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.
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- 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.