Conspiracism and the late David Griffin

9 Dec

In a Guardian piece yesterday, on a resurgent far right, Jonathan Freedland referred deridingly to “the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones”. I seldom agree with either man but do have an opinion on the way “conspiracy theorist” has become a stock put-down.

In footnote 1 to an August 2021 post, CV-19 and the Great Reset, I wrote that:

I use ‘conspiracy theory’ neutrally unless I say otherwise – in which case my objection will be that it is wrong on evidential or logical grounds, not that it posits a conspiracy. To use the term as means of a-priori dismissal is lazy or stupid. If I say this a shade too often it’s because I’ve a shade too often seen the term’s boorish use, by folk who deem themselves critical thinkers, to defend an indefensible status quo.

The issue recurs in below the line exchanges – some adversarial, with one who shares my view of the c-epithet but hadn’t troubled to read me – apropos that same post. And two years earlier, in the wake of the very well connected Jeffrey Epstein having, we’re told, been found hanging at his own hand in a jail cell – and more specifically in response to a patronising Guardian piece by Jill Filipovic – I made a rare foray into sarcasm 1 with Epstein suicided? Come on, grow up!

More recently, selective mainstream use of conspiracist  as a put-down was the gist of a Caitlin Johnstone piece I featured two months ago – It’s only a conspiracy theory if anti-USA.

You get the idea. I’m opposed to such use of the c-word. Indeed, some might see, in the vigour and frequency of that opposition, the zealotry of the convert. They’d be right. I too was once in the lost and found; a soul adrift when:

… to use the term as means of a-priori dismissal is lazy or stupid …

For my own Damascene moment I’m in the debt of David Ray Griffin – American theologian, philosopher, radical political thinker and much besides. And yes, he too was a conspiracist in that he believed – and persuaded me of his case – that whatever did happen on September 11, 2001, official accounts of that day fall lamentably short of credible. (And that their shortcomings are greater than can be explained away as officialdom covering for its own incompetence.)

In fact he changed not only my understanding of 9/11, but my attitude to conspiracy theories in general. A few days ago, David having died on November 26 aged eighty-three, I wrote:

Off-Guardian editor Catte Black asked if I’d write a [400 word] personal recollection for a tribute to the late David Ray Griffin.

Why? I never met David; we never even spoke on the phone. We’d had two cordial email exchanges, and I had it from both Catte and fellow editor Kit Knightly that he’d thought well of me, but that’s scant qualification for penning his obituary.

Here’s why. In the 2018 run up to the seventeenth anniversary of 9/11, Catte had asked me to review 9/11 Unmasked, David’s latest book, co-written with Elizabeth Woodworth as a critical interrogation of the official narrative of that epoch-shaping event.

But again, why me? This too is easily answered. For the fifteenth anniversary I’d written a scathing piece on 9/11 ‘truthism’. The hornets’ nest it kicked up furnished rebukes too numerous and well informed to be ignored, and I’d promised to return with better arguments or a retraction. Yet two years later I had, for reasons given in my review of 9/11 Unmasked, done neither.

Now my moment had arrived.

The resultant review I now deem among my most significant writings. Not because it’s a great piece of glittering prose. It isn’t. But the processes of reading 9/11 Unmasked, and organising my thoughts for its review, changed my understanding of what happened that day – and what absolutely did not. More fundamentally it led me to examine the thought processes and implicit worldviews which had led me to write, in such sneering tones, that earlier attack on 9/11 sceptics.

I don’t know what happened on September 11, 2001 and neither, as far as I can tell, did David. What he and Elizabeth claimed, with a force of evidence and reason that persuaded me, is that the official narrative, its fullest form the 2005 NIST Report, is a mess of shoddy science, evidence-defying claims and logical howlers: hallmarks of a gigantic if clunky cover up. As to why I’d been so scathing (as had David at first) 9/11 Unmasked revealed to me a radical flaw in my thinking. My broadly Marxist take on how imperialism works had led me to the unconscious non-sequitur  (my bad not Karl’s) that since no conspiracy is needed, allegations of conspiracy are a-priori  baseless. David’s lucidity, on a topic where lucidity is often in short supply, challenged me to reassess my flawed logic.

