Can you ever be comfortable with the truth? If you are, does it mean you haven't dug far enough?
History only ever happens one way. It can be interpreted any number of ways, but it only happens in one, potentially never totally knowable, way.
I’ve written about this before, but in my senior year of high school, I took a class called Future Studies that was supposed to be about the foresight competency model, but ended up largely being a relitigation of the Kennedy Assassination (this was 2006). In hindsight, the Kennedy Assassination and the various provable elements of the crime are emblematic of where we find ourselves as a critcally thinking society; the conspiracy isn’t fantastical, many elements are straightforwardly dissonant with the official accounting of events, and all the while, the government proceeds in the fiction that you know nothing— you know nothing, because they know nothing, “not even the shooters know who did it” as Oliver Stone puts it in one iconic scene from the film JFK.
This, however, isn’t a piece about JFK, or even really conspiracies, but somewhat about the complex relationship one must have with where they come from, or the societies they participate in, and whether or not one can still be a positive function of nature in your ecosystem, while questioning the possible fictions or half-truths that are intended to bind the people to the state, but not the other way around. You can look no further than something like the Tuskeegee experiments to understand how something that most Americans would gasp at could be totally true, yet no one will concede the state or any real sanctioned authority is doing and enabling objectively evil things— it would kill its own people, so is it truly outlandish that the intelligence apparatus and war machinery wouldn’t kill a president to perpetuate that way of conducting business when that business is almost exclusively dependent upon killing and mostly never looking the victims in the eye even once in the modern era?
The harsh reality is that the system was always exploitable, but there was a gentlemen’s agreement among its proponents and beneficiaries to use discretion to perpetuate the myth of reasoned, compassionate (whatever that means) war criminality.
This is at the core of the Trump phenomenon, just like it was during the presidency of Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon, who both pushed this boundary in their own ways, except with the added restriction of, ultimately, being of the state— not someone from the corporatist nation-state they’d created beholden to no one but their own interest. You vaguely trust these people with this power, because of institutional affiliation, the symbology of authority— you don’t trust the gameshow host, and you shouldn’t, but you shouldn’t trust anyone with that ability either.
Untangling what exactly it is being exploited, how, and why is, however, never easy, and probably never totally knowable— however shadowy something seems, if you were able to find out about it, someone made it knowable on some level. This is the thematic core of the films of Oliver Stone, and in particular Nixon (1995) and Wall Street (1986).
Nixon and Street’s antagonist, Gordon Gekko, are very much the same; they are seen as outsiders, Nixon by virtue of his birth and having become an arch politician only to be bested by a more hawkish, Ivy League educated Senator of minimal accomplishment— he becomes “Nixon” (as Anthony Hopkins, as Nixon, refers to himself in the third-person as repeatedly) in time for the 1968 election, and the rest is history. Similarly, this is Gekko’s motivation as well; in a Wall Street world where elite educations, professional networks, and firm affiliations mean everything, a new style of hyper aggressive trader (a “raider”) emerges, playing a particularly brutal version of the game. Is he more criminal than the rest of the speculative apparatus? Yes, but only on paper— arguably, what happens in the real world from the 80’s into the 2008 financial crisis, justifies the belief that the entire framework was criminally corrupt to begin with, it was the Gekkos (and the real life Milken and Boesky, for example) that became the prototypes of the next wave of institutionally-backed practices. In turn, this form of trading needed to be superseded, and it was, by the flash trading phenomenon, which itself resulted in its own criminal extremists— oddly enough, all of whom were employees of banks like Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs held accountable for the practices of the firms, and in the end, only one executive (so the only non-worker, many of whom were scapegoated) went to prison.
Stone’s ethos in these films are to take a moment in time, and in the case of both of these, from the vantage point of an intermediate point in time— they have relevance in the year they were made as a harbinger for things to come, but proof positive in 2020 that these things were not only predictible, but fed to us on a standard media diet; what was our excuse? Well, it was in the interests of the ruling class to ensure we saw these as fictions, as fantasy, not as analysis or even particularly as reality. Despite proof, despite the fallout, they are invested in making an unconscious public believe a version of events that is devoid of conspiracy because conspiracy no longer means collusion, but means something is fantastical and fringe.
Take the example of the JFK assassination again: The main motive attributed to Lee Harvey Oswald is that he wished to defect after the shooting. Their proof of this? Photos of a man who was definitely not Lee Harvey Oswald leaving an embassy in Mexico City shortly before the assassination.
Which should be odd, because we know who was arrested for the shotting a month later in Dallas. So, why is this so difficult to believe for so many that the possibility exists that there is something more to the story than the official story? Well, just like narratives around the financial crisis, around the presidencies of virtually everyone since Nixon, and the complicity of these things in their historical flashpoints, there is an interest that is not well understood, but clearly exists. This is what Stone, in these films, is attempting to work out.
