Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On Language: Conspiracy Theory

"Conspiracy theory" and similar terms are often used to dismiss reasonable arguments out of hand without engaging them -- a last resort when logic and facts are insufficient. It's to the point where when I hear Bush Administration officials or media pundits label something a "conspiracy theory" it makes me much more apt to believe it. Below is a list of notions dismissed as conspiracy theories that turned out to be mostly if not entirely accurate.

Intel on Iraq WMDs was cooked

Christopher Hitchens, writing for Slate, produced a hilariously awful screed on Iraq WMDs, dismissing doubts about WMD intelligence while spinning his own elaborate and now-disproven conspiracy theory to explain the lack of WMD finds in Iraq.

So this is not just a "find" in itself—such gas centrifuges are used for the enrichment of uranium—but evidence of a larger and wider design to fool the international community and to wait for a better day to restart Saddam's nuclear program. If you find hard physical and documentary evidence, along with a complex plan to keep it under wraps, you are entitled to make a few presumptions, not including the presumption of innocence. Nobody bothers to cover up nothing.

This breakthrough, which comes quite early in the inspection process and which will not be the only one of its kind, might possibly quiet the idiotic and premature wailings of the "anti-war" side, who have been saying for weeks that the whole indictment of Saddam Hussein was a put-up job. Then again, it probably won't have that effect. The wailers will settle for nothing less than the full-dress conspiracy theory.

The "conspiracy theory" of the "wailers" was right while Hitchens' own theory of a nuclear weapons lab buried in pieces around Iraq was wrong. (Hitchens gets bonus points for employing one of the worst extended analogies of all time)

The US is looking to establish permanent bases in Iraq

These days we are openly talking about "continuing force agreements" and a "protective overwatch mission" while McCain muses about staying in Iraq for 100 years or more. Congress and the President dance around a "continuing" or "indefinite" occupation of Iraq. But as Glenn Greenwald documents, suggestions that the US would look to stay in Iraq long-term were until recently derided as fantasy.

From The Washington Times' Donald Lambro, April 28, 2003:

The [New York] Times, in a front-page story last week, reported that the U.S. military was setting up "permanent" bases in Iraq intimating, of course, that we will be occupying the country forever. I read the story and it seems as if it was cooly calculated to inflame the Iraqis. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld countered that the report was totally and completely false, angrily condemning this kind of fear-mongering, "Henny Penny" reporting. Henny is a character in the children's tale about Chicken Little, who claimed that "the sky is falling." It wasn't, it isn't and it won't.

We are going to repair the damage done to Iraq, help the Iraqi people start a government, and then get out of there as soon as we can.

From Fox News, April 21, 2003, Special Report with Brit Hume:

BAIER: The front-page story cited unnamed Bush administration sources saying the United States was planning a long-term military-to-military relationship with Iraq, one that would allow the Pentagon to operate bases inside the country.

RUMSFELD: The impression left around the world is we plan to occupy the country, we plan to use their bases over a long period of time, and it's flat false.

The Iraq War was largely planned and sold by the brainiacs at PNAC

How is this even a question? It is self-evidently true. The PNAC website is open to the public and the policy goals for Iraq and the Middle East are clearly spelled out. The statement of principles is signed by Dick Cheney, Frank Gaffney, Francis Fukuyama, Donald Kagan, Norman Podhoretz, I. Lewis Libby, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld among others. The letter to President Clinton on Iraq includes many of those same names as well as Richard Perle, Richard L. Armitage, John Bolton and the other Kagan brother.

According to The Weekly Standard it's all conspiracy theory once again. Michael Goldfarb derides the following quote from Phyllis Bennis as conspiracy mongering:

I think the