25 October 2006

Terrorism and conspiracy theories

Here is another passage I recently found in my files. Although it was written before the current terrorism ‘craze’ it still seems as erudite to me now as it did to me then. Some would say this passage does not speak to contemporary times, and in response (does this argument not prove the very argument it is supposed to refute?) I would contend that this book was written in a state of terroristic ‘craze’. The book was a study of Spain and the Basque problem at a time when ETA was very active and most of the Spanish population was concerned about terrorism. While things may have changed here in the US since the publishing of this book, it is arguably the same environment as the environment that created the book.

It is hard to imagine a better and more widespread example of what Richard Hofstadter labeled “the paranoid style in American politics” than the rhetoric of experts such as Claire Sterling. She replicates, almost literally, the fears of other alleged grand world conspiracies, such as the panic that broke out at the end of the eighteenth century in New England against the Bavarian Illuminati, and which merited a leap into fantasy by the other well-known author John Robinson when he charged that the association had been formed “for the express purpose of…OVERTURNING ALL THE EXISTING GOVERNMENTS OF EUROPE.” Soon the Illuminati were held to be the Antichrist and denounced from the pulpits of New England, even though it is uncertain whether any of them ever came to the United States from Germany. The anti-Masonic movement of the 1820s and 1830s reflects the same obsession with conspiracy, thus illustrating the essence of the paranoid style, which posits “the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character.” Such an apocalyptic framework is quite characteristic of terrorism discourse. (J. Zulaika and W. Douglas. Terror and taboo: The follies, fables and faces of terrorism. NY: Routledge. pp. 53-4.)

There is a conversation on many blogs that I read about conspiracy theorists and why those conspiracies believe what so few believe. I think this passage sheds some light on the topic. The mainstream story we are told is a conspiracy theory, so why is the counter-narrative so preposterous from a rhetorical perspective? It is a peculiarly American political narrative that makes the conspiracy a credible story for our community. There are probably many arguments, beyond this note and my background, which illustrate this peculiarity. Analysis of conspiracy theories, which some of the writers are not guilty of omitting, needs to begin not with the conspiracy inquiries but rather an examination of conspiracy theory versus conspiracy theory. Why does one gain more salience than the other? That should be the starting point of these discussions.

The passage, however, should not be used only to counter the War on Terrorism critics, but should also be a lens through which we examine the War on Terrorism. Zulaika and Douglas seem particularly prescient as they could be writing 5 years later without having to change a single word from this passage. I could do some work and find the ramblings of our administration to highlight the passage in to-day’s context, but I will not. The passage is, I believe, an enthymeme: everyone knows the continuation without needing it to be told to them. If I am wrong about this, if you do not see the Bush criticism in the passage above then let me know and I will expound.

04 October 2006

Review: Lost Episode 1: Exceptionaly Good

The season opener of Lost was exceptionally good, and I have a scale to prove it. As I watch TV I am often working through a newspaper or magazine or something. If the show is really good I will watch the show intently and fast forward through the commercials. If the show is good then I will watch the commercials and read through them. If the show is not good then I am often reading through the show. If it is not even worthy of being background noise, then the show is crap and will probably be the next breakout hit for the network. Last season Lost was occasionally good, but to-night’s episode was an improvement. I wish I had delayed watching it so I did not have to wait a week for the next episode, which is why it earns the exceptionally good rating.

Besides being an intriguing story, the show also taught us a valuable lesson about free will (a lesson that was foreshadowed in the opening book club sequence.) In the beginning of the episode Jack finds himself in a cage with a woman telling him to stop pulling on the chain that hangs from the ceiling. She asks him to sit in the far corner of the room so she can open the door and give him some food. Jack consents and sits there, only to then run at the door and attack her.

Every person knows when they are placed in a powerless situation such as this one. They know they have little choice. It is the truly free will, however, that sits there and behaves knowing that while they are following another’s orders they have the ability to resist. It is the resistant that acts to preserve the free will, but it is the obedient that knows the free will is not in jeopardy. Not attacking the woman would have been best. In the end, Jack ended up in the room again, in the exact same situation except he had only managed to upset his captors. A hard lesson to learn and one that we as Americans are not supposed to accept.

Now comes the inevitable political extrapolation. I could resist doing this, but then I know that I can resist it even if I do not. Bush needs to accept that the genie of nuclear proliferation is out of the bottle. The spread of weapons is inevitable and continuing to threaten war and control supply only makes nuclear weapons more prestigious and appealing. While some actions can be taken instead of making nuclear proliferation more likely through our counterproductive policies we should instead focus on not being anyone’s enemy and consequently not anyone’s target for the newly acquired weapons of mass destruction. We need to not confuse the desire for non-proliferation with a danger of proliferation, because the real danger is when we try to prevent the proliferation.