Of course. But Garrison was more than just a private citizen writing a book. He was a public official conducting an official inquiry. This and many other things puts him in a class by himself and thus warrants the special scrutiny we afforded him.

Ultimately this film, like nearly all of my films, attempts to persuade the audience to make an effort to think more critically, to question dogmatic and politically correct assumptions, and to discern (without the aid of an “omniscient voice of reason”) the difference between the truth-teller and the charlatan. This, to me, is the essential first step on the long road to recovering our history.

Max Holland

When I intend to review a book or a film, I steer clear of other people's comments. I purposely did not read anything about the film, except the PR material, before seeing it and writing the review. For Stone to suggest otherwise . . . well, that is hogwash.

Marc Schneider

Presenting Mark Lane and the other crackpots in what is ostensibly a serious documentary and then claiming that your intent is to "persuade the audience to think more critically ..." is pure crap. That would be like doing a piece on travel and having people from the Flat Earth Society. The fact that a lot of people accept them is no reason to present their views as reputable theories. Like it or not, this lends credibility to these people that they don't deserve. I guess one argument would be that they will discredit themselves but that is unlikely, given the lack of knowledge most people have about this subject. The fact is, many people do not have the ability or time to deconstruct a crackpot theory. Thus, many took Oliver Stone's movies as a factual analysis of the assassination even though it was primarily a means for funneling Stone's totally unsubstantiated belief that JFK was killed because he would have withdrawn from Viet Nam.

Mel Ayton

If Robert Stone had spent any real time debating these conspiracy buffs during the making of his documentary his conclusions about them – i.e. they are not all charlatans, dissemblers, prevaricators and plain liars – may have been different. I would conclude - having debated many in my time - that every one of them has, in some way, distorted history and they did it knowingly. When exposed to incontrovertible facts they simply move the argument in a different direction and avoid dealing with the overwhelming evidence which puts Oswald outside any plausible conspiracy theory.

One of the most significant comments made by Mark Schneider (above) was his observation that the public do not have the ability or the time to deconstruct crackpot theories. I would add that even the mainstream media do not have within their ranks any editor or journalist who has the knowledge or background experience to challenge any theory that has come their way. The result has been a constant resurrection of Mark Lane’s original ludicrous theories which are then presented to the public as ‘plausible’ explanations for JFK’s death.

Max Holland is right. It is high time the American media put an end to this gross distortion of history which endlessly gives some form of respectability to crackpots who profit from the JFK conspiracy industry.

Pat Speer

This review and its responses are incredibly ironic. Are people blind to the hypocrisy inherent in claiming that documentary film-makers making films about controversial issues should refuse to present both sides of the issue, and then claiming that every person arguing one of the sides "distorted history and they did it knowingly"?

Is not making such a blanket statement about others itself a distortion of history? I am a conspiracy theorist and I consider myself as patriotic, if not more patriotic, than any of the many single-assassin theorists I have encountered. America represents an ideal: a search for a just society. It's hard to see how issues can be resolved when one of the sides of an issue, a side representing over 70 percent of the population, is effectively excluded from the discussion.

Steve Sailer

John O'Sullivan recently offered an insightful explanation of the political and cultural significance of Kennedy conspiracy theories.

In the January 14, 2008 issue of The American Conservative, JO'Sullivan, who wrote about the failed 1981-1984 assassinations attempts on Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher in his 2006 book "The President, The Pope, and the Prime Minister," reviews James Pierseon's new book "Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism." The review isn't online, but I'll quote from it:

"Piereson's first original (and brilliant) insight is his recognition that what transformed American politics was not the assassination itself but how it was interpreted.

"Kennedy was slain by a devout communist, one-time defector to the Soviet Union, and admirer or Fidel Castro who had kept in touch with Soviet diplomats after returning home from the USSR and was trying to re-defect to Cuba. A common-sense interpretation of the crime would have portrayed Kennedy as an anti-communist martyr of the conservative cause in the Cold War. Such a view would have made the Cold War -- rather than civil rights -- the central issue in U.S. politics... But such an account would have also been contrary to the emerging "spirit of the age," which dictated to commentators a very different analysis.

