Saturday, May 18, 2013


Daily life is a tissue of loose ends, shot through with snarls and dropped stitches. That society nevertheless does not unravel, seems due to the fact that most people, though in detail unpredictable, are essentially similar and basically sane; due additionally to conservative/equilibrating structures evolved over the centuries; and perhaps to some further, anti-entropic factor, still obscure  but whose presence we may suspect (guardian angels would be the simplest explanation; something equally speculative though less intuitive, concerning negentropy or self-organizing systems, could also be alluded to).  Things pretty much jog along and usually eventually work out; but the details of any particular transaction  often may not bear looking into.
            One gets a glimpse of this  whenever, by some chance, a particular circumstance must be looked into further – something went a lot or a little bit wrong,  that, for some reason, this time, needs to be corrected or explained  and not just brushed aside as usual.  One often finds, upon turning over a rock long left undisturbed, a welter of wriggling vermin: errors previously unsuspected, data missing or misfiled, notes contradicting what one had previously believed (while their author has since left the company, or died prematurely).  Normally, none of this is sinister, but simply shows, on the human level, an analog (not an effect;  a metaphor, merely) of the underlying quantum uncertainty and atomic chaos  which nevertheless  ultimately manages to cohere in this coffee cup or that paperweight  sitting placidly, bien sage, on your desk.  If, however, the original affair is shady, the unexplained details which investigation unearths  lie in its shadow.  Let one instance stand for all: the celebrated “18-minute gap” in that tape, during Watergate.  Personally I find it utterly plausible that the gap resulted from the same gremlins that hide our spectacles, lose our umbrellas, and eat óne out of each pair of laundered socks.  But in context, it did look suspicious.
            An instinct not to let go of such suspicions  is buttressed by cases in which investigation of some misdeed,  severe enough to catch the atte.ntion of the media or the D.A.,  reveals a pot-pourri of previously unreported malfeasance, as in the Watergate affair.  Novelists and cineasts take the trend a satisfying step further with variations on the “Blow-Up” motif, in which a chance following-up of some minor discrepancy, out of mere curiosity, leads to a Vast Conspiracy. 
            The problem becomes acute when the stakes are high, the affair complex, and the discrepancies numerous (as they inevitably will be in any far-reaching affair, even absent any sinister underpinnings).  As, the Kennedy Assassination, or 9/11.

            We are currently witnessing a whole industry, tying our current President and his associates – both laterally (the present Administration) and longitudinally (the Bush family, going back to Prescott) – to all manner of skullduggery.  At the far fringe are the conspiracy theorists (stronger in Europe than here) who initially maintained, and some still maintain, that 9/11 was actually planned and carried out by a U.S. cabal, the airplanes being remotely controlled from the ground. A tad less extreme is the allegation, popular among some less reflective Arabs, that Israel did it.  Another tad, the position that,  while the op was indeed al-Qaeda’s, the Administration knew (sub-position 1, more florid) that that attack was due on that day, or (subposition 2, more reality-based, pointing to the August 6 memo) knew in a general way that such a thing might happen, and deliberately did nothing, so that they could use it as an excuse to proceed with their nefarious plans.  Certainly there have been agents provocateurs in history; but I tend to disbelieve in any gross such allegation concerning a present-day American administration, since every potential conspirator must be aware that, the way things stand in America today, no conspiracy broader than two twins in a cave  can stay secret for long – people write books and go on talk shows  to expose much milder grievances. 
            More centrist – if only with respect to such as these – is the new movie, “Fahrenheit 9/11”.  To his credit, Michael Moore does not even allude to such darker fantasies – indeed he indirectly exonerates the Administration, or at least Bush himself, of complicity,  if only through imputation of cluelessness. Bush’s blank look while the WTC attack vied for his attention with the Pet Goat, is itself a piece of evidence against all but a watered-down version of the last of the above-listed positions.  (Moore himself voiceovers a plausible thought-balloon in keeping with the last one, along the lines of: “Dang, wasn’t there some memo about something like this? Maybe I should have spent more time at the office and less on the golf course.”)  In one of his books, Moore hints at something more conspiratorial, but there fingers the Saudis (he really doesn’t like the Saudis), not the Illuminati or the Carlyle Group. And in the film, he does raise a number of other serious suspicions, none – again to his credit – original with himself, but dramatizations of charges explored at length by serious journalists in books. 

