Tuesday, March 14, 2017

From Fabian Socialism to Class Struggles: Looking Both Ways on the Road to Revolution

In Edward Bellamy's 1888 best seller a time traveler went a century forward, "Looking Backward" from a future when the work week has been drastically reduced, products and services are delivered instantly and everyone retires at forty-five with health benefits. Transported to the same year in Dons of Time, my time-traveling hero Tonio Wolfe interrupts a debate with William Morris at a London soiree and discusses modern problems with Ignatius Donnelly.

"That's William Morris," said Annie Besant. "Wallpaper, carpets, curtains and all that. These days he's a revolutionary." Five years ago, she explained, Morris had joined the Democratic Federation, then the only active socialist organization in the country. But the businessman knew nothing about Marx or Henry George. He was an aesthete and an instinctive rebel. As a result he split the Federation a year after joining it, and formed the Socialist League.
      Last year he split again when the anarchist faction asserted itself.
      "As much as I would like to join the chorus I'm afraid I cannot," Morris announced. "We have moved past the point where propaganda will turn the tide. We are on the road to revolution - or oblivion. The corruption of society is complete, is it not? Well, all right, then the time has come for a new order, not another manifesto."
      "And what is this order -- is it imposed by force, does it include nationalization and control of individual initiative?" It was a comment from someone in the crowd, just beyond Tonio's view. That voice, so familiar. He strained to see.
      Ignatius Donnelly looked exactly as Tonio remembered him from the View Room, piercing blue eyes, stocky frame, commanding presence. "I enjoyed and appreciated Progress and Poverty," he said, an acknowledgement of Henry George's grand opus. "His argument is logical, and in terms of Ireland it may be correct. There is no way to justify such vast quantities of land in the hands of so few."
      "Your point, sir." Morris didn't appreciate being interrupted mid-rant.
      "But personally, I remain too much a Jeffersonian to embrace nationalization and so-called panaceas like the single tax. Such ideas strike at basic rights and the very fundamentals of society."
      "What rights?" A challenge from the crowd.
      "The right of any man -- or woman -- to enjoy the fruits of his labor," Donnelly said defiantly. "Without that we relapse into barbarism."
      "I think we've heard enough of the American position," Morris cut in. "So, what can the Society do about the individualist strain? I suspect any educational project on the other side of the pond will run a bit longer than the masses can afford."
      "America will follow its own road," Donnelly insisted.
      "And who will lead it, sir? You?"
      "Maybe he will," blurted Tonio before he could stop himself. Dozens of faces turned his way. Realizing what he'd done, he quickly added, "as governor in the great state of Minnesota. You are the Farmer Labor Party candidate, are you not?"
      "I have that honor," acknowledged Donnelly, a bit shocked that anyone in the audience recognized him. The room erupted into spontaneous applause. Donnelly basked in the moment.
      "You know him?" Annie was impressed. "I do as well actually, we met briefly last spring. Interesting man -- strange ideas."
      Tonio thought: There goes another time commandment. This is not inconspicuous.
