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Pattern seeking, paranoia and JFK's assassination

Adam Gopnik, a few weeks ago, reviewed a books on theories surrounding John F. Kennedy's assassination. In the review, he came up with a great theory on the two different types of JFK conspiracy theorists -- or, his term: pattern seekers -- and their different "period styles in paranoia." 

It's a delicious way to look at how people interact with information. 

The first generation of assassination obsessives—Josiah Thompson, still writing; Harold Weisberg, long dead—were essentially hopeful proceduralists, men and women with thick files and endless clippings, convinced that due scrutiny of the record would reveal sufficient inconsistencies, opacities, and falsehoods to compel the reopening of the entire case. Their model was journalists of the I. F. Stone kind, the isolated man of integrity who could find the truth by scrutinizing the record.

The second kind of assassination obsessive emerged only later, in the mid-seventies. Where the proceduralists believe that the truth is in there, buried in some forgotten file folder, the fantasists believe, “X Files” style, that the truth is out there—available to those bold enough to imagine on the right scale of American extravagance. An exemplar here was David Lifton’s book “Best Evidence,” published in 1981, but his theories percolated at lectures and conferences throughout the seventies. He put forward an obviously mad idea with admirable logic: that the President’s body was secreted away between the killing and the autopsy, and his wounds altered.

The paradox is that, just as Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo dramatizes paranoia with a texture of specificity, the paranoid types are, in their own way, often much more empirically minded—willing to follow the evidence where it leads, even if that is right through the looking-glass—than their more cautious confrères. It is, in other words, possible to construct an intricate scenario that is both cautiously inferential, richly detailed, on its own terms complete, and yet utterly delusional. 

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