August 28, 2007

Radical Cartesian Doubt -- I've spent so much of my life traveling, incessantly moving, that I don't even pretend to myself anymore that it is about any particular destination. It's just all this movement. When I'm driving across the country, I exist in a sort of meditative state, usually with something playing on the sound system. The car interior provides a great soundbooth for music I have brought, or audio books, or for exploring the radio landscape of the place I am driving through. The other day driving through New England I put on a recent audio book by New York Times Columnist Frank Rich called The Greatest Story Ever Sold. It's a history of how the Bush administration sold its war to the American people just enough to push it over. It's very recent history as history goes, but it doesn't have the sizzle of Rich's commentary on last week's events. It's a very different form. It's a summary and analysis of events within the last five years.

I like to read Rich's columns and I find that I usually more or less agree with him. But I found myself drifting from the audio book. One might think it was from the fact that it's "old news" in the Internet age of 24/7 news. But that wasn't really the root problem for me. Obviously a history has to accomplish different ends than a column does because the material no longer has the novelty of today's news. But in addition to that, the analysis, the framing of the story has to resonate with the reader. And as I observed my own reactions and tried to understand why I found myself suppressing the impulse to turn it off, I think I finally came to why I could not commit myself for long to it. It's because I don't quite buy into the narrative, or more accurately the world view from which it is posited.

Rich, like many other successful mainstream political writers has a kind of sureness, a kind of security that I do not share. He is comfortable with certain beliefs, to the extent that he can accept them as premises from which he can then reason to reach a certain level of understanding. But I find myself in a much less sure world than he is in. I cannot accept on faith many of the things that are dealt with as facts in the mainstream. I find myself in a state of radical Cartesian doubt regarding information that comes to me from The Corporate State.

When Rich uses the clause, "When Al Qaeda attacked us..." I start to drift and he loses me, because I have many questions before I can reach that state of certitude and then begin to build on that premise. I still don't feel like I really know what happened, who attacked whom, and who or what Al Qaeda even is. Much of this is my own fault, obviously, I should know much more. But I do see people proceeding with premises and beliefs that to me remain unproven, unestablished. I do know that I do not believe much of what the administration says, and have no reason to. It has zero credibility, really a negative number. So any information that comes from the administration, or is filtered by the administration, is not reliable unless it is confirmed by relatively neutral sources. That can't be said about much of anything that is considered to be known about 9/11 in the official reality. It is relatively unfiltered, unprocessed, untested information. The 9/11 Report was produced under the least advantageous circumstances for finding the truth. Even without reading the whole thing, one can read many assertions that are worse than false, just ridiculous. It is certainly no Bible of the truth of 9/11. Even its authors have said as much.

The 9/11 case is reminiscent of the JFK assassination case in this regard. For example, William Manchester's The Death of a President, was the history of the assassination that was authorized by the Kennedy family. Manchester worked under some duress to produce the history in fairly short order and he worked with the information that was available at the time. Without the benefit of hindsight, and without the experience of the new sort of government that was taking shape at that time, Manchester was fairly trusting of the information he was given, I would say too trusting. He took the official story and extrapolated on it to recreate moments to which there were no known, living witnesses. He used his imagination as any historian, historical novelist or screenwriter must to fill in blanks. But the information was not reliable, and if he'd been strictly rigorous in his testing of it, he could have avoided the errors even at that stage. In later years information that became available to the public discredited much of what Manchester believed was known at the time. As a result he described what he imagined Oswald to be doing and looking like and thinking in the sixth floor of the book depository, when there is strong evidence to suggest he was not even there, and there is a great deal of other evidence to discredit many other details of the narrative. Certainly the event did not proceed the way it was initially described. Too much is known now for that theory to stand. Establishment voices like the New York Times still cleave loyally to the Warren Commission's conclusions even though a later Congressional committee determined that there had to have been more than one shooter. The Times forgot that.

Quite a lot of the official story of 9/11 just does not add up, even to rudimentary principles of science, so it makes it very difficult to draw any conclusions about what happened. We certainly don't know enough answers to the thousands of unanswered questions about the event to accept the conclusions being foisted on us by the Bush administration. When they say "9/11 Changed Everything" they are stating a fundamentally untrue assertion, but what the event did change we still can't be very sure.