For that I am hugely in his debt.

* * *

  1. My problem with sarcasm isn’t with its being the lowest form of wit but with the danger of my words being taken at face value. (Especially in posts read by people who may not know me and, given the lower bandwidth of writing relative to speech, have few non-verbal clues as to my intent.) More specifically here, since heavy irony is famously the discourse of paranoia, its deployment in allegations of conspiracy seems ill advised. Indeed, the problems I had while drowning, prior to reading 9/11 Unmasked, in a sea of detail whose higher level significance was far from self evident, were exacerbated by my frequent inability to tell if a point was being made satirically.

2 Replies to “Conspiracism and the late David Griffin

  1. One of the most famous “conspiracist” events was the burning of the Reichstag. The Wikipedia article on it is interesting:

    Under the heading, “Dispute about Van der Lubbe’s role”, we have this:

    “According to historian Ian Kershaw, by 1998, nearly all historians agreed that Van der Lubbe had set the Reichstag on fire, that he had acted alone, and that the incident was merely a stroke of good luck for the Nazis. However, in the days following the incident, major newspapers in the US and London were immediately sceptical of the good fortune of the Nazis in finding a communist scapegoat.”

    The Kershaw reference obviously rejects this immediate intuitive scepticism. The rest of this passage then embarks on a richly detailed journey of claims and counter claims leading to “more sober speculation about whether unknown or forgotten documents might still be hidden in German archives, and which might be valuable and revealing historical sources, especially on the Nazi regime.”

    Pardon my own scepticism but this seems a familiar tale to me i.e. arrival at something like that “We’ll just never know for sure”. So : lone nut, Nazi false flag, communist plot etc. Who knows? My point is that sometimes those immediate instinctive notions may have a lot going for them as opposed to later (over)detailed expositions. (“Gish gallop”?)
    And regarding immediate instinctive notions, I noticed one such example from George Monbiot with regard to 9/11 or, at least, certain aspects thereof. (I believe it referred to the “fortuitous” finding of an Islamic passport in the rubble.)This stance did not last and GM was soon ridiculing all “conspiracy nuts”.

    The temptation is to imagine him being given the “offer he couldn’t refuse” but this is where the more crude conspiracists are wrong. Coercion doesn’t have to be so overt. It can indeed be an institutional matter as Noam Chomsky has noted cf: “If you didn’t believe what you believe then you wouldn’t be sitting there.” In the case of Monbiot I can imagine little chats along the lines of “Well George, this isn’t the time for in-fighting” etc.

    Then there’s the interesting matter of the sinking of the Belgrano and Diane Gould’s soon-to-be-buried interrogation of Margaret Thatcher on Nationwide. I honestly had goose bumps thinking I was watching the end of Thatcher there. Next day: nothing! It never happened. 25 years later the truth comes out about secret sources that “had to be guarded”. But the instant sceptical intuition there, i.e. that all the political parties AND the mainstream media had been told to back off, turns out to be not only true but unavoidable.

  2. I had always viewed conspiracy theories in much the same way as Phil, from a semi-Marxist PoV that they weren’t necessary or mostly believable. But having watched the EU ‘elite’ (not of course elite in any meaningful way) voluntarily throw it’s economy down a pit-shaft at the command of the US which is at the same time exploiting all sides of the Ukranian war without inflicting any hardship on itself, then subsequently I’ll credit almost any mad thing. To quote ‘Alice in Wunnerland’ in Scots, which I feel is much more pithy than English:

    “That road” the Cat ses, waggin its richt paw aboot, “bides a Hatter: an that road bides a March Hare. Veesit on aither ane ye want – they’re baith mad”
    “But ah dinna want tae gang amang mad fowk” Ailice remarked.
    “Och, ye canna help that” ses the Cat “we’re aa mad here. Ah’m mad. Ye’re mad”.
    “Hou div ye ken Ah’m mad?” ses Ailice.
    “Ye maun be,” ses the Cat, “or ye widna hae come here”.

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