Forty-five years ago, Harpers magazine published Richard Hofstadter's essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." The occasion for the piece was the revenant conservatism that had driven Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign (the magazine hit the newsstands the month of the Johnson/Goldwater election), but it remains astonishingly apt. I cannot recommend it enough for anyone who wants to understand the mentalités of fringe political movements in the United States--from the Anti-Masons and Know Nothings in the first half of the 1800s, to McCarthyism, the Nation of Islam, and the Weathermen in the last century, to the Birthers and Truthers today.
I hesitate to bring up 9/11 Truth again after the firestorm of commentary I unleashed last week, but read Hofstadter on the pedantry of paranoid literature and tell me that he doesn't nail some of the most contentious of the posters (most of whom were probably not even born when the piece was written) with a psychoanalyst's precision and a novelist's sympathy:
One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.....Respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can indeed be justified but also carefully and all but obsessively accumulates "evidence." The difference between this "evidence" and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it....One of last week's more strident posters shared his frustration with members of his on-line forum (yes, I Googled myself, and of course I read all the nasty things they said about me), listing the seminal books I hadn't referenced ("Nafeez Ahmed's "War on Truth," Peter Dale Scott's "Road to 9/11," Michael Ruppert's "Crossing the Rubicon," Michel Chossudovsky's "War on Terrorism"), pointing out The Complete 9/11 Timeline at historycommons.org that I ignored, and exposing my transparently propagandistic mendacity in allowing one perfervid e-mailer to stand "as an avatar for the supposed pathologies of the 9/11 Truth movement."
Of course he's furious! He's educated, articulate, and politically committed. He's not some disreputable, anti-social obsessive--he's a veritable exegete of 9/11 anomalies, as fluent in the jargon of physics as he is in political dialectics. It's bad enough that he has to endure the studied neutrality or outright hostility of the really big guns of the left--Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein--but then an arrant nobody like me comes along with, as one of his fellow posters put it, "a metric tonne of standard issue boilerplate" and presumes that he can conjure away the whole edifice of 9/11 Truth with a couple of wisecracks. Not only am I smug and ignorant and intellectually dishonest --- it's as if I don't even care about the subtle distinctions between one brand of Truthery and another, as if I can't be bothered to acknowledge the museum's-worth of evidence that he and his colleagues have so assiduously curated.
Imagine that you were a Maria Callas fan. You own every recording she ever made -- 78s, LPs, remastered CDs, even reel-to-reel tapes recorded off of radio broadcasts. You've not only read every book and magazine article about her that was ever committed to print, you've written a few yourself. And then some fly-by-night music journalist casually dismisses her in the pages of a mass circulation magazine as a cracked-voiced diva whose sole claim to fame was that she and Jackie O were rivals for Aristotle Onassis's affections.
Reading through all that commentary, I thought of how misguided missionaries sometimes try to evangelize Jews by calling their attention to passages from the New Testament--a scripture that by definition carries no weight with Jews at all. From my outsider's perspective, most of the Truther's exhibits (the iron spherules, the 2.5 seconds of video-taped free fall, the anecdotes about the dancing Israelis, the housing official trapped in the stairwell of WTC7) aren't evidence at all but rather artifacts of confirmation bias--factoids (many of dubious provenance, some long past their sell-by date) that are plucked out of context and marshaled not to build or close a positive case for one thesis or another, but only to cast doubt on the default position. I can't engage the 9/11 issue on the same terms that a Truther does, because I'd have to be a Truther myself.
Religious fanatics, political radicals, obsessive fans -- the worlds they live in are closed systems, governed by dogmas and articles of faith. Discipline is strictly enforced; members are punished or purged for their lapses in ideological or doctrinal purity. Outsiders are regarded with suspicion and hostility -- milquetoast accommodationists who are presumptuous enough to suppose they can make common cause on one issue or another even more so than overt enemies. It's a pressure cooker -- turn up the temperature and you get sectarianism and schisms, higher still and you get witch hunts, show trials, Cultural Revolutions, and Nuremberg laws.
With its congeries of black sheep constituencies (Alex Jones Libertarian populists, movement leftists, anarchists, white supremacists, New World Order reactionaries, Protocols of the Elders of Zion anti-Semites, crusading architects and theologians) and its lack of a dominant leader or organization, the 9/11 Movement will likely never become unified enough to tear itself apart. But it has not been altogether innocuous either. "One of the major consequences of the 9/11 movement," Noam Chomsky said, "Has been to draw enormous amounts of energy and effort away from activism directed to real and ongoing crimes of state...crimes that are far more serious than blowing up the WTC would be, if there were any credibility to that thesis. That is, I suspect, why the 9/11 movement is treated far more tolerantly by centers of power than is the norm for serious critical and activist work."
Just as the missionary can't understand how the Jew can contemplate the prospect of his eternal damnation with such unnatural equanimity, the Truther can't fathom why the rest of us would rather look at the forest than the trees. There's a certain poignancy in their predicament. As Hofstadter wrote, "We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."