      As the debate continued, they retreated outside for a private moment. Donnelly needed to know something about the random American who had come to his defense. Annie re-introduced herself and apologized for Morris, insisting that there was enough room in the Fabian Society for differing views on the issues he raised.
      Tonio kept his introduction vague, then inquired about Donnelly's latest book, The Great Cryptogram.
      "That's why I'm here instead of campaigning at home," the politician explained. "It's my second trip this year. But this one will be brief, a few paying engagements and I'm gone. Where are you staying, we should meet."
The Great Cryptogram (1888) 
       In February, he'd attended a Labor Alliance convention but failed to notice a growing rift between farmers and the Knights of Labor. After he left for England the Alliance endorsed a St. Paul banker named Albert Scheffer as its candidate for governor. This upset the unions, which hadn't been consulted. Scheffer was playing the angles, seeking the Republican nod while talking about temperance and tariffs. The establishment sensed a split they could exploit, while Donnelly's labor friends launched a plan to draft him. A letter from one ally, reaching him in London, said he was "the only man in the state in whom the people have confidence."
      "It was an awful dilemma," Donnelly lamented. "Meanwhile, savage insects ravaged the wheat. For the first time in twenty-five years we didn't have a bushel to show this season. And the Bank of Minnesota was making unpleasant noises about some debts. Still, the party leaders promised to raise a substantial war chest. In a sense I suppose my critics are right. I really can't say no to a nomination, one more chance to put my case before the people."
      "Then what are you doing here?"
      Donnelly flashed a devilish grin. "Money goes farther and the food is cheap. But seriously, it's all the Republican's fault. They may be many things but they are not stupid. In the end they didn't nominate Scheffer. Instead they went with Bill Merriman. Do you know who that is? Why should you? He's the man I supported for Speaker of the House just last year, a solid supporter of many of our issues, including the usury bill. Yes, he is also a banker, but I have to say he is essentially an honest fellow who seems to want fair, economical government."
      He had decided to withdraw from the race after several friends in the GOP arranged an invitation by the Republican National Committee to speak on behalf of Ben Harrison in New York. But at a meeting the pols suggested, without much subtlety, that should Harrison become President, well, Donnelly's contribution would not be ignored. He despised such vote buying and influence peddling. On the other hand, he thought James Blaine's decision to break the GOP convention deadlock and back Harrison had given him a solid edge.
      "It's also really what Kate wants," Donnelly admitted with some embarrassment, "for me to be paid for all the campaigning and perhaps to secure a federal appointment at some point."
      "What did you decide?"
      "I declined," he said glumly. "I had to. I'm in pretty hot water at home over that. And meanwhile, the Alliance hasn't been able to raise the promised funds for the governor's campaign. So, as to why I'm here, the honest answer would be, I'm in hiding. Hopefully, by the time I start home word will begin circulating that my withdrawal is imminent. Eventually, I will have to bite the bullet and make the endorsement."
      "Won't your labor friends feel betrayed?"
      "I'm not looking forward to that discussion."

