So here’s the thing: man never landed on the moon; Princess Diana was murdered; Elvis is very much alive; Kennedy was shot by the CIA/FBI/Mafia (delete as applicable). I was watching this program on Sunday night about the various 9/11 conspiracy theories. Not, you understand, because I give any credence to these theories. Quite the opposite in fact. What I find fascinating about these and other conspiracy theories is what they tell us about ourselves.
Mankind has always loved a mystery. When presented with myth or fact, nine out of ten cats will choose myth. I don’t know why this is exactly, other than the obviously mistaken belief that myth makes for a more exciting story. William Randolph Hearst seems to be right about that one. Perhaps our innately spiritual selves yearn for the excitement of secret knowledge: higher, hidden knowledge. Most conspiracy theories, after all, run along these lines: there is a narrative; a false narrative that is maintained and perpetuated by sinister controlling agents with the help of a compliant media – one that is believed by a naïve, trusting public; and there is another narrative; a true narrative that is known only to those aforementioned agents and the few, brave individuals such as themselves who have stumbled upon the damning evidence of this intrigue and have glimpsed a frightening, dangerous truth. It wasn’t meant to be like this.
The 18th Century the philosophers of the Enlightenment had a dream: a future based upon reason, science, and escape from superstition. They foresaw a world transformed by free thought; honest, reasoned inquiry; freedom of speech; tolerance. A world that questioned all conventional sources of truth such as tradition and authority. It was to be nothing less than total emancipation from ignorance. It would transform humanity. How wrong they were.
Although many people still hold themselves up to the values propagated by the Enlightenment, especially those of a scientific persuasion, or those who consider themselves as the keepers to the tradition of open, secular, liberal democracy (to which I would add myself), you don’t have to look too far around the world to notice that these values haven’t exactly caught on universally. For nearly 200 hundred years reason was considered the surest route to truth. In the past few decades it’s been retreating, both as an ideal and in reality. In the post-9/11 world it feels under increasing attack: from Islamic fundamentalism to Neo-Conservatism, from New Age mumbo-jumbo to Evangelical fire & brimstone nut-jobs, from miraculous healers to psychics who claim to communicate with the dead, from corporate psycho-babble to creationism in classrooms, from holocaust deniers to hidden messages in the works of Leonardo (he’s referred to as Leonardo, not Da Vinci Mr. Brown) to the afore mentioned conspiracy theories: the world is awash with bunkum, and truth is under pressure like never before. Astrology still outsells Astronomy ten to one. What is completely bewildering about these phenomena is that most of these ideas are demonstrably false, if not outright dangerous. Yet still they cling.
What led to this betrayal of Enlightenment attitudes? The main agents of attack came from the group of obscurantist Left-Banke Parisian intellectuals generally grouped together under the term ‘Post-Modernists’ (plus their many descendants). These theorists (I hesitate to call them thinkers) saw the Enlightenment and all it represents as just one of the ‘grand narratives’ of Western thought (and an unforgivably white, European, male one at that). They pored scorn on ideas such as progress, logic, reason, history, even questioning the validity of scientific thought. To them our rational, scientific concept of the world is essentially no more ‘truthful’ than the Taliban’s ignorant, violent, misogynistic concept of reality. What’s more, their essentially destructive questioning of reality has led to a state of free-floating relativism that eschews value judgments and has therefore quietly disengaged itself from any moral or political discourse (morality and politics, of course, being just another ‘construct’). This kind of thinking has infected academia deeply, producing an unhelpful tension between the Humanities and the Sciences. Perhaps this represents a crisis point in the history of Western thought. A mode of thinking that seeks to cast doubt on meaning and says ‘anything goes’ doesn’t leave you anywhere to go. What comes ‘post’ Post-Modernism? The Humanities could learn a lot from the rigorous clarity that characterises scientific thought right now.
This has also had other, unexpected consequences: if all notions of truth have ceased to have any validity then we weaken our position when trying to combat the flood of fantasy and nonsense that clogs our minds and threatens civilisation. David Irving, for instance, found in the relativist argument a wonderful defence for his Holocaust denial. Likewise, in a complex, post-ideological world full of uncertainty and chaos people frightened by the bewildering change of pace in society will naturally gravitate and cling to the simple truths and certainty offered them by fundamentalist dogma. And this fundamentalist dogma has itself arisen partly in direct opposition to what they perceive as a ‘liberal’ relativism that says there’s are no longer any certainties or absolutes, that there’s no such thing as good or bad, right or wrong. Little realising that a philosophy that considers all truths equally valid, and is therefore capable of forgiving fascism can hardly be considered liberal. Both Said Qutub and Leon Strauss (the ideological godfathers of Islamic Fundamentalism and Neo-Conservatism respectively) were partly inspired by what they saw as a dangerous consequence of this kind of thinking: a rampant, selfish, indulgent individualism that threatened the very fabric of societal cohesion. These two trains of thought (which have much more in common than they’d care to admit) reached their apogee in the smoke and dust of 9/11.
