Earlier this week, while my newsfeed was full of articles and pundits decrying President Trump’s stated lack of trust in his own nation’s intelligence agencies, I was watching documentary programs on Netflix about conspiracies.
Specifically, programs about the idea that the CIA could have utilized mind control techniques developed as part of its MKUltra experiments (which is a real thing, look it up) to brainwash Sirhan Sirhan into killing presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy in 1968.
So ... about that whole “trusting your intelligence agencies” thing ...
I’m not sayin’. I’m just sayin’.
I like the idea of the grand conspiracy. I’ve always been interested in the things that are kept hidden by the powers that be, things that we aren’t supposed to believe in. I grew up not far from the part of West Virginia where the Mothman supposedly terrorized citizens in the ‘60s (connected to a fatal bridge collapse disaster). I devoured reading material about UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, and the fate of the Biblical Nephilim when I was a kid.
Now, how much stock should one put in these things? Who knows? While I think it’s unrealistic to believe we are alone in the universe, I don’t know whether little green men have visited earth or not, and I am reasonably certain there is no such thing as the Mothman (and if there is, someone get me a really big bug zapper).
But while I think it’s rational to discount the more outlandish conspiracies out there (commercial jets spraying chemtrails, lizard people taking over the planet’s most powerful offices, the earth being flatter than a flapjack), I don’t think it’s wise to dismiss all conspiracies. Specifically, those dealing in a reality that we know — powerful people will do bad things to keep their power — but ignore because the official story tells us something simpler.
In fact, tall tales about lizard people are useful to help real Sneaky Petes cover their more grounded misdeeds by convincing most folks to lump every conspiracy into the tin-foil hat club, to get away with stuff when people believe the simplest answer is always and irrefutably the best one. Occam’s razor is handy, but it isn’t fit to cut every beard.
It’s not considered crazy, for example, to question the official story on the JFK assassination, for example. Just last year, the analytical news-related site fivethirtyeight.com — which is usually in the business of predicting presidential elections, not sharing UFO sightings — published the results of a poll suggesting that 61 percent of Americans think that there was a conspiracy, and that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone in killing the president. Both Trump and Clinton voters alike were shown to believe there was more than one person involved in the assassination, showing that we have more in common these days than we might think.
Those alleged conspiratorial ties are usually traced back to the CIA somehow, or even to Kennedy’s Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Of course, then there’s the alleged CIA connection to the killing of JFK’s brother Bobby as well. And let’s not forget the FBI — another of Trump’s favorite agencies these days — who were said to be so obsessed with tracking and neutralizing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that, yeah, those three letters are going to come up in any conspiracy theory about the civil rights leader’s untimely death in 1968.
Quite frankly, if I’m Trump and I’m a controversial figure on the political stage, you better believe I’m going to have second thoughts about trusting these agencies implicitly.
Of course, these things aren’t going to be reported on in the way people who believe them might wish because there is no evidence. It’s a conspiracy, after all. A cover-up. The whole point is to prevent the action from being obvious, and the people powerful enough to pull something off have enough power to keep it hidden. So there is a story of record, and one that can only be whispered about and imagined. The official story is the one that makes it the history books. The conspiracy theory is relegated to cheaply-produced websites and other unconvincing avenues of discovery.
And as a reporter, I’ve found that the boring story is usually the correct one. I’ve heard some wild ideas from people around here about certain events or local figures, when I’ve known that the truth is far more mundane. It’s hard to fault people for preferring to imagine the good story over the lame one, though. And hey, this is just Pulaski County — things are probably much more interesting in Washington D.C., right?
This is not a column about whether or not Trump was right to do what he did — some accused him of throwing the agencies suggesting a Russian collusion to get elected under the proverbial bus while kowtowing to Russian President Vladimir Putin. You can make up your own mind about all that stuff — although I will say that I almost always favor peace over war (of either the “cold” or “hot” varieties). I’d rather get along with our fellow super powers than actively antagonize them.
But the idea that the FBI, CIA, NSA, and any other “alphabet soup” agency should always be trusted rang a little hollow to me as I turned on Netflix and indulged in theories about the proposed trickery of the past.
And hey, the “intelligence” a president gets isn’t always good information — remember those missing WMDs in Iraq? Of course, there are plenty motives to question there, from President Bush on down the line. But that part of American history shows how hard it is to trust anything we supposedly “know.”
Did Russia work in the shadows to get Trump elected? Don’t know. Can’t say. Wasn’t there. But there’s never a bad time to remind ourselves that we should always be skeptical of those with power — whether they are presidents, bureaucrats, intelligence agencies, or the head of the party planning committee at your office. They may be telling the truth ... but they don’t necessarily have your interests at heart, and power corrupts. And a little healthy distrust of those in power — power that they can wield, power that they presumably want to keep — is never a bad thing.
Now, let’s talk about the moon landing ...