Monday, June 24, 2013

Our Professional Liars Aren't Doing a Very Good Job

A friend posted a link to this article on Facebook, and I mean really, The Discovery Channel?  What do they have to tell me?

Like most articles deploring conspiracy theories, it's a conspiracy theory itself: Gee, who are these people who keep spreading these crazy theories to undermine confidence in our government and our other great institutions?  Why won't they be reasonable?

I heard Democracy Now's story on the upcoming documentary about the TWA 800 crash of 1996, and I don't really have an opinion about the crash itself, but simply waving all the government experts who solemnly studied and investigated and came to solemn conclusions isn't enough to persuade me that the official explanation is true. (Which, as I'll explain below, doesn't mean that the alternative explanation, whatever it is, is true either.)  I didn't come away from the DN story with a sense that the filmmakers had a particular theory about what did happen to TWA 800; rather, they pointed to evidence that the investigators ignored, and shoddy and unconvincing attempts to put across a benign explanation of the disaster.  That's a far cry from the 9/11 Truthers, who have tried to marshall evidence (however inadequate) that the Twin Towers could not have been brought down by airliners flying into them -- which could conceivably be true without the destruction's being a black-op inside job by the Bush administration, for which I've seen no evidence at all, though I have seen a lot of irrationality, such as the notion that if you don't believe the Truthers, you have no reason to oppose the War on Terror.  This belief leads to attacks on such prominent critics of the War on Terror as Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn, who are accused of slavish support for Bush's policies simply because they don't agree that 9/11 was an Inside Job.

The author of the Discovery Channel story admits in passing that conspiracy theories "tap into a widespread distrust of the government (fueled by both real and imagined transgressions such as the recent revelations about public surveillance)" -- but which kind are those recent revelations about public surveillance, "real" or "imagined"?  That's really not good enough.  It isn't only about the revelations of indiscriminate government surveillance of the public; it is that extremely high-level government officials, from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to President Barack Obama, have lied about the surveillance programs after the programs were exposed.  This is good evidence of a conspiracy by the Obama Administration to lie to the public about an important matter.  (The best alternative explanation, that the Obama Administration is in a condition of disarray, even panic, and various officials from the President on down are flailing desperately around to cover their butts, is not reassuring.)  I'm not picking on Obama, mind you: he's just the latest in a series of Presidents who've lied about their misconduct.

So, one reason conspiracy theories survive is that some conspiracies really do happen. The 1980 "October Surprise", for example, in which Reagan representatives persuaded Iranian leaders to delay the release of US hostages in order to hurt Jimmy Carter's chances of reelection, or Gary Webb's stories on connections between the US government and the narcotics trade in Central America, or the Iran-Contra conspiracy.  Responsible spokesmen still dismiss those derisively, even though they've actually been confirmed. I could add many other instances where the US government has lied in concert -- which means conspiracy -- about matters great and small.  It's not at all unreasonable to distrust the government's word.

The claim (of which this article makes so much) that the US government spent four years investigating the TWA 800 crash and concluded that it was an accident is not all that convincing. For one thing, official denials often amount to tacit admissions of guilt. Think of the crazy claims that the US was flying spy planes over the USSR, or that the US spent years trying to assassinate Fidel Castro, or that the Bush Administration conspired to "fix the intelligence" on Iraq, or any number of official claims that were exposed as lies by the Wikileaks publications. Is it a "conspiracy theory" to notice that the Obama administration is conspiring to lie about NSA data mining? If so, so much the better for conspiracy theories, because they are certainly lying about it. There are plenty of cases where our government lied about matters, often of trivial importance, and then had to reverse itself when it was caught. (Think of all the times police officials lied about why officers had beaten or pepper-sprayed peaceful demonstrators, or even denied that the abuse had occurred at all -- until videos surfaced that confirmed the accusations.  Another official conspiracy theory, by the way, is the story that circulates about the anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations of 1999, which casts the unprovoked police riots there as measured responses to protestors' violence.)  I don't assume that the TWA 800 was shot down by a US missile (though as far as I've heard, it has not been claimed that it was a deliberate black op), but I don't assume that the government told the truth about it either.

Another reason conspiracy theories won't go away is that conspiracy theories are used by the same people who deride them, sometimes with validity and sometimes not: the conspiracy theory that Iran is 'defending its right to have a nuclear weapons program', for example, so that it can attack Israel. Much of American foreign policy is based on conspiracy theories: North Korea wants to destroy us with nuclear missiles!  Saddam Hussein has Weapons of Mass Destruction that present an imminent threat to our shores!  Ho Chi Minh is a Communist puppet in the pay of Moscow and "Peiping," planning to conquer America!  As the Discovery Channel story says about conspiracy theories generally, it's impossible to prove that Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapons program, so this conspiracy still has legs -- and it helps that respectable corporate media and bipartisan government officials continue to promote it.

One thing I noticed about the rhetoric in this article is that "conspiracy theorists" are cast as a discrete group of irrational wackos -- almost a separate race -- which is one reason I said that it promotes a conspiracy theory itself.  Since conspiracy theories are not limited to an identifiable minority of weak-minded irrationalists but are part of the currency of mainstream America, from government to mainstream media, the Discovery Channel's article discredits itself on that ground alone.  Aside from that, human beings are story-making animals; as the writer says about the disagreement among scientists, it's just human nature.  Which doesn't mean that people's disregard for plausibility, logic, and fact isn't alarming: only that it's much more widespread, more mainstream, than this article allows.

Which, to repeat, doesn't validate any specific theory.  Even if it were proven that the official account of the collapse of the Twin Towers was invalid, it wouldn't prove that the Bush administration was behind it.  If it were proven that TWA 800 was brought down by an outside object, whether a mis-aimed missile or something else, we still wouldn't know where the object came from, what it was, why it got into the same airspace as the airliner, or why the Clinton administration preferred to cover up the facts: that would require a lot more investigation.  By the same token, if the neo-Darwinian theory of natural selection were to collapse tomorrow, it wouldn't mean that Yahweh created the universe in six days, six thousand years ago.  It's much easier to falsify one theory than to construct a true one to replace it.

I've quoted before Daniel Ellsberg's comment, "It is inexcusable to take what [government officials] say at face value. You are not talking to pathological liars, you are talking to professional liars who should be looked at as skeptically as used-car salesmen or Pfizer or Merck spokesmen."  I've also wondered whether we shouldn't be concerned that our professional liars, the men and women we elected to lie to us, consistently do such a lousy job of it.