Sunday, August 20, 2006

Liquid Explosives and Chomsky’s Conspiracy Theorem

In “It's The Foreign Policy, Stupid” Oscar Reyes opens up with the following nonsense:

When the news came in that Britain's security services had foiled a terrorist outrage on the scale of 9/11, I should have felt relief at mass murder averted, shock at the audacity of the plot, and fear that Britain was once again under attack.

I blog to differ: He should have felt no such thing. To react in such a hysterical manner would, in my opinion, cast doubt on his stability as a political commentator—and he is an able political commentator. Given the tendencies of governments and corporate media, the veracity of the reports— like their mendacity—is simply not to be assumed a priori. Luckily though, he finds “those instincts clouded by thoughts of a more troubled kind” and then proceeds to submit some fairly troubled and clouded thinking:

To be caught in a game of truth about the plausibility or otherwise of a failed terror plot - or, worse, to fantasise about conspiracies - is to risk losing sight of the key issues in the debate on terrorism.

This trite little sermon might be suitable fodder for the more provincial parishes of the Church of Moderate Dissidence, but as the third paragraph in a relatively sophisticated political analysis of the Liquid Explosives Affair, it needs to be exposed for what it is: a cheap and wholly inappropriate regurgitation of doctrinal Chomsky. Here, there are several objectionable aspects packed into one glib sentence:

1. It encourages mindless submission to official sources.

2. It is an argument not only to the benefit of John Reid, but in his style, the “key issues” being the citizen’s excessive freedom vis-à-vis the state, the Internet as terrorist resource, etc.

3. The plausibility or otherwise of a failed terror plot is as much a key issue as its ultimate veracity. I am well aware of the epistemological limitations of analyzing official claims regarding national security, but they validate rather than nullify the importance of attempting to identify possible flimsy underpinnings of some of the most consequential policies of state.

4. The central weakness of the government’s position is somewhat obfuscated by the metaphor that has it that contemplating “the plausibility or otherwise of a failed terror plot” is a (silly) “game of truth.”

5. Something more than a tired sophism is called for in asserting the supremacy of one’s views. The pretentious insinuation that the points taken up in this article are the “key issues” will not suffice—though they are good points.

6. Worse, the gratuitous discrediting of anyone imagining alternative scenarios as “fantasizing about conspiracies” is almost an assault on freedom of speech.

7. Worse still, only in the previous sentence the article had itself just submitted two speculative items—two fantasies, if you will:

· “It is likely that several of the 24 suspects detained in raids on 10 August played no part in any terror plot.” There is, furthermore, something slightly phony about this speculation, since by August 12th it was already known that two suspects had been released and, presumably, were considered entirely innocent.

· “But the signs are that, this time around, the police did disrupt a plan to blow up trans-Atlantic flights.” There is something entirely fraudulent about this speculation, given that the “signs” are not subsequently discussed. An ipse dixit bluff is being passed off as a judicious opinion.

To merely write “the signs are” and be done with it! The very idea almost smacks of some religious fundamentalist cult: Because so much is being made of this by the media, there must be some truth to it. And because there must be some truth to it, the government must be telling the truth. I am reminded of the argument of a Hollywood street evangelist I once conversed with: “Do you think,” he asked sternly, “that a God as good and merciful as this one would allow things that didn’t actually happen to go in the Bible?”

And indeed, the phobia of even considering the possibility of an official hoax (a “conspiracy” in the slavish print lexicon of today) is a leaf straight out of Ye Lefty Bible over there at ZNet. It would appear that because Noam Chomsky feels the way he does about the Kennedy assassination, and because he might be the closest thing our age has to a historically outstanding thinker-personality, elevated levels of skepticism regarding official reports are being checked by an intellectual taboo. There is a mordant indemocracy entailed in this axiomatic rejection of so-called “conspiracy,” i.e. of the idea that—heaven forbid—an official account might be not merely deceptive, but an outright deception. Why cannot the Liquid Explosives Affair, which I may be excused for calling a conspiracy theory, be approached with as much skepticism as all that is habitually rubbished under that abusive term? Do you think a gov as good and merciful as this one would allow things that didn’t actually happen to go into the public record?

Why does the naiveté of precisely the skeptics have to be assumed by our friends on the Left?

