(Draft, 30 January 1999)
I reshelved all my Kennedy materials recently. One book that caught my
attention was Jim Marrs's 1997 Alien Agenda: Investigating the
Extraterrestrial Presence Among Us. I had purchased this book in mid-1997 at
one of the JFK conferences, and had read enough of it to be struck by its
author's strong feelings that UFOs are real and that their extraterrestrial
beings are now a regular part of life on earth. I even noted Marrs's beliefs in
the syllabus for my Kennedy course this semester at the University of Rhode
Island [Spring 1999], saying something to the effect that by publishing this
book, Marrs may have revealed more of his thought processes than he should have.
After reading Alien Agenda, we may be inclined to reevaluate the strength
of his arguments about conspiracy in Crossfire, which we are also using
in that course.
Since I hadn't seen the book in a while (a euphemism for its being buried in a pile of books), I decided to have another look at it. What I found reinforced my original feelings. I hope you are as intrigued as I was.
Upon opening the book, one is immediately struck by its strong language. "We are not alone," says the front inside cover. Marrs, it continues, offers a "comprehensive, shocking explanation that not only confirms the reality of UFOs, but reveals the decades-long disinformation campaign that has kept the truth from us until now." Then the introduction begins: "The controversy over the existence of UFOs is over. UFOs are real." Next paragraph: "Only those persons whose outlook prevents them from dealing honestly with the massive amount of documentation and reports collected over the past five decades still cling to the idea that nothing soars in the skies of Earth but man's imagination. …UFOs represent real and tangible objects…" Next paragraph: "Of course, arguments and protestations will continue. There are, after all, some few folks [emphasis added] who still refuse to believe that the world is round." Next paragraph: "But, whether you believe in them or not, UFOs are now part of our reality."
Strong stuff indeed! Marrs's position is clear—UFOs are real, and if you don't accept it, you might as well belong to the Flat Earth Society.
Next Marrs slams the establishment for ignoring the evidence on UFOs, using phrases like "documented government deceit and duplicity aided by the reluctance of conventional science to publicly address the evidence," "the smug scientific and political intelligentsia," "bastions of conformity and conservatism," and "regular media infusion of conventional thinking by various experts, most of whom owe their livelihood to government in one way or another." To find the truth, he says, we must "get beyond this restrictive mind-set" and "be open to all possibilities." We must "look past the media pundits who narrowly define the issues and paradigms of the day," and "seek truth in whatever form it may appear—whether in alternative publications, video documentaries, newsletters, or even comic books. Only after absorbing as much information on UFOs as possible, from as widely divergent sources as possible, can the thoughtful individual begin to gain the overview necessary to determine the realities of the phenomenon."
Incidentally, this approach to truth—by divining it from all possible sources—is very similar to his recommendation in Crossfire. In the preface to that book, he offers these prescriptions: "To truly understand what happened in Dallas in 1963, one must get an overview of the event…Only by gaining a broad view of the assassination can one begin to detect the outlines of the conspiracy that resulted in the deaths of Kennedy, patrolman J.D. Tippit, and the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald," and "Only by studying all of the relevant information about the assassination and then applying common sense can one come to an understanding of the truth of the JFK assassination."
In short, we must keep our minds open to all possibilities, seek the truth everywhere, use widely divergent sources, study all the relevant information, get an overview, and apply common sense. Then and only then will we come to the truth. For the UFOs, that truth is clearly that they are real. After reading this much of the introduction, I wanted to retitle the book Alien Agenda!
Imagine then my surprise when I turned one page more, to xiv of the introduction, and read the following two sentences one after the other: "Yet a tangible reality exists within these various aspects [of the UFO phenomenon]" and "At least that is what the vast amount of material now available on the subject suggests to me [emphasis added]." Whoa! Stop! Suggests to me? Haven't we been discussing undeniable reality? Isn't it Alien Agenda rather than Alien Agenda? What about the earlier "reality of UFOs," the "real and tangible objects," and the "controversy over the existence of UFOs [being] over"? What about the disinformation campaign and the few Flat Earthers who stubbornly won't believe? Frankly, I don't know. I know only that after setting us up with definitive ideas and unambiguous language, Marrs suddenly makes a huge about-face and whispers that maybe he isn't so sure about it after all.
