On this day in 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The fear, panic, sadness, and confusion of that tragedy, combined with disbelief at the banality of the cause—This commie twerp killed the president? By himself? Really? That simply cannot be!—provided the KGB with a golden opportunity to disseminate disinformation. A cottage industry of JFK conspiracy theory, most of it earnest and sincere, thrived for decades because a hostile foreign intelligence service invented and promoted the falsehood that our own intelligence service was involved in the assassination.
I consumed and enjoyed many of these books and movies myself, before I knew better. As any QAnon devotee can appreciate, it’s much more fun to believe in elaborate plots involving Corsican hit men, Mafia molls, grassy knolls, and Zapruder film still shots than the boring, banal truth: that that little shit Oswald acted alone. So I resisted for years reading Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, which does, in fact, close the case, quite like the stern father flipping on the lights in the basement abruptly ends the middle school make-out party.
Since the JFK assassination, there has been pervasive distrust of our intelligence services. How many movies made in the last 57 years portray the CIA as villainous? Russian intelligence exploited the distrust it helped create, when its boy Edward Snowden excused his treasonous theft of classified documents by casting himself as a heroic whistleblower exposing the supposed boogeymen at the NSA. Even now, people believe him, just as they believe that Oswald was a patsy. Which sounds like no big deal, but consider: If American voters were not conditioned to doubt the CIA and the NSA, might the warning issued in 2016 by the 17 intelligence agencies concerning Trump/Russia—the one mentioned by Hillary Clinton in the debate—have been taken seriously enough to save us from four years of Donald John Trump?
Disinformation campaigns work. The bully pulpit is powerful. When the President of the United States actively engages in the dissemination of disinformation, it is a force multiplier, and we wind up with a significant percentage of the country believing a global pandemic is a hoax.
Fifty-nine more days. Hang in there, my friends.
This week’s “Sunday Pages” is from New York Station, a galloping page-turner of a World War II spy novel by Lawrence Dudley. It never fails to astonish and disturb me how topical Nazis have once again become.
In this chapter, Roy Hawkins, an Anglo-American working for MI6 who has been tailing a Nazi agent, is at a formal ball listening to a right-wing American radio figure, Walter Ventnor, and his millionaire pro-Nazi friend, Chet Branch:
“Chet, that old pile of junk isn’t going to be bothering us much longer,” Ventnor said.
“No, he won’t be …” Chet started to giggle. Ventnor started giggling, too.
“Yessir, we’re going to be free of Mr. Franklin Rosenfeld.”
Hawkins stared at them, trying to grasp it all, everything he’d just learned—and now this, mind shifting and bounding from one peak to yet a higher summit, accelerating second by second.
What in hell were they referring to? That damn rifle? No. Crazy. But … maybe they were getting overconfident. Shooting people, that’s definitely the SS’s style. But the President of the United States? They wouldn’t dare. Such a crazy risk. Suppose they were caught? There’d be American entry into the war in a heartbeat. The US fleet steaming into Scapa Flow in a week. US fighter squadrons in Kent in a fortnight. Marines in Sussex, maybe a month. The Nazis could hardly want that.
But then think of the things they’d done, large and small, the risks they’d taken: attacking Poland and leaving the Rhine defenseless. The friendship pact with Stalin. Or Göring declaring himself “Grandmaster of the Hunt.” Titles worthy of schoolboys in tree houses. All preposterous. Until they happened.
Should’ve stolen that bloody sniper rifle. But, no, that would’ve tipped them off. Damn.
“Oh? Really?” Hawkins said. “Going to shoot him down, beat him?”
“By golly, no,” Ventnor said, “he’s going to beat himself! Americans aren’t suckers.”
“We’re willing to help a little,” Chet said. He and Ventnor laughed, a relaxed, easygoing laugh. It simply didn’t fit. They had too trifling an air for men in on murder and assassination. Or the beating I got.
Chet started moving off. “Right. Main room at Riley’s. Later.”
The crowd had largely drifted away. One on one, Ventnor’s tone was completely different: focused, professional, weighted. None of the onstage bombast.
“You said Hitler wasn’t a threat to us,” Hawkins said.
“He’s not. They’re a long ways away.”
“Then why bother being friends with him?”
“Because he’s a winner.”
“What else is there? Roosevelt only cares about losers.”
“Right. See, the world’s divided into winners and losers. Which side do you want to be on?”
“Of course. In every transaction between people there’s a winner and a loser—always.” As Ventnor began introducing Hawkins to this hitherto unperceived way of the world, he began smirking, that smirk they all seemed to have. Hawkins puzzled over it as he listened.
“Can’t people work together, cooperatively, to benefit everybody?” Hawkins said. “Isn’t that easier?”
