Gun Fags of the World, Reload!

GUNFAG-COVER-11-29 (2)

Gun Fag Manifesto goes to press next week. It's an insanely entertaining book. Above is a sneak peek of the cover design by Kevin Slaughter of Underworld Amusements (the co-publisher). Nine-Banded Books will be begin taking advance orders in the next few days.

Next up in the 9BB publishing queue:

  • Down Where the Devil Don't Go, by Paul Bingham
  • Keeping Ourselves in the Dark, by Colin Feltham
  • Jesus Never Existed: An Introduction to the Ultimate Heresy, by Ken Humphreys
  • Every Cradle is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide, by Sarah Perry
  • Confessions of an Antinatalist: Revised Edition, by Jim Crawford
  • A Personal History of Moral Decay, by Bradley Smith
  • Lucifer's Lexicon and Other Writings, by L.A. Rollins
  • William Fortyhands: Disintegration and Reinvention of the Shakespeare Canon, by Samuel Crowell
  • The Nine-Banded Sourcebook and Reader, edited by Chip Smith

I do expect a few intervening surprises, but these are the top priorities. All I can say for sure is at this point is that Down Where the Devil Don't Go will be next. It's going to be a busy year.

If you are very rich and very ill, please consider making a bequest to 9BB in your will. It'll help move the conveyor belt.

Memento mori.

“Just a Kid” — The Curious Case of David Cole


I corresponded with David Cole for a time back in the mid 90s when I was assembling material for the second print issue of The Hoover Hog — a substantial section of which was to be devoted to "the other side of genocide." I'd been following Holocaust revisionist arguments from a safe distance for a couple of years and the whole subject fascinated me for a number of reasons that still hold, not least because I had come to suspect that the bad guys were probably right about a thing or two, including, probably, the legendary status of the Nazi gas chambers. After seeing Cole's guerrilla Auschwitz documentary and reading his breezy essays in Pat Hartman's sadly forgotten zine, Salon, I figured he might have something to contribute. He was easy to contact, and he gave me permission to publish some good stuff. The fact that he was Jewish served to tweak the narrative, I suppose, but it really wasn't that important. What seemed to matter far more was that, unlike so many other agenda-driven revisionists, David seemed to share my freewheeling sense of intellectual adventure. He seemed, in fact, like a smarter (and much braver) version of myself.        

I expected that our correspondence would continue, but it wasn't long after I pushed out the second — and, as it turned out, final — saddle-stitched Hoover Hog that David ran into trouble. You may know what happened. It's been documented at the margins. But in case you don't know, what happened was that the JDL — which at the time meant Irv Rubin — publicly threatened to kill (as in murder, or, um, exterminate) David if he didn't renounce his traitorous, Holocaust-denying ways. This should have been big news because it was well known that Rubin and his thugs didn't fuck around. But it wasn't big news. If you weren't tuned to certain dark frequencies, you probably wouldn't have heard about it at all. Anyway, what happened next was that David, understandably fearing for his life and for the safety of his family, signed what I imagine to have been a ghostwritten "recantation" in which he announced that his new friend Irv had shown him the error of his ways. After that, David slipped off the radar. I might have sent him another letter or two, but I never heard back. Nor did I expect to.       

David struck me as a good guy. Smart and nebbishy and a bit cocksure, but a really decent guy with a studiously skeptical take on the world. He made it clear that he was an outspoken atheist and a liberal, and when I sent him a tentative outline of the issue in which his work was to appear, he requested a draft copy of my article, "Fetal Fallacies: A Libertarian-Atheist Argument against Legal Abortion" because he was staunchly pro-choice and wanted to write a rebuttal. He later replied with a short missive, assuring me that my argument was even crappier than he had expected and that he would take pleasure in dismantling it piece by piece. I regret that that never happened.

I don't know if David's rejoinder would have convinced me of much back then. But as it happens, I'm no longer an anti-abortion mutant (in fact, I would now describe my relevant views, for reasons that would only annoy you, as resignedly "pro-abortion"), though I have no regrets over my engagement with logical arguments that really should be taken more seriously by those who make it their business to promote abortion rights. I also do not know if David's views on the subject have since changed, but it was, in any event, a genuine surprise to learn that has spent the last several years of his life in exile putting on his best P.J. O'Rourke to promote the ranks of "Hollywood conservatives." I had heard through the grapevine that David was working in Hollywood, but I figured it was something more quotidian — that maybe he was editing commercials or striking sets, or tending bar.

But here we have the news of David's "unmasking." It's a nutty story in some respects (turns out David's dad was the doctor who supplied Elvis with his Demerol fix), but the reporting doesn't strike me as being especially biased or unfair. The Guardian reporter even uses the term "revisionist," a rarity these days (though this usage is comically qualified: "fringe scholars known then as Holocaust revisionists, subsequently renamed denialists").

