Friday, October 28, 2011

Why do we investigate 9/11?

Taken from

To say that the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, remain a thorny subject would be an understatement. Same goes for most American conspiracy theories as viewed by Americans. While I've limited experience, most of my conversations on this topic with people living in the U.S. fall into two categories: some are quite enthusiastic and share their own thoughts, while others are very tight-lipped, with the second group visibly bigger when I try to raise the more recent events, like 9/11. 

I particularly recall one conversation in which my interlocutor suddenly snapped something about the „crazy bastards” of the 9/11 Truth Movement (9/11TM). Granted, it is hard to be an „inside job” believer after November 2001, when President George W. Bush effectively called the propagators of 9/11 conspiracy theories culprits of the terrorists, and in front of the UN Assembly no less. It may seem obvious that such people wanted respect for their tragically deceased countrymen, one that cannot be denied. There are, however, factors other than recentness that make the 9/11 conspiracy theories and their reception unique. 

The problem with interpretations of 9/11 is that it can become quite easy to believe the conspiracy „theory” version, while the official one, even though branded as „truth”, can be much harder to stomach. The confusion is heightened when we realize that the two versions have much structurally in common. This is the claim made by Peter Knight, a University of Manchester scholar, who compared the 9/11 Commission report to the supposed “ravings” of conspiracy “nuts”. As it turned out, the vision of highly competent terrorists, who outwitted the CIA, FBI and many other governmental acronyms fits the definition as much as the “inside job” theories do. But that could be a topic for another post. 

So, to the point. To accept the official version one has to accept that the U.S. can be a world superpower at one time, but totally helpless when it comes to national security on the other. The first part is easy enough; actually, it may have accounted for why so many Americans stood behind G. W. Bush during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as initially accept the Patriot Act. The reason, as Elizabeth Anker argues in her yet unpublished book, seems quite simple – the society needed someone strong to identify with and able to combat the new threat. You can stock up with guns as much as you want, but you cannot fight a terrorist with them, while he can strike at you from the mountains of Afghanistan. It is the second part that brings problems – how could such a mighty state be so helpless? The official narratives, the 9/11 Commission report most notably, favored the “failure of imagination” line, stating that no part of the Federal government or the armed forces should take the blame, for an idea of ramming a skyscraper with a jet plane was inconceivable. 

Now, if you believe that the American government was in some was directly responsible for the attacks, either by allowing them to happen or doing the deed themselves, the situation is fully reversed. Since the “bad guy” is the government, one does not need to fear the terrorist. This, I believe, could be read between the lines of the comments regarding Osama bin Laden’s death, especially those claiming he was never really killed. While I’ve not encountered any that stated it outright, the veracity of this event is irrelevant – for the “conspiracy theorist” bin Laden was just some invented patsy, that may have been long dead before the 9/11 attacks (a claim that appears in one of the versions of “Loose Change”). Now, since I do not believe in the terrorist threat, the argument goes, I do not need any protection from some organization, I can deal with the “real” culprit on my own terms and turf with my guns, the voting ballot, and the Constitution, the true laws of the land passed to me by the Founding Fathers. 

This process, while not true in every 9/11TM, demonstrates how conspiracy theories give acceptable answers. They may not be the truth – in fact many of those reading them will not treat them as gospel. Rather, for a slight moment of guilty pleasure, they will feel the world is not the random, excessively complex machine the postmodern age made it to be. For it is important to remember that no black-and-white distinctions exist when conspiracy theories are concerned. Most of their audience will be people, whom the theories will amuse, provoke to think on the topic, or simply evoke laughter. Few, in fact, would be committed to join a rally or a “truth movement”; most seek comfort. And to end on that note, here is one of my favorite quotes from any academic paper on conspiracy theories, one written two years prior to 9/11: 

[Those who believe in conspiracy theories] are some of the last believers in an ordered universe. By supposing that current events are under the control of nefarious agents, conspiracy theories entail that such events are capable of being controlled.

Brian L. Keeley, „Of Conspiracy Theories”

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

From the Boston Tea Party to the Tea Party Movement

„What can you tell us about the historical impact of the French Revolution?” - a journalist supposedly asked a professor of history. „To early to tell” - replied the academic. This is of course one extreme, but the principle applies to some relatively recent events. Take the Tea Party protests of 2008 and 2009. Can we really tell what mark will this movement leave in the annals of American history and politics? Did its influence end with the 2010 Congressional elections? Will it have an effect on the 2012 presidential elections? Rather than answering those questions, this post will try to analyze the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement. We all know that it opposed the Democrats, then newly elected president Barack Obama, and the way they dealt with the economic crisis, but what is even more interesting is the particular style (also paranoid) and themes that dominated the rallies. 

A word of warning: I am writing from a outside perspective, based on what I read over the Internet. I've not participated in any of the rallies, I haven’t talked to people doing so – a mistake no doubt, and if any of you did, please drop me an e-mail, such experience would be very valuable for me. Taking this into account, remember that I am not siding with anyone here nor will I attempt to sort out the various organizations that comprised the Movement. I am just tracing some historical background. 

The basic precept of the symbolism used by the Tea Party Movement seems quite innocuous; as the very name implies it is a reference to a particular event from American history. Of course, it went deeper than the name – you can easily google images of people dressed up like 18th century soldiers, wearing tricornes next to protest signs full of quotes from the Founding Fathers. 

The historical Boston Tea Party of 1773 has been mythologized to a degree, but most would agree that the act of dumping a transport of tea into the Bostonian harbor was brave, if a bit foolhardy, act of defiance against unfair taxes and tariffs. After all, said ship contained tea that was to be sold by the East India company effectively free of the tax, the Tea Act written so that it would help the Company get out of financial troubles. The colonists, however, would continue to suffer this and other taxes. 

Laws written specifically to benefit the establishment at the expense of the majority may ring a bell, but the seeming similarities do not end here. In the decade after the end of the Seven Year’s War Britain imposed a number of taxes on the Thirteen Colonies. The rationale was pretty straightforward – North America was one of the main theaters of the war, but France was defeated, its territories (current Canada) became British. The American colonists were now safe, so free of danger thanks to the British army, is it stands to reason that they could cover some of the expenses. 

Problem was, the colonists did not feel this way. They did not feel the need to pay, now that they were safe, and additionally, they looked down upon legislations passed by a Parliament in which they had no representatives. Moreover, some started to suspect some conspiracy aimed at them, from the Stamp Act to the “Intolerable Acts”. Edmund Burke at one point stated that “The Americans have made a discovery, or think they have made one, that we mean to oppress them”. Likewise, George Washington asserted that the tax laws of 1760s were “the result of deliberation, and attempted to be carried into execution by the hand of power”, at the same time stating that “the acts of a British Parliament are no longer governed by the principles of justice”. 

A radical vision came from John Allen, a Baptist minister who came to America in 1769, and four years later wrote a short tract entitled “American Alarm”. Therein he identified a “despotic” and “tyrannical” conspiracy in the form of a “ministerial power” that “has for years been seeking the destruction of [the Americans’] rights” through their legislative omnipotence. The final goal of this “plan” was to deprive the citizens the right to govern themselves, and finally enslave them through taxation and a subsequent confiscation of goods. 

So, by the time of the War for Independence many American believed that they are rebelling against a government subverted and infiltrated by a conspiracy. This cabal was interested only in their own gains, disrespected the rights of its citizens, and wanted to make literal slaves out of them. This may seem farfetched, but is relevant even today.  A small selection of Tea Party protest signs attests to that: 

“High Taxes + Big Government = SLAVERY.”

“$11 Trillion - Now That's a Lot of Change!” 

“We Want Freedom From Tax Slavery! ” 

“Taxation: The New Terrorism .” 

“3 Simple Words: WE THE PEOPLE” 

“Capitalism Made America, Not Government” 

“S. Save; O. Our; S. Sovereignty” 

“Clinging to My God, My Guns, and My Money” 

In these posters we see history making a full circle. The Federal Government of the early 21st century became the supposedly corrupt British Parliament of the late 18th century, a total opposite of the American Ideal. At the same time, the protesters saw the only remedy to the economic crisis in returning to the idealized beginnings of the country, shortly after the penning of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Then, it would seem, America did not need any other legislations, but when they appeared, the “City upon a Hill” lost its purity. A defunct banking system of the type George Washington condemned in his Farewell Address; the unnecessary growth of the Federal Government, which overstepped the Congress; finally, the new carbon taxes as a recent weapon in the arsenal of those who want to ruin the American economy. 

To give some examples, the Boston Tea Party "supports reducing the size, scope and power of government at all levels and on all issues", and opposes its increasing for any purpose. The Tea Party Patriots claim to be “inspired by our founding documents and regard the Constitution of the United States to be the supreme law of the land.” Americans for Prosperity: “We hope future Kansas lawmakers will put taxpayers above any feel-good environmental legislation that will wreak havoc on our economy.” Finally, a New York Times/CBS News Poll found that only 19% of Tea Party supporters said that global warming is an environmental problem that is having an effect now. The connection it would seem, came easily. As Stephanie Jasky (founder of claimed in 2009: "I was looking for answers – I wanted to know what had happened. The more I looked the more it became clear to me that the problem was our government, that the government had become the criminal. (...) All these bailouts and stimulus packages — it was taking our money and spending it without our permission. Taxation without Representation. Isn’t that what the Revolutionary War was all about? Doesn’t anyone remember King George?”

In essence, the Tea Party Movement, regardless of the veracity of their claims, seems to represent the best and worst in American society, however cliché it might sound. Their stern belief in the power of democracy is underpinned by a paranoid fear of its corruptibility. Their belief in the possibility of changing the world through protests and rallies is counterbalanced with a conviction that their enemy is equally potent at influencing reality. 

The similarities between pre-Revolutionary rhetoric and that of the Tea Party movement go deeper than the symbolism, and some of the elements of the paranoid style are visible in both. Either was born in reaction to a very particular sociopolitical problem, but soon branched out to include other related issues and construct a political antagonist. This antagonist, and all-powerful, evil entity has to be utterly destroyed to heal the country. Finally, both, despite the misgivings of their rhetoric, identified a very real problem that the authorities failed to properly address.

Friday, October 21, 2011

What is the paranoid style?

Last week I promised to explain the origins of the blog’s title.

The short version:

It comes from Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”. I thoroughly suggest reading it, as many of its points remain valid today.

The longer one:

As above, but with more information. The term itself is a peculiar one. Like “conspiracy theory” it instantly evokes some connotations: “paranoid”, so connected with the mental illness, full of suspicion, suspecting enemies and plots at every corner. “Style”, so a way of expression, a type of a rhetoric that includes a number of set characteristic elements. One American professor told me once, that when he met Hofstadter as a student, he was impressed by his ability to coin simple yet telling definitions. The “paranoid style” is definitely one of them. It may seem as surprising that the essay does not simply have “conspiracy theory” somewhere in the title. It was, after all, written shortly after the “Red Scare” of McCarthyism, in the nadir of the Cold War – the Cuban Missile crisis most notably, and was printed shortly after the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. Yet what Hofstadter focused was the presidential campaign of 1964, and the possible victory of “Mr. Conservative”, the Republican Barry Goldwater, a politician, who supported Joseph McCarthy till the end.

What scared Hofstadter more than the possibility of a radical Right at the helm, as he himself was a leftist scholar, a Marxist in youth, was the language they used. He saw it as emotional, populist, and dangerous to a democratic society in which citizens should vote according to reason, not emotion. This was what he claimed Goldwater did, the latest incarnation of the paranoid style in American history. Indeed, at the very beginning of his text Hofstadter provides a number of examples of curiously similar rhetoric, as far back as the pre-Revolutionary America.

So what is this paranoid style anyway? It is a style, we read, just like the baroque style, “a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself”. The adjective “paranoid” is, however, used in a different manner. A paranoiac is believes everyone is out there to get him. A paranoid spokesman (the user of the style) believes that everyone is out there to get his country. He channels this anxiety through tales of a conspiracy created to destroy one’s homeland and way of life. In essence, the paranoid style is the tool, the blueprint, from which most conspiracy theories are formed. They may differ depending on the place, the circumstances, and time, but the style remains constant.

Hofstadter defined the elements of the paranoid style with simple, but alluringly all-encompasing terms. First, he concentrates on the conspiracy itself as a “motive force” in history. The members of such secret cabal can do virtually anything, from controlling local events to orchestrating entire wars. Unlike the “normal” political or economic entities, the conspiracy is not bound by laws of neither man nor nature. Moreover, it is inherently and invariably evil – Hofstadter uses the term “amoral superhuman”. In essence, the conspirators do evil because it is in their nature and, if they cannot be stopped, all will be lost. This apocalyptic tinge is inherent of the conspiracy theories' text – it call for action to utterly dismantle the conspiracy. As such, no negotiations or compromises are possible.

The paradox of this apocalyptic struggle lies in the fact that a conspiracy can never be defeated – the final confrontation, as Hofstadter argues, never arrives and the world remains perpetually on the cusp of either eternal tyranny or final liberation. As such, the conspiracy theorist, or paranoid spokesman to use Hofstadter's term, always collects more and more new data to prove the existence of the conspiracy. The most valuable of those are defectors from the conspiracy – people who not only bring “insider knowledge” but prove that the conspiracy is not that much “all-powerful”. Finally, some of the conspiracy theorists' and their believers act much like a conspiracy themselves, they become secretive, and demand total obedience from their followers.

“The Paranoid Style...” is highly critical of conspiracy theories. To its author they are a dark side of democracy, populist propaganda that offers an easy, simplified, and emotional answer instead of a balanced, rational analysis of a social problem. This notion has been rejected by some contemporary scholars. Mark Fenster, for example, claimed that while the paranoid style indeed distorts reality, its occurrence can tell us much about a given society, its history and problems. After all, conspiracy theories are created for some, often legitimate, reason.

The above text may seem a bit theoretical and dry, but I decided to write this way for a reason. Hofstadter's examples can be found in his essay, and are, at best, a half of a century old. My future posts will attempt to feature some of the contemporary movements or sites that employ the paranoid style (or conspiracy theory), and to demonstrate both how the style works, and how we can use it to learn form a given “radical” or "crackpot” group, be it the Tea Party, 9/11 Truth Movement, or the Wall Street protesters. All such movements are deeply rooted in American culture, in its hopes, history, and anxieties, and are never some isolated, marginal trends.

Friday, October 14, 2011

So it begins

Conspiracy theories are a bit like ghost stories. We know, or we wish, they are untrue, we know they so much more sensationalistic than intellectual, and most of us would be quite ashamed if someone exposed our passion for the tales of horror and grotesque. Yet for some reason we love them regardless...

The fact is ghost stories and conspiracy theories both share a single forefather – the folk tale. Of course, the two cousins are radically different in style, form, and context, but deep down they are simple storytelling. It seems a basic human instinct to gather in places of relative safety, campfire or living room, and tell tall tales of basic truths and practical advice shrouded in fantasy and wit.

“The Paranoid Style Blog” strives to go beyond simple storytelling. Not because it is bad; on the contrary, there are many, many websites that do it far better than I ever could. There is a lot to choose from: sites like contain conspiracy theories among various trivia and fringe science. On the other hand we have sites who take this as serious business, like or

Rather than emulate them, the goal of this blog is to look for answers as to why, just like with ghost stories, tabloids, fast-food, soap operas, or roller coasters, we love conspiracy theories so much, in spite of them being seen as infantile at best, a dangerous, subversive habit at worst. The blog will not try to judge them, to verify or vilify them, but rather show where they came from and what function they serve in a society.

The academic bit does not mean it has to be boring. Far from it, during my research I came across stories, texts, and historical facts that were not only interesting, but put our contemporary world into perspective. Academic in theory also means objective – this site is not sponsored by any organization what would want to frame the theories one way or the other. The posts contained here will be ideas and reflections I came across during my research and studies. Hopefully, they will be both enlightening and entertaining.

NEXT TIME: The title of the blog revealed, or how a certain Pulitzer-winning American historian defined conspiracy theories in a way that remains valid half a century later...