The Bunkum of John Feffer
Scratch the surface of any story and you’ll find rumors, hoaxes, and conspiracies. The conspiracy theory is the most intriguing of them all, for it combines total skepticism with total credulity. The same person will challenge every assertion made by the government or the mass media about Roswell or the Kennedy assassination, and then proceed to embrace the most cockamamie theory without even doing a minimum of legwork to test it.
Cyberspace is the perfect place for this contradiction to thrive, for it is both “the Petri dish for paranoids” and also the home of Snopes and other scam trackers. Wikipedia is a battleground between conspiracy hounds and the thousands of amateur sleuths who aspire to do at least as good a job as the fact-checkers at conventional encyclopedias (whether they do so is a matter of considerable debate, including within Wikipedia itself). The Internet is full of bunkum and debunk ‘em. Like matter and anti-matter, they should cancel each other out. But the relationship more aptly resembles that between bacteria and antibiotics. Develop an effective tuberculosis vaccine, and the TB bacterium will develop a stronger resistant strain. The American body politic, weakened by successive waves of government lies, media oversights, and the relentless repetition of demagogues, is susceptible to these highly infectious theories.
Most toxic of all perhaps are the myths generated by 9/11. Over the years, I’ve received lots of letters about 9/11 and why it was an inside job. One recent letter insisted that Osama bin Laden was not behind the 2001 attacks, that an Israeli firm in the Twin Towers “received a fax warning them about the 911 attack that would come in a few hours” (which presumably allowed it to warn Israelis and/or Jews to evacuate the building), and that it was not a plane that struck the Pentagon on that fateful day.
Although bin Laden initially denied responsibility, an overwhelming amount of evidence surfaced that linked al Qaeda to the attacks (including, of course, bin Laden himself eventually claiming responsibility). As for the Israeli firm, Odigo, it did receive such a warning, but it was an instant message, not a fax. The message arrived at its office in Israel, did not identify the location of the attack, and was hostile rather than friendly. It in no way demonstrates that the firm, which didn’t even have offices in the Twin Towers to evacuate, was part of a U.S.-Israeli plot to bring down the buildings. As for Flight 77, there were lots of eyewitness reports of its crash into the Pentagon in addition to calls made by people on board. And where exactly did the flight go if not into the Pentagon? I could go on — about the misrepresentations of the size of the hole in the Pentagon, other hoaxes involving advanced warnings of 9/11, and all the other fanciful theories about who was behind the attacks.
The “9/11 truthers” are as resistant to rebuttal as the right-wing “birthers.” They both draw strength from their deep-seated distrust of government and the mass media. They believe not in Occam’s Razor, which argues for building a case on the fewest new assumptions, but in Occam’s Hairball, a partially digested lump of every new assumption that has stuck in their craw.
Long before the Internet, historian Richard Hofstadter warned of the “paranoid style” that periodically grips the American body politic and directs the crowd’s fury at Masons or Jesuits or Jews or Communists. In his recently updated book on conspiracy theories, legal scholar Mark Fenster takes a more benign view. Such theories reflect populist suspicion about the concentration of economic and political power, a suspicion “that can have violent, racist, and antidemocratic effects (as well as salutary and democracy-enhancing ones) on the political and social order, but a strain that is neither independent from nor necessarily threatening to the country’s political institutions or political culture.”
I agree that conspiracy theories do not threaten the status quo, for they usually distract attention from more serious and systemic problems (for instance, bridges and highways and buildings are collapsing all over the United States because of the defunding of infrastructure, and the Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth focus all their energies on explaining how an exploding plane could never make the Twin Towers collapse?). And yes, before you prepare your flaming emails, some conspiracies turn out to have a basis in fact (the Iran-Contra affair, for instance, or the right-wing mobilization to bring down Bill Clinton).
The danger of conspiracy theories lies not so much in whether they are right or wrong but in how they erode our democratic institutions. Instead of democratizing the state, conspiracy theorists tend toward a libertarian downsizing of government; instead of breaking the corporate control of the media, conspiracy theorists create their own dogmatic blogs and websites. Conspiracies sap our will, for who except Jesus or Keanu Reaves can stand up to The Matrix? In fact, conspiracies are the exception to the rule of big institutions, which err on the side of incompetence more often than not. Conspiracies overstate the power of the powerful. As the Iran-Contra affair demonstrated, even authentic conspiracies are fairly inept.
I fear that conspiracies have become the only way for us to organize the unruly flow of information that assaults us daily. We create all-encompassing, quasi-religious explanations to make sense of the supernova of our post-modern experience.
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