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October 17, 2006

The Anti-Paranoid Style in American Politics

I adore my dog-eared Hofstadter books as much as the next self-important pundit, but I'm done worrying about the paranoid style in American politics. More pernicious, I'm starting to think, is anti-paranoid punditry in American politics, in which scary-but-plausible theories are dismissed simply by calling them conspiratorial. Because we all know the ancient Latin logical fallacy reductio ad conspiratorium that eliminates theories assuming collusion between actors in service of complicated ends. Nothing so unlikely could ever occur in this reality, pal.

An excellent example of this shoddy analytical work came in The New Yorker this week, where Nicholas Lemann devoted a feature piece to paranoia in the our post-9/11 polity. I'd tell you what it was about, but there was no thesis, just a disjointed series of sneers at various conspiracy-theorists, from 9/11 doubters to those dumb enough to think that "big defense contractors [gave] the determining push for the war in Iraq" to those wild-eyed enough to think financial incentives matter in pharmaceutical research. An example:

Journalism, which seeks to explain the world to people, is a perfect vehicle for theories about conspiracies by the powerful, and this year has brought an efflorescence of them. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., in Rolling Stone, recently wrote, "After carefully examining the evidence, I've become convinced that the president's party mounted a massive, coordinated campaign to subvert the will of the people in 2004," and that John Kerry would have won if the voting had been conducted fairly. Kennedy devoted most of his article to Ohio, where, for example, he says that, before the election, one Republican county government "invented a nonexistent terrorist threat" in order to prevent press scrutiny of the vote count. Celia Farber, writing last spring in Harper's about an AIDS drug that she says was dangerous and should not have been put on the market, abruptly switched gears and offered this generalization about the state of drug research in America: "Today's scientists are almost wholly dependent upon the goodwill of government researchers and powerful peerreview boards, who control a financial network binding together the National Institutes of Health, academia, and the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. Many scientists live in fear of losing their funding. 'Nobody is safe,' one N.I.H.-funded researcher told me."

The Celia Farber article, which focused on a heterodox researcher who doubts the validity of AIDS, was horseshit. What Lemann managed to do here, however, was extract the single true, even banal element of her piece and discredit it, not through contrary evidence or counterargument, but by labeling it "conspiracy." As for Kennedy's article, I've got my doubts about his evidence, but Lemann does nothing to affirm them. Indeed, he does nothing to argue the facts of any of these theories at all. He just mocks, laments, and muses over their existence. Were I a conspiracy-theorist, seeing my ideas plastered across the New Yorker, derided by the chin-stroking author who nonetheless appears unable to muster a single scrap of counterevidence against them, I'd be affixing a new 3x5 card to my Wall o' Truth.

Most of these theories are, to be sure, bull. Salon has convincingly debunked many of Kennedy's claims. Popular Science did a demolition job on 9/11 paranoia. The bulk of the evidence argues that Iraq was the fault of ideologues, not contractors. But like many arguments, if they're wrong, it's because they're wrong, not because they lurk on the margins of acceptable discourse and vaguely unsettle those who come into contact with them. If The New Yorker wants to ignore them -- that's fine, magazines have a limited number of pages and an unlimited number of topics. But to devote a feature to them without, at any juncture or instant, seriously addressing their claims? It's enough to leave the reader wondering what so scared the usually-analytical Lemann into fashioning such an uncharacteristic hackjob. My guess? The CIA planted a mind control chip in his naval cavity when he was a young man, surreptitiously helped him achieve his current position, and then hit the remote when they needed his cooperation.

October 17, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

Thanks for this. Lemann's article was incredibly bad: it seems as if he wrote it in about an hour. And he's the dean of Columbia Journalism School.

If there are a lot conspiracies floating around, it's largely because it's a time of war, and speaking of that war...how about the conspiracy that created it, the one in which leaders of our government midfully dismissed or downplayed facts that didn't support their case and exaggerrated those that did.

Posted by: davidmizner | Oct 17, 2006 12:21:49 PM

Are we truly surprised that the New Yorker cares more about tone, style and medium over message?

Posted by: talboito | Oct 17, 2006 12:23:20 PM

You also don't need to beleive in the existence of intricate, behind the scenes machinations and cabals to acknowledge the influence of money and power to move events - no conspiracy required.

You don't need a conspiracy theory to beleive that the military industrial complex (with its financial incentives to develop, sell and deploy expensive weapons systems and procure incredibly lucrative no-bid support contracts) is as plausible an explanation for the war in Iraq as any justification explicitly stated by this administration.