Nor am I comforted by the possibility, somehow implied in the opening of the aforementioned piece, that the story might have been exaggerated, but that at least a real bomb plot was disrupted. I grant the possibility, but the troubled thought arising from that hypothetical scenario one of authorities and official sources who think nothing of defaming Britain’s 1.5 million Muslims in the name of national security. Such a policy would be anything but nationally secure, to say nothing of its Hitlerian kinship.

The unfortunate fact to be confronted is that we live more and more in an age where, to our officials and masters, pure image, that is to say unblinking hype and pretense, often count for more than actual fact. Witness the North-American “liberal bias in the media” proposition: A couple of mindless New York Times bestsellers to that effect, and suddenly the question is being seriously debated by all and sundry in the mass communication industry—in spite of the very palpable fact that no such thing exists in the US. If an example closer to the present crisis is needed, witness the weapons of mass destruction conspiracy. Though he does concede that this and other terrorism-related travesties provide “ample reasons to be cynical,” Reyes, like so many others, seems unprepared to dwell on them to the point of abandoning his lingering traces of faith in “Pakistani intelligence” and “officials who wish to remain anonymous.”

In the early 1920s, Walter Lippmann predicted with amazing prescience that the “self-conscious art of persuasion” would eventually come to preface every “political calculation” and “modify every political premise,” but, judging by recent events, it threatens to replace them entirely.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Pies in the Sky

The breathtakingly virtuoso script of the media study How to Get Ahead in Advertising contains a priceless scene in which the disturbed advertising professional Dennis Dimbleby Bagley is sharing a train carriage with an Irish priest and two respectable-looking Englishmen, one of whom makes the mistake of commenting aloud on the newspaper article he is reading:

Englishman: I see the police have made another lightning raid... Paddington drug orgy.
Priest: I suppose young girls was involved?
Englishman [reading aloud from newspaper]: One discovered naked in the kitchen...breasts smeared with peanut butter. The police took away a bag containing 15 grams of cannabis resin... it may also contain a quantity of heroin.
Bagley: Or a pork pie.
Englishman: I beg your pardon.
Bagley: I said the bag may also have contained a pork pie.
Englishman: I hardly see a pork pie's got anything to do with it.
Bagley: Alright then, what about a large turnip. It might also have contained a big turnip.
Priest: The bag was full of drugs.
Bagley: Nonsense.
Priest: The bag was full of drugs, it says so.
Bagley: The bag could've been full of anything. Pork pies, turnips, oven parts... it's the oldest trick in the book.
Priest: What book?
Bagley: The distortion of truth by association book. The word is "may." You all believe heroin was in the bag because cannabis resin was in the bag. The bag may have contained heroin, but the chances are 100 to 1 certain that it didn't.

Englishman: A lot more likely than what you say.
Bagley: About as likely as the tits spread with peanut butter.

Yesterday, such gentlemen might have been moved to comment on the Independent’s front-pager entitled Red alert after police 'foil air terror plot'.” Readers with shorter train journeys could have taken in the following bullet points by way of summary:

  • 'Liquid chemical devices in passenger bags' suspected
  • US flights from UK were targeted, say Washington sources
  • 21 arrests: main players 'accounted for' says Reid
  • MI5 raises the threat level to critical - attack imminent [emphasis supplied].

Similarly, readers of The Scotsman would have read “Airline terrorists were days away from massacre at 30,000 feet” summarized as

  • Airports across the UK on alert as terror strike looks to have been foiled
  • Nine aircraft may have been targeted for destruction
  • Twenty-four arrested in raids, including recent convert to Islam [emphasis supplied].

Though in a situation like the present one, synchronization and coordination among the different corporate media are impressive, each outlet retains its own little flourishes and logical turns.

For example, note in the Scotsman article the elegance of slipping the phrase “recent convert to Islam” into the bulletin summary: At first glance it appears out of context, but it is in fact a deft and politically correct way of instantly communicating that all the detainees have to have been Muslims. As a bonus, the storyline insinuated by the recent corruption of a teenager empowers the article with room for gossip and fantasy, all at no extra production cost.

