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Episode 8: “Happy Trails Season 2" (Part A) , feat. teacher and filmmaker Sean Gaston

Updated: Feb 27


New posts and links will be added over coming months

On the 60th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, conspiracy theories still dominate our public discourse

The influence of facts and reason upon Western public discourse seems perilously low

Originally published in The Hub: Viewpoint, 22 November, 2023.

On November 22, 1963, an emotionally unstable young Marxist and ex-Marine with few friends or job prospects, little respect from organized leftists, and an estranged wife who finally lost patience with his violent outbursts and political fantasies took his rifle to work at the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas. It was there, from a sixth-floor window, that Lee Harvey Oswald shot U.S. President John F. Kennedy as his open-top motorcade drove by in Dealey Plaza.

Lee Harvey Oswald posing in his Dallas backyard with 6.5mm Mannlicher Carcano, .38 Special revolver, and copies of The Militant and The Worker newspapers, shortly before his failed attempt to kill General Edwin Walker. Spring, 1963.

The Dallas police, the FBI, and the Warren Commission (the presidential panel set up by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, to investigate the assassination) all concluded that 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Yet from the moment of Kennedy’s death and to this day, and despite dozens of other investigations that arrived at the same conclusion as the Warren Commission, it was and is widely believed by a majority of Americans that a broader conspiracy, i.e., that others in addition to Oswald, were involved in the JFK assassination.

How should we understand this entrenched belief and the attraction to conspiracy theories more generally? As a start, conspiracy theories are always and everywhere part of human society. Stories about secret plots shock and fascinate us, confirm our deepest fears, nourish our moral outrage, and provide us with scapegoats to blame.

One might hope that, in the age of the internet, the spread of conspiracy theories would be impeded by the widespread availability of scientific and historical evidence. Alas, precisely the opposite appears to be happening.

From the QAnon-inspired allegation that the world is controlled by a conspiracy of powerful pedophiles, to the claims that Catholic nuns murdered hundreds of Indigenous Canadian children in the middle of the night, to the belief that COVID-19 is a bioweapon engineered by China (or the United States), the influence of facts and reason upon Western public discourse seems perilously low.

Sensationalism sells and fear and anger make it attractive. While there exists an ocean of scholarship debunking these and countless other conspiracy stories, few people have the time, will, or energy to conduct a thorough examination of all the claims competing for their attention. They have even less time to study the mounds of countervailing research about conspiracy thinking in psychology, sociology, political science, and philosophy texts.

We cannot ignore the wealth of evidence proving that real conspiracies occur. From organized criminal rackets to politically-motivated subterfuge (think of Watergate as an example), and even state-sponsored assassinations, conspiracies do exist. The useful question is how can we know if a conspiracy claim is likely to be true?

A conspiracy is a secret arrangement between two or more people with the intention of taking advantage of others, such as a plot to hide or distort information, gain or maintain power under false pretenses, or circumvent legal, financial, or political rules for personal gain.

A scene from the film The Star Chamber (1983)

Given the number of criminal convictions that occur every year for coordinated acts of fraud, theft, violence, criminal rackets, and murder, we can conclusively say that conspiracies are a fact of life. However, the ones we can prove rarely resemble the diabolical schemes perpetrated by the villains in crime thriller books and films.

According to British philosopher Quassim Cassam, the sort of conspiracy theories that are most likely to be alluring and false usually serve as a type of political propaganda. They carelessly, if not malevolently, combine facts, unsubstantiated rumours, and discredited nonsense to stir up people’s moral indignation against a specific person, group, or institution.

Philosopher Quassim Cassam

Unlike the work of responsible historians, scientists, and forensic investigators whose institutions and traditions insist on a high level of evidence-based reasoning, conspiracy peddlers fabricate theories that are deliberately shaped to ignite our outrage and discourage us from practicing careful inquiry and reflection. Those conspiracy theories are “implausible by design”, Cassam argues, precisely because they resemble a Hollywood script, not the haphazard and incongruent chains of events that make up the real flow of history.

A scene from Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1968)

The more we know about history, science, and logic, the better equipped we become to separate fact from fiction. Conspiracy myths would gain less traction if our political parties and leaders, the news media, and educational organizations were more devoted to this ideal.

Instead, when our leading institutions fail to place thoughtful reflection ahead of emotivist dogma and activism, it falls to the unaided individual to strive for knowledge and understanding while maintaining humility, a healthy skepticism, a deep tolerance for uncertainty, and a rigorous commitment to reason over emotion. When these values are in ascendance, the foundations of civilization are strong. In their absence, the foundations are vulnerable to erosion by divisive and self-serving myths.

M.J. Gagné, November 22, 2023

With the support of the Aristotle Foundation,

Left to Right: Sean, Michel, and Joan, taking on the roles of Brad Pitt,

Kevin Spacey, and Morgan Freeman in David Fincher's 1995 crime thriller Se7en.

Documents related to this episode: *

1. Misa's Fugue (Framerate Films/Butter Productions, 2012). Dir. by Sean Gaston. Written by Sean Gaston, Jennifer L. Goss, and Zachary Steven Houp. Feat. Frank "Misa" Grunwald. (click here to watch the trailer).

2. Rough Cut: Would You Kill To Make a Movie? (Todd Klick Films/Butter Productions, 2008). Dir. by Todd Klick. Written by Sean Gaston and Todd Klick. (click here to watch the film).

3. Dennis Murphy: "How a slasher movie spawned real-life horror," NBC News, January 20, 2006. (NBC Dateline episode transcript).

4. "Who Killed JFK?" (podcast), with Rob Reiner and Soledad O'Brian. iHeart Radio, 2023.

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968). Dir. by Stanley Kubrick. Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. Feat. Kear Dullea and Douglas Rain.

6. Paranoid Planet theme song. Words and music by Michel J. Gagné, 2020. Arrangements provided by the Incredibox music generator.

7. "Happy Trails" (RCA Victor, 1954). Written by Dale Evans. Performed by robot Joe Biden and robot Donald Trump.

* All copyrighted video and audio clips are used for educational purposes only under "fair use" regulations.

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