Posted by: John I | Oct 17, 2006 12:26:26 PM

Lemann writes:

Kennedy devoted most of his article to Ohio, where, for example, he says that, before the election, one Republican county government "invented a nonexistent terrorist threat" in order to prevent press scrutiny of the vote count.

without further comment, as if the very allegation is absurd on its face. I am not familiar with this particular charge, but hyping a terror alert to drown out other less convenient reporting seems perfectly achievable (though no doubt Lemann resents the notion that the press can be played in this way).

Obviously if it didn't happen it didn't happen. But the allegation isn't self-evidently preposterous, as Lemann seems to believe.

Posted by: kth | Oct 17, 2006 12:54:04 PM

"Obviously if it didn't happen it didn't happen. But the allegation isn't self-evidently preposterous, as Lemann seems to believe."

The problem is that RFK jr threw in lots of already discredited theories, along with some valid theories, thus allowing folks to dismiss all of what he wrote as conspiracy-mania.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 17, 2006 1:03:51 PM

And then, you know, there's all the crazy shit that everyone acknowledges actually did happen. My favorite one is Project MKULTRA. If it weren't actually documented, and someone told me that they believed the CIA was conducting mind-control experiments on entirely innocent, unwitting American citizens using LSD, radiation, magic mushrooms, and electroshock therapy...that would have been classic "conspiracy theory" territory. But, well, they did.

Posted by: Christopher M | Oct 17, 2006 1:12:58 PM

Yes, Christopher M: it's easy to chastise people for thinking the government introduced AIDS into the black community, and it would be easy to chastise people for believing the government secretly injected black people with syphilis if it didn't actually happen.

Posted by: davidmizner | Oct 17, 2006 1:27:21 PM

To wander from the point somewhat, Wikipedia has some interesting stuff on the psychological workings of conspiracy theories. I stumbled across this breakdown of how suspicion of a September 11th conspiracy correlates to demographic factors. Those most suspicious are the young, the liberal, and blacks. And the numbers for all of those are shockingly high.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 17, 2006 1:30:00 PM

Conspiracy flourishes in the absence of facts. Michael Chertoff's brother wrote that Popular Science article on 9/11 of which you speak. & this AM GW signed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 into law.

Posted by: darms | Oct 17, 2006 1:57:45 PM

I am not sure what your point here is. Are you saying that we should not dismiss 'scary but plausible' theories just because there is no evidence to back them up?

That seems like a very good reason to dismiss those theories to me.

Believing a 'scary theory' without any evidence is simply paranoid. Even if you think that the theory is 'plausible'.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Oct 17, 2006 3:40:42 PM

Have the neocon conspiricists, anticipating a Democratic takeover of Congress, made Lemann an offer he dare not refuse so that they can label Democratic charges "crazy paranoia"? They'll need someone like him to lend credence to their otherwise... .

Posted by: AM | Oct 17, 2006 4:20:14 PM

This is a longstanding and vexed issue. The problem is that "conspiracy" elicits a mental image of a small cabal of people in a mountain redoubt, laughing evilly as they pull the levers.

That very rarely happens. What DOES happen, frequently, is that an overlapping set of institutions and people with similar goals, operating with multiple points of coordination, not a single hierarchy, work in a way that is indistinguishable from a conspiracy in its effects.

To wit: Hillary's famous "right-wing conspiracy" comment was immediately derided. But there is a set of people and institutions, funded by a relatively small group of rich people, that work in concert and share information with the goal of smearing and defeating the left. There just is -- it's public record. Do you call it a conspiracy? Well, I don't know. But it's sure as hell not an accident.

Posted by: Realish | Oct 17, 2006 5:31:08 PM

"The CIA planted a mind control chip in his naval cavity ..."

That's *navel* cavity, you yo-yo.

Posted by: Kyle | Oct 17, 2006 5:59:12 PM

I am not sure what your point here is. Are you saying that we should not dismiss 'scary but plausible' theories just because there is no evidence to back them up?

That seems like a very good reason to dismiss those theories to me.

Believing a 'scary theory' without any evidence is simply paranoid. Even if you think that the theory is 'plausible'.

Posted by: Dave Justus

If anything, he's saying the reverse: we should dismiss "scary but plausible" theories if and only if there is no evidence to back them up. Lemann's article apparently urges people to dismiss theories, or takes for granted that they do dismiss certain theories, not based on evidence but just based on the fact that they are "scary but plausible".