A reader of the BBC News accountPolice probe flights terror plot” would emerge well-informed on what enigmatic “US intelligence officials” halfway around the world “believe,” while those dispatched by the Associated Press in British: Thwarted plot involved 10 jetswere treated to more emotive language, exaggeration, and associative hanky panky, but supplied with a tad more firmness to their convictions. In this typical article, despite a stray “possibly,” the British police show themselves both more assertive and clairvoyant:

British police said Thursday they thwarted a terrorist plot, possibly just days away, to blow up U.S.-bound jetliners over the Atlantic and kill thousands. Chilling accounts leaked by investigators described a plan on the scale of Sept. 11 that would use liquid explosives concealed as everyday carry-on items and common electronic devices to bring down 10 planes in a nearly simultaneous strike.

While it is perhaps theoretically possible for ten brimming economy class-only Boeing 767s to yield a maximum passenger/victim crop of 2550 people, the actual number of passengers on that terrible day would almost certainly be lower and, if truth be told, probably not in the “thousands.” Chilling leaks granted, just how bringing down ten such airliners over the ocean could possibly match in scale the destruction of 9/11 in which the entire World Trade Center of Manhattan was virtually turned into fine powder is left to the reader’s fantasy. Lest I be accused of petty haggling over potential damage bills, it is well to bear in mind that these slight exaggerations are entirely unnecessary and not the product of sloppy reasoning but rather deliberate appeals to the irrational; in a word, we are looking at the delicate art of fear-mongering without lying too starkly. The specter of the 2001 tragedy is likewise being invoked solely for the purpose of heightening the reader’s sense of urgency.

Of further epistemological note is that a different AP article, “U.S. posts code-red alert; bans liquids" has “other officials” asserting that the plan involved “the use of a peroxide-based solution,” but they “spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the subject.”

All in all, it can safely be said that, in addition to the italicized pork-pie conditionals above, international accounts of whatever the Dickens happened on the 10th of August, 2006, were conspicuously peppered with the all the usual Kleenex caveats such as alleged, said to be, suspected, possible, etc. Staring the reader in the face was “the hallmark” not of “al-Qaida” but of dodgy official sources. The result was a classic constellation of known and unknown variables amounting to a parody of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: The observer can either know which officials made a statement of possibility, or else which statements of fact were made by possible officials, but she can never know both leak and liquid, both information and source simultaneously. An exception is the information provided by concrete source Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, namely the undisputable fact that the whole affair was "In some respects suggestive of an al-Qaida plot.” Only this is not very useful information, since it is the Department of Homeland Security itself, who, owing its existence to “al-Qaida,” is suggesting in terms none too subtle that the US has once again come under red-alert attack by you-know-whodunnit.

My critique of this media campaign revolves precisely around the fact that the pork pies that are not merely suggested in the above articles are ipse dixit, and that hence, as Bagley contended at the onset, very little of what has actually transpired is known.

Specifically, besides the fact that the Department of Homeland Security is crying “al-Qaida!” as it is wont to do, we know that:

  • Some twenty-odd Muslims have been arrested in the UK for terrorist activity.
  • An inordinate number of UK flights have been cancelled.
  • New airport security measures have been swiftly introduced so as to prohibit the “liquid explosive plus common electronic devices” technique of bringing down a passenger plane.
  • MI5 has raised its “threat level” indicator to the maximum status available,
  • American authorities have done something similar, but only in regard to inbound flights from the UK.
  • Most importantly, at least to my way of understanding media, while this drama unfolds in the Anglo-Saxon world, the State of Israel persists in its unwarranted and wanton destruction of both the Lebanon and the sovereign rights of nations; the UN and US affect a blind eye, while scanning the Middle East with hawkish intensity.
  • UK police found several common electronic devices and no liquid explosives of any kind.

How can we make this last assertion? How does Bagley know the bag contained neither pork pie nor heroin? Well you see, Watson, it would not have been necessary to couch things quite so snugly in conditional terms had the suicide conspirators been caught in flagrante delicto or at least with some dope on them. By most accounts it would have made for better, stronger copy, if the authorities had waited, since most of the articles above, like the Scotsman, make special mention that

“The decision to arrest the group came as they were apparently just two days away from a "dry run", to see if they would be able to smuggle the needed materials aboard the planes [emphasis supplied].”

