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The dark side of “democracy”

Recently, “Alternative Radio” rebroadcast “The JFK Assassination & the Gangster State,” a talk given by Michael Parenti, in Berkeley, CA on 11-22-93. You have to listen to Parenti ( to get the full effect of his sarcastic (and funny) delivery, but here are some key elements of what he said (edited, as always for brevity and clarity – also, for those of you who groan at my long, dry, mostly quoted blogposts, this is pretty important, and I make some comments of my own at the end)…

“I’ve been looking at history, and I’ve been impressed and depressed by the fact that it’s a chronicle of immense atrocities. Whenever there’s more than a subsistence economy, some portion of the population does everything it can to enslave and expropriate the labor of the rest of the people – whether it’s a slave society, as in ancient Greece and Rome, or a feudal society, with people reduced to serfs, or a capitalist society, where people are driven to the edge of insecurity and made to work faster and harder. One of the things that’s used in that arrangement is a very conscious instrument of control: the state, ‘an organization,’ as Max Weber, who wasn’t a Marxist, called it, that has a ‘monopoly of the legitimate use of force.’

Even in democratic France, democratic England, or democratic U.S.A., all countries have instruments and agencies that act like a bunch of gangsters, repressively, using surveillance and every dirty trick in the book – unequal enforcement of tax laws, bringing drugs into neighborhoods and communities, trumped-up murder charges, and assassination. In the middle of even a so-called democracy you have the state-within-the-state known as the national security state that’s capable of the most unspeakable crimes that you can think of, perpetrated against its own people and people all around the world.

Not long ago I got a letter from a woman who was a community organizer in Chicago. She said, with grief in her heart, ‘I remember the tremendous democratic organization and leadership that was developing in Latino and African American communities during the 1960s. And every one of those leaders is either dead, shot by the police, or in Marion Prison on trumped-up charges. I also remember the demoralization that took place with the shattering of those organizations, including the coming in of drug traffickers, aided and abetted by federal agents.’ This is a state engaged in domestic counterinsurgency, preferring an unorganized and demoralized population than one effectively fighting for its democratic rights. Because if it’s organized and it’s effective, it will start cutting in on the interests that those police and undercover people are dedicated to protecting – protecting the status quo, protecting those with property against those who don’t have it.

By the way, for the last thousand years we’ve had theorists who have proudly made that point. Adam Smith said, ‘As the divisions of property become increasingly unequal, it is more and more necessary to have a state to defend those who have property from those who do not.’ John Locke: ‘The purpose of the state is to defend those who have property from those who do not.’ James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and others said similar things.

Throughout the world, dominant economic interests have enlisted the efforts of assassins and torturers. The CIA and other such agencies in this country and others have sponsored violence, torture, death squads, and drugs in scores of countries, from Zaire to Angola to Mozambique to El Salvador to Guatemala to Indonesia, and to western Europe, the U.S.A., Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and New York. They’ve systematically targeted the clergy; peasant, student, and labor-union leaders; intellectuals; journalists; workers; and community activists. Tens of thousands have been murdered and assassinated to prevent social change, to destroy any kind of redistributive politics, any kind of government, or any kind of social movement not willing to reduce its people to economic fodder.”

Having made these points, Parenti goes on to the JFK assassination in which “the gangster nature of the state is revealed. To know the truth about the JFK assassination is to call into question the entire state system and the entire social order it represents. This is why for 30 years the mainstream press has suppressed or dismissed out of the hand the findings about JFK’s death by independent investigators like Peter Dale Scott, Harold Weisberg, Carl Oglesby, Mark Lane, Anthony Summers, Philip Melanson, Jim Garrison, Cyril Wecht, and dozens of others. They’re called “assassination buffs,” a limiting and marginalizing and diminishing term. Would you talk about “Holocaust buffs”? No – they are serious investigators of a serious crime, which leads to serious understandings about the state. This is why the mainstream media and the opinion leaders and the political leaders of this country relentlessly attack or ignore this literature. This is why they give fulsome, gushing, ready publicity to the likes of Gerald Posner, with his book Case Closed, which got put into every major magazine. I couldn’t put the TV on all week without seeing this guy’s face and hearing him blather these kinds of cliché statements whose credibility is dependent on your being totally ignorant of what the investigators for 30 years have been uncovering and the questions they’ve been raising.