Terror in the Air

Donnelly was a pleasant host but a bit mercurial. He would begin most days like a fighter in training for a match, but then get distracted or preoccupied for hours by some minor statistic or news item. He'd then regroup and pen some letters, corresponding rapid-fire with family and friends in Minnesota and Illinois. On the other hand, he would fret over a single line in a note from Kate Donnelly saying the bank might seize a parcel of land. Then someone would call and he'd be off in fine form with a list of talking points in hand. He was a whirlwind, no vortex required.
      That evening Tonio was in the sitting room on Duke Street when he returned with news of a new assault on rationality. Near Ratcliffe Highway he'd watched a crowd pursue a hapless seaman, trailing and surrounding him with curses and accusations. He was "Leather Apron," they shouted, and "the Ripper." He wasn't of course. If the police hadn't arrived in time, Donnelly thought they might have killed the fellow.
      "Who was he in the end?"
      "No one, just someone with red paint stains on his pants. But they held him, for his own protection. It's mayhem out there."
      "Talk about deja vu," Tonio mumbled.
      "How so? I've never seen a thing like it. People are frantic, suspicious of everything. There's a smell of terror in the air."
      Tonio wasn't sure how to respond. The mood actually reminded him of the period after 9/11, as well as several cities he had visited in recent years, desperate neighborhood in tough times, and too many lives wasted. How could he begin to explain that? "I was thinking about my novel," he answered instead.
      "Really." Donnelly sounded skeptical but curious. "The one about the detective who tracks a killer into a cave? What happens next? They didn't let you get very far the other night. Do tell, where does he end up?"
      What could he say? In Edward Bellamy's book the time traveler went a century forward, "looking backward" from a future when the work week has been drastically reduced, products and services are delivered instantly and everyone retires at forty-five with health benefits. "The nation is the sole employer and capitalist," Bellamy wrote about the year 1988. All industrial production has been nationalized and goods are equally distributed. There is no need for dissent, and crime, though not completely eliminated, is handled as a medical issue, well on its way to the dustbin of history.
      Quite a fantasy, he thought, very much the conservative Tea Party's nightmare.
      "Actually, in my book the detective comes to this time to catch the killer and eventually takes him back," Tonio pitched. Technically, he wasn't breaking rules. He wasn't revealing anything about the Jump Room or claiming to be a detective. The way he saw it, there was no reason to think any fantasy he concocted would have any impact. And if it did, well, he was stuck here and would just have to do what felt right.
     "Wonderful," cheered Donnelly. "What kind of future is it? Peace and harmony?"
      "I wouldn't want to give away too much. That would spoil the ending. But let's begin with technology," he offered, and commenced an elaborate description of modern marvels like air travel, air-conditioning, mass communications and other features of the high-tech world he missed, a place where everything seemed possible and almost anything was for sale.
      "And yet there is enormous inequality. A very few, just one percent, have almost half the wealth, while most people don't have basic security. Many are hungry and brimming with rage. Guns are everywhere. It's a heavily armed, alienated and unhappy society, I'm sorry to say, a mockery of its past, glittering on the outside but sick inside, prone to arbitrary and senseless violence, and littered with unnecessary victims. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, someone simply goes berserk, and executes dozens in public, then kills himself, or commits what we call suicide by cop."
      He stopped before getting into nuclear weapons and genocide, fearing they would sound too extreme or too debilitating if believed.
      "Terrible. But possible." Donnelly sat down to enjoy the performance. "Tell me about women. Are so many still forced to sell themselves on the streets?"
      "On the streets? Maybe not so much. There are private clubs for that type of thing. But pimps are bigger than ever. I mean, the word has become a verb. Still, in many places women are afraid to go out alone at night."
       "Why's that?"
      "Fear of rape, robbery or murder." Donnelly remarked that it sounded like London these days. Tonio had to agree. "Some women have learned to defend themselves," he continued. "In fact, some are as strong or powerful as any man. But they make the same mistakes."
     "Fascinating. Has humanity at least solved problems like crime, illness and poverty?"
      What a question. The straight answer was no. But instead he talked about the kafkaesque criminal justice system and byzantine corrections industry, balancing that with improvements in life expectancy and medical care.
      "Have we at least agreed that people have a right to end their own lives?"
      "Not yet," Tonio said, taken aback by his interest. "But professionals do tell us how to live."
      "You paint a grim picture, almost anti-Bellamy. And who are the rulers of this dystopia? Has royalty made a comeback?"
      "Not officially, but we do have dynasties and hand out titles. First at this, best of that. And people are celebrated just for being well-known." He'd moved from narration to role playing along the way.
      "A corrupt paradise, you might say a commons pillaged by violence and greed."
      "Elementary, my dear Donnelly."
      "Then it's a matter of choosing sides," the old politician concluded. "Ask yourself: What really threatens humanity, the few who break some arbitrary rules or challenge the government, or those who control the economy and the government, and enact laws causing millions to suffer and die? It's obviously a rhetorical question. But I do wonder, in this troubled future of yours, is progress and reform still possible?"
      Tonio had no clever plot twist to cover that. 

