30 – In Praise of Conspiracy Theories (10 Mar 2010)

    What do the editors of the Washington Post think they are doing with their once venerable paper? Assisting Washington’s authorities in their various projects or – what they want their readers to believe – informing the citizenry with as truthful a picture as they can put together of world events? It is a proper question to ask after the editorial published the day before yesterday linking a prominent Japanese politician with the “lunatic fringe” for his questioning of some aspects of the official version of what happened on the 11th of September 2001. In a casual chat with an editor, after an interview about Japan’s immigration policies, Yukihisa Fujita (member of the Japanese Upper House and Director General of the International Bureau of the DPJ, the new party in power) made some remarks that could have been made in a private capacity by thousands of people with political acumen about misgivings that one must suppose are shared by quite a few members of the Post’s staff, if that paper still hires people with journalistic gifts and instincts.
     There are two stories here. One is a seeming attempt to add yet another bit of evidence that the new party that last September broke a half century of power monopoly is not fit to govern America’s most important ally in Asia. After it does its character assassination, the editorial notes that Fujita’s “views, rooted as they are in profound distrust of the United States, seem to reflect a strain of anti-American thought that runs through the DPJ and the government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama…[It is] true that the U.S.-Japan alliance has been a critical force for stability in East Asia for decades. That relationship, and its benefits for the region, will be severely tested if Mr. Hatoyama tolerates elements of his own party as reckless and fact-averse as Mr. Fujita.”
     The second story is the Post’s effort to help the American authorities in preventing a situation in which the calls for serious investigations to find answers to a myriad of questions that have been kept dangling in mid-air become irresistible. This is done through intimidation; by calling remarks like those made by Fujita “too bizarre, half-baked and intellectually bogus to merit serious discussion”. Many doubters among those in public life keep their mouths shut, for fear of being labeled a kook. For journalists it is particularly dangerous to enter this area of discourse, since it may cost them their job or bend their careers out of shape.
     But many intelligent, well-educated Americans with much common sense and much experience in government and the military, the intelligence services, and with expertise in demolition, metallurgy, aviation and whatnot have come out in the open with their doubts and urgent questions. It should be considered a matter of course that Fujita concerns himself with the questions that the Washington Post editor asked about, but at the same time deems to be beyond the bounds of sane conversation. It is part of his job. As it is the job of a correspondent or a diplomat to get to the bottom of horrendous events; which in this case triggered two invasions and ongoing occupations.
     I know Yuki Fujita and consider him a friend. To present him as an example of a strain of anti-American thought is preposterous. I can only see him as an important asset to the new ruling party of Japan as he maintains productive connections with the outside world. He has exerted himself on behalf of World War II related reconciliation efforts, especially in respect to Japanese maltreament and industrial slavery of Allied POW’s. He is much concerned with how the present conflict between the United States and the new Japanese government over the relocation of a Marine base in Okinawa can be resolved. The fact that he understands, along with many others, that this is not feasible on the terms drafted by the Pentagon and Pentagon alumni in the State Department does of course not make him anti-American.

    What has happened to the Post is of course very sad. It became an important mouthpiece for government misinformation during the George W. Bush years. Its track record on America’s wars these past eight years is dismal. It also appears not to have a clue as to what is going on in Japan. The Post closed its Tokyo bureau some time ago. The last I heard is that Japan was being covered out of Seoul, Korea, and from elsewhere outside the country. If it still had a capacity seriously to report on what it believes to be America’s most important ally in the Pacific region it could actually be following one of the most important stories in the world today. The story of a group of politicians who have not only just formed a new government, but who are altering the manner in which Japan is being governed. It would find out that decade-old complaints about Japan ‘not being home’ when you call on it are being addressed. It could also witness a fascinating struggle between political forces that fervently wish to hang on to an older, mostly informal, power structure in which elected politicians do not determine policy priorities on the one hand and on the other basically idealistic politicians who wish to create a steering mechanism with which to leave behind a couple of decades of stagnation. It could then keep its readers abreast of an intriguing spectacle with Japanese newspapers, the public prosecutor, and, indeed, American officials seemingly obsessed with pursuing an unfeasible military relocation plan, forming the main hindrance to this genuine Japanese reform effort.
     If the paper could test what its Washington-based misinformers whisper into editorial ears by measuring that against the situation on the ground in Okinawa and Tokyo, and report on that honestly, it would probably not have adopted the Manichean mindset of you are either for us or against us (if you do not exactly do what we say) implied in the editorial when it referred to that strain of anti-American thought within the Hatoyama administration.

