Not Saussure

October 16, 2006

More on The Paranoid Style

Filed under: Blogroll, Panic, Politics — notsaussure @ 2:34 pm

One of the comments to Rachel’s piece on “Anger. Yes, its another conspiracy theory vent.”, about which I wrote yesterday asks

why are you so stressed by what the conspiracy theorists say? Everybody has a right to an opinion. You have yours, they have theirs. You are convinced they are wrong, and they no doubt are convinced you are wrong. What’s the problem with that? My own view is that I don’t know what happened. I have read the conspiracy theories and I have no idea if they are right or not. How could I know? But I certainly don’t accept what T Blair says as gospel. I’d be mad to do that, wouldn’t I?

To my mind, the question’s a bit rich, given that Rachel’s just answered precisely that question in her article. However, I’ll have a shot at explaining why they irritate me.

Everyone, indeed, has a right to an opinion; as Tristram Shandy asks,

have not the wisest of men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself,–have they not had their Hobby-Horses;–their running horses,–their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets,–their maggots and their butterflies?–and so long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him,–pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?

Two problems with this, though; the first is that the question suggests that all opinions on matters of fact are equally valid, which to my mind they’re not. Some have the disadvantage of being demonstrable nonsense, for example. Many more use the specious excuse that, ‘You can’t be sure it’s not the case’ to claim equal rights to credence, ignoring the fact that, while you can’t be sure in the way that you can be sure that you can be sure the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, you can sure the theory on offer is wildly improbable. If I bought lottery tickets, I wouldn’t be sure that I wasn’t going to win the jackpot until after the draw was held, but I’d be best advised to plan my financial affairs on the assumption this wasn’t going to happen. And you would still be ill-advised to believe you would be likely to win, even if both Tony Blair and George Bush told you that you probably wouldn’t.

The trouble, moreover, is that these people don’t ride their Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly; on the contrary, they attempt to get the rest of us to join them on it, with very undesirable consequences. This isn’t just a dispute about a matter of historical interest, like whether Bacon wrote Shakespeare; it’s a matter of immediate public concern with practical implications.

Rachel, as do many people, wants a public inquiry into 7/7. Here are some of the questions she wants answering, as do many other people:

We who were actually there have a pretty good idea of what happened on our trains on 7th July. The question I have heard asked over and over by survivors and bereaved families is WHY? Why did July 7th happen? Could it have been prevented? What did we know, what do we know today, about the radicalisation of young men, our fellow citizens, how they became walking weapons of mass destruction. How do we deal with the fall out, the aftermath, how can we prevent this happening again? How can we spare suffering and save lives? Are there practical things we could be doing such as first aid kits on trains, communication systems that work underground?

And there are much bigger questions too. I have been astonished by the desire to engage and understand with the difficult questions that I have seen in many of my fellow-survivors. Perhaps it is a way of coping. I know, for me, to have even the faintest hope of dealing with the fact that a random stranger, a young British man had chosen deliberately to cause such hideous suffering and carnage feet away from me, I needed to try to understand and ask the difficult questions about how this came to pass. Otherwise, I would be consumed by rage, and despair, at murderousness of strangers. And that is no way to live.

The campaign to get answers to these questions through a public inquiry is not helped, to my mind, by nutbags who want an inquiry so they can advance the theory that it was all a put-up job by the government, the CIA, Mossad or whoever; indeed, it’s hindered by them. ‘What’s the point of an inquiry,’ people may well ask, ‘if it’s to humour idiots like these?’ And we can be sure, I think, that a former Marxist like Dr Reid is well acquainted with the idea of useful idiots.

The conspiracy theorists vex me, too, because they take fundamentally sensible abstract ideas and then turn them into gibberish by attempting to make them concrete. Yes, I certainly agree that militant Islamism is, to an extent, a creature of US foreign policy. It was given vast material assistance during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — when, as I recall, the Soviet Union was saying they had little choice but to intervene because, if they didn’t, the country would collapse into either banditry and chaos or a profoundly reactionary religious dictatorship. My, how we all laughed. But that doesn’t imply that the State Department or the CIA control al Qaeda; all that means is that someone didn’t properly think through the long-term consequences of their actions — or, if they did, thought (not unreasonably) that by the time it came to worry about those, it would be someone else’s problem.

Yes, too, War on Terror certainly suits the ideological ends of neo-Conservatives in Washington. The collapse of the Soviet Union left them without an obvious enemy against whom America could fulfill its God-given mission to lead the free world (whether the free world wanted to be lead or not), and militant Islamism fitted the bill rather nicely. The collapse of the Soviet Union also left the militant Islamists at a bit of a loose end, since their main selling point with the Muslim world — who didn’t want much to do with them in their own countries — was that they were fighting the enemies of Islam; having seen off (as they saw it) the Soviet Union, they also needed a new enemy so they could fulfill their God-given mission, too — and who better than the USA, sponsor of so many corrupt and unpopular regimes in the Muslim world and, of course, of Israel. And, of course, the War on Terror suits Israel’s political purposes very well, since anything that enables them to internationalise their conflict with the Palestinians is very helpful to them. Vladimir Putin doubtless feels much the same way about his conflict with the Chechins. Who else shall we add to the mix? Ah, mustn’t forget Halliburton and Dick Cheney. Company with close ties to the US administration gets lucrative contracts as a result of conflicts; my, what a surprise. Ah, yes, 7/7 and ID cards; government seizes opportunity to find yet another argument for a project that’s run into serious trouble — and which, by the way, the Home Office has been trying to push for decades.

But the conjunction of any or all of these factors does mean that you can make them concrete by claiming that the CIA or whoever put anyone up to doing something. That’s the response of someone who can’t handle complexity and abstract thought.

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