Note: What is below is pure speculation. I wanted a grounding that assigns Truthers to the Left more than the Right. I don’t think I got there, and what’s weirder is that talking about conspiracy theory tends to make one sound like a conspiracy theorist. Oh well.
Michael Neumann, a philosopher, and CounterPunch contributor, at the University of Trent, in Ontario, remarked in a note to me:
“I think the problem of conspiracy nuttery has got worse, and is part of a general trend. There really were serious questions about the Kennedy assassination, an unusual number of them, and it wasn’t too crazy to come to the wrong conclusion. There wasn’t a single serious question about 9-11. But this is the age of angels, creationism, corpses all over Kosovo, Arabs suspiciously speaking Arabic, Satanic child abuse, nucular Eyraquees, and channeling. The main engine of the 9-11 conspiracy cult is nothing political; it’s the death of any conception of evidence.
“This probably comes from the decline of Western power. Deep down, almost everyone, across the political spectrum, is locked in a bigotry which can only attribute that decline to some irrational or supernatural power. The result is the ascendency of magic over common sense, let alone reason.”
– Alexander Cockburn, “The 9/11 Conspiracists and the Decline of the Left”
1. Cockburn’s thoughts are pretty thorough, so let’s start there. In his article, he says that the “populist Right” is prone to conspiracy theories because of its mistrust of government, that truthers believe in a near infallible government, and, as seen above, he distinguishes between legitimate grievances that can become conspiracy theory versus flat-out kookery.
Where Cockburn and the mainstream Left go wrong is that they want to ascribe this to the culture that brought Bush to power. I don’t think there’s a scrap of evidence for this belief, and I’m going to posit an alternate theory about political seriousness and hold the Left accountable for creating and abusing Truthers.
2. You can actually see Truthers get abused on a site like Digg. They vote for Leftist articles that say “Bush is a war criminal” in preponderance, but when they have their articles about 9/11 up, they need fake accounts and the other sort of gimmickry their erstwhile allies use to get the articles to go anywhere. And then they get abused by their sometime comrades on the Left and the Right and boy does it get ugly. Especially since if you talk to Truthers, you’ll notice that they’re not exactly all in the best of emotional conditions – there’s a certain numbness one needs to believe that one is onto the greatest conspiracy of all time. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” and any content can submit to that form.
3. I suppose I need to put some distance between the Truthers and the Right. This is tricky to do in one way, not so in another. In the one way it’s tricky, it is true you’ll find a lot of people online go “I was Republican before Bush, and am still conservative” and a number of them also add “I don’t buy into these Republican dirty tricks and I think there are rigged elections and am convinced 9/11 was caused by the Mossad using alien technology” etc. I could dump this sort of character on the Left, but I don’t think that’s an honest starting point.
I think the most honest starting point is to question how honest this sort of person is being with himself. I think a lot of the people going “I’m a conservative but am not a neo-con” have no clue what they are. They just have a bunch of labels and are using them haphazardly, and neither the Left nor the Right that knows what they’re talking about should claim them.
4. The second thing I need to do is get rid of this idea that Rightist conspiracy theory from the Clinton years carried over into the Bush years. I think this is actually easy to do – for all the anger directed at Hillary Clinton, there’s no doubt she and her husband are corrupt (witness the last day in the White House, and what sort of state Arkansas has been for years), and that as angry as the Right got with them, there’s nothing on the Right like the level of Bush mockery. It’s an accepted fact the world over that the President is dumb. At least with Bill Clinton being sleaze and sexually deviant, those charges were demonstrable. That Bush went to a White House Press Corps dinner and read aloud his own verbal gaffes from an attack book is never cited, and if it is cited, it’s done to attack Bush yet again.