Greg Guma is the Vermont-based author of Dons of Time, Uneasy Empire, Spirits of Desire, Big Lies, and The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution.  Based on real events, these recreations were excerpted from Dons of Time, Part Three: Gilded Nights, Chapters 31 (Society), 32 (Choices) and 33 (Another Normal). From Fomite Press, also availabe from Amazon.

Want more time travel? Try Annie Besant: London's 1st Wonder Woman or Finding Annie Besant

Friday, March 10, 2017

Living with Conspiracies: From the Illuminati to Kennedy

Uncovering a secret plot can quickly become a dead-end trip, guided by the researcher's paranoid half-fantasies and the eerie vibration that everything is under hidden control. Yet you don't have to be paranoid to realize that history isn't only what scholars write, and that newspapers often edit -- and sometimes even alter -- the facts that they report. 
     Secret societies do exist, conspiracies both above and below ground; so do groups with manipulative and often deadly game plans. But not all of them are bent on control: some are aimed at altruistic goals, and others are just plain stupid. No one group as yet has humanity under its thumb. On the other hand, conspiracies are quite real and not to be underestimated. 


A top secret group with the name Bilderberg is hard enough to swallow. But if you add that it used to meet annually, with no press coverage, and make major international policy decisions, the usual reaction is an arched eyebrow. "Poor guy," friends will likely say. "He's finally gone off the deep end. Bilderbergers? Pretty weird."
     The name actually came from the hotel in Oosterbeek, Holland used for the first session in 1954. After that, meetings were held around the globe, including a 1971 gathering in Woodstock, Vermont. "The purpose of the conference," said Prince Bernhard, the Dutch aristocrat who promoted the group and chaired meetings for more than 30 years, "is that eminent persons in every field get the opportunity to speak freely without being hindered by the knowledge that their words and ideas will be analyzed, commented upon and eventually criticized in the press." At the time, Bernhard, who had married Holland's Princess Juliana, was a spokesman for NATO as well as Dutch interests in South America.
     Nevertheless, U.S. Senator James Buckley wrote in 1974 that, "I don't subscribe to the theory that there exists an organization of international bankers called the Bilderbergers." A strange reaction since his brother, William F. Buckley, was on the guest list that year.
     Or consider this oddity. In response to an inquiry in 1975 a U.S. Justice Department official said the White House knew nothing about the Bilderbergers. Yet President Ford attended meetings of the group throughout the 1960s, and Donald Rumsfeld, then the president's assistant, knew the group as "an open forum for the exchange of ideas."
     After the Woodstock, Vermont session, one hotel employee put it succinctly: "They get together once a year to talk about what is going to happen in the world."
     Officially, the meeting in Woodstock, convening April 23, 1971, was billed as "an international peace conference." U.S. State Department officials had conferred about security arrangements with Vermont State Police. The state supplied 30 men in plain clothes to support a private, armed security force, the FBI and Secret Service, even though Vermont officials said they knew nothing about the event. One-hundred-fifty guards and officers blanketed the sleepy town of 1,600, sealing off Laurence Rockefeller's hotel and estate. Everything was set for the arrival of 85 leaders from around the world. Limousines brought them from Lebanon, New Hampshire, where an air shuttle from Boston had been arranged.
     Although Bernhard issued a terse press statement when his plane touched ground at Boston's Logan Airport, one participant, Francois Duchene of the London Institute of Strategic Studies, who attended with then British Defense Minister Denis Healey, later explained that, "America must face a Western Europe and Japan that are more independent." That fit, since one scheduled topic was, "A change in the U.S. role in the world."
     To Major Glenn Davis of the Vermont State Police it was "a hairy scene. No one seemed to know just who was in charge of what." But in the conference room, once all employees had been cleared from the building, order reigned. Seating was arranged alphabetically with Bernhard at the head of the table. Remarks were normally limited to five minutes, with two "working papers" as discussion foci.
     Henry Kissinger, then Nixon's National Security Advisor, missed the first session, but became the main event when he delivered a briefing on U.S. plans. Months later, he was charged by conservatives with "leaking" plans for Nixon's China trip and a devaluation of the dollar. After the 1971 Bilderberg conference banks and major corporations shifted capital out of the U.S., mainly to West Germany. Nixon's China initiative eventually became public information. And in December, the dollar was devalued, resulting in gains for people who had already converted to European currency. A "change in the U.S. role" was under way, and the Bilderbergers may have helped make it happen.
     Private groups like the Bilderbergers, which have helped to build our current system of de facto global management, don't actually discuss peace. Rather, their concern is managing the world economy. Originally, Bilderberg meetings served to strengthen the Atlantic alliance, and gradually became an "open conspiracy" to develop consensus among political and business leaders beyond the power of nation-states. In the early 1950s, Prince Bernhard brought the idea to the CIA, and with its assistance nabbed support from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. The money flowed through the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, whose director, Joseph Johnson, coordinated U.S. Bilderberg activities.
     Over the years the group became a model for transnational diplomacy, lending support to European integration and oil company policies. Its steering committee was virtually a who's who of international finance; David Rockefeller, Gabriel Hauge (Manufacturer's Hanover Trust), Emilio Collado (Standard Oil, later Exxon) international lawyers such as Arthur Dean and George Ball. All U.S. steering committee members were also members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which dominated US foreign policy planning after World War II.
     Take George Ball, for example. A long-time CFR member, director of the Trilateral Commission, Undersecretary of State, and lawyer with Lehman Brothers. Or Arthur Dean. CFR member, partner in Sullivan and Cromwell law firm, whose partners included John Foster and Allen Dulles. Before World War II Sullivan and Cromwell worked with German chemical and steel monopolies. By the time the Bilderbergers began to meet, attorney Allen Dulles had become CIA director. Small world.