“Naw—never happens. There’s always a winner and a loser. Sometimes you simply can’t see who it is right away, that’s all. But somebody’s always getting the best of somebody else, you can bet on it.”
“Maybe we just make it that way.”
“Nope. Darwin talked about it. Some people are born to lose.”
Daisy came up behind Hawkins, listening, too, then curtly turned and walked away.
“The coloreds. The Jews.”
“Born to lose? The Jews, too?”
“Yep. Why do they have to cheat, take advantage so? Because they’d lose otherwise.”
“What happens, then?
“They have to make way. Like the Indians. Survival of the fittest. It’s the natural order of things.”
“But how did we get where we are—thousands of years of human progress, building aqueducts, curing diseases, didn’t that depend on people trusting and working together?”
“Forget that. Some people are destined to be destroyed. There’s no point standing in the way.”
“The whole world’s just a jungle.”
“Don’t kid yourself about it.”
“Then—you’re saying—everyone has the right to do whatever they have to do to get ahead. Even cheating, breaking the rules.”
“Hey, winning isn’t the only thing that matters, it’s the only thing that exists. That’s what Hitler understands.”
Chet had the same smirk when he was talking about cheating, Hawkins thought. It was more than a spoiled rich boy’s sense of entitlement. That smirk conveyed a sense he—they—knew something other people didn’t, that they were in on the great secret of life and those who didn’t were suckers, the butt of the Big Joke.
Hitler was always serious, grim. But the thugs around him, Göring, the SS types in particular, the party elite. They had that smirk, too. The insider’s smirk, in on the big joke about winning and losing and power.
The Nazis, people like Ventnor, so many of the things he’d seen happen, all happened because men like Ventnor and Chet believed the world was inherently, inevitably nothing but a big mess of winners and losers. Or men who believed it was and would damn well make it that way.
Winners and losers, that’s what I’ve been missing, Hawkins thought, Ventnor and all the right-wing isolationists. It’s why, if Ventnor’s against Social Security, he’s also an isolationist, wouldn’t help Britain. Selfishness abroad, selfishness at home, it’s all the same.
If life’s nothing but winners and losers, you have to watch out for yourself, and the hell with anyone else. Laws, rules, traditions, social customs, all a mirage, illusions that keep suckers from seeing reality. If winning means cheating, breaking the rules like Chet, it’s perfectly acceptable, even virtuous.
What’s doubly awful, Hawkins thought, is that if they get in an arrangement, exchange, whatever, a mutually beneficial situation, they’ll think there’s something wrong. It would have to be wrong, by definition, precisely because there wasn’t a loser. A fix like that could only mean one thing to these men: if they weren’t the winner, then they had to be the loser. Had to be, since everyone had to be one or the other. And they would probably panic.
That means you go for the power. You practically worship power, make a cult of it, the way the Nazis and Fascists did, because power is more likely to win. To hell with justice, what’s right, helping others. Win at any price. The rest is all illusion.
Naturally, men like Ventnor opposed the League of Nations. They didn’t want any international rules. Cooperation? A joke. Or trying to destroy Roosevelt’s Social Security. Those people were losers, so let them starve. Or Chet’s cheating and breaking the rules at the track. Rules? Merely another hedge on the steeplechase, another obstacle in your way. Underneath, it was all the same, who was going to be the winner and who was going to be the loser.
The idea of sportsmanship, of fair play? That quaint notion was rooted in a humbling recognition life was unfair, and that life could be unfair to you, too. The idea that competition was a dangerous tool, that it could coarsen and reduce everything to the lowest common denominator unless reined in by fair play and sportsmanship? Gone, too. Competition was no longer a mere means to make things better. It was now an end in itself, the very nature of human existence, no matter how far it took society back to the cavemen.
What can one possibly say to such twisted logic? Nothing, probably. If you dared reasoning with them, they would merely see a stratagem, a maneuver designed to hoodwink and sucker them, and take advantage. Their belief in winners and losers corroded everything.
Truth requires some sense of cooperation, in that people have to be willing to consider a possible truth as representing something more than a ploy. To Ventnor, Chet, and right wingers like them, there could be no truth, only tactics. Truth had ceased to exist. Winning was the only truth, and a lie that worked was truth, because it worked. Which meant that lies were equal to the facts. When they lied, they probably didn’t always even know they were lying.
Why in holy hell am I listening to Ventnor? Hawkins thought. What a waste of time. He quickly thanked Ventnor and moved on.
Lawrence Dudley has been the assistant curator of a museum, worked for a radio telescope observatory, and for several years was the lead reviewer and feature writer for The Saratogian newspaper, covering the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and its resident companies, the New York City Ballet, the New York City Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra—among many others. He’s also been a web developer and a professional political campaign manager. He is working on a sequel to New York Station and The Hungry Blade as well as a non-fiction work on the intersection of culture, language and politics, In The Minds Of The People.