The difference between the attacks on Clinton in the Clinton years and the attacks on Bush now is not merely quantitative. It’s qualitative. There’s not a thing Bush can do right: very few rightist sources even are actually giving the President credit for the success of the surge. And elite opinion firmly holds that attacking Bush is implicitly defending the Constitution and America. Clinton’s issues were debatable and ultimately verifiable. The issues surrounding Bush stem from hatred only and rarely add up to a real case. Note that Cockburn and other Leftists will play with the idea that the President welcomes 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Can someone hate America so much that they want to see Americans behaving subrationally publicly, and also serve as President? I hope the President is getting rich off Iraq through oil links – nothing else justifies the abuse he has taken continually over 8 years.
5. Add up the irrationality of Bush hatred and the willingness of the Left to use any means – like gaming a website, openly manipulating and then abusing allies – as a vehicle for dissent, and you get a new breed of conspiracy theory. All conspiracy theories start with immense distrust of an individual or institution: in this respect, the 9/11 Truth hatred of Bush parallels crackpot theories about Clinton and the Kennedy assassination, etc.
What makes the 9/11 Truth Movement so especially bad is how stupid and complicated it is. What Cockburn and other Leftists are exactly correct about is how consuming the minutiae are for anyone remotely following the theories. Even though there are new “engineers” and “former government officials” constantly advancing these ideas, one has to wonder if anyone but an engineer or former gov’t official could understand the conspiracy theory enough to advance it.
In other words, we’re looking at a theory advanced not through populism so much as technical/administrative expertise. Maybe the future of politics is in the 9/11 Truth movement: perhaps this is Progressivism’s logical terminus (a debased Progressivism, of course. Dewey and Wilson and Hegel are not to blame for this). Our sentiments can be backed up by a belief in a government’s efficacy (for we can be so efficacious if we try) and our own knowledge which is purely technical. There is no need to investigate moral matters or question our values – values are a product of what we want to do. One set of values now comes from oligarchs who can manipulate elections and make us believe planes crashed into buildings. Our set of values believes that if America doesn’t pursue its national interest and smart policies are advanced we can have a truly peaceful, democratic world.
6. And now I’m sounding crazy, because a parallel argument can be made that Conservative sentiments gone nuts lead to the same sort of conclusions, and it isn’t like conspiracy theories conservatives advance are nice and fuzzy and don’t hurt politics – it is true Clinton hatred blinds the Right (still) in key ways. I’m well aware the logic I’m using is antinomial. What I ask you to do is ask Truthers about all their other beliefs besides the 9/11 stuff. If it starts sounding awfully Leftist, why should that surprise anyone?
The more obvious argument than the above would have been to talk about “Fahrenheit 9/11” and how low Michael Moore stooped in order to advance every conspiracy theory possible against the Bush administration. But if I start with that argument, I still have to address why it is the Left is prone to conspiracy theory as a vehicle for political change nowadays.
I think the best argument for why that might be is that the Left believes itself rational. Everyone else believes in “magic” or “angels.” The Left believes in progress, and progress occurs through the accumulation of power. As we know how to do more, we become more and more powerful. Knowledge that counsels restraint – like morality – is a waste of time. Even global warming is a matter to be combated not through restraint as much as restraints, a strategy based on knowledge than a moderation inherent to one’s activities.
Those of us on the Right, in order to counter the Truthers, probably need to do two things:
- Recognize they’re not the sanest people and be a bit gentler
- Talk to their more rational allies and advise they lay off the Bush hatred. The Bush hatred is absolutely encouraging the Truthers, and it’s not necessary. If you want to argue against oligarchy and for social justice, do it in terms of policy and particular cases.
If we can get the Left to be more deliberative and focused on their values, they’ll see that control isn’t an inherent good and that none of us on the Right want control for control’s sake. It’ll put an end to their tendency to generate Truther-like movements, which we might be doomed to see every time something awful related to technology or government occurs in the future. Otherwise, they’ll be arguing later that hurricanes were caused by conservatives in government with weather control technology, and politics will be mired in discussion of that sort for years to come, just as it is mired in discussion of “what really happened on 9/11” now.