            It has been correctly observed that the basic motivation behind some of the most persistent of conspiracy theorists  is not mere irrationalism, but a perhaps excessive penchant for rationality – demanding to make sense of things that, well, don’t.  The distinction is hard to spot, since any empirically competent, level-headed investigator  tends to get swallowed up in a crowd of crazies.

            Another possible determinant, perhaps less often observed: in ascribing a pattern to the welter of events, as deriving from a plot, the theorizer may be acquiescing in a demand for personalization.  For, the confusing flux of the world  often lacks palpable causes.  Surely it can’t just all be random – one suspects deep dark forces at work. A plot puts a face on it.  But usually this is an explanatory short-circuit. For indeed there are forces, as deep and dark as those of hydrodynamics, but they are not even rational, let alone personal.
Empirical question: Does a tendancy towards florid conspiracy-mongering  correlate negatively with religious belief?  It is an observation  due perhaps to many, but prominently expressed in many a delightful story of Father Brown, that superstition tends to flow into the vacuum left by an absence of faith.  Perhaps belief in a heavenly Father – however distant, however inscrutable – leaves one less likely to imagine that the world’s workings may be ascribed to some shave-pate villain in a bunker somewhere, stroking a cat.
Against this, however:  the observed fixation of Book-of-Revelation-style evangelicals  on the Antichrist, working through the New World Order.  They do, so they say, believe in God;  a lot of good it’s done them.

            There is a healthy kernel to the epistemological attitude which, in its pathological exfoliation, becomes conspiracy-mindedness: a simple stance of “Wait a minute.”  For as Locke observed, and as subsequent scientific and historical discoveries  retrospectively further buttress: that “some (and those the most) taking things upon trust, misemploy their power of assent, by lazily enslaving their minds, to the dictates and dominion of others, in doctrines, which it is their duty  carefully to examine.”  (Essay I.iv.22)
            In an unhealthy development, skepticism becomes  not a key to inquiry, but a pose of imperviousness in the face of counter-evidence.  Michael Rutschky, in a recent contribution to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, described the situation in Germany, where “Ich bleibe skeptisch” has become a slogan – not, like that of the fabled Missouran (“You’ll have to show me”) inviting actual demonstration, but issuing a warning that, whatever evidence you may bring, it will be dismissed as smoke and mirrors. This sclerotic ‘tough-mindedness’ in the face of empricism  is often coupled with a soft side for Verschwörungstheorie.  At an extreme, this leads to political infantilization.  That the phenomenon seems more to be met with in Europe (at least, comparing their educated reading public with that of America, and setting aside the seething cauldron of the Web sites and talk shows) may cohere  with an objective semi-infantilization or anyhow sidelining  of Europe itself, in the age of the unilateral hyperpower.

The detective versus an unnamed evil thing:
A tale of madness, and of the uncanny --
Murphy Calls-in a Specialist
Available for Kindle or Nook

[Footnote May 2013: 
The above was written ca. 2005;  since that time, the fragile cortices of many of our countrymen have cracked, while paranoid fantasies sprout like weeds.  Yet the circumstances tend to reinforce the conjecture above, that hands far from the tillers of power  are freed for idle mischief.   When in office, Republicans are crafty and cynical; when out, they lose their moorings.]

[Sidenote]  There is a quite respectable practice of trying-to-see-hidden-patterns everywhere:  it's called Science.  For which see:

That practice too  has its pathologies, which perhaps someday time will allow us to notice in this place.

We find both kinds of nisus united  in the figure of Newton.  On the one hand, his scientific Principia side; on the other, his esoteric researches (alchemical and theological), which bulked equally large in his life.  Re the latter, David Berlinski remarks (Newton’s Gift (2000), p. 68):  “Secretive natures are quite prepared to believe that the history of human affairs  is largely the history of a great many secrets."

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