    Back to that despicable universe of conspiracy theorists: Ironically, the Washington Times, not known for anti-Bush/Cheney positions, lent these alleged kooks its ears when with a straight face it reported the press conferences of a new group with a thousand members, the ‘Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth’ . They are supported by ‘Firefighters for 9/11 Truth’, who point at the crime committed by the government when it failed to hold a forensic investigation of the fires that destroyed the Trade Center complex. They do not peddle any conspiracy theory, all they hope for, like Fujita, is the re-opening of aspects of the case with new investigations. Fujita appears to be in a company that keeps on growing. In fact, judging by the online commentary attached to the Washington Post editorial (at 692 when posting), the editors may inadvertently have aided this growth as many commentators are supplying inquiring minds with links to sites for further study.

    This is as good an opportunity as any to pause for a moment and consider the interesting phenomenon of a flood of books, articles and references in recent years in which truly outrageous and clearly implausible theories are lumped together with accounts of possible conspiracies that would explain unanswered questions about important events and developments. So we get the stories about Princess Diana being murdered, the moon landings being a hoax televised from a movie studio and, yes, the old standby of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ dragged in to discredit the various accounts from the so-called truth movement of what might have happened on the 11th of September, in an attempt to justify a judgement of guilt (believing in a conspiracy) by association (with crazy fantasies). The distinction between irrational beliefs on the one hand and public exposure of outrageous conduct on the other is blotted out by articles and books that make fun of believers in conspiracy, by making them seem hilariously gullible and stupid. It promotes the assumption that conspiracy theories are irrational by nature, which is obviously to the advantage of powerholders.
     But we need the concept of conspiracy. Police start from the premise that criminals are perfectly capable to hatch conspiracies. Journalists, who if they are any good have minds working like those of detectives, credit political figures with the same capacity. In conspiracy explanations hidden power plays a role. Unfortunately, the fear among journalists of being labelled ‘conspiracy theorist’ keeps them from examining a lot of what is going on in our world. In the days when journalists were given more time and greater freedom to do their work, those with a strong hunch could devote much time to following leads without divulging what they were doing until incontrovertible evidence had been found for what they suspected. The Watergate detectives on a different Washington Post of 37 years ago represented the best known example of this. Today, very few bother.
     The ridicule implied today at the very mention of ‘conspiracy theory’ appears necessary not because gullibility is deemed socially undesirable – if that were the case we should see a constant mockery of the daily absurdities of advertising. The ridicule is prophylactic. It places beyond the bounds of serious contemplation all suspicions about the acts of the powerful that might seriously damage the presentation of reality that accommodates the political status quo. It is rather amazing that this ploy can be so successful against a background of what we know about governments and lying, which is quite a lot. Americans can dip into their recent history for numerous cases in point, from the Iran-Contra affair to the vote scandal in Florida in 2000 that delivered George W Bush as the new president, as well as much that came after that to render the invasion of Iraq acceptable by the public.
     So, when I read the Washington Post editorial what I am reminded of most is the obviously heightened sensitivity on the part of the establishment in the face of the 9/11 truth allegations.
     Of course we are dealing with conspiracy here. The official version of what happened is a conspiracy theory to begin with. Let us just stick to that one. The way in which it ended up in print with the blessings of the then powerful involved a whole lot of little and large conspiracies. The chairman and vice chairman of the official ‘9/11 Commission’ themselves have written that they were lied to and that their commission was set up to fail. Benjamin DeMott wrote a devastating j’accuse in Harper’s Magazine a couple of months after the report appeared. As with much of what this late author had to say about American political culture, it is very much worth reading. You can find it here.