The History Channel's conspiracy theory debunking show on Saturday night, August 25 ("The 9/11 Conspiracies: Fact or Fiction"), veered off from consideration of the questions raised by the 9/11 Truth movement, into a sort of analysis of the supposed personality type of the "conspiracist", which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as "One holding a conspiracy theory." That's especially funny in light of the fact that the official story is by definition a conspiracy theory. In the History Channel film, one of the people presented as an expert said that these conspiracy theorists all "think they are right and everyone else is wrong." This may apply to some people on any side of any question, but there is no logical basis for making that assumption about everyone who questions the official story of 9/11. Essentially the 9/11 Truth movement represents people who are asking questions, challenging an established view. That does not mean they necessarily think they know the answers and no one else does. It may be true of some of them, but it's a mischaracterization of many of them, and not only is it a false generalization, it's a distraction from the issues being discussed. By that logic it is wrong to question at all. Asking questions about that makes one a sick, abnormal person. And that was the dominant underlying message of the show.

I for one am a doubter, but I don't enter the debate believing that I have the truth and "everyone else" is wrong. I come not from a position of sureness, but one of inquiry. Descartes' radical doubt was designed to use doubt as a method for finding reliable truth. To sift through the confusion, the lies, the snares in any criminal case, it is important to start from a place with as few assumptions as possible, and then proceed carefully applying principles of logic and science and not calling something true until there is very strong evidence that it is true. That was Descartes' method, and it may not lead to total understanding of the universe, but it's a good way to think clearly through a set of issues. That which cannot be securely established using fundamental principles of logic needs to be kept in the category of the unknown, with judgment suspended. For many people it's very uncomfortable to carry around unknowns in their heads. Loose ends, unresolved questions can be disturbing, so many would rather accept an untested idea than to exist in a prolonged state of uncertainty. Unfortunately in 21st century America, that is our lot. There are many unknowns and many uncertainties.

I believe that the state of radical doubt is the appropriate one for the scientist, the reporter, the judge or even just the rational person. The old journalistic maxim, "If your ma tells ya she loves ya, check it out" describes the appropriate attitude for a journalist. Only through disciplined processing and testing of information can any facts be established as reliable. As little should be taken for granted as possible. In the mainstream corporate media, it is not the attitude of skepticism that prevails, it is more an attitude of belief, of respect, almost of reverence, or as close to it as we get in the Land of the Almighty Buck.

The great power of ubiquity and repetition enables the corporate media to frame the debate, to create the vessel through which we view the world. In regard to 9/11 as in the case of the JFK assassinations and many other incidents, an official story line was locked into place in the first hours after the incident and that narrative never changed in the official media. What was reported as known in the first unfolding hours was never changed by the official voices. It has been steadfastly held to and any deviating points of view were ignored or somehow bent to fit into the original theory. Any questions are considered strange, unacceptable behavior. The information in the public domain, however, has expanded rapidly since the beginning and much of it tears those initial conclusions asunder. But never mind. Those establishment voices will never budge an inch. The original story must be held very rigidly. Any atom that moves may bring down the whole house of cards. That's why even speculation is discouraged violently.

This is the attitude of a religious organization toward its doctrine, its truth. But it is not the appropriate attitude of scientists or jurists or journalists. Nevertheless it is primarily what we are stuck with in our mainstream media at the moment. It is deeply fascinating, however, to see the changes taking place in the public domain. One by one people are removing the barrier and asking questions. Robert Fisk became one of the most recent voices of reason to suddenly ask unacceptable questions. But when the contradictions pile so high that it becomes very difficult to move at all without having to step around them, some rational people are going to give up the effort of trying to maintain a belief system which no longer has logical integrity. First it is the questions. The answers come later.

September 8, 2007

Radical Doubt Reprised -- I almost lost a friend over the piece I wrote called "Radical Cartesian Doubt". He wrote furiously that "the idea that Bush/Cheney engineered 9/11 is preposterous beyond belief and would be laughable if it weren't so pernicious". It was not a happy moment, and when these controversies intrude in the space between friends it shows vividly what divisive, toxic times we are living in.

I pointed out that I was not alleging that Bush/Cheney had engineered 9/11. The central message of the piece was that the only way I can find comfortable ground on which to establish some reliable beliefs in the midst of all this chaos is to suspend judgment on everything that cannot pass rigorous tests for proof. This unfortunately applies to the official story of 9/11, but also to most of the alternative explanations. The administration in its strenuous efforts to constrain investigation of the incidents, in its obsession with secrecy and its constant lying about everything has invited suspicion. But the same suspension of judgment must also apply to the alternative explanations that are not yet conclusively proven.

Doubting the official story does not necessarily mean leaping immediately to the opposite end of the continuum of possibility and concluding that Bush/Cheney engineered 9/11. But when the official theory is questioned, people tend to jump to a defense against that proposition. That may be a reflection of how vulnerable the administration is to such allegations, and how vulnerable we all are to such horrifying suspicions.

Yet we do disagree. The thesis is not preposterous to me. It remains on the table as a possibility. But it is still a hypothesis, far from a proven conclusion. There are many questions yet to answer before that question can be tackled.