So here's the meat of it, picking up after l'affaire Rubin:

… Cole, his credibility shredded on all sides,
adopted the name Stein, chosen because it was simple and short, he said.
Only a few close friends knew the secret.

The recanting was fake, he said. Cole today still challenges
established Holocaust scholarship, including the certainty about Nazi
gas chambers. "The best guess is yes, there were gas chambers" he says.
"But there is still a lot of murkiness about the camps. I haven't
changed my views. But I regret I didn't have the facility with language
that I have now. I was just a kid," he said this week.

As Stein,
however, he shielded his views, not least during the next stage of his
career odyssey: the maker of respectable, conventional Holocaust
documentaries. He knew the subject, needed an income and US schools and
universities had budgets to commission such projects. He said: "I gave
mainstream audiences what they wanted."

At the same time, he
started writing op-eds under Stein and other pseudonyms, expressing what
he said was his growing fervour for a hawkish foreign policy, a strong
Israel and conservative social policy. Posts on his acerbic blog were picked up by mainstream news outlets.

Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Cole sensed opportunity.
Inspired by the writer PJ O'Rourke's brand of rollicking, liquor-fuelled
conservativism, he said he launched Republican Party Animals, a
networking circle for libertarians and social conservatives which
promised spice – "scantily-clad women, drink, fun, loud music" – but not
too much. There would be no cocaine or illegality.

"Do you like
your conservative politics mixed with a healthy dose of whiskey, fine
cigars and kickass rock n' roll?" its website asked. "Do you live in a
city filled with morons wearing Che T-shirts as they mindlessly cling to
tattered, faded 2008 'Hope and Change' posters? Then WELCOME, friend –
this is the group for you!" Blog posts assailed Obama, Occupy protestors
and alleged anti-semites.

It is further noted that Cole's — ahem, Stein's — cover was blown by a friend ("an exceptionally vindictive young lady," in David's words) in whom he had confided about his past and with whom he subsequently had a "falling out." Typical.

Of course, the article doesn't address the questions that pique my curiosity — such as what led David to embrace the hawkish conservative line. Maybe it was the bit with the twin towers. Or maybe he just needed to pick a new fight. I'm not inclined to play at armchair psychoanalysis.

Nor is any detailed account provided of the "conventional Holocaust documentaries" that Cole produced under his assumed identity, when he felt obliged to give "mainstream audiences what they wanted."  That seems significant, since Cole's most lasting contribution to Holocaust revisionism, as I've already mentioned, is itself a pretty compelling documentary — David Cole Interviews Dr. Franciszek Piper, Director, Auschwitz State Museumthat is nowhere mentioned in the  article.

What's interesting, though, is David's present take on his youthful dalliance with a dangerous idea. I mean, given the circumstances it would have been easy enough for him to unequivocally disclaim his
former views in terms sweeping and definitive. The "recantation" line
was hanging like ripened fruit, after all. But I think it is to his
credit that he shades it grey instead. "The best guess is yes, there were gas
chambers" he tells the reporter. "But there is
still a lot of murkiness about the camps. I haven't changed my views.
But I regret I didn't have the facility with language that I have now. I
was just a kid." 

That term, "facility" — I imagine it was carefully chosen.

David says he now feels guilty about the whole episode. In a social
environment that consigns gas chamber skepticism to the
lowest rungs of unforgivable transgression, I suppose that much is
understandable. He deceived people, and now they're left to clean up the

But what a curious mess it is.

When Nine-Banded Books published Sam Crowell's opus, The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes: And Other Writings on the Holocaust, Revisionism, and Historical Understanding, I really wanted to send a copy to David. I even contacted Bradley Smith to see if he could maybe forward it, but Bradley assured me that it wasn't the best idea. He said that David had moved on and probably wouldn't take well to the gesture. Brad was probably right. Not moving on is my problem.

Memento mori.

Hognotes – 09/28/2012

Life is busy, but I want to get a few things down.

First, I am very happy to note that Mikita Brottman's Thirteen Girls has been generating discussion. Here are links to some recent interviews and commentaries:

That last one — from the CoHE blog, "The Conversation" — includes an explanatory essay by Mikita called "The Afterlife of Murder." She writes:

When describing Thirteen Girls, I often refer to Bruegel’s “Fall of Icarus,” in which ordinary people go about their daily routines, barely noticing the tragedy taking place in the background.

I like this so much and I somewhat regret that we didn't use the Bruegel painting (I know his credit has been disputed, but it sure looks like a Bruegel to my untrained eye) as an endpiece. Perhaps if there is a second printing…

In related news, Nine-Banded Books is primed to release two books by Peter Sotos, both in early 2013. I'll have more details as soon as we're open for advance orders (soon), but you can check out the promotional placeholders under the "Future Releases" slide at the 9BB webstore. I've also set up a makeshift 9BB storefront at Amazon where current and future 9BB books — including out-of-print titles — are on offer. Please order them in multiple. You can read them, or donate them to libraries, or you can use them as doorstops, or as weapons. Just buy them. I need your money because I am just that goddamn greedy is all there is to it.