The consistently defensive editorial mode gives the game away. If no one in the information chain of journalists, editors and “official” sources wishes to commit to a concrete version of events beyond the world of “appearances” and ipse dictum, it probably bespeaks a story that, while well stimulating of the public imagination, springs from a single source of damaged or dubious credibility, such as, say, the dossier-faking Blair government. (Not that an eagerness on the part of official sources to commit to the party line signifies the opposite.)

By way of general principle in these frequent cases of media-induced panic, I submit that the glue holding all the unsubstantiated claims above together and affording them both the minimum degree of presentability for institutional publication (to say nothing of their disproportionate power over the public imagination) is official secrecy. Premature conclusions and hearsay seem more acceptable when we are advised that little concrete information can be given at the present time, given that these matters of top secret national security entail all manner of strategic and juridical implications and subtleties. Generally speaking, in the contradictory world of open societies, the (inevitable) secrecy of the state comes part and parcel with all manner of manipulation, conjecture, and hysterics that get “leaked” to the fore of non-secret mass media. For example, we are told that “MI5 has raised the threat level to ‘critical,’” and furthermore that “This means that an attack is expected imminently and indicates an extremely high level of threat to the UK." What is not clear, and certainly not elucidated upon in the above articles, is how a “foiled” attack can sustain an ongoing maximum security level, particularly if henceforth hand luggage is checked for liquid explosives as standard procedure. Are there other red-hot security issues the Security Service is keeping from us hesitant flyers?

Be that as it may, we are relieved to discover on MI5’s website that:

Threat levels in themselves do not require specific responses from the public. They are a tool for security practitioners working across different sectors of what we call the Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) and the police to use in determining what protective security response may be required.

In other words, threat levels have little to do with the public at large, but are noteworthy to specific professionals who deal with security issues in different enterprises. But while threat levels, particularly those of the screaming-red variety, may not require specific responses from the public, they certainly elicit them when trumpeted by mass media in the context of bomb threats. One is only to presume that the distractive potential of presenting the public with a maximum alert is by no means lost on those involved in the business of mass communication. Does MI5 really think more attacks are imminent, or is the sustained alert level “just” a formality, namely that of keep ‘em guessing?

My guess would be that the intention behind the present media campaign is to overwhelm a majority of the public with a scoop of pure, old-fashioned, bombast and nothing more. One shouldn’t be entirely surprised if, when excitement and memory die down and out respectively, the “present time” of yore, during which little concrete information could be supplied for technical reasons, will simply vanish, leaving even less concrete information in its wake; one of those stories that incipiently promise the earth in intrigue, but that, for some unstated reason or other, are not written with a sequel in mind.

I am not, however, saying that no such diabolical plot could have existed; at a minimum, it exists in that someone conceived it. The epistemological problem is that we have no way of knowing whether that someone was a terrorist mastermind or a hack.

Nor am I saying that I am not fearful of an attack of the magnitude and political consequence of September Eleventh. On the contrary, if I could sleep at night I would not devote so many hours to these diatribes.

To conclude: In terms of the public welfare this story is irrelevant. Of dubious authenticity, it was likely published and promoted for its capacity to capture and intimidate an already fearful public imagination, and will doubtless be followed by an onslaught of arm-waving oratory such as “Britain facing 'most sustained threat since WWII'.” In the present government, admittedly, she is.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Dear Representative,

Since you have been so kind as to inquire, the first thing I should like to communicate to you is that I consider it a constructive political act on your part to present your constituents with an itemized list of issues from your agenda and ask their opinion. For this I thank you. That said, I was somewhat displeased with the wording of the first two items listed in the “Agenda For America” section of your website. My two complaints are as follows:

1. Rather than “achieve success in Iraq” I would like to live long enough to witness the total cessation of unprovoked US violence against the citizens of foreign nations. Barring invasion or attack by another country’s armed forces, the US should either achieve its ambitions through trade and diplomacy or abandon them.

2. It is of little use to the great majority of your constituents whether the “United States maintains its position as the world’s top economy” or not, since such benefits as might have issued from this nominal state of affairs (which in any event requires more precise definition) could hardly be described as having “trickled down” in any politically significant way. To my thinking, the way this item is worded suggests the maintenance of revenue levels of firms in which US parties hold majority stakes, which is something that would not be very high on my agenda, since, in and of itself, the preservation of the status quo is not a civic-minded goal.