Evidence of conspiracy can begin with questions like this: What group has financial ties to the megabuck empires of Rockefeller, Rothschild and Morgan, philosophical roots in Fabian Socialism, and was instrumental in creating the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund? If you haven't guessed, it also publishes a monthly journal called Foreign Affairs. Its resident members and "international citizens" form an aristocracy of financiers, academics, lawyers, journalists and public officials that has planned US foreign policy since the 1940s.
     Columnist Joseph Kraft, a member at the time, once called this semi- secret elite a "school for statesmen." If you haven't figured it out yet, the answer is the Council on Foreign Relations, or CFR. And its objective for half a century has been nothing less than to "create a new international order." To most leftists that reads like US imperialism; to right-wingers it translates roughly as world government. You know, the invisible government. The establishment. The people who brought us the Vietnam War and offspring like the Trilateral Commission, all in the name of "peace."
     The CFR began rolling at the Majestic Hotel in Paris, May 19, 1919, just as the World War I peace talks were winding down. The meeting to create an international planning group was called by "Colonel" Edward Mandell House, Texas oil man, power broker and presidential advisor, whom Wilson called his "alter ego." The Colonel's Paris conference was geared to generate support from finance czars (the gold-dollars alliance of Rothschild and Rockefeller) and liberal internationalists. And so it did.
     By 1950 the CFR controlled most American cabinet posts, and its members were a new nobility: Nelson Rockefeller, Averill Harriman, Dean Rusk, Walter Lippman, and Allen Dulles, to name but a few.

The Hitler Connection 

When Allen Dulles died in 1969, President Nixon said, "In the nature of his task, his achievements were known to only a few." Dulles' task from the 1940s on was intelligence gathering, disinformation and covert operations. Dulles viewed it as a craft, and managed to elevate espionage to "professional" status. As much the architect as the prosecutor of the Cold War in the 1950s, he handled the CFR's "dirty tricks."
     Back in 1919 Dulles had attended the Paris talks with Colonel House, then joined the U.S. State Department. By the late 1920s he had become a partner in the Wall Street law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, which worked with Adolph Hitler's financial agent to acquire the largest German monopolies, steel and chemicals, as clients. Dulles joined the board of the Henry Schroeder Trust banking group in the 1930s, while Schroeder bankrolled the Nazis.
     But allegiances changed when the war began. Dulles left the firm and began spying at a high level in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a new U.S. intelligence and subversion network. In 1944 the spymaster got to work on two covert missions: liquidating the Fuhrer and working out peace terms with other Nazis without letting Russia find out.

A Network of Agents

Espionage is the business of secrecy, manipulation and deception. It breeds conspiracies, including hidden networks of mercenaries that transcend national interests. In the summer of 1944 such a network blanketed Europe as the Allies broke into German territory.
     One spy on the job was George deMohrenschildt, a career agent who knew German intelligence well from work with the Abwehr 2 (Nazi spies within the U.S.) before the war. In the 1940s he shot film in Poland, built ties with French and German agents, and scouted for oil interests.
     Allen Dulles was running OSS operations in Switzerland, while another agent, Joseph Retinger, promoted Polish liberation from Germany. Like deMohrenschildt, Retinger also had oil contacts; his were Mexican, dating back to the 1920s. He had worked in London with the exiled Polish government. In August 1944, at age 58, he parachuted into Nazi territory near Warsaw just before liberation, bringing cash to Polish nationalists.
     Meanwhile, Allen Dulles, who had urged U.S. entry into the war on grounds of "enlightened selfishness," was handling other parts of the plan. With German Abwehr and diplomats he tried to assassinate Hitler, and although the plots fizzled, Hitler soon died -- presumably a suicide. A year later, following Retinger's lead, Dulles sparked the Cold War by scheming to cut Russia out of the surrender negotiations.
     What's the point of recounting all this cloak-and-dagger stuff? Simply that the old networks never die, and this one led to President Kennedy's death and beyond.
     The daring Joseph Retinger went on to become the philosophical father of a united Europe, as well as the man who urged Prince Bernhard to launch the Bilderberg conferences. Allen Dulles, of course, went well beyond the OSS, which amassed a $75 million budget and developed a worldwide network by the time Truman disbanded it.
     Dulles attended Bilderberg sessions, drafted the master plan for the CIA, and ran the agency for nine years, beating back legislative drives to crack the web of secrecy. His friends said he had a "zest for conspiracy." Be that as it may, he believed that, "We cannot safely limit our response to the Communist strategy of take-over solely to those cases where we are invited in by a government still in power."
     He felt so strongly about taking the initiative that the CIA overthrew a leftist regime in Guatemala in 1954. But five years later the CIA saw new trouble: Fidel Castro.
     And that's where deMohrenschildt fits in. After the war, he resettled in Dallas, renewing his ties with other anti-Communist Russians. He worked on contract with both the CIA and oil companies, his cover occupation "petroleum geologist." His walking tour from Dallas to Panama in 1961 landed him in Guatemala City, where he made contact with anti-Castro Cubans and mercenaries revving up for an invasion called the Bay of Pigs.
     Two years later, working with money from right-wing Dallas oil baron H.L. Hunt, a core of CIA agents unhappy with Kennedy's crackdown on "the company," and some bitter Bay of Pigs survivors, deMohrenschildt had found a new mission: helping to arrange the assassination of a president. Coordinating things for him locally was an FBI informer -- Jack Ruby.


