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.

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