If John Smith espouses the belief that the WTC was brought down by shaped explosives that were deliberately made to look like the work of hijacked planes under the direction of individuals in the Bush administration, there are a number of possible critiques of that theory. The statement that ballistics experts agree the collapse really did look like the result of impact from a jet plane is a good critique of the theory. The statement that Mr. Smith's idea should be rejected because it sounds like something from a James Bond movie is a bad critique. Lemann's article seems to rely mostly if not entirely on the latter type of critique.

Posted by: Cyrus | Oct 17, 2006 6:53:21 PM

What's Hofstadter got to do with Lehman's bad article?

Posted by: Big Tent Democrat | Oct 17, 2006 8:38:03 PM

Davidmizner: when was anyone "secretly injected with syphilis"? The Tuskegee experiment was real, and immoral, but it involved patients who already had syphilis.

Posted by: Hob | Oct 17, 2006 10:17:08 PM

uncharacteristic hackjob

Not as uncharacteristic as we might like. Remember his Hugh Hewitt puff piece?

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Oct 17, 2006 10:35:04 PM

Hofstadter is the origin of "the paranoid style in American politics" and Lemann mentions him in the piece.

Posted by: Ezra | Oct 17, 2006 10:59:17 PM

Michael Chertoff's brother wrote that Popular Science article on 9/11 of which you speak.

Actually, they're completely unrelated (name aside).

Posted by: DonBoy | Oct 18, 2006 12:32:55 AM

"The CIA planted a mind control chip in his naval cavity ..."

That's *navel* cavity, you yo-yo.


No, it's "naval Cavite". The surgery takes place in a USN hospital in the Philippines, well away from inquisitive journalists and FBI men...

Posted by: ajay | Oct 18, 2006 5:41:50 AM

Actually, they're completely unrelated (name aside)

Furthermore, it was Popular Mechanics, not Popular Science, that did the 9/11 conspiracy-theory demolition.

Posted by: josephdietrich | Oct 18, 2006 9:16:55 AM

Tried to post this last night, but D^2's "colorful" language got it filtered:

-Squared has a post just up today in which he points out that some terror suspects in the UK have, according to the gov't, disappeared - which could mean that they escaped, or that the Argentineans get the last laugh in the Falklands War. And he adds:

A note: of course, this is a "conspiracy theory" rather than a "c0ck-up theory", and as a result I am sure a number of my readers will take my entertaining it as de facto evidence of lunacy. It is not. It is a plain and undeniable fact that authoritarian states carry out disappearances of their enemies. [...] Which means in my view that the only reason to rule out the second possibility above out of hand would be a belief that the UK state security authorities operate under an absolute and effective prohibition against such things, which is a belief I no longer have with sufficient degree of certainty to build other beliefs on it.

Posted by: JRoth | Oct 18, 2006 10:20:09 AM

Ezra:

A lot of people mention Hofstadter without understanding him.

I use him alot as I think he is incredibly relevant today.

I hate to see Lehman's nonsense equated with Hofstadter's insight.

Posted by: Big Tent Democrat | Oct 18, 2006 2:01:59 PM

"If John Smith espouses the belief that the WTC was brought down by shaped explosives that were deliberately made to look like the work of hijacked planes under the direction of individuals in the Bush administration, there are a number of possible critiques of that theory. The statement that ballistics experts agree the collapse really did look like the result of impact from a jet plane is a good critique of the theory. The statement that Mr. Smith's idea should be rejected because it sounds like something from a James Bond movie is a bad critique."

I have to disagree quite strongly. An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence. If John Smith doesn't have any evidence to back up his claim, other than it is 'plausible' then we should reject it.

How about I say it is 'plausible' that aliens are using earth as a giant expiriment? Is the rational standard that my theory be accepted with all others, unless it can be disproved (conspiracy theories are notoriously non-falsifiable) or should I actually have to provide evidence before I am taken seriously?

This sort of sloppy thinking is why conspiracy theories exist in the first place.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Oct 18, 2006 2:05:02 PM

"Are we truly surprised that the New Yorker cares more about tone, style and medium over message?"

Um, what? Tina Brown left years ago, y'know. And Lemann's piece wasn't just intellectually worthless, it was badly written, rambling, and had no tone to speak of other than a vague sort of distracted world-weariness. And I have no idea what you mean about medium. It's a magazine. A piece of writing was printed in it.

REALISH: "What DOES happen, frequently, is that an overlapping set of institutions and people with similar goals, operating with multiple points of coordination, not a single hierarchy, work in a way that is indistinguishable from a conspiracy in its effects."

Bingo.

Posted by: gyrfalcon | Oct 18, 2006 4:07:09 PM

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