This is why they savaged Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK,” a movie that was very accurate about the specifics of the murder, a movie that reached millions of people, and that was attacked six months before it was released in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Time, and Newsweek, and for a year after it was released. This is also why in this past week, for the 30th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, they kept up the relentless propaganda campaign to show that Oswald was the lone assassin. All the serious investigators have a different question, and Oswald wasn’t one of the people who shot Kennedy – he was just a fall guy.

If you want to know why they do this, just listen to what they say. The propagandists of the right and the center know why they’ve got to trash and contain this issue. Tom Wicker of the New York Times has never written a movie review in his life. But when “JFK” came out, this Washington columnist for the Times suddenly became a movie reviewer, and instead of getting the usual movie-review length of 800 words, he got 2,000 words, a whole page. He tells us that ‘if the wild assertions in Oliver Stone’s movie are taken at face value, Americans will have to accept the idea that most of the nation’s major institutions conspired together to carry out Kennedy’s murder. In an era when mistrust of government and loss of confidence in institutions, the press not the least, are widespread and virulent, such a suggestion seems a dubious public service.’ So truth has nothing to do with it – the question is institutional legitimacy.

In 1978 the House Select Committee reported after an investigation that there was more than one assassin shooting at Kennedy and therefore there was a conspiracy. In response, the Washington Post immediately editorialized, ‘Could it

have been some other malcontent whom Mr. Oswald met casually?’ [Laughter] ‘Couldn’t as many as three or four societal outcasts, with no ties to any one organization, have developed in some spontaneous way a common determination to express their alienation in the killing of President Kennedy? It’s possible that two people acting independently attempted to shoot the president at the same time.’ Possible, but not at all likely. Sometimes those who deny conspiracies create the most convoluted fantasies of all. David Garrow, for example, who wrote a biography of Martin Luther King, benignly, patronizingly looks at you, the public, and says that ‘a large majority of the American people believe in assassination conspiracies, allowing events to have large, mysterious causes instead of small, idiosyncratic ones.’

But the question of conspiracy has to be decided by an investigation of evidence, not by unscientific and patronizing presumptions about the public mind. In any case, the evidence in King’s assassination doesn’t involve large, mysterious causes but very immediate actualities. And investigators like Peter Dale Scott, Harold Weisberg, and Mark Lane weren’t impelled by some yearnings; they were impelled by questions of evidence, by things that didn’t seem to make sense, by immediate, empirical things. These independent investigators demolished the Warren Commission.

If you watched television this week you heard, for the 78th time, that Oswald was a ‘loner,’ an incompetent, not very bright. You heard he was emotionally disturbed. Gerald Posner got on TV, turning instant psychiatrist, and said Lee Harvey Oswald ‘had a disturbed childhood,’ and was ‘passive- aggressive.’ Passive-aggressive? A passive-aggressive assassin? That explains why he used a rifle that couldn’t shoot straight. He was also ‘a leftist,’ according to Alexander Cockburn. The truth is something else. All of Lee Harvey Oswald’s IQ tests show that he was of above-average intelligence, a bright guy, a quick learner. Lee Harvey Oswald also spent most of his adult life not as a lonely drifter but directly linked to the U.S. intelligence community. In the U.S. Marines at the age of 18, he had secret security clearance and was working at Marine Air Control in Atsugi, Japan, a top-secret base from which the CIA launched some of its U2 flights and did other kinds of covert operations in China. The next year, at the age of 19, he was assigned to El Toro Air Station in California with a security clearance to work radar. Here Oswald started playing Russian-language records at blast level in his barracks, addressing his ‘comrades’ in Russian, and touting Soviet communism as ‘the best system in the world.’

