This is rather belated, but while many people on the left still cling to 9/11 conspiracy theories, this topic will remain relevant. On the fifth anniversary of the September the 11th terrorist attacks, I listened to a debate on 9/11 conspiracy theories hosted by Democracy Now. The debate was between Dylan Avery and Jason Bermas, producers of that cinema masterpiece of the tinfoil hat crowd “Loose Change”, and David Dunbar and James Meigs of the military hardware worshiping Popular Mechanics magazine. I am glad that Democracy Now decided to have this debate to clear the air and I listened in the hope, given all the energy and time that many people, particularly on the left, have put into pushing 9/11 conspiracies, that these theories are at least based on something that could qualify as non-circumstantial and non-anecdotal evidence.
My hopes of some kind of straightforward presentation were dashed right at the beginning when Jason Bermas of Loose Change brayed like a giant ass to Amy Goodman: “I’d just like to thank you for the opportunity to take on the government’s lies and Popular Mechanics, which is a Hearst yellow journalism publication’s lies, as well”. For Bermas and Avery, it only went downhill from there. They had nothing, not a single item that didn’t involve taking seriously the wild speculations and assumptions that were thrown out during the first few days after the attacks, all of which have been either clearly debunked or recanted or have absolutely no corresponding physical evidence to back them up. You can go over the debate or the Loose Change film itself and you will search in vain for a shred of hard evidence. What has passed for “evidence” among 9/11 nuts is largely a dishonest assemblage of various individually unremarkable and unrelated facts used as a skeleton for draping the most lunatic speculations and free associations over it.
During the debate, Avery and Bermas made asses out of themselves every time they opened their mouths while the nerds from Popular Mechanics were calm and reasoned and demolished every single point the Loose Change crew made. Two of the best among many shining moments for the “Loose Change” duo were: repeatedly resorting to smear tactics by calling the Popular Mechanics people liars without providing any evidence to show how they were liars and when Dylan Avery claimed that Underwriters Laboratories “certified” the steel used in the world trade center. David Dunbar of Popular Mechanics proceeded to correct him, stating that UL does not certify steel (which is true); Avery’s withering response was: “Oh, okay”. Examples like these combined with the nearly constant juvenile scoffing and snickering from the Loose Change crew whenever one of the PM editors opened their mouths served to make them sound like a couple of teenage punks crashing a radio show.
Some people may think I’m being uncharitable to the Loose Change folks, I mean they are lefties after all, and they’re trying, however incompetently, to expose the bad guys who, in the case of Bush and Cheney, really are bad fucking guys. The problem is what they claim happened just didn’t happen, the facts are there for anyone willing to honestly look at them. The Loose Change folks may truly believe in what they claim and they may earnestly think that their work is in the service of truth and justice, but it is not and they are not comrades or friends to any serious movement for social change. But people like Avery and Bermas, however unwittingly, do play an important role in keeping the Left irrelevant. They are really just the flip side of right-wing grassroots conspiracy nuts who think that, around every corner and behind every door, evil liberals are plotting to turn America into a modern Gomorrah. The right focuses on petty little things that they blow out of proportion, the left focuses on big things that they grossly misinterpret. A good example from the right (and this is from an actual right-wing nut action alert) would be the personal anecdote from an unnamed Christian mom complaining that Amazon.com’s completely automated system for suggesting books and movies is a tool of the “gay agenda” because it suggested Brokeback Mountain to her. The right focuses on stupid small things like this because if you actually look at the big picture (e.g. the left is an ineffectual joke and the right completely dominate all branches of national government and most state governments) you would be in danger of coming to the otherwise obvious conclusion that Amazon.com being an agent of the “gay agenda” is as laughably preposterous as the existence of a conspiracy known as the “gay agenda”. But People do not believe these things for no reason, though the reason isn’t what the believers think it is. Nonsense like this serves to make people feel angry while keeping them helpless at the same time. It’s purpose is to provide a venue of sorts and a focal point for people to vent their outrage and yet to ensure that the battle they fight will be unwinnable. (No matter how many letters they send to offending companies and institutions, or how many businesses they boycott or how many conservatives they elect to office, those evil liberals will come out of every crack and crevice, they will emerge from every shadow, to do evil and to undermine them at every turn.) It’s like the abortion debate: can anyone think of a single reason someone like Bill Frist would have to abolish abortion? It benefits him, and people like him, to have an abortion debate, not to end that debate. That’s why there will always be an abortion debate.