Which brings us right back to the start. For a while it seemed as if the terrible political reality of the attacks on New York and Washington that day had blown away much of the nonsense that had arisen and proliferated during the relatively peaceful era between the fall of Communism and the turn of the millennium. The 90s, let it not be forgot, were a boom time for mumbo-jumbo and pseudo-science: from The X-Files type UFO conspiracy, to religious cults of all description, to ‘militia men’ arming themselves against governmental tyranny, to millennial catastrophists predicting the end of the world, it was a time of self-deluding profligacy in the West. The 9/11 attacks momentarily bought us round. Anyone standing up and shouting about ‘the Illuminati’ in the months following the attack would have seemed like a tasteless lunatic on the fringes of human thought. Here was an event, it seemed, large enough and real enough, to shake the West out of its political apathy, and render the more decadent aspects of culture obsolete overnight. Some five years later and we are back to square one. Turn on television and at any time of the day you can find all number of ‘ghost-hunters’, phone-in ‘psychics’, and end-of-days preachers. And 9/11, the graveyard of so much, has become an ideological battleground about which almost no one can agree, the truth fogged by the rapidly churning rumour mill that is the internet. Watching the program about the various ‘theories’ which purport to indicate a much larger, much more complicated plot than the official account, it became obvious to me that many people suffer from a blank refusal to see the truth, even when, as in this case, the truth is right there for everybody to see. 9/11 was the most filmed and watched terrorist attack in history. The whole world witnessed the day’s events unfolding live from literally hundreds of angles. We have thousands of pieces of reliable first-hand evidence as to what occurred that day. Still this is not enough. Much more exciting to believe that this was an ‘inside job’, perpetrated by sinister, shadowy elements from within the American government. So, apparently, the twin towers were bought down, not by the passenger planes you and I saw flying straight into them, but by controlled explosions. United Flight 93, did not come down in a field in rural Pennsylvania, but was either shot out of the sky, or landed somewhere safely and the passengers and crew escorted to a secret prison somewhere. To which the obvious response is: why? Why? Why? Why? Why?
I remember listening in astonishment when, barely two years after the World Trade Center fell, a colleague of mine said to me: “do you know where Osama Bin Laden is? I’ll tell you where he is. Not in some cave in Afghanistan – he’s got his feet up on the CIA desk!” He seemed convinced that the American government had orchestrated the whole thing in order to have a pretext for invading Afghanistan and Iraq. While the more hawkish elements of the American administration undoubtedly used the strength of feeling induced by these and other terrorist attacks to push forward their aggressive foreign policy plans with regards to the Middle East, that is patently not the same thing as planning and organizing those attacks. My answer to him is the same answer I would give to anyone who is credulous enough to entertain such notions: there is indeed a sinister group of manipulative, secretive individuals who run the world and have plans for the rest of us, but their names are George Bush, Tony Blair, Osama Bin Laden, Rupert Murdoch, Kim Yong Ill, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, etc, etc. They’re right there in front of our eyes. You don’t need to invent them.
The main flaw with any of these theories is that they give far too much credit to the agencies they claim to be exposing: endowing mere men (like you and I) with almost superhuman powers of subterfuge and manipulation. Western governments are notoriously inept. Anyone with a basic grasp of history could tell you that. The idea that the same agencies that fumbled the Bay of Pigs scandal, for instance, could be in any way responsible for a conspiracy the magnitude of 9/11 would be laughable if the current situation wasn’t so damn serious.
Of course, those who are convinced will continue to believe no matter what anyone else says. They would level me with a charge of false consciousness: that’s precisely what they want you to believe, man. All of which goes to prove that the post-modernists were right in one sense: Mankind doesn’t progress. Knowledge progresses, technology progresses: we do not. We are apes. Clever apes maybe, but apes nonetheless. As such we are driven by all manner of primitive stone-age needs, and a complex set of irrational drives written deep into our evolutionary DNA. These are often in direct conflict with the modern, technological societies we find ourselves in. Civilization breed discontent. When all is said and done the only real difference between us and stone-age man is that we have a mobile in our hand instead of a club. It’s a curious paradox that we live in the most technologically advanced period in history; at a time when we know more about the universe and our place in it than ever before; at a time when rapidly accelerating technology makes the prospect of instant Global communication a very real possibility – while all around us perfectly normal men and women still cling to all manner of age-old fantastical nonsense. If you want mystery: take a look down the Hubble telescope; contemplate the fact that you and I are made of atoms belched from the guts of dying stars billions of years ago; listen to Beethoven’s final piano sonatas; read Miroslav Holub; watch L’Atalante. Do any number of things, in fact, and then mull over the added enjoyment of knowing these things are actually real.
The sleep of reason produces monsters indeed. Despite proclamations to the contrary, History did not end at the millennium. The 21st Century will undoubtedly prove as tumultuous as the 20th – with Islamic fascism, climate change, and the rise of new economic super-powers such as India and China being only the most predictable set of pressures that will surely come to effect us all. It’s time for us to stop pissing on the grave of Hume and Voltaire; to give up chasing phantoms around the insides of our skulls; to face up to the very real and present dangers that confront us like adults. The world is in serious need of clarity right now. A little hard truth wouldn’t go amiss either.