Friday, April 21, 2017

"Yeah we did that. That was totally us."

Ion Mihai Pacepa claimed that the KGB was behind Oswald's assassination of JFK. 
Pacepa said that "among the leaders of Moscow's satellite intelligence services there was unanimous agreement that the KGB had been involved in the assassination of President Kennedy", and that KGB fingerprints are all over Lee Harvey Oswald and his killer Jack Ruby.
In 2007, Ivan R. Dee published Pacepa's book Programmed to Kill: Lee Harvey Oswald, the Soviet KGB, and the Kennedy Assassination in which he asserts that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered the assassination of Kennedy, then changed his mind but was unable to stop Oswald. The work was said to rely heavily on the work of the Warren Commission, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, and Edward Jay Epstein.
Those of us who have grown tired of grassy knolls and conspiracy theories tend to reject this sort of thinking with a wince and a shaking of the head. Something in us just says Look, Oswald acted alone and he was going to do this anyway.  Whatever contact he had with the KGB was not the deciding factor.  They are just claiming this after the fact, puffing out their chests that they caused it.  Easy to say now. Yet really, how do we know?  Our tiredness is not relevant data.  Might they have been slightly responsible?  The idea was to take the pressure of Castro in Cuba, and that seems to have happened.  If they encouraged him at akey time, a vulnerable moment, might their intervention have been decisive?  We can't replay history.  We can't know. We lean against because it just seems ridiculous, not right.

In the taking of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, both sides seem to have subsequently overestimated the number of defenders killed by a factor of two, or even three.  Why? Well, the Christians invading wanted to intimidate with what powerful, unstoppable dudes they were.  The defenders wanted to portray them as heartless slaughterers of innocents.  So both exaggerated.  Yeah, we did that. This has an echo in more modern times of the CIA claiming to have installed the Shah in Iran in 1953.  Yeah, we did that.  That was totally us. Puffing out of chest, warning shot across the bow to other nations who might want to think twice before messin' with US. The opponents of the Shah agreed, and resented it, harboring that anger for decades and holding it against America to this day.

Yet when you look at the actual events, they weren't much.  Paid for some cartoons in newspapers already sympathetic to the Shah.  Funded some rent-a-mob action in protests. So...both sides agree that this was enough to topple a government?  That it might not work 99 times out of 100, but in the hands of skilled subversives like the CIA, putting pressure in at just the right time and place worked?

I think if you allow for the possibility of the CIA cleverly playing its cards in 1953 you have to at least allow for the possibility that the KGB accomplished a much smaller act of persuasion in 1963. We might decide that one is true and the other false on other grounds, but the foundational idea, on which 99% of Americans base their opinion, should be the same flowing each way. However, 99% of Americans would agree with one and reject the other. Yet when you burrow down, that seems to be largely feeling, impression. We have piles of new information since the original opinions were formed, but that hasn't moved the dial an inch.

You know how I feel about that.

I use this to set the table for an interesting essay about Gramscian Damage.  I would have read it as recently as ten years ago with nothing but contempt.  Don't be ridiculous.  Those things were going to happen anyway.  Powerful intellectual currents had been moving for decades, based not only on prejudices but on real information. If KGB disinformation had never occurred we would have ended up in the same place. Academics came to those ideas because they are essentially right, essentially more solid than the jingoist fantasies of grade-school textbooks. Well, I still have an initial reaction in that direction, because my intellectual training taught me to scoff at this ages ago.  CPUSA and other groups affected nothing, they were just hapless dreamers - and half of them were FBI informants anyway. Yet let's take this out one circle farther.  Shall we say that communists in general, marxists of any stripe had no effect on mid-20th C Western thought, descending down to the present day?  Well no, it would be hard to claim that with a straight face.  Even academics who don't consider themselves at all marxist subscribe to a great many ideas Raymond lists.

So if disinformation agents did exist, and some recognisable names in the academy trace to them, was there some effect?  I would have thought the encouraging on non-representational art in public spaces in order to undermine patriotism* to be one of those wild ridiculous theories of cranks, suitable for those Russian guys who wore bad suits and stupid hats in the Cold War, thinking they were Big Kahunas in the intellectual world when they were just cranks.  It's a crank theory.  It just feels that way.

Inconveniently, however, that is how things turned out.

So, see if you can get to normal in evaluating Eric Raymond's essay.  Is there anything to it?  Did the KGB exert some influence on Western thought in these ways?  5%, 25%?  Would everything have been just the same without them, and the communist thinkers in the West that they funded and encouraged?

Here's what I've learned in the past decade that leads me to give more credence to this unlikely-looking idea than I would have: we know a lot more about how irrational we all are in how we reach opinions for social reasons, and defend them for psychological ones.  I have repeatedly claimed that liberals are far more suspect on the former (I think liberals and conservatives are about even-up on the latter.  Hell, that's really a human-nature downfall, says I).  Academics have never been unanimous in their opinions, but they have in the main been greater slaves of fashion than the readers of Vogue. The rest of us aren't much better, so we needn't give ourselves much credit.  Evangelical Christians have certainly had their fashions and been swift to punish those who didn't get the message that hats are in this year. Trumpism has elements of being the fashion that is out-of-fashion, so stick it, I think for myself!

Well, that's another day.  For the moment, I'm looking at the influence, by many paths, of intentional disinformation on our current thought.

*The Soviets didn't use non-representational art, BTW, and they seemed to stay aloof from revolution for decades, defying economic gravity.  Perhaps irrelevant.


james said...