The U.S. Marine Corps in 1958 wasn’t exactly known as a bastion of liberal tolerance and freethinking. It constantly surveils anyone who acts the way Oswald did. But in this instance his commanders didn’t mind. He kept his security clearance, and had a wealth of sensitive information from black operations, as they were called. If Oswald was a Soviet spy or a Cuban spy, as some people now claim, he certainly had a novel way of building a cover. In February 1959, Lee Harvey Oswald failed the Marine Corps proficiency test in Russian. Six months later he was practically fluent in Russian. In 1974, a document was released that showed that Oswald had attended the U.S. Army Monterey School of Languages. Now, Monterey is not open to anyone who just happens to have a language hobby. You go only for serious training and you are sent by the government. And it must be related to government work in a language picked by the government which is related to specific assignments. Oswald was also given an early discharge from the Marines because his mother injured her foot. A jar had fallen on her toe. He put in the request and got it within a week. His fellow Marines were astonished at the velocity of the release. The jar fell on her foot a year before the discharge, but she was unhappy: it wasn’t healing right. This was only one of a number of very strangely favorable treatments that the U.S. government gave Lee Harvey Oswald. He then defected to the USSR. To get to Russia in those days it would have cost $1,500. Lee Harvey Oswald’s bank account showed a deposit of only $203. He arrived in Helsinki from London on a day when there were no available commercial flights that would have allowed him to make it in one day. He had some kind of private transportation. In Russia, he announced – in the U.S. embassy – that he was renouncing his U.S. citizenship and that he had secrets he was going to give to the Soviets. The Soviets didn’t bite. They let him stay but at no time thought he could be an agent of any use to them. He worked in a factory, and belonged to the factory’s gun club, though he showed no particular interest in guns. He used to join in rabbit shoots, and could never hit the rabbit. He was a miserable marksman, as he had been in the U.S. Marines. Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t hit the side of a barn.

What’s done in all defections, definitely those connected with government and military, is that there’s a damage assessment. No damage assessment was ever made on Oswald’s defection. Why? After two and a half years, he applied to return to the U.S. Instead of being grabbed when he came out and tried as a traitor, the U.S. accepted him back. He says he was never debriefed, but in fact, he was debriefed in Amsterdam, though the CIA has no record of this. Their explanation before the Warren Commission was that there were so many tourists coming in and out that there was nothing about him that would catch our attention. After the assassination, the CIA claimed that they suspected he was a Soviet spy. The State Department at this point gave Oswald money to travel back to the U.S. and get set up. They paid all his and his wife’s travel and moving expenses, and he was given back his passport with full rights to travel anywhere. His wife was exempted from the usual immigration quotas – no waiting, no exclusion for having belonged to the Soviet Komsomol, the Communist youth organization, a violation of U.S. immigration laws.

Once back in Dallas, Oswald settled in under the wing of George de Mohrenschildt, a right- wing Russian with CIA ties. Based in Dallas and New Orleans, he then made short-lived forays into the public eye as a leftist. He started a one-person Fair Play for Cuba organization in New Orleans, but in all this time never once contacted anyone in the Communist Party or any other left organization, though he wrote lots of letters to the Communist Party USA and the Socialist Workers Party, two groups which at that time weren’t even talking together. Dear Comrades, How are you? We fight. Forward. What should I do? Send me instructions. He blazed a trail: local TV, fistfights, inflammatory incidents, leaflets. One of the leaflets shows that his organization was on Camp Street in the same building that Guy Banister, an FBI agent, had his office. A number of right-wing Cuban émigré groups were also there. Oswald’s personal relations were with right-wing anti-Communist Cubans, right-wing crypto-fascists, and CIA types like Robert Morrow, a right-wing businessman who worked for the CIA, and David Ferrie, the same. So while he supposedly was this leftist – and if you ever heard any of the tapes of him speaking and explaining what communism was or socialism was, it’s laughable – all his personal associations were with right-wing people linked to the intelligence community, including Jack Ruby.

Now, they would have us believe that this man who couldn’t hit the side of a barn took a Mannlicher Carcano rifle, whose sights weren’t even set – an Italian weapon, which the Italians said had never killed anyone on purpose – fired it, and killed the president of the United States. That he got a job just at that time at the Texas Book Depository, three weeks before, when nobody knew that Kennedy’s limousine was going to pass right in front of the depository, and fortuitously happened to be up there that day. That he would forego shooting President Kennedy when the latter was coming right at him down Houston Street, but waited till the car turned down Elm Street. And as Kennedy went by and had only his head and a little portion of his shoulders visible, firing through the trees, he rapidly got off three shots in a few seconds, something which the best marksmen in the country weren’t able to emulate until after much practice and after the sights on the Mannlicher- Carcano were reset, brought into a laboratory and fixed. Right through a tree that was later cut down. We’re asked to believe that a bullet would go through John Kennedy, pause in midair for 2 seconds, change direction, wound Governor Connally in two places, and then reappear intact on a stretcher, having fallen out of Connally’s body. By the way, this magic bullet didn’t reappear on the stretcher as if it had fallen out of someone’s body – it was apparently intentionally wedged into the side of the stretcher. We’re asked to believe that a treasure trove of physical evidence, the interior of the presidential limousine itself, which should have all sorts of evidence, bits of shrapnel, blood, and lines of fire, was just accidentally taken, instantly torn out, destroyed, and totally rebuilt, and that this wasn’t a deliberate cover-up. We’re asked to believe that Kennedy’s brain just disappeared, that the X-ray, which now shows a reconstructed head with no exit wound is, oddly, taken with no jaw, so it could be anybody’s – you can’t do any kind of dental identification. That the autopsy was just botched innocently.