When John Kennedy visited Dallas in November, 1963 the American dream was shattered and Camelot died. Ever since then we've been looking for the how and why of his assassination. Was it Oswald alone, or a conspiracy? Was Cuba involved, and what role did Jack Ruby and others play?
     Ex-agent Robert Morrow told his version to the House Assassination Committee in 1976. The assassination team, he claimed, combined CIA agents and anti-Castro Cubans with whom he had worked on schemes to run guns and pump bogus money into Cuba. On November 22, 1963, according to Morrow, it went this way:
     Three teams were in place by 12:30, linked via walkie-talkie to Guy Bannister, a former Chicago FBI chief who subsequently handled anti-Castro operations in New Orleans. Two men were stationed behind a stockade fence near the grassy knoll, with another two inside the county court building overlooking Dealey Plaza -- one of them Jack Ruby.
     Ruby had also worked in Chicago in the 1950s, a mafia "soldier" accused at the time of murdering the treasurer of the Waste Handlers Union. In Dallas Ruby built ties with police while running a bar, and ran guns to Cuban exiles under orders from CIA agent Clay Shaw. Ruby also worked with George deMohrenschildt, the veteran spy with ties to H.L. Hunt.
     Lee Oswald, the apparent fall guy, was in the Texas Book Depository that day, according to Morrow, but probably on the second floor -- while a "second Oswald" fired from the sixth-floor window.
     Ruby's police contacts came in handy after the job. In The Assassination Tapes, researcher George O'Toole reveals that Ruby knew Sgt. Gerry Hill, who not only found the rifle shells but had arrived early at the shooting of Officer Tippit and helped to arrest Oswald. He may have arranged evidence to implicate Oswald before the investigation began.
     The coverup was almost instinctive. Hoover and the FBI were embarrassed at having used Oswald as an informer. The CIA was directly implicated, since several conspirators had worked on covert Cuban projects -- even after the Bay of Pigs. False trails threw investigators off the scent, the most insidious of these promoted by a newsman, Lonnie Hudkins, shortly after Kennedy's death. Hudkins said that the President was killed in retaliation by Cuban agents, including Oswald, when they learned about US plots to assassinate Castro. But Hudkins was a friend of Jack Ruby's, working with him in gun smuggling days. He was also a former employee of both the CIA and H.L. Hunt.
     Morrow claims that it wasn't Cubans, but rather a group within the CIA that wanted to stop Kennedy's drive to subordinate "the company" to the Defense Intelligence Agency. They and Cuban exiles also had a specific grudge -- namely, that Kennedy had held back on naval support during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Oil interests and organized crime also had something to gain: a "liberated" Cuba open to investments and an independent CIA.
     Since the 1960s many conspiracy "theories" have been advanced. One that received especially favorable press coverage was the work of Edward Jay Epstein, He nabbed $500,000 from Reader's Digest for his tale of Oswald the Marxist, who gave U-2 spy plane secrets to Russia and then worked through the FBI, yet killed Kennedy on his own. It was Lonnie Hudkins' story all over again. (Epstein was back at it in 2016 with a similar take on Edward Snowden, straining credulity to make the case that Snowden isn't merely a traitor but also a spy.)
     In the 1960s, when New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison was starting to break open the Kennedy conspiracy, Epstein attacked Garrison in print. That drew praise from CIA honcho Richard Helms, a friend of Clay Shaw's, who circulated the writing as a model debunking of the conspiracy theory. While Epstein prepared his book, Legend, in the late 1970s, several important sources died suddenly, either shortly before or after meeting him. In March 1977, deMohrenschildt talked with Epstein, and within minutes was found dead of gunshot wounds. The old spy had just agreed to testify on his part in Kennedy's death.
     Kerry Thornley, who was in the Marines with Oswald and later founded the "Discordian" religion, developed another theory. He believed the culprits were the Bavarian Illuminati, a 200-year-old secret society. Oddly enough, Jim Garrison thought for a while that Thornley was the "second Oswald." In time, Thornley came to think that Garrison, and even his own friends, were Illuminati agents.
     "All conspiracy buffs are persecuted eventually," wrote Robert Anton Wilson, author of the epic conspiracy trilogy, Illuminatus. Wilson actually knew Thornley and watched his obsession consume him. But Wilson managed to transcend paranoia, transforming the strange, divergent theories surrounding Kennedy's death -- and other conspiracies -- into satire.
     In Illuminatus the death of Kennedy is part of a fact-and-speculation history which begins in Atlantis and extends into politics, mythology, and the realm of the occult. The central mystery is the true identity of the Illuminati: Are they defunct, as the Encyclopedia Brittanica claimed, a secret society founded in 1776 and suppressed by the Bavarian government within 10 years? Was the eye-in-the-Pyramid an Illuminati symbol given to Thomas Jefferson by a stranger in a black cloak?
     Is the Council on Foreign Relations the latest manifestation of the original Illuminati? Are they controlled by bankers or anarchists, Jesuits or Satanists? Were they revived by the nazis, or are they, instead, extraterrestrial visitors who want to help humanity evolve?
     Wilson argued that the world has room for many competing conspiracies, the sacred and profane. And he had the good sense to consider and question all of them.
     Pursuit of hidden knowledge leads naturally to one conspiracy or another. Personally, my theory is that global chaos, being generated by some "conspirators" in their quest for political and economic power, is a prologue to man's next evolutionary step. This doesn't lessen the pain or oppressive power of elites. But it can help to point the way. If humans are ever  to reach higher intelligence, the power of conspiracy must be broken at its roots -- the ethic of secrecy and deception. This calls for something difficult: eyes-open trust and positive energy to combat the negativity inherent in the lust for power.
     "Positive energy is as real as gravity," argued Wilson. If so, the antidote to negativity -- and conspiracy -- is to "come back with all the positive energy you have." He called that the final secret of the Illuminati.