Anyway, speaking of future 9BB releases, a few readers have inquired about the status of Sarah Perry's Every Cradle is a Grave, which has been on the burner for a while. What can I say except that writing a book isn't easy — or that writing a good book isn't easy. And Sarah's book is going to be good. She's plugging away like a champ and she'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes. Think of it as a reason not to kill yourself … yet.  

What else? This and that.

I liked Hitchens' valedictory essay collection more than I expected to (especially the bit on torture and infirmity), though I think the editors were ill-advised to include that last round of deathbed jottings.

I'm heartened to see that the ever-scintillating once-and-future-blogger formerly known as Michael Blowhard is at it again, this time writing as "Paleo Retiree" for a very promising salon called Uncouth Reflections.

In recognition of Banned Book Week, longtime FotH (Friend of the Hog) Trevor Blake has compiled an informative roundup of "unorthodox and unpopular ideas that were banned or challenged in the United States in the years 2010, 2011 and 2012." (The imposed date-span means no mention of Ira Isaacs, though the case of a certain muzzie-baiting YouTube shlock sensation came in under the wire).

Also, are you kids into insight porn? We're working on the syllabus.

Finally, there have been exactly two inquiries about The Nine Banded Sourcebook and Reader, which I teased in the editorial closer to Samuel Crowell's recent (and fucking excellent) guest review-essay, "The Limits of Understanding." This is something I've been knocking around for a while. It's going to be released as a POD book
and as a free — or nearly free — PDF/eBook (I'm not especially fond of eBooks, but I'm making an exception in this case because: a] the thing doubles as catalog, and b] its expected heft makes the prospect of a pulp run financially impractical [unless Ron Unz want to float some cash my way]). Anyway, it's conceived as a sort of "magalog," styled after those
old Whole Earth annuals that you can still get for a song at used bookstores. It'll be chock-full of heterodox "source"
profiles running cheek-to-cheek with feature articles and interviews
and, of course, gratuitous heaps of 9BB promotional content. I'm now in the slow process of contacting writers, publishers, and kindred spirits for contributions, and I'm especially keen to include short reviews or commendations pointing up material that has been, in whatever way, overlooked. If you want to play, you know how to reach me.

Remember when Henry Rollins wasn't a dork?

Memento mori. 

The Limits of Understanding — A Guest Book Review by Samuel Crowell


The Limits of Understanding

Samuel Crowell


Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism

by W. Joseph Campbell

University of California Press, 288 pp., 2010


Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography

by Errol Morris

Penguin Press, 336 pp., 2011


A Wilderness of Error

by Errol Morris

Penguin Press, 544 pp., 2012


The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

by Michael Shermer

St. Martin's Griffin; Reprint edition, 400 pp., 2012

IN A SHORT STORY called “The Last Judgment” Karel Capek tells of a murderer who upon his death arrives in heaven to be judged. God himself appears as his witness, providing the context for the murders. When the celestial jury retires, the murderer turns to God and asks why he isn’t judging him. God replies: “Because I know everything, I can’t possibly judge.” 

Humans do not know everything. Perhaps that is why we are so good at judging. But while omniscience remains beyond the realm of human possibility, it is at least true that knowledge and understanding are always increasing. We learn every day, and we change our minds. To phrase the matter in broadly philosophical terms, we might begin with the observation that while human knowledge can never achieve the pure being of the Almighty, it is nevertheless in a constant state of becoming: What we knew yesterday is not the same as what we know today.

For centuries, the problem of human knowledge was the exclusive concern of philosophy and religion. It is resonant in Plato’s cave and in the Hindu veil of Maya. But in the modern era – perhaps owing to Descartes, perhaps Kant, perhaps to bourgeois civilization itself – the emphasis has shifted. Epistemological questions are now more likely to be addressed by reference to human consciousness as well as the cultures that surround, and whose content constitutes, our individual minds. This shift has led in various directions, including the contextual analysis of information disseminated through popular media, the study of “narratives” or specific interpretations of facts, and ruminations on the physical structure of the brain and how the human mind operates. The four books discussed below touch on one or more of these themes.


W. Joseph Campbell’s Getting it Wrong is about inaccuracies in American journalism. In many of the cases he discusses, there is a factoid or judgment which, according to Campbell, becomes an unchallenged truth. Thus, the purpose of the book’s ten entries is to set the record straight.

Some of the topics seem forced, turning on a confusion of media. While it may be that some people believe that Edward R. Murrow caused Joe McCarthy’s downfall, for one example, or that Woodward and Bernstein brought about Richard Nixon’s resignation, for another, it is likely that people who hold such views have been influenced by the relevant popular films, Good Night and Good Luck and All the President’s Men, respectively. Yet films make no pretense to objectivity or accuracy; they are not journalism. Consequently, the debunking of these claims, although interesting, informative, and well researched, seems somewhat superfluous.