We’re also asked to believe that Jack Ruby, a gambler and gangster with links to right-wing Cuban exiles, who once worked for Congressman Richard Nixon for the House Un-American Activities Committee in Chicago when his name was still Jack Rubenstein, took it upon himself to kill Oswald because he was so moved by the suffering that Oswald had caused the Kennedy family. Ruby a year later in jail repeatedly kept alluding to the fact that, ‘You don’t know the whole story,’ and, indeed, there is much more behind all of this. We’re asked to believe that the 21 witnesses, persons or persons otherwise related to the case in some close way, with some information, privy to some conversations, all of whom met violent deaths, were part of a colossal coincidence, like the one the Washington Post was talking about. That later on, in 1978, a second round of killings started after the House Select Committee investigation, sixteen more dying violently. One of those sixteen was George de Mohrenschildt, killed by a gun blast to the head 3 hours after a House Assassinations Committee investigator tried to contact him to set up an interview. George de Mohrenschildt was not only close to Oswald, but in his telephone book there was found an insert to George ‘Pappy’ Bush; he was a close friend of George Bush and there was a correspondence between them. The sheriff’s office in Palm County, Florida, found that his shooting was ‘very strange,’ and it was ruled a suicide. William Sullivan, a third guy in the FBI, who was supposed to appear before the House committee, was shot outside his home by a man who claimed to have mistaken him for a deer and was charged with a misdemeanor. Sam Giancana died from natural causes when his heart stopped beating after a bullet went through it, one day before he was to testify about mob and CIA connections, while under government protection. There are linkages between the CIA and mob families. After all, the mob can do the kind of dirty things that the CIA may sometimes want them to do…I have a whole bunch of other things. And I find I’ve run out of time.”

“Keep going! keep going!” the audience shouts.

“The people have spoken. There are even some on the left, like Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn, who argue that interest in the assassination comes from a ‘Kennedy revival,’ a ‘Camelot yearning for a lost messiah.’ Cockburn, Chomsky, and others challenge the notion that Kennedy was assassinated for intending to withdraw from Vietnam or undo the CIA or end the Cold War. These things couldn’t have led to his downfall because they weren’t true. Kennedy was a cold warrior, a counterinsurgent who wanted a military withdrawal from Vietnam only with victory. Chomsky, Cockburn, and others have also claimed that the change of administration that came with JFK’s assassination had no large-scale effect on policy, or even tactics. In other words, if Kennedy had lived, he likely would have fabricated a Tonkin Gulf casus belli; he would have introduced ground troops and a massive land war, as Lyndon Johnson did; he would have engaged in merciless B-52 carpet bombings of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, as Richard Nixon did; and he would have risked destroying his own electoral base, proving himself a mass murderer as bad as Nixon. Chomsky and Cockburn don’t tell us how they know all this, but we do know is that Robert Kennedy became an antiwar critic, broke with the Johnson administration, and he said that his brother’s administration had made terrible mistakes. John Kennedy, in fact, observed Cambodian neutrality and negotiated a ceasefire and coalition government in Laos, which the CIA refused to honor. They preferred to back a right-wing faction that continued the war.

Chomsky says much about troop withdrawal. He just wrote a whole book on this, Rethinking Camelot. But he says very little about troop escalation other than to offer Roger Hilsman’s speculation that Kennedy might well have introduced U.S. ground troops in the South Vietnam. In fact, Hilsman noted in the New York Times not long ago that in 1963 Kennedy was the only person in his administration who opposed the introduction of U.S. ground troops. He was the only obstacle to an escalation of the war.