This essay was originally published in February 1998 in Upstart Magazine and Toward Freedom.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Books Briefly: Ten Journeys through Time

Even if we pay attention to history's lessons, we may have to repeat some of its mistakes. Still, it does feel more like moving in a spiral than a circle, an evolving cycle as our planet becomes both more interdependent and more unpredictable. 
     The last elections in the US -- featuring the rise of two popular insurgencies, led by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, two avatars of disruption and change -- appear to have settled little, instead hardening divisions, fueling resentments and spreading widespread anxiety. It feels as if we're living through a unique time. And yet, many of the most gnawing questions do remain the same. 
     Here are ten books that offer some answers.

Dictator, by Robert Harris (2015, Knopf, 385 pages)

How does a republic fall? As retold by Cicero's scribe in the final installment of this remarkable trilogy, it starts with ambition, hubris and endemic corruption. Robert Harris does not downplay Cicero's fatal weaknesses, but also dramatizes some of his greatest triumphs as he struggles to protect Rome, first from Julius Ceasar, and later from Marc Antony and his rival, Ceasar's adopted son Octavian.      
     The writing is vivid and the dialogue surprisingly contemporary. But it's the story itself, of Rome's slow descent into violence and repression, that makes this novel so compelling.

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, by Stephen Kinzer (2017, Henry Holt, 320 pages)

Whether praised as "the large policy" or condemned as imperialism, America's expansionist military and economic moves beginning in 1898 transformed the country into an emerging empire. Driving the process was a combination of arrogance, opportunism and conflicting ambitions. 
     In The True Flag, Kinzer sheds fresh light on the Spanish-American War, US occupation of Cuba and annexation of the Philippines, and especially the crucial roles played by war-lover Teddy Roosevelt, anti-imperialist Mark Twain and the equivocating presidential hopeful, William Jennings Bryan.

Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century, by Andrew Cornell (2016, University of California, 416 pages) 

This accessible history is long overdue, showcasing the broad and profound influence of anarchist thinking and institutions from the Progressive era to the 1970s. An epilogue updates the story, tracing links to recent developments like Occupy. Even knowledgable readers will discover fresh connections. 
     Cornell illustrates the movement's diversity, from the Modern School to the Diggers, along with the contributions of leading figures like Emma Goldman, Murray Bookchin and David Dellinger.

Mussolini's Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945, by Richard J.B. Bosworth (2007, Penquin Books, 736 pages) 

Reading this rich and revealing history of Italy under fascist rule, it was hard not to be reminded of Donald Trump. As Bosworth shows, Mussolini's brand of fascism was powered more by charisma than policies, and also drew from a widespread sense of victimhood that fueled aggression, authoritarian quick fixes, and a desperate yearning to recapture a glorious, yet mythical past. 
     World War II ended the Duce's tyranny, but did not excise fascism's totalitarian approach and mindset. Unfortunately, traces and echoes can be found today in most democracies

Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers' Project, by Susan Rubenstein DeMasi (2016, McFarland, 296 pages) 

This revelatory biography eloquently celebrates the life and legacy of a citizen diplomat and arts pioneer, a real life Don Quixote who championed cultural pluralism, prisoner rights and artistic freedom in tumultuous times. Susan Rubenstein DeMasi combines infectious enthusiasm with thorough research and great storytelling, along the way illuminating Henry Alsberg's road from WWI era journalist, human rights advocate and "intellectual anarchist" to founder/ director of the Federal Writers Project, a New Deal program that transformed America's literary landscape. 
     DeMasi's book is a vital, long-overdue addition to American literary history. 

Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made, by Richard Rhodes (2015, Simon & Shuster, 320 pages) 

An intriguing cultural history. Richard Rhodes brings the Spanish Civil War into fresh focus, with revealing details about the volunteers, doctors, nurses, writers and painters drawn into the confict, poignant stories about life on the front line, and insights on the broader impacts, from medical innovations to memorable art. 

The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists, and the Road to World War II, by Nicholas Wapshott (2014, W.W Norton, 464 pages) 

This fresh and timely exploration of the run up to World War II reveals the roots and pitfalls of American isolationism, debunking myths on both sides of the debate. Especially chilling are revelations about the roles played by Joseph Kennedy, as British ambassador, 1940 presidential aspirant and advocate of German appeasement until 1941, and Charles Lindberg, the famous flyer who turned defeatist, ignored Nazi atrocities, and briefly led the anti-war campaign known as America First.

The Lost City of the Monkey God, by Douglas Preston (2017, Grand Central, 304 pages) 

An extraordinary true adventure packed with insights and thrills. Douglas Preston takes readers on a remarkable archaeological journey across Honduras in search of a long-lost civilization. It's a captivating tale, enriched by Preston's research and vivid story-telling. 
     And even when the explorers -- with the aid of new technology -- finally locate this "lost world," Preston and the others confront new dangers and mysteries. Thrilling and timely.

A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, by Richard Haass (2017, Penguin, 352 pages)

If you want to know why so many foreign policy experts are worried about a Trump presidency, Richard Haass offers a comprehensive, "insider's" answer. Basically, his message is that global rules and institutions that have kept the world relatively stable since World War II are at risk of being abandoned. Written during the recent presidential race, Haass, who heads the Council on Foreign Relations, makes a convincing case, but avoids a direct critique of Trump, calling instead for continued active engagement (calling it a "sovereign obligation") over narrow nationalism, and mainly reflecting the concerns of the internationalists who have been in control through most of this time.

Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus, by Matt Taibbi (2017, Spiegel & Grau, 352 pages)

Matt Taibbi's snappy reportage on the race that may end democracy "as we know it" is reminder that it is possible to be both smart and wrong -- sometimes in the same sentence. Like many journalists, he was both fascinated and repulsed by the rise of Trump, yet repeatedly predicted that his victory simply couldn't happen. This campaign "diary" could have been depressing and redundant. But a sense of the absurd, combined with earnest passion that might have embarrassed Hunter Thompson, keep the pages turning right up to the "unbelievable" climax.