A more promising case involves Orson Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast of 1938.  Here, Campbell seeks to argue that the “mass hysteria” or “mass delusion” engendered by the broadcast has been exaggerated, largely by journalists. Yet, as he concedes, the largest estimate of those who believed the broadcast – about 1.2 million – came from a professor at Princeton.

Intent on minimizing the effect of the broadcast, Campbell argues that many people who might have been affected by the radio play did not necessarily tune in – that the reaction often came second-hand, being fed by private fears. In one sense, this is precious reasoning, since the broadcast clearly fed any later reactions. On the other hand, private fears of war and poison gas would certainly have fueled the panic, especially when we consider that the Munich crisis had played out just a few weeks before the broadcast. Unfortunately, Campbell fails to explore the surrounding historical context in any detail. He is more successful in reducing the high estimate of 1.2 million people affected, but he is wrong to think that by diminishing the numbers sufficiently he can refute the claim of mass hysteria altogether.

Part of the problem concerns nomenclature. In my own writings, I have tended to use the terms “mass hysteria” (or “mass psychogenic illness [MPI]” or “conversion disorder”) and “mass delusion” (of which “moral panic” is an offshoot) more or less interchangeably, simply because such phenomena are often linked in appearance. However, there is a difference: Mass psychogenic illness, or conversion disorder, usually involves actual physical symptoms, and the number of those afflicted can be very small. For example, in late 2011 and early 2012 there was an episode in Le Roy, New York, in which about a dozen individuals, mostly teenage girls, began to exhibit symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome. This was ultimately recognized as an instance of conversion syndrome, or mass hysteria, despite the small numbers involved. There were at least as many who believed they were being gassed during the “War of the Worlds” panic.

Distinguished from mass hysteria, a mass delusion may be described in less sensational terms as any popular false belief, but the term is usually restricted to false beliefs that have some hysterical manifestations and that are reflective of larger social or public concerns. The witchcraft mania that seized Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 might be so categorized, as might the localized mass delusions of the 1980s concerning satanic ritual abuse of children in daycare facilities. But an instance of mass delusion need not be of long duration. What makes a delusion durable and long lasting is the authoritative endorsement of the delusion. Campbell concedes that very large numbers of people called police departments to inquire about the Martian attack. What this means is that very large numbers of people accepted, however briefly, the mass delusion the broadcast engendered. The panic did not rise to the level of a full-blown mass delusion because it was squelched at every turn as it began to proliferate. 

The larger point that Campbell seeks to make is that the news media tends to exaggerate its own importance, either in determining public attitudes and beliefs or in driving national policy. That leads to the centerpiece of his book, a discussion of an apocryphal exchange between the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and the newspaper illustrator (and artist and sculptor) Frederick Remington.

The story goes that Remington went to Cuba in early 1898 seeking material for illustrations of Spanish brutality to be published in Hearst’s papers. He found none. Consequently, he is supposed to have telegraphed to Hearst that he was unable to find any suitable subjects. Hearst, in turn, is supposed to have wired back: “You supply the pictures, we will supply the war!”

Campbell does a very good job in analyzing the timeline to show that the Hearst-Remington exchange never took place. He is much less successful in arguing that the Spanish-American war was a legitimate reaction to a “human rights catastrophe.” He downplays evidence of reckless newspaper bellicosity and  the effect that popular war fever would have on the decisions of national politicians. For example, while Campbell concedes that the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor was an accident (it has been well accepted since Hyman Rickover’s commission report in the 1970s that the most likely cause of the explosion that sank the ship was spontaneous combustion in the coal bunkers, which moved to the forward ammunition magazine), there is hardly any mention of the war hysteria that took root after popular press reports implicating a Spanish “infernal device” (engin d’enfer, what we would now call an IED). Yet the effectiveness of such media fervor can be registered, to this day, in the gaudy, gold-plated monument that overpowers the Columbus Circle entrance to New York City’s Central Park.

Similarly, while successfully arguing for the non-existence of the Hearst-Remington telegrams, Campbell then includes an illustration by Remington of a blindfolded political prisoner that appeared in Hearst’s papers to support the contention that Remington had in fact found suitable subjects during his trip. Yet that illustration appeared weeks after Remington had returned from Cuba. Perhaps more significantly, Campbell also fails to develop a rather notorious episode – later, in February 1898 – in which Remington provided what amounted to a drawing of a nude Gibson girl being leered at by lecherous Spanish customs officers with diabolical mustaches out of an Italian opera. Following a headline screaming, “Does Our Flag Protect Women?” the illustration was intended to stir outrage over the alleged body searches of American travelers. Of course, it is known that this story was exaggerated, and it is known that the sensational representation was completely false: No American woman was ever “outraged” in such a manner. Remington simply made up the picture out of his mind, with some assistance, legend asserts, from the wife of one of his Long Island neighbors. In other words, Remington was providing fraudulent pictures, and Hearst was providing …

If we take Campbell’s logic all the way through we would end up arguing that “the media” has no role, or at any rate, very little role, in promoting propaganda. This is not merely counterintuitive; it is contradicted by many historical examples. Never mind the Hearst-Remington exchange, the Ems Telegram of 1870 was sufficient, for both French and German media, to launch the Franco-Prussian War. The Zimmerman telegram, and the sinking of the Lusitania, were also sufficient to rally American support for America’s entry into the First World War. These examples could be multiplied many times.