IIRC Chesterton wrote about some of these memes--pre-Stalin. Some of these ideas were around already, but it does appear that the Soviets did their best to amplify them. I think the true movers and shakers in this are a little more clever than we humans, though.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Excellent point, and others have traced the poison back to Rousseau.

jaed said...

A rudder is small. compared to a ship's bulk. The ship already has a lot of momentum, but nonetheless you can profoundly influence its direction by applying a relatively small amount of energy, especially if you take advantage of the direction it's already headed to apply a different vector.

I don't actually know how much the Soviets did in this regard, but I'm not that skeptical about the ability—given skill, luck, and timing—to profoundly influence cultural development with a lot of small, coordinated efforts over decades. It may or may not have happened, but it seems obviously possible to me. First you influence people to take what's fashionable as a determinant of what's good and worth paying attention to; then you gain influence over a critical mass of tastemakers; then you inject concepts into the culture that successively weaken it. If choose your memes well, you can get many more people to echo your ideas, for their own reasons—moral amour-propre, feeling as though they're in the in-group, and so on.

Regarding the Kennedy assassination, I may have mentioned before that I didn't realize until I was in my 20s that Oswald was a Communist. What I was taught in school, what I read, what people talked about... just never mentioned this (one would think rather important) fact. I had the impression he was some sort of hateful right-winger or conservative extremist.

Then, when I learned a little about his history—his membership in CPUSA, his defection, his m arriage to a Russian woman, his return—it occurred to me how very strange it was, that there was apparently no conspiracy theory involving the Soviet Union. I mean, you'd think it would be the first thing to occur to anyone. It was the height of the Cold War. The President of the United States was killed by someone who clearly sympathized and adhered to our enemy in that war, even going so far as to move there. He had (obviously) been available to/under the influence of the Soviet government. And yet as far as I can tell, "the Russians did it!" was never a thing at all. The popular movies, the books, the muttered asides in newspaper columns... if there's a conspiracy theory, it involves internal enemies. The CIA killed him. The Council on Foreign Relations. A conspiracy of the rich. No one talks about the Russkies.

And yet that is not only a plausible conspiracy theory, it's the one that's obvious and sitting right under everyone's nose!

I have kind of a hard time accounting for that without positing some sort of deep cultural leverage on the part of someone who preferred that "The Soviets killed Kennedy" not become a widely-held view.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ jaed - there is also Jonathan Haidt's analogy of the elephant and rider.

The impression that Oswald was somehow a right-winger was a masterful creation. No arguments were made, just the recitation of well, Texas...Marines...gun...

Jackie Kennedy said very soon after the assassination that she didn't want Jack to be remembered as having just been shot by a dirty little communist. The word "Camelot" was not used until after he died. It wasn't just liberal bias, it was also a national grief reaction that chose to allow royalty its prerogative of how the narrative would unfold.

jaed said...

Hmm. The smear against Texas was a bonus, now that I think about it. Politically useful. Divisive.

Your point about Jackie is well-taken and brings up a different issue, which is that a wise propagandist takes advantage of trends and memes that are already there, enhancing the favorable ones (such as, arguendo, Jackie's preferences plus media willingness to abide by them), while muting the unfavorable. The subtle ways for the Soviet Union to have influenced culture like this would also be the most effective ways... but they're also the hardest to tell from what naturally would have happened anyway.

It wasn't hard for me to look at our culture in the wake of 9/11 and see something badly wrong. The repeated cries of "But why do they haaaaate us?" and the eagerness to ferret out and display causes reminded me very much of a battered wife who keeps looking for ways she could have avoided the beating. "Well, if dinner hadn't been late... Well, if I'd been more understanding... Well, if I hadn't snapped at him a week ago, he's very sensitive..." Or the delusions that accompany clinical depression.

It's tempting to say that something like that—the self-blame reflex, the mindset that whenever anything goes wrong in the world it's America's fault, the frantic search for "root causes" that can be attached to some misdeed of your own country—can't hit an entire culture without someone doing it to you. But I don't know.

RichardJohnson said...

I have read several Oswald-related books recently- DeLillo's Libra, Mailer's Oswald's Tale, Mallon's Mrs. Paine's Garage, Jean Davison's Oswald's Game. All but Davison's book were novels. I can't say that I am any wiser for having done so. Before reading those books, my unproven hunch was that Castro did it, in retaliation for all the assassination attempts on him. But if that were the case, there was a lot of misdirection regarding Oswald's visit to the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City. But if the Cubans did it, it would have made more sense for them to have had contact with Oswald only in the US- and not have the red flag of Oswald's visit to the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City.

From what I have read about Oswald, he seemed too erratic a person for the KGB to use as an operative.

John Barron's Operation Solo is about Morris Childs, who for 17 years acted as the CPUSA's liason with Moscow while reporting back to the FBI all he had seen and heard. Childs had known Suslov, the Kremlin's eminence grise, back in the '30s when he spent time in Moscow in a training course. Childs visited Moscow not long after the Kennedy assassination. The Russians were vehement in telling Childs that they had nothing to do with it. The Russians didn't realize that Childs understood Russian, but Childs saw no contradiction between what was said in Russian and what was translated into English about the Kennedy assassination.

The way Texas got smeared for a Marxist killing a President was a masterpiece of deception.

Is it possible that someone is lying about what happened? Yes, indeed. Which is why fiction gets written about it.

Uncle Bill said...

I had the same experience as you - I was very surprised to belatedly find out that Oswald was a communist. It was well-known by those in power, but hardly reported at all. I think the fact that a Democrat president was killed by a communist caused some sort of mental short circuit in a lot of liberals, and they were grasping at any straw to avoid having to deal with this fact. I can sort of understand it at the time, but by now you would think it would be a lot more widely known and understood.