A Wilderness of Delusion

I recently finished watching Marc Smerling’s docuseries A Wilderness of Error on the FX network. This series is based on the book of the same name by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, published in 2012. The book relates the case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted in 1979 of brutally murdering his pregnant wife and two little girls when the family lived on-base at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, one cold and rainy night in February of 1970. MacDonald was a captain in the Green Berets at the time.

It’s an amazing story, in that it’s particularly amazing that anyone has ever believed that MacDonald could possibly be innocent. And yet Federal appeals courts have heard MacDonald’s case in the years since his conviction on several occasions, whenever some supposedly game-changing new evidence came to light. Appeals related to the case have even ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court—-twice. It is in fact the most litigated and longest running criminal case in U.S. history.

But every alleged piece of new evidence that prompted another appeal by MacDonald and his lawyers always related to the same old discredited story that the convicted family annihilator has been peddling from the very beginning: That a band of drugged out hippies forced their way into the townhouse where the MacDonalds were residing and butchered the family as they chanted, “Acid is groovy; kill the pigs.” (That little flourish in MacDonald’s tale would be laughable if not for the immensely tragic circumstances.) Colette MacDonald and little Kristen and Kimberly were all viciously stabbed and beaten multiple times, while the crazed hippies apparently left MacDonald with only a handful of wounds that were mostly superficial, with the sole exception of a neat, sharp puncture in his chest that collapsed one of his lungs.

I have not read the book but from what I understand Morris seemed strongly inclined at the time of its publication to believe that MacDonald is innocent; he seems much more reticent and ambivalent in the new TV series.

One of his best known documentary films is The Thin Blue Line, released in 1988. The film covers the case of Randall Dale Adams, who was convicted of murdering a police officer in Texas and subsequently sentenced to death. In the course of making the film, not only did Morris discover that Adams was innocent, but that the young man who had actually committed the crime testified against Adams at the trial, helping to convict him. The appalling miscarriage of justice makes for a compelling story. Adams was eventually released from prison and spared the electric chair at very near the 11th hour, in large part due to Morris’ film.

But if Morris has been obsessing over the MacDonald case since the early 1990s, as he says he has, then surely it must have dawned on him at some point that Jeffrey MacDonald is no Randall Dale Adams. The only person who has ever ventured to suggest that she could possibly corroborate MacDonald’s story, a very troubled young woman named Helena Stoeckley, proved to be wildly unreliable. Though she had reportedly told several people that she may have been in the MacDonald home that fateful night and witnessed the carnage herself, upon taking the stand during the 1979 trial she denied ever being there, much to the dismay of defense attorney Bernie Segal. (Smerling’s fascinating companion podcast to the series, Morally Indefensible, provides additional background not included in the FX series that casts even more doubt on Stoeckley’s initial claims.)

Since the marauding-band-of-drug-crazed-hippies story consistently falls apart under just a modicum of serious scrutiny, that leaves only one possibility as to who is the guilty party: Dr. MacDonald. It is tragically obvious. That someone as smart and educated as Errol Morris could seriously believe otherwise is a testament to the limits of human intelligence. Intelligence is often compromised by belief, and we are all vulnerable.

My wife and I once attended a talk given by Morris at the Music Box Theater in Chicago about two and a half years ago. He was not promoting a film at the time, but another book, The Ashtray: Or the Man Who Denied Reality. The book is highly critical of the theories of the famous philosopher of science Dr. Thomas Kuhn, under whom Morris had studied for awhile at Princeton University.

At one point in the evening, the discussion turned to politics. Morris informed his audience that he fully expected Donald Trump to launch a nuclear first-strike on North Korea. Granted, this was during the time of Trump’s rabid “fire and fury” tweets aimed at the Hermit Kingdom, but it also happened to play into the absolutely worst assumptions that his blue state audience had regarding Trump. It was a little too simplistic, this mutually reassuring belief Morris and his audience shared that night, and it turned out to be incredibly wrong. Not only was Morris’ morbid and apocalyptic prediction mistaken, but it turned out to be the exact opposite of what Trump actually did, which was to sit down and talk to Kim Jong-Un face-to-face. That approach was a very far cry from slaughtering the people of North Korea with nuclear fire.

But that didn’t matter at all, of course, for the historic summit that occurred, with its signed agreement for more peaceful relations between the two countries, then conveniently served as a yet another example of Trump’s ongoing affection for totalitarian dictators. But at least everyone has reverted back to their typical apathy toward the U.S.-North Korean relationship ever since it slipped back into its usual bellicosity.

However misguided Morris may be in the views that he may (or may no longer) hold regarding the case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, he at least deserves credit for encouraging his audience to question their assumptions, and to remind them that the truth is usually not so easily gained.

A Wilderness of Error is imminently watchable, suspenseful, and fraught with dramatic tension throughout, and told through the eyes of memorable real-life characters—-some of them tragically so. This kind of soul searching, however, may be put to much better use than speculating on the decades long, overly indulged protestations of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.

Brendan O’Neill Doesn’t Want You to Talk About Conspiracy Theories

I have a new piece up at Medium.com offering my own theoretically conspiratorial take on the recent death of multi-millionaire financial guru and alleged teen sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. I speculate in the piece as to what people should really be focusing on in regards to Epstein’s mysterious life, never mind his death.

While poking around the internets during the writing, I came across this piece on the Epstein conspiracy theory mill by the British political commentator Brendan O’Neill of Spiked-Online. In it, O’Neill derides the open discussion of conspiracy theories.

I’ve always liked O’Neill. He is, as I like to say with my tongue in my cheek, one of my favorite commies. He’s one of the small handful of pundits who can actually scribble genuinely critical and logically coherent opinion pieces in this age of emotion-driven, brain-clouded hyperbole. And he’s always been a fearless advocate of completely free and unfettered speech. But I’ll have to respectfully take some issue with him on this one.

He starts off deriding the popular meme circulating through the right-wing web that the Clintons had Epstein murdered. Fair enough. It is indeed a theory entirely lacking in evidence. I make no such claim in my own piece. For what it’s worth, I think Occam’s Razor dictates that the creep did indeed hang himself. He wasn’t murdered by the Clintons or anyone else.

But O’Neill then goes on a rant against the discussion of conspiracy theories in general. My criticism is that he treats all of them equally.

Yes, many, if not most, of the conspiracy theories out there are batshit-crazy. Where did the whole “Clinton body count” meme even come from? So far as I can tell, it originated with the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Clinton Chronicles videos that he peddled on late night TV in the early to mid-1990s. Falwell tosses around all sorts of dark rumors about the Clintons, including accusations that they had various enemies murdered in Arkansas during Bill’s 12-year reign as that state’s governor.

So far as I’ve ever been able to tell, the foundation of Falwell’s rumor mill was laid by the infamous case of the double-murder of the two teenaged “boys on the tracks” in Arkansas during the 1980s. Journalist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard documents a solid circumstantial case in his book The Secret Life of Bill Clinton (terrible title, fascinating read) that the county prosecutor at the time, Dan Harmon, was involved in the boys’ murder and subsequent cover-up. The two murdered boys, Kevin Ives and Don Henry, may have stumbled upon a nighttime drug deal that involved Arkansas state or local law enforcement officers. This occurred during the same time that the infamous CIA operative Barry Seal was trafficking cocaine into the Mena, Arkansas airport as part of the “Iran-Contra” operation. Harmon was eventually arrested for dealing drugs some years later.

Though there’s no evidence to implicate the Clintons in the boys’ murder, Harmon was definitely a connected political player at the time who was jacked into the Clintons’ Arkansas machine. Thus, I suspect, the “Clinton body count” meme was born.

Anyway, everybody knows that the only person the Clintons actually had murdered was Vince Foster.

But I digress. What was I talking about? Oh, right. Conspiracy theories, and how Brendan O’Neill thinks discussing them is bad. They’re bad, says O’Neill, because the people who buy into them deprive themselves and others of agency. They become convinced that everyone is secretly manipulated by dark, sinister forces. They’re anti-democratic because they ultimately pacify people. Why bother organizing for any kind of change if the dark conspiratorial forces always prevail?

Pish. Posh.

Such people as O’Neill singles out for eating up the most absurd nonsense are the most easily duped who will believe almost any hysterical nonsense that Alex Jones shouts into his camera. (Ironically, such people now include, as O’Neill points out, members of the establishment liberal “intelligentsia”, who continue to insist that Vladimir Putin used voodoo social media ads to elect Donald Trump president.)

That doesn’t mean that mature adults can’t entertain the possibility that there really are people–in government, high finance, or otherwise endowed with enormous political privilege–who really do get up to some genuinely shady shit from time to time. Do they “control the world”? Nobody controls the world. But do these aforementioned privileged fucks occasionally get away with fucking over people less politically endowed than themselves? Absolutely.

The killer, though, is that the most sinister conspiracies are carried out right before our eyes: The false pretext for the Iraq War; the false pretext for intervening in Libya; hell, the false pretext for the first Iraq War; the Big Bank bailouts of 2008–the biggest heist carried out in U.S. history–and in broad fucking daylight right on our television sets–are just a few examples of the plots that have been carried out right in front of us in recent years. Most of us are just too duped by the daily propaganda of the usual news outlets to recognize them for what they really are.

And never mind about Jeffrey Epstein’s death–how the hell did he get that secret non-prosecution deal with the feds back in 2008? It’s not unreasonable to speculate that if he had lacked all of his high-flying social and political connections, they would have been more than happy to throw the book at him and make him into the poster boy of the evil denizens from whom they protect us and our daughters on a daily basis–oh what we would do without the ever-vigilant federal agents of law enforcement?!

So, sorry, Brendan, but the rest of us do intend to continue speculating, and to openly discuss our speculation, about what socially and politically powerful people do when nobody’s watching them, or caring enough to hold them accountable. It is sheer speculation, of course. But the difference between speculation about conspiracy theories and the kind of speculation that political commentators such as yourself frequently indulge in is only a difference of degree, not of character.

And it is, in fact, quite democratic in its own way. It’s the way we ordinary folk remind ourselves and one another that as the ruled, we need to watch out for what the rulers are up to. That they may only be interested in serving the public good rather than their own personal gain sounds a little too much like a, well,–wild conspiracy theory.