Campbell’s response would be that, whatever the power of the media, it is much less than the power of our elected officials, and therefore when we concentrate on the media rather than the real holders of power, we make a fundamental error. There is some truth to this proposition. While the media certainly played a role in promoting the Gulf of Tonkin incident (which led to US ground involvement in Vietnam), the bogus Kuwaiti incubator story (which rallied support for the First Gulf War) and the mass hysteria surrounding Saddam Hussein’s supposed “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” it is true that government agencies were the ultimate source of these propaganda claims. However, without media propagation none of these claims would have achieved the level of acceptance that they later received.  Hence, the media’s responsibility, or co-responsibility, in “getting it wrong” cannot be avoided.  Curiously, Campbell discusses none of these claims.

If Hearst’s newspapers in the 1890s used illustrations to promote and propagandize for a particular set of truths, photography, which, at first glance, should be immune to artifice, is the subject of a penetrating analysis by the American documentarian Errol Morris in his book, Believing is Seeing.

Morris’ book grew out of a series of articles in the New York Times in which he analyzed photographs for context, intention, and meaning. The first, and probably best, of these articles concerned two photographs of the British war photographer Roger Fenton, both taken outside of Sevastopol, Russia, during the Crimean War in 1854. Both photographs showed an identical road passing through the Russian countryside: One, with cannonballs strewn on the side of the road; the second, with cannonballs still strewn on the side, but also with a dozen or so emplaced on the road itself. Morris’ initial question was: Which photograph came first?

The conventional interpretation is that the photo without the cannonballs on the road came first, and that the second was arranged by Fenton afterward, in order to communicate a sense of danger, or personal danger. I won’t go over the methodical reconstruction that Morris follows, nor will I give away his answer; however, I do not think that any arrangement of the scene is necessarily blameworthy. After all, many of the cannonballs on the side of the road were probably, at one point, on the road, and I see no reason why that scene cannot be recreated in good faith.

However, this leads Morris into other questions concerning the integrity of photographs, and whether they can fairly represent objective reality. He poses the fundamental epistemological question delightfully: “We want to know where we end, and the world begins” – in other words, in a picture, or in anything, how much of ourselves do we have to remove from the equation before we see reality as it is?  Later, he goes further, claiming that, with photographs, “our beliefs can defeat sensory evidence,” and “what we see is not independent of our beliefs,” by which Morris is implicitly accepting that our perceptions and our understanding are mediated by preconceptions, or what Israel Zangwill, in The Big Bow Mystery, described as “prepossession.”

Morris extends his philosophical study of preconceptions in A Wilderness of Error. In this case, he is primarily concerned with narrative, or interpretation, and it is his conviction that as people allow themselves to accept a particular narrative, they become impervious to contrary evidence. 

This is not a particularly novel insight, although Morris develops it in his typically engaging manner. The notion of beliefs hardening into rigid narratives, or interpretations, only later to be challenged, is a staple in the history of science (witness the evolution of the Germ Theory of Disease, or Plate Tectonics, or the Copernican Revolution) and easily ties into more recondite discussions, such as have been advanced in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions or, more broadly, in Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance.

The vehicle for Morris’ discussion is the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case from the 1970s. The facts are briefly stated: Fort Bragg MPs arrived at the base residence of Jeffrey MacDonald at 4:00 A.M. on February 17, 1970.  In the house, they found a barely conscious MacDonald, a surgeon attached to the Green Berets, who had suffered a number of small wounds with little bleeding, and one puncture wound on his right side that had partially collapsed a lung. They also found the bodies of MacDonald’s wife and two daughters, both of whom had been bludgeoned with a bed slat and repeatedly stabbed with an ice pick to the chest and neck as well as with a paring knife, with large amounts of bleeding. There appears to be a consensus that all of the weapons were from the house, and they were in any case recovered outside the back door of the residence.

MacDonald’s explanation is that he had fallen asleep on the couch in the living room and was awakened by the screams of his wife and eldest daughter to find four hippies standing over him, two white men, a black man, and a woman wearing a floppy hat and holding a candle (or flashlight). The woman, according to MacDonald, was chanting “Kill the Pigs, Acid is groovy!” MacDonald further relates that he was overpowered by the hippies, that he collapsed and passed out on the floor leading from the living room, sometime later regaining consciousness to find his family murdered.

