Given the political impacts we’re seeing here in the U.S. from internet-driven conspiracy theories, and the prevalence of a (I mean this in the nicest way) Beatles-related conspiracy theory on this blog for the past several years, I wanted to speak a bit about this topic.
I paddled for many years in the shallows of conspiracy theories, most notably ones around the assassinations of the 60s. The big boys, the OG’s. The ones that inspired everything from QAnon to Paul is Dead. You cannot read about QAnon and not think of The Gemstone File.
(BTW, I would argue that PID is a psychological reaction to the trauma of the deaths of JFK, Malcolm X, MLK, and RFK. Maybe throw Manson in there, too. It is the Beatles story retold by a traumatized fanbase, a new myth to fit a darker, bloodier world. Trauma knocks one off-balance, and conspiracy theories are an attempt to regain balance, to reestablish an equilibrium, even a negative one.)
So much to say, I understand the appeal of conspiracy theories…and I don’t think the appeal is what is usually trotted out in the media. I think it’s much simpler, or can be, and often benign. During my Conspiracy Decades, I was not interested in alternatives to the Warren Commission because I craved knowing something secret, wanted to feel smarter than others, hadn’t been educated properly, hated/mistrusted authority, or needed a bunch of facts to fit my political beliefs. The conventional narrative of JFK’s murder fit my politics fine. I was predisposed to secrets based on some family history, but was no more “seeking answers” than any Bigfoot-curious smart kid of my era.
I became interested in alternatives to the Warren Commission after it became clear that the Warren Commission’s version of the President’s murder was crap. Why it’s crap can be debated, but it was, and is, almost comically full of holes. From whatever angle you approach the crime—and it’s important to remember that the murder of JFK is simply a crime—the Warren Commission’s version doesn’t make any sense. Motive’s unclear; means is unclear; opportunity is unclear; nothing fits together unless you force it, and all that force is itself worth noting. It’s 60 years later and there are still books coming out defending the Warren Commission’s version, which means that either 1) it’s wrong or 2) there’s this massive psychological something going on, this massive mental workaround where we can believe all manner of bullshit but can’t believe that particular story. Is that likely? Occam’s Razor says that the Warren Commission is simply wrong.
What does this have to do with McLennon, the fan community that believes John Lennon and Paul McCartney were lovers? Everything, really.
It’s in tune with the zeitgeist, sure, but McLennon has gained purchase for a simple reason: the Standard Narrative of The Beatles has some pretty substantial gaps in it. First of all, the Seventies-era idea of John and Paul as merely co-workers or competitors seems to be false, and has grown less credible as the years have passed. And second, the reasons given for the breakup just don’t ring true; “we all grew up”, “those wedding bells”—balderdash. What changed between February 1968, and June 1968 to begin the breakup of the Beatles? As with the JFK situation, the more information we get, the more the Standard Narrative seems to be ignoring or avoiding or perhaps even hiding. Darkness, plus information, spawns conspiracy theories, and bullshit is the best fertilizer of all.
This is what I received this morning, from a dedicated commenter:
Michael, I just wanted to let you know that I have a little more understanding of your distrust of “revised history,” because I’ve been reading the last few days about the Qanon conspiracy and the crazies therein, and W. T. F. That’s not the kind of thing I was connecting a “fresh look/contemporary look” at the Beatles to, but if that’s a connection you were making, then I sympathize a little more with your skepticism. 😀
(I pretty much have to cut myself off at this point from reading about conspiracy theorists for my own sanity in these trying times, but then part of me wants to shout into the void that “do your own research” does not mean “read all the crap posted by other conspiracists.)
Do I have a distrust of “revised history”? Me, who went to a—well, I guess the best way to put it is “an assassination convention”— in a Marina del Rey bowling alley in 1998? I wouldn’t say I’d call it “distrust,” but I will say that I have a profound respect for two things:
- the necessity of history’s constant revision in the face of its misuse by authority; and
- the difficult mental states that departing from traditional narratives can conjure in people.
I am no longer interested in the assassinations of the Sixties, because I eventually realized that this topic was not good for my mental health; the dislocation from the rest of society became too uncomfortable. Still, I had several sound, non crazy-pants reasons to go to that convention. First, I was interested to listen to several scholars that I’d read for years, Lisa Pease and Jim DiEugenio. These are two people of great knowledge and sound judgment that I would recommend to anybody interested in the topic; in a sensible world, they would be tenured professors, and it is precisely their ability to go wherever the data leads them, regardless of consequence, that makes them so admirable. They are obsessed with these topics just like my Yale professors were obsessed with, say, same-sex marriage in the middle ages. So I wanted to hear Pease and DiEugenio talk. Second, I wanted to see a presentation by Phil Van Praag on a recently discovered audio recording of the RFK murder, which apparently demonstrated more shots than were possible by a single assassin.
So: facts, data, scholarship.
Of late, I’ve been asking people making McLennon assertions in comments to provide links, because I want to move them away from feelings and hunches towards facts, data, scholarship. This is a mark of respect to them, but also to the men who are the topic. We have a precious few years before deepfaking makes McLennon “proof” inevitable, so now is the time when the data must emerge. If you’re interested in McLennon, go get that data, if it is to be gotten. You have a year, maybe two, left to prove it.
Writing all this, it occurs to me that it’s more than possible that some of the people at that 1998 convention are now all over the internet, spouting QAnon and chemtrails. They might even have stormed the U.S. Capitol. In fact, it seems likely. So why did I not go down that road?
When I went to that convention I had a very particular stance towards the events at hand. It was history, and it was a hobby. To the degree that it informed my worldview, it gave me a general sense that we should 1) protect Presidents and candidates, so voters’ preferences could be expressed in our democracy, and 2) that the country’s rightwing lurch in 1980 was aided by a great big hole on the center-left. My conclusion from 35 years of reading about the JFK assassination was: political violence is bad. This is the opposite conclusion from the QAnon folks and the Trumpers, and what you conclude counts for a lot.
I did not believe then, and do not believe now, that history would be fundamentally altered if we discovered without doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald was sitting in the lunchroom drinking a Pepsi when JFK was shot, and that the whole thing was a black-op run by James Angleton. Believing otherwise—one fact which alters everything like a magic spell—is a type of poisonous romance which is the opposite of history, and it is not to be trifled with. People sacrifice real things, jobs and marriages and whole lives, on the altar of their obsession. I saw it with JFK; we see it now with Capitol rioters; I want to avoid it with McLennon. So that’s why I pull back on the reins here, often. Not to stifle debate, but to move it towards a form that enriches the debaters, and ties more tightly the mutual bonds of empathy and sympathy that allows society to function.
Not that any of you asked. 🙂