The conspiratorial left is just the flip side of this coin, only poorer and more irrelevant. And another important difference is that, while the conspiratorial right works like some brainless vote factory for the demagogues who milk it, the conspiratorial left is supposed to just stay out of the way. And what better way to forever keep the left at the kiddie table while the grown-ups talk business than to make us look like a bunch of lunatics. And for those who do not believe these conspiracies it’s just another turd smeared on your credibility, through no fault of your own, interfering with your ability to get shit done.
This all may sound like merely another conspiracy theory to you, but actually it’s not. The right has figured out a way, actually almost an exacting industrial process, to manage dissent within it’s ranks for the purpose of motivating their constituents to storm the polls on election day and literally throw money at their campaigns. Like good marketers the right-wing political elite understand their demographic and they have found an ingenious way to turn otherwise useless activities (e.g. sitting on one’s ass listening to talk radio and grumbling about gay pinkos running Hollywood and brown people overrunning the borders) and translate that real smoldering, festering anger into political action. Democrats, and their codependent lackeys in the liberal left, have been doing exactly the same thing for years, but with fear instead of anger; in an effort, not to win, but to simply maintain the status quo. Every time you hear some political hack tell spooky stories about how the right will make abortion a capital offense and put neo-Nazis on the supreme court if you don’t vote for some utterly corrupt cog in the Democrat party machine is engaging in electorate management just as cynically as the demagogues on the right do. In both cases they harness your anger and fear to get you to do something that will always benefit them and never benefit you. Of course, this has always been the case in American politics, the only difference now is the level of sophistication on the part of the manipulators and the appalling level of docility and predictability on the part of the American electorate.
But how do you manage people who often won’t fall for those liberal and Democrat scare tactics? How to you manage people whose votes you know you can’t count on and who, from time to time, manage to build marginally troublesome movements against this or that aspect of the status quo? What do you do with people who tend to be more trouble than they’re worth when it comes to the difficult task of staying in power? You marginalize them through a variety of means: you keep them off the air, you ignore them, and you ridicule them and discredit them wherever you can’t ignore them. Unfortunately, when it comes to discrediting the left, ninety percent of the work will be happily done for you, and that’s where people like our 9/11 conspiracy theorists friends come in.
If you think that this all seems like an exaggeration of the impact that 9/11 conspiracists have on the left, you’d be right. 9/11 conspiracists are merely a symptom of a deeper problem: leftists, like most people in this country, don’t know how to think and are drawn to irrational, but simple and satisfying, explanations of the world. Take the typical lefty’s ideas about capitalism: with the exception of political nerds who’ve read everything that Marx, Bakunin, and Kropotkin ever wrote, most people on the left have a pretty incoherent and simplistic idea of how capitalism works. For lefties, capitalism is just another conspiracy theory and, for lefty 9/11 conspiracists, 9/11 is merely a subplot in the larger never ending drama of behind the scenes capitalist machinations. Let me be clear that it’s not just nutcases on the margins who fall for this way of thinking, many people who are otherwise highly intelligent and valuable activists have fallen for the 9/11 conspiracy nonsense, and conspiratorial thinking generally, and that’s where these conspiracists pose a real problem. A conspiracy theory is a mental venereal disease and the conspricist is the most popular slut in town spreading it like wildfire among a group of people all too willing to be infected.
“Corporations”, “the Rich”, “the elite”, the average lefty talks about the people who run the world as if they didn’t have names and addresses, as if they weren’t flesh and blood people who behave in the way one could rationally predict someone with great wealth and power might behave. The left may be critical of authority, but it’s often not so great at critical thinking in the traditional empirical sense. Thus, the left has proven to be a fertile environment for all kinds of high nuttery and the most embarrassing gullibility.
Often a person’s or group’s opinions about the nature of what or who they oppose provides an insight into their own shortcomings and their belief in their abilities to challenge what they oppose. When you view an enemy as omniscient and omnipotent, faceless and unknowable, you are admitting defeat before you begin to fight and you are simultaneously rationalizing and advertizing beforehand your inability to effectively fight that enemy. I think conspiratorial thinking on the left is evidence that people on the left have gotten so used to never accomplishing anything of significance that it almost feels more right to some people to be forever chasing after imaginary crimes, because the chase can go on forever, and it is the chase that they love. Like Don Quixote, they can tilt at windmills imagining them to be giants while the real giants go on about their business unperturbed.
Once you’ve swallowed the basic premise of the conspiracy, no amount of facts or logical reasoning will ever convince you. This way you can always be the underdog, the truth-telling rebel. You’ll never accomplish anything because there’s nothing to accomplish and therefore you’ll never have to be responsible. Because with victory, with the winning of political power or any kind comes responsibility: responsibility for doing what you say you’re going to do and, most importantly, responsibility for your mistakes, miscalculations, and failures. But if you place yourself in a situation where you cannot only never win, but you never even face reality, you can forever blame it on someone else, you can blame literally everything on the conspiracy.