The Army’s criminal investigative unit accepted MacDonald’s story at first, but six weeks later he was identified as the prime suspect. However, by the end of the year the Army’s (Article 32) preliminary hearing concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge MacDonald. MacDonald was subsequently allowed to resign his commission, and he then moved to Southern California where he pursued a career as an emergency room physician.

The case did not end there. The Army continued to pursue leads, MacDonald’s father-in-law studied the transcripts and evidence, and pushed for a trial, and finally MacDonald was tried, this time on federal charges, and in 1979 he was convicted of triple homicide. Excepting appeals, he has been in prison ever since.

The MacDonald homicide case is based on circumstantial evidence. As with other widely reported cases hinging on circumstantial evidence – such as those involving OJ Simpson, Casey Anthony, Scott Peterson, and Amanda Knox – there are no eyewitnesses, and there is no confession. Such cases routinely become high profile, much discussed, and much argued about. And the verdicts – however they are decided – often become a battleground for partisans for years or even decades after the books are officially closed.

This is where Morris comes in. His study of the case has convinced him that, due to preconceptions of MacDonald’s guilt, people had decided the case before the facts were completely known. He believes that the case was wrongly decided, not only because of errors in evidence handling and judicial procedure, but also because the presumption of MacDonald’s guilt prevented people from looking at the circumstantial evidence in a neutral way, or from investigating other pieces of evidence that may be relevant to the case.

A Wilderness of Error thus proceeds as a critical review of the case. Morris examines the handling of the accepted physical evidence (the blood evidence, MacDonald’s pajama top, and so forth) and presents many interviews that touch on prosecutorial errors and possible misconduct. There is also discussion of unexplained evidence, but Morris draws special attention to a young woman, Helana Stoeckley, a resident of nearby Fayetteville who in the 1970s made several confused confessions about being at the crime scene.

It is hard to see why Morris is enamored of Ms. Stoeckley’s confessions. A drug addict and occasional police informer, Stoeckley, by her own admission, was tripping on mescaline the night of the murders and had no immediate memory of being at the homicide scene. It was only after dreaming about the case for several months that she concluded that she was there, which right away suggests a case of recovered memory and obsession, rather than factual truth. Much of the content of her various confessions is frustratingly vague or incomplete, and could have been culled from local reportage of the murders, or imagined, or guessed; especially so, since there was a nine-year hiatus between the commission of the crimes and the actual trial. When Stoeckley was finally asked by the defense to testify after a dramatic plea by MacDonald’s lead attorney, she deflated the situation by insisting that she was not at the murder scene, that MacDonald was guilty, and that she wanted to be fed. A day or two later she testified, denying any knowledge of the murders. Morris believes that she lied on the witness stand, based partly on another recovered memory found in an affidavit written 26 years after the fact. But this allegation has also been contradicted by the main prosecutor in the case.

Outside of such debunking, Morris never confronts the implications of the evidence he chooses to accept or highlight. For example, the blood evidence indicates that the eldest child was bludgeoned in the master bedroom and then put into her own bed where she was again bludgeoned and stabbed. The evidence further indicates that MacDonald’s wife was attacked in the master bedroom, bludgeoned and stabbed in the younger child’s bedroom, and that her body was then returned the master bedroom where it was repeatedly stabbed with an icepick. Given that there were supposed to have been (at least) four intruders, all situated, one imagines, in a narrow hallway, why the moving about?  The prosecution has a narrative that provides for this evidence. Neither the defense nor Morris offers one.

Or take the case of the 22-inch-long saran fiber, suitable for blonde wigs or a doll’s hair, or possibly even the interior lining of one of the wigs MacDonald’s wife possessed. The prosecution argues that this came from a doll; Morris argues – fairly convincingly – that it did not. But that doesn’t support the argument that it came from some putative wig that Helena Stoeckley possessed. How did it get on the brush?  This would require, according to MacDonald’s scenario, that the woman intoning “Kill the Pigs, Acid is groovy!” would have had to put down her candle and take off her floppy hat and then – for no clear reason – start brushing the hair of her wig. There is no evidence or claim that she did.

The evidence of the pajama top? The prosecution’s theory holds that the holes correspond to the ice pick wounds in the chest of MacDonald’s wife (in multiples, because the garment was folded) and is consistent with the fact that there are fibers of the top throughout the crime scene, including under his wife’s corpse.  Morris is not very successful in arguing away this evidence, but this evidence is strongly supportive of MacDonald’s guilt, not least because it contradicts MacDonald’s own testimony, in which he described fighting off the attackers with his pajama top and placing it on his wife because her chest was exposed.