Yours concerned,

Citizen Ken

Monday, August 07, 2006

Safety First or Make 'Em Thirst?

In the 1915 edition of his Fakes in American Journalism Max Sherover adverted to the widespread mass communication practice of

Preparing Us for Higher Prices.

How often have we read articles, editorials and news items on the growing scarcity of beef in America. These articles are usually illustrated with charts, diagrams and photographs and accompanied by confusing statistics These stories are published broadcast. The people who read the news get accustomed to the idea of scarcity of beef. And when a few days later they are informed by the butcher that the price of beef has gone up they take it as a matter of course. They will pay the price or cut down their supply. The press agents have accomplished the desired result. The same is true of the lumber supply, the coal supply, the oil supply and all other necessities controlled by the flimflammers.

Why only today, Monday, August 7th, 2006, we hear that British Petroleum has been ". . . working today to shut down the huge Prudhoe Bay oil field in northern Alaska," reducing US oil production by 8 percent.

Apparently inspectors had found

. . .pipeline walls in more than one location that had been made too thin by corrosion to meet the company’s safety standards. In one area [. . .] the equivalent of four to five barrels of oil had already leaked out of the pipeline and spilled on the tundra [emphasis supplied from sheer scandal].

On Thursday March 20th 2003, the start of the present and ongoing war against Iraq, Brent oil closed on the London Market at $ 28.00. Since then, one bomb has led to another until today, as a consequence of the “unexpectedly severe corrosion, which BP of America, according to its president, “will not commit to a date” for repair, the per barrel-price today exploded by nearly 3% to a corking $78.30.

Taking Sherover’s observations to heart, one might wonder about the possible existence of opportunists in the present energy industry, quietly enriching themselves behind public apology. Hopelessly implausible, I realize. Who would take advantage of an already shell-shocked market (if the pun be at all forgivable) by diddling with the supply coming onto the market?

One does wonder... Is this timely-righted environmental slip and its attendant price chart blip merely a rung on the slippery ladder to the big one: Save the Tundra or Crude? One hundred!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Latest from Tony Blah

As regards the article “Blair says Syria, Iran risk confrontation” by Adrian Croft (Reuters Tuesday, August 1, 2006; 6:43 PM, link below), Blair's notion that the victims of the Israeli invasion are fighting democracy is highly nauseous and reeks of cheap public-relations inanity in that it blatantly ignores the fact that the Republic of Lebanon is (was?) a multi-ethnic, parliamentary democracy that once again will have been prevented from exercising itself precisely on account of armed conflicts of the sort recently initiated by Israel. Read a tendentious account of this latest Tony Blurt here.

Also, we can be fairly certain we're dealing with a concerted public relations exercise in how to sell a modern armed conflict, because we keep hearing about the "war between Hezbollah and Israel,” when "the Israeli invasion of Lebanon" would be a more factual description of the situation.

To my mind, one sane conclusion from Blair's admonition would be that the whole invasive operation was dreamt up as a provocation by proxy on the part of the US and UK in the first place: Israel’s impune attack is Iraq’s tormentors’ way of inviting Iran and Syria to war and catastrophic bombardment, R.S.V.P. Chilling here is the fact that at the same moment this monstrosity takes place, the UN presents a draft for a new resolution proposing sanctions against Iran if the latter continues to develop its nuclear capabilities. (The UN, incidentally, is not set up by charter to make menacing comments on the stage of scientific advancement of sovereign nations. It is, more to the point, set up by charter to halt aggression of the type just perpetuated against the Lebanon.)

As a bonus for those not yet tired of injustice, the above now-famous photo of the bombed Lebanese ambulance (found, among other places, in this short and commendable piece) provides insight into the contemptuous way Israeli forces ostentate their precision-hit capabilities to the world: If they are capable of delivering a hit in the EXACT centre of the red cross on the roof of an ambulance, then we must wonder how "collateral damage" is possible at all? We are left with the conclusion that Israeli forces are probably attacking the UN, two-year-old civilians, and the Red Cross on purpose and by way of intimidation.