Alternately, I also think, for the more competent and intelligent activists who have fallen for the kind of conspiratorial thinking exemplified by 9/11 conspiracies, there is such focus on Bush and his administration and such a desire to get him for something, that it is appealing to think that 9/11 is the smoking gun. It’s right there in front of everyone and if only they could just prove that Bush and company were responsible it would change everything, it would be such a huge blow to the evil empire. And it would be a powerful blow if any of it were true, but it’s not.
Fighting an enemy that doesn’t exist or, in the case of 9/11 conspiracies, trying to catch criminals by hanging the one crime on them that they didn’t commit, can also serve as a hiding place. You can have all the ego nourishing benefits of being an activist, without ever having to worry about actually doing anything or even getting into trouble with the bad guys you claim to be fighting. Why would “they” come after you over something “they” know they didn’t do, especially when you’re doing your very best to discredit yourself, making it easy for “them” to brush you off the radar screen of relevance?
Obviously, there are few tasks that are more arduous and overwhelming than fundamentally transforming society. No one asks an activist to save the world and, let’s face it, most people don’t care about what activists are trying to do. I think when people start to come to this view of capitalism as an unbeatable force managed by a virtually invincible shadowy cabal it’s an indication that they’ve given up whether they can admit it to themselves or not. However, outwardly, it appears that they have not given up. They keep ranting and attacking, making their continued commitment to “expose” the bad guy’s conspiracies appear brave and principled. Even though they aren’t fighting anything real, they can maintain the feeling of being a fighter–it’s a bizzare way to keep one’s pride while sacrificing one’s dignity.
In reality, conspiracy theories are the solace of losers, they are the comfort of people who are powerless and who have come to accept that they will always be powerless. It’s comforting to think that it’s not your failure to act (or to act effectively) to change the world that’s to blame for the world going to hell, but some vast, omnipotent, and omniscient conspiracy that is impossible to stop or even expose. In fact, the most popular theories imply that it’s essentially futile to act at all: a comprehensive, all-powerful conspiracy that is so effective at covering its tracks that you can’t even obtain a shred of hard evidence on them makes, by definition, the very act of trying to resist them in anything but a symbolic way (or on stubborn principle) completely pointless. A defeatist or cynical person might say that accepting one’s powerlessness is the right decision–obviously, far too many people would agree–-but for an activist to tacitly accept and obliquely promote such a policy seems perverse to say the least. Yet, that is what is happening when activists fail to exercise reason and common sense in their quest to “get” the Bush regime and other villains of the day.
You want a conspiracy theory? Try this one on: why is it that the left is so embarrassingly ineffective? I’m talking about the whole left, from radical to liberal. We’ve been losing ground and falling on our face over and over for at least the past 25 years. Why is that? Can we blame it all on The Man or can we take a good long and hard look at ourselves and maybe have the integrity to admit that we’ve played more than a small part in our own disastrous decline? Why is it that there has been no protest movement in the last 25 years that has accomplished anything at all (unless we want to pat ourselves on the back and take credit for South Africa liberating itself), yet we keep on protesting as if protesting works, as if we had no imagination at all. As if some shadowy cabal was actively leading us down the most ineffectual path every single time. It seems like we only know how to either wave signs and chant or monkeywrench and break windows, both practices being the least effective means of social change that could possibly be imagined.
Yet we keep doing it, over and over and no one questions it beyond demanding that we need to protest yet more or break even more windows or burn more shit down. You want a mystery to solve? Take a fucking bite out of that and chew on it for awhile. Could some part of the answer be in our tendency for willing gullibility as long as whatever we’re being fed confirms our dogmatic beliefs? Could some part of the answer be in our tendency to chase phantom bad guys down the rabbit hole, while the earth dies, people die, and real bad guys get away with real crimes? Have we grown to accept our permanent function as mere martyrs, scapegoats, and fools in the dystopian social order that is being built around us? Or are we like fatalists hunkering down for the The End that we are convinced will happen (after all, something’s got to give, right? Peak Oil, the revolution, “exposing” the 9/11 conspiracy, something!) and we’re just passing the time telling campfire stories to each other while we wait for the people in the world who actually make things happen to fulfill the prophesies we’ve dreamed up for them.
[CONCLUDING NOTE: There are many places on the internet that have taken the time to debunk, point-by-point, every single 9/11 conspiracy theory no matter how nutty or improbable. I’ll give you just one example for free: 911myths.com. It’s a very good site run by a guy in the UK with no special qualifications, which gives him exactly the same level of expertise as 99% of all 9/11 conspiracy theorists.]