One of the MPs who arrived at the MacDonald house the night of the murders saw a woman in a wide brimmed hat standing outside of a convenience store a few of blocks away from the crime scene, and after hearing MacDonald’s story, pointed it out to his superiors. This angle was never pursued, although “wide brimmed” and “floppy” are not exactly synonyms. Morris considers this suspicious, yet, the former MP, in his interview with Morris is adamant that whoever the woman was, it was not Helena Stoeckley, since he knew her by sight from civilian patrols in Fayetteville. Morris does not believe this man’s testimony, even though the police sketches of the woman in the floppy hat as described by MacDonald bear no resemblance to Helena Stoeckley and MacDonald denied having ever seen Stoeckley when he was provided with a photograph of her in court.

Morris harshly criticizes the prosecution’s proposed intention, or motive, which is based on a character assessment of MacDonald’s egotism, hedonism, and known use of amphetamines. Yet he never offers a plausible motive for the four alleged intruders, which, intentional fallacy or not, remains a big problem.

Morris’ meditation on the constricting nature of an imposed narrative simply fails to convince. In the first place, there was no Philip K. Dickian Black Iron Prison in play: MacDonald’s in-laws were convinced of his innocence for well over a year until they began to go through the transcripts of the preliminary hearing.  The Army itself concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge MacDonald, and he was allowed to resign his commission and spend most of the next twelve years fornicating with dozens of women in Southern California. In short, there never was a dominant narrative that was immovable, requiring careful spadework to overturn.

The second reason why Morris’ analysis of narrative structure ultimately fails is that he never offers a persuasive counter-narrative at all.  If you want to argue against a traditional interpretation of evidence – a “narrative,” as it were – then you have to take in account as much of the evidence as possible and recast it into a new narrative. Otherwise you are simply debunking single pieces of evidence. This is not to say that other narrative possibilities do not exist. Conceivably, one could start with the transcript of MacDonald’s initial interrogation in April, 1970. Yet MacDonald’s father-in-law identified over a hundred points of implausibility, and impossibility – because of conflict with the uncontested physical evidence – in that transcript. Most of these points remain unexplained by MacDonald’s advocates, as well as by Morris. Or one could adopt one of the shifting narratives of Helena Stoeckley, which tend to be vague, nebulous, and probably influenced by information leaks in the media and elsewhere. In fairness, Morris recognizes the likelihood of such contamination.

During the trial in 1979 MacDonald provided access to the American author Joe McGinnis. The idea was that, privileged with such access, McGinnis would write a profitable book about the case and the trial, and though there were no strictures placed on McGinnis in terms of what he would write, it was assumed that his narrative would be favorable and exculpatory. But when Fatal Vision was published in 1983, it argued for MacDonald’s guilt. Feeling that his trust had been betrayed, MacDonald’s sued McGinnis in civil court in a case that eventually settled for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The MacDonald-McGinnis trial would become the subject of two major articles in The New Yorker by Janet Malcolm. These articles would later be republished as a book entitled The Journalist and the Murderer. The book is famous for its central contention that journalism is “morally indefensible” because it involves gaining the trust of the subject who is in turn objectified in prose by the journalist. The betrayal of privilege, Malcolm counseled, is always in the background of a journalistic encounter.

Morris discusses Malcolm’s book, but mainly to castigate what he perceives as her relativism with regard to truth, facts, and actuality. Malcolm wrote: “If you start off with a presumption of guilt, you read the documents one way, and another way if you presume his innocence. The evidence does not ‘speak for itself.’”  I take this as an expression of Malcolm’s enervation and despair over her study of the case, but Morris considers it completely wrong, countering that, “True, evidence never speaks for itself.  It exists as part of a theory or story or narrative, but stories can be tested against reality.” Here, Morris is to some extent criticizing analogous comments he made in Believing is Seeing, except that he maintains that objective truth is possible, provided one sufficiently engages the details. Unfortunately, given his own limited treatment of the evidence, A Wilderness of Error can only be considered a first draft in that direction.

In the end, then, Morris is left with lawyerly scraps. He criticizes the handling of the evidence, the conduct of the trial, and half a dozen pieces of physical evidence (“errant data” to conspiracy buffs) for which he never articulates any interpretation. If Morris had provided a coherent counter-narrative, taking into account all of the physical and testimonial evidence, or as much of it as possible, and including the various problems with MacDonald’s testimonies, then his book would have significantly greater force. As it stands, A Wilderness of Error is a less-than-persuasive entry in the literature of debunking. But this also has value insofar as the adoption of minority views frequently has a heuristic effect, leading to a greater expansion of knowledge. In that respect, it may still claim some success.

The absence of a counter-narrative, or alternative interpretation, in Morris’ study may be instructive to consider in light of the ideas developed by Michael Shermer in The Believing Brain, a book which investigates the actual need – perhaps even the biological need – that humans have for narratives, proven or not. Shermer, who has written and published on skeptical themes for decades, here presents his theories for why people believe things (that is, accept as fact on little or no evidence) and how beliefs acquire the finality of knowledge. 