Dealing with so many possible realities in these many realms of controversy and finding so many different beliefs among intelligent people is what caused me to turn to Descartes' radical doubt as a way of finding some solid ground in a world that increasingly resembles a Philip K. Dick novel, with virtually nothing certain.

Some of the most intelligent, radical thinkers I know of, including Noam Chomsky and John Judge, reject the idea that the World Trade Center was destroyed in a controlled demolition and hold to the official story. I cannot look at the collapse of those buildings and believe the official explanation, that some relatively minor fires achieved much greater levels of heat than is theoretically possible, and became hot enough to melt steel on some upper floors, which caused all the floors below to disintegrate almost instantly. Most of those I know of who reject the controlled demolition theory do so out of hand, without looking seriously into the argument, because they can't take it seriously in the first place, or are not ready to take on that issue. This is not a criticism, it is just an observation. Any human being can only take on so much at a time.

In writing "Radical Cartesian Doubt" I was trying to find a middle ground, a rational place for people like myself who doubt and distrust the administration, and the authorized story of 9/11, but who do not yet have a viable, conclusive and comprehensive alternative explanation. When some of the smartest critical thinkers on the planet accept a theory that seems to defy physics while they reject with a hint of scorn what appears to me to be a more reasonable theory, it makes me doubt my own perceptions, if not my sanity. So it was with a sense of relief that I tuned into the HBO program Real Time with Bill Maher and found him in a discussion with Princeton Professor Cornel West and Mos Def, a rapper and actor labeled on the show as "artist/activist".

I'm an old white guy, far from the social context of this Brooklyn projects-born rapper, and can't claim much basis for an affinity with him, and yet this guy held a very similar position to me. He told Maher he doesn't believe in the authenticity of the video currently being touted widely as Osama Bin Laden's latest proclamation to the west. He doesn't believe any of that boogeyman stuff, he said. Here's a snippet of a very lively conversation:

DEF: I don't believe it was bin Laden today, I don't believe it was never him. I think it's some dude just standing, I don't even, I can't even believe. I don't even, I'm sorry, I'm from the projects, I know danger. I don't feel no danger from that shit, those mother-fuckers.

BILL MAHER: But you don't think bin Laden knocked down the Word Trade Center?

DEF: Absolutely not.

MAHER: Come on.

DEF: I don't. I don't. You know what, I don't.

MAHER: That's where you lose me, my friend, and I'm so on your side, but you know what.

DEF: In any barbershop I am so not alone, I'm so not alone.

MAHER: That doesn't mean you're right.

DEF: That don't mean it is not valid neither. Highly-educated people in all areas of science have spoken on the fishiness around the whole 9/11 theory. It's like the magic-bullet and all that shit.

MAHER: Then what happened?

DEF: I don't believe these mother-fuckers have been to the moon either, but that's just me.

This guy was an authentic embodiment of radical doubt. He just doesn't accept anything that comes from the official state propaganda matrix without some tangible proof. Most of us in this day would acknowledge that there is a propaganda machine operating, but few of us would like to admit that it affects our thinking very much. I suspect it affects most of us much more than we would like to think. We are so immersed in the official reality we have to be apologetic for views that are in opposition to it. You can't fight every battle, so your choose your battles and give in on others. We have to protect our appearance of credibility. And many times we will lean towards acceptance rather than just continuing to fight and resist the barrage that hits us with massive force during virtually every waking moment.

But here is a young man who grew up as an outsider, was never part of the mainstream, was excluded by color and class at the outset, and therefore manages to maintain some independence from the matrix. His grammar was not proper. He stumbled a little at first until he found his groove. But the essence of what he said was powerful and cut to the core of many of these issues in a way that most of those of us who are more entrenched in the official culture would find very difficult to do.

At one point he said, "First of all I'm going to kill all this 'we' shit. We didn't do shit. I didn't endorse this war, we collectively just accepting it: 'we did'. That's like you driving a car, somebody get in ... and you say 'we got a problem'. We'd be like, 'We what?... You!"

I haven't found a transcript of the show yet. I wish I could because it had many great moments, including a little exchange where Maher was asserting that the violence of radical Islam came from the Koran and I wondered if he had read all the crazy violence, vengeance, incest and you-name-it in the Holy Bible. The references to the show I have seen on the Web virtually all dismiss Mos Def as a crazy rapper, but I think he was quite lucid and sensible, and to me very refreshing.

Here's the clip on YouTube: Mos Def and Cornell West on Bill Maher (part 1) and Mos Def and Cornell West on Bill Maher (part 2). Also on Bill Maher on Sept. 7: Col. Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff.

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