Whether or not there are certain left analysts who think Kennedy was or wasn’t a progressive or liberal and thinks that the CIA had no reason to kill him or other people had no reason to be dissatisfied with him, the fact is that entrenched interests are notorious for not seeing the world the same way that left analysts do. In 1963, people in right-wing circles, including elements in various intelligence organizations, didn’t believe Kennedy could be trusted with the nation’s future. Some months ago on a San Francisco talk show, I heard a guy come on who said, ‘I never said this before, it’s the first time I’m saying it. But I worked for Army intelligence, and in 1963 I was in Japan. The accepted word then was that Kennedy would be killed because he was messing too much with the intelligence community. And when word came of his death, all I could hear were delighted comments like “We got the bastard.”’ JFK’s enemies fixed on his refusal to provide air coverage to the Bay of Pigs, his refusal to go in with U.S. forces, his unwillingness to launch another invasion of Cuba, his no-invasion-of-Cuba guarantee to Khrushchev, his atmospheric test ban treaty with Moscow, his American University speech calling for re-examination of our Cold War attitudes towards the Soviet Union, his unwillingness to send ground forces in a massive form into Vietnam, his antitrust suit against General Electric, his fight with U.S. Steel over price increases, his challenge to the Federal Reserve Board, his warm reception at labor conventions, his call for racial equality and responsiveness to civil rights leaders, and his talk of moving forward to a ‘New Frontier.’

I disagree with people who say that the Warren Commission did a hasty, slipshod job. The Commission sat for 51 long sessions over a period of several months, and compiled 26 volumes of testimony and evidence, with the investigative resources of the FBI and CIA at its command. Far from being hasty and slipshod, it painstakingly crafted theories that moved toward its foreordained conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin. It framed an argument and moved unfailingly to fulfill that argument. It failed to call witnesses who saw something different from what it wanted to hear, who saw – who not only heard but who saw – people on the grassy knoll shooting. It ignored or reinterpreted what little conflicting testimony crept into its proceedings. All this took deliberate and painstaking effort. But the American public hasn’t bought the official explanation: 78% say they believe there was a conspiracy. Chomsky and Cockburn tell us we mustn’t reduce great developments in history to conspiracy, for then we lose sight of institutions, class, and other systemic factors of American capitalism. I don’t need them to tell me about systemic factors in American capitalism – I use a structural analysis in all my writings. Besides, in investigating the JFK conspiracy we’re hitting upon the nature of state power in what’s supposed to be a democracy. Conspiracy isn’t something that’s in contradistinction to structural analysis; it’s part of it. The ruling elites will use conspiracy or legitimacy, they’ll finance elections, use publicity campaigns, set up liberal-ish organizations and alternative trade-union movements, and use assassins or death squads. They’ll use every conceivable thing there is. And this was one of the things they used. When they had someone who was giving them trouble, when they had someone who was standing in their path because he was too bright and too shiny, and when they had an agenda to save southeast Asia from communism, they killed one of their own.

That’s a tremendous and startling revelation, opening the eyes of the American public to the kind of a gangster government and national security state we really have in this country and what it does around the world. ‘The great continuities of corporate and class interest’ – Cockburn’s phrase – don’t happen of their own accord. There’s a conscious interest being pursued here, and these events are created by policymakers intentionally pursuing specific interests. It’s the essence of the state and the function of state institutions to act consciously to create and recreate the conditions of politico-economic hegemony. That’s what it’s there for. To achieve their goals, state leaders, especially those within the national security state, will resort to every necessary form of mass manipulation, deception, and violence, even against one of their own whom they’ve come to see as a liability.

Our interest in this is born of democratic struggle – a desire to know what’s going on, a desire to have rulers who are worthy of our name and the name of democracy. Thank you.”

I would add as an anarchist that we also have the alternative of self-rule – no “rulers.” ‘Cause that’s where the trouble starts.

I also want to add that all of this reminds me very strongly of the TV series “Homeland,” which I’ve been watching with a friend. The show also reveals, dramatically, the amorality of the CIA, which will do anything, including attacking one of its own, to maintain the bare power of the United States, domestically and around the world, and to maintain its own power, or the power of its current director, as well. Not an institution compatible with democracy. I assume the FBI is the same, along with all entities charged with “national security,” which of course involves lots of secrets.