Much of Shermer’s book consists of exposition about various beliefs, material that Shermer has covered before in books like Why People Believe Weird Things, but there is no need to go over the superstitious element animating beliefs in such things as UFOs, extra-terrestrials, and various conspiracies. Where the book is most interesting is in his attempt to harness neurobiology to set forth a theory for how the mind operates using the concepts of “patternicity” and “agenticity.”

Since I have cultivated my own assumptions about how the human mind operates, I would like to present my thinking here. A key element, it seems to me, is that humans are cause seeking animals. In other words, whatever is, it is natural for people to look for where it came from, how it got there, and what made it happen. Coupled with this notion of causality there is another human tendency: to expect all action to either follow predictable causal laws or to be determined by deliberate agency. Shermer has similar views, but he calls the first consequence “patternicity,” that is, the human tendency to discern patterns (e.g., faces in clouds) and calls the second “agenticity,” that is, the tendency to see sufficient cause in apparently random occurrences (e.g., conspiracy theories that seek to explain the accidental death of Princess Diana.) 

As it happens, I agree with Shermer since my own thinking has run along the same lines. However, there are two points on which I would demur. First, if these characteristics are accepted as innate, I am not sure why it should be necessary to try to shut them off by rational analysis. It seems to me it would be better to canalize ingrained human impulses into more disciplined and less destructive channels. Of course, this invites recognition of the value of organized religion – a turn now regarded with suspicion. Second, I am not sure that Shermer’s discussion, considered in detail, is quite convincing. At a minimum, The Believing Brain is yet another acknowledgement of the ways in which our perception and our knowledge are constrained, in this case, by the actual physical structure of our brains.


The four books under review discuss many ways in which our knowledge and understanding are frustrated by the quality of the information we receive, by the preconceptions we hold, and by our actual physical selves. Some tentative conclusions present themselves:

1. Our determination of facts, or evidence, is largely informed by our intuitions of the whole of a situation. You can follow Zangwill and call it "prepossession," or Malcolm and call it "preconception," but Morris is still right in the sense that something approximating objectivity is possible and the evaluation of evidence and facts will lead one to a satisfying narrative. I think that's good enough, even to cover reasonable doubt in a criminal case, but Errol Morris clearly feels differently.

2. Most people's apprehension of facts or evidence outside of their personal sphere comes from outside sources: Media, government, and so on. The purveyors of that information, on the other hand, are bound to impose some kind of narrative structure, or even aesthetic structure (in the case of visual media), on that data before it is transmitted. This represents just another impediment to accurate knowledge. There are, in other words, layers upon layers of structure – or as Shermer would say, “patternicity” – that may interfere between the bareness of a datum and its reception.

3. The manner in which media structure information for public consumption can be demonstrated in various ways: By analysis of the context of photographs (which involves the attempt to divine authorial intent), or by the careful analysis of media claims (which are frequently self-advertising, as Campbell’s book demonstrates).

4. Interestingly, while a discussion of intentionality (or motive in a criminal case, or with reference to a person’s character) is routinely dispatched in the study of cultural products (and for good reasons), it remains essential to any historical reconstruction. Insofar as this involves a fallacy, the fallacy is absolutely certainty, which should be simply a call to modesty, not a call to abandon the quest. 

I began with a parable by Karel Capek in which God refused to judge. It is tempting to close with the consonant French proverb, “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,” or, “to understand everything, that is to forgive everything.”  But I think the reality is more complex. Understanding and judgment are clean different things. The process of understanding is keyed to the acquisition of knowledge; it is a process of expanding, and embracing, ever larger and wider contexts. But in addition to mere factual knowledge, understanding requires a willingness to embrace the subject and all the details of the case. It requires intuition, empathy, communion, imagination, as well as knowledge. Only in this way can one convincingly (if only in one’s own mind) overcome the myriad hurdles of interference thrown up by our cognitive limitations, our preconceptions, and the distortions in how the data is presented.

Judgment, on the other hand, requires distance; at minimum, the distance to point a finger. The necessity for passing judgment, for humans, may be both biologically determined and necessary for social order. It may be required for the maintenance of moral values or cherished beliefs, but it is not the same thing as the desire to know. A judgment is a state of being. Understanding, on the other hand, is relentlessly becoming.



Click here to read W. Joseph Campbell's "Media Myth Alert"

  Believing is Seeing


Wilderness of error

Click here to visit Errol Morris' site

Beieving Brain

Click here to visit Michael Shermer's site


Click here to learn more about Samuel Crowell's work


Editor's note: The above review was contributed by Samuel Crowell, author of The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes: And Other Writings on the Holocaust, Revisionism, and Historical Understanding. An updated version will be published in the first Nine-Banded Sourcebook and Reader, which is slated for release in mid-2013.

memento mori.


memento mori.