"Nixon" less than a decade after proves to be an effective intensifier for the major thesis of "Wall Street", that there is no benevolent capitalism just like there is a certain type of person who seeks political power, and succeeds at it (something Nixon, himself, learned and iterated ove) -- the illusion of civility and pretense of ethics in a framework that relies on speculating with someone else's trust and resources, with minimal risk to yourself, or your institution. Specific to these roles, like I said, Gekko and Nixon are portrayed as having exploited that a system was immoral and unjust to justify behaving immorally and unjustly to blow past the old boys club of Ivy Leaguers and magnates as, in the case of Gekko, an individual investor using the speculative marketplace against itself, criminally, but relative to the criminality of who? Is he just the low-hanging fruit for regulation (not for the regulators with the unenviable task of doing the forensics required to piece together the substance of just such a conspiracy)?
If the dots aren’t connecting on this, the sequel to Wall Street (made after 2008) seems to suggest, he was simply ahead of the curve circa the 2008 crisis, in terms of what these elite institutions would go on to produce— scenes fictionalizing the real world events of the bank chairs, double dealing the public to save themselves from sanction, deciding who was to be sacrificed (metaphorically, since no one actually ever got held responsible for this); almost as if Stone is saying, “told ya” when you realize the exiled Gekko ultimately is not the most evil person in the room anymore, but was he ever really? Was he merely a symptom of what could and would metastasize in a system that relied on exploitation to begin with like the economy and our government bodies?
Litigating these matters only has limited utility, in and of itself, as an exercise in truth-seeking, but they speak to a real methodological option available to anyone to better understand the world; you can propose a hypothesis, and then test it against the available data, you can also speculate about what danger exists, and at some point in the future (as Stone does with these films, but also future presidential films, even just sociocultural films like Talk Radio) check the predictions.
“A book lying idle on a shelf is wasted ammunition.” wrote Henry Miller; I’d argue Stone, by taking on these kinds of project, even if the message doesn’t land, is wasting nothing by looking under every rock for an explanation. The motivation for doing so for him, like many of us, is an understandable one; he voted for Nixon in ‘68 on the promise of ending the Vietnam War— something he did, but for reasons that had a lot of blowback and influenced the next several decades of military and foreign policy. That this bothered Stone is relateable— would you not, for example, want to understand the system that allowed this to be the way history ends up happening? You run an experiment, and in this case, is the film not an adequate substitute for testing that prediction, and in the case of connecting the events of the two Wall Street films, and that of how history actually played out, triangulating the precision of those suggestions.
One potential problem is that Stone doesn’t have the integrity of his methods on his side. Consider the example of Harold Weisberg, author of Whitewash, a report on the Warren Report, taking issue with Stone’s intentions in the making of JFK, which is known to be an actual courtroom litigation of the events of the assassination. “To do a mishmash like this is out of love for the victim and respect for history?”, Mr. Weisberg said to The Washington Post. “I think people who sell sex [as in sexualize entertainment to enhance sales] have more principle.” Stone was putting his theories up to defense, but in airing it in this manner, he creates a marketplace of ideas created by bad thinking right up next to ones that have a great deal of integrity in how they were formed and tested- Weisberg’s text is known to rely heavily on the report’s own text in analyzing where reality deviates from the official narrative, so perhaps this is an overly conservative take on Stone’s premise (particularly because the latter charge on Weisberg’s part takes aim at consuming this as entertainment primarily), but ultimately, it does come down to, as Stone is not afraid to note, capitalism/protectionism of ruling class interests being a corrupting influence on the pursuit of the truth.
Carl Sagan had written, “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”
In the case of these films, is the film villain the problem, or is that the system exists where the only way to distinguish yourself, or for the immoral framework to evolve, is to be immoral yourself— for Gekko, it was capitalism, for Nixon it was the unwritten rules of electability, and ultimately, the grift was on us, not those subjecting themselves to these frameworks, at our expense. From one piece of a potential lead on understand world events from that point in time, a seemingly endless number of ways an official narrative that seems to serve nobody (a supposedly meritocratic economy, for example) by believing it in it wholeheartedly can be undermined for more truth to seep through. But this takes work, this takes methods, and the substance of those methods, typically, should matter a great deal more than they do, which also how we find ourselves in the place Weisberg warns of— allowing bad thinking to influence the formation of good ideas, and the corrupting influence coopts truth seeking into peddling dangerous unfounded theories that resonate, but are similarly in the interests of the corrupt and not the exploited.
Ultimately, I believe Carl Sagan to be correct— for a very long time we’ve not only normalize charlatans, but have become preferential towards them; is a voice like Stone’s, then, more or less valuable for his willingness to do the legwork at all when many simply would not? Can we balance this with, simply, better thinking around the awareness of why we might be being sold a “bamboolze” in the first place, and use that as a rational filter for what Weisberg warned about in Stone’s approach? At the end of his life, Weisberg, reflecing on his legacy said he’d be remembered as “a goddamn fool or Don Quixote.” and this is a reminder that perhaps Miller’s notion of there being a waste of knowledge if you have information available to you, accessible, and you simply choose not to consider or perceive it, let alone acknowledging such knowable unknowns exist.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:
If you’re a subscriber, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter at @jmarhee, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you a community link.