"Before anyone knew the identity of Kennedy's assassin, his death was at once and widely attributed in media speculations to 'extremists' and 'bigots' on the Right. ... But that conviction hardly changed once it became known that the assassin was a communist. To be sure, the newspapers dug into Oswald's career as a defector very thoroughly. But the editorials and opinion columns, their television equivalents, and the comments of the liberal and cultural leaders repeatedly and passionately blamed the assassination on something called 'extremism.'... It soon became conventional wisdom that all Americans bore a share of the blame for the bigotry, intolerance, and hate that had struck down the president. John F. Kennedy in death became a martyr for the cause of civil rights -- a cause to which in life he had shown a prudent political coolness. ...

"Piereson's second great contribution is to establish that Mrs. Kennedy herself, in the very depths of her grief, was signally responsible for inventing and spreading this misinterpretation and lifting it to the level of myth.

... These questions were answered when Mrs. Kennedy learned that the lone Oswald had killed her husband. She then complained, "He didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It had to be some silly little communist. It even robs his death of any meaning."

"Even before the misinterpretation had become current, she had intuitively grasped both its main features and the unfortunate fact that reality did not quite measure up to them. In her arrangements for the funeral and her selection of those speaking at the various memorial services, she ensured that the misinterpretation would be the dominant theme. Finally, by dictating to Theodore White the story that Kennedy had often ended his day listening to songs from his favorite musical, "Camelot," and by insisting that it must remain in White's article over the skepticism of his editors at Life magazine, she lifted the misinterpretation to the level of myth...

"Extended to the present, these trends have produced a cultural atmosphere in which the 20th-century political figures most admired by readers of Vogue and Vanity Fair would probably be Che Guevara and Martin Luther King. Observers attentive to purely political signs -- votes, laws, opinion polls -- were inevitably late to notice this cultural shift. But a woman of fashion, who was also politically knowledgeable, was able to sense it from the surrounding atmosphere. ...

"To their surprise, however, as the radicals [in the late 1960s] rushed forward with their battering rams, the liberals opened the gates and surrendered. How could they resist? If America had killed Kennedy, then liberalism was merely a smiley face painted on a System of racist and sexist oppression. ... For a decade or so after November 1963, liberalism and its institutions were convulsed by disputes, entering the maelstrom as pragmatic, patriotic, and problem-solving bodies, and emerging from it as perfectionist, utopian, anti-American ones, secretly anxious to punish the American majority for its sins rather than solve its problems."

Daniel Robillard

It seems that saying all conspiracy theorists are disingenuous etc is an absurd generalization. Lyndon Johnson himself said there could have been foreign involvement in JFK's assassination during a conversation with Walter Cronkite. Does it seem logical that he was distorting history? This was a very informed man. He may simply have been commenting on something he had lived through and thought about.

Do you feel that one's IQ is linked somehow to their belief in the magic bullet theory? Again, Johnson himself thought that the magic bullet theory was wrong as did Senator Russell who was on the Warren Commission. A logical person could come to the conclusion after reviewing the facts, that the government at that time was trying to cover up the appearance of a conspiracy for purposes unknown. There is so much evidence to suggest
that the official investigation was slanted towards Oswald's guilt. I think it would be narrow minded not to accept the possibility of others being involved.
Not every conspiracy theory is plausible but neither is three shots from the 6th floor. It is small wonder only 3 in 10 American's believe the official story.

Max

I've posted your comment as written, but in answer to your observations, you might want to read "The Assassination Tapes" and "Hearing a Wrong Leaning, Er, Meaning" on the website.

The former explains why LBJ believed in a conspiracy against the evidence; the latter explains why LBJ's criticism of the single-bullet conclusion was not really grounded in any familiarity with the evidence.

As a general proposition, your first sentence is true. But then one must deal with the specific facts. My dismissals of conspiracy-mongering are not philosophical
propositions, but are arrived at after researching and weighing the facts.

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