Mr. Marrs isn’t the first JFK writer to write this way. Anthony Summers beat him to it, with Conspiracy in 1980. Like Alien Agenda, Conspiracy is a title with an unambiguous message—there was a conspiracy. Summers's position is reinforced by much of the orientation of his text, which reaches its apex with these sentences: "Conspiracy, as a Supreme Court justice once defined it, is 'a partnership in criminal purposes.' As the scientific case stands, and as a massive official inquiry has indicated, the Kennedy assassination was the result of such conspiracy [emphasis added]." Who could misinterpret such an obvious statement?
But review these sentences very carefully. Use a jaundiced eye even if you find the prospect distasteful. Begin by noting that Mr. Summers did not directly state that "The Kennedy assassination was the result of conspiracy." Instead, he prefaced his concluding words with the two short phrases "As the scientific case stands, and as a massive official inquiry has indicated…" Why? Why not just say it straight? This wording gave him an out, in case some day, somebody destroys the purported case for conspiracy. Note how the first phrase hedges in a way that is not immediately obvious. "As the scientific case stands" sound at first very strong. But it is really weak. It does not say "The science has proven that…" No, instead, it employs the weaker terms "the scientific case" and "stands," both of which imply something less than certainty. A "case" is a step toward proof. Had Summers possessed real proof, he would have written "proof." "Stands" implies the current status of something that has changed and can change again. Hardly the terms we use for a locked-in conclusion. The second phrase does much the same: "indicated," even when linked with the "massive official inquiry," is far weaker than "proven." Thus Summers is really saying something closer to "To the extent to which we can tell from the current science and the big governmental investigation, Kennedy appears to have been killed by a conspiracy."
Once we recognize what Summers is really saying, the rest of his book falls nicely into place. The end of its second chapter now makes sense when it says "The fact of the matter is that science [in the JFK assassination] has produced no certainties" and when it adds that the HSCA's technical experts "rocked the old 'lone gunman' theory to its foundations." Rocked it to its foundations? Why not just say "killed it off once and for all"? Because that is not Summers's message. His real message, like Marrs's, is one of equivocation. Maybe there was a conspiracy. It surely looks that way. But it's too soon to tell for sure. Shades of Marrs's "suggests to me."
Why do writers use such strong language in one place and retract it in another? Not being inside their heads, I can't say for sure. Could it be as simple as just not realizing what they are doing? While that would offer a nice and neat resolution, I am very reluctant to believe that such established, long-time professional writers as Summers and Marrs are unaware of their actions, although I cannot exclude the possibility. But I consider it more likely that they know exactly what they are doing. And although I will not presume to guess their motives, it is plain to see what this style of writing gets them—the opportunity to sell books by leading with strong messages (Conspiracy!; Alien Agenda!) that readers will remember and then retracting them or weakening them later. It's like having your writer's cake and eating it too. You burn the strong message into readers' heads but then change it when no one is looking. At the end of the day, you didn't really claim all those strong things, but everybody thinks you did. You sell your books without really selling the ideas; you escape on technicalities. The kind word for this approach is "misleading;" the strong word is "deceiving."
But the "thrust and pull back" tactic gains the writer still another huge advantage in the world of difficult subjects like assassinations and mysterious flying objects—it allows them to write without resolving anything. Was the JFK assassination really a conspiracy? Of course it was, but then again maybe not. Are extraterrestrials among us? Obviously they are, as anyone with half a brain and a little common sense can see. But come to think about it, maybe they aren't. Who can really be sure? It's really hard to tell, you know.
How ironic that this kind of weasel-wording sells vast amounts of books. How unacceptable that their fleet-of-foot authors come to be accepted as great authorities on their subjects. We apparently have reached a state where nobody is taken to task any more for tricky little nuances in the printed word, for all those little escape clauses that allow their writers to say one thing but get credit for another. For those who master this style, it is truly the best of both worlds.
But it is not intellectual. Being intellectual and truly coming to grips with difficult ideas is hard, and these writers are taking the easy way out. Even before the clapping stops, they are out the back door, into their limousines, and far out of town, where they can never be touched. Intellectually speaking, they are taking the money and running.
What can we do to stop these practices? First, we can reveal these writers for what they really are—impression-makers garbed in thinkers' clothing. Then we can take them to task by keeping their intellectual feet to the fire, by reminding them and all their readers that they haven't really answered any of the big questions—they have just sidestepped them. Maybe we can even refuse to buy their books. But in the long run, there is only one way to put a stop to these kinds of practices, and that is by doing the jobs right ourselves, by finding the right answers and telling everyone in plain language what they are, how we got to them, and what is wrong with the other approaches. Maybe when those writers know someone out there is watching them, they will be more careful in what they write. Let us hope so.
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