A friend of mine from grad school came to town for an academic conference in San Francisco this week. It was the annual meeting of the Popular Culture Association, and while I generally find these conferences extremely boring, I decided to tag along with my friend and attend a panel discussion.
He asked me to pick a panel I thought would be interesting, and I found one that fit right in with my love for shows like the X-Files, movies like The Matrix, and the weirdness of David Lynch movies. The topic of the panel was “Conspiracy Theories and Beliefs in the Paranormal II: 9/11 and post-9/11,” and while it was quite interesting in terms of the topic, the delivery by the presenters made me realize why I can’t stand academic conferences: these people have poor public speaking skills.
Not to dwell too long on the mechanics of oration, but some academic folks really need to take a speech class. Talking too fast, pelting the audience with information in a shotgun style, or stammering, um-ing and ah-ing throughout a 20-minute speech engenders the exact opposite of what is intended in sharing knowledge. However, once I got past the barriers to effective public speaking, I was taken with a paper given by a professor at UC Davis (Magid Shihade). His paper was entitled “Orientalism as a Conspiracy Theory and the case of 9/11.” Seems a bit daunting at first, but what he did was connect what Richard Hofstadter called, in 1964, the paranoid style of American politics, to the post-9/11 view of “The Other.”
First, a clarification of terms:
1. Richard Hofstadter — A professor of American History at Columbia University and the author of a number of classic books in American history. He died in 1970.
2. The Other — in defining one’s identity, we draw contrasts to what we are not. In the humanities and social sciences, “The Other” can be an individual, a group, or whole societies that differ from your lived reality. Some view The Other as dangerous and seek its destruction.
3. Orientalism — Edward Said was an author of a book of the same name that critically examined the ideas and ideology of “East” and “West” in political terms. Orientalism is very much an offshoot of the Self/Other theory and has been used to describe imperialism by the West and how it is imposed on the East.
4. Conspiracy Theory — A selective reading of events to produce a conclusion that implicates hidden power structures in said events (i.e., the Kennedy assassination, 9/11, the implementation of income taxes), while almost completely dismissing an official account.
American politics is many things, but one prevalent characteristic is what Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” — on the surface, one of perennial anger toward the world and a belief that at all times there are powerful forces constantly trying to undermine the goodness of the civilization in which we live. When Hofstadter wrote his essay, his main examples of this paranoid style were drawn from Joe McCarthy, the Populist party of the 1800s, and anti-Catholic zealots. In each example, those who were railing against The Other were doing so with the belief that they were a bulwark against the disintegration of the society by nefarious groups whose network would grow and eventually overrun everything that was good about the country. Catholic networks of Jesuit priests would spread the ideology of “Popery” throughout the land and pave the way for an emperor who would undermine our freedoms and individualism. Communists also had vast networks who would infiltrate our society and spread the ideology of communism, eventually undermining our freedoms and individualism. Secret cabals of Masons would work behind the scenes manipulating the banking system to, yes, undermine our freedoms and individualism. In each of these examples, The Other is an entity that is unusually powerful:
He is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral supermanÃ¢â‚¬â€sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way.
After 9/11, the new all-powerful enemy is, of course, Al-Qaida. They fit quite neatly into The Other in the paranoid style of American politics, and are an important icon in framing the agenda of the Bush Administration thus far. More than that, the image of the Arab or brown body who wants to destroy our way of life is reinforced through the “headline of the day” savvy of the Administration’s press briefings and political speeches, the echo chamber of the TV news, and a population that is used to receiving their “news” in sound bites. Standing between the barbarians at the gate and the huddled masses inside fortress America are the guardians whose job is to protect us from that which seeks to destroy us.
I think by now, we all know the drill.
Two days after 9/11, I was teaching a class in American politics at a small community college in Livermore, CA. I knew that students would be angry, I knew they would be confused, and I knew that they would want to know why it happened. At the time, the amount of information available on Osama Bin Laden was surprisingly extensive. I was able to quickly piece together a bio of Bin Laden, a brief history of the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan, and ideological trends in Islamic fundamentalism. What kept coming up as I compiled information were the grievances the Mujaheddin had with the West — which included the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the ’80s, the first Gulf War with Iraq, U.S. military presence in Islamic holy land, and the West’s continued support for Israel. The sources consulted ranged from foreign policy journals, the CIA, and chapters in books on Islamic fundamentalism that, up until that point, were rarely read in American politics classes.
Then came Bush’s speech to Congress and the American people on 9/20.
The reasoning of why 9/11 happened, according the Bush administration and those supportive of him, was filled with words and phrases designed to play to the paranoid style: “They hate our freedoms,” “Evil,” “Terror,” or in the speech Bush gave to Congress after the attacks: “Al-Qaida is to terror what the Mafia is to crime. But its goal is not making money. Its goal is remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere.”
From 9/20/01 onward, the prevalence of the paranoid style has replace any discussion on foreign policy as it relates to Islamic fundamentalist reactions to the West. Indeed, in keeping with the paranoid style that Barry Goldwater (a key figure in the current group of conservatives in power now) outlined, “we” must battle “them” by using “their” strategies. As Goldwater wrote in Why Not Victory: A Fresh Look At American Foreign Policy: “I would suggest that we analyze and copy the strategy of the enemy; theirs has worked and ours has not.” If “they” hate our freedoms, do evil things, engage in terror tactics, and seek to impose our radical beliefs on people everywhere, then, using the logic of Goldwater and his scions, “we” should do the same.
When that kind of battle between “Self” and “Other” takes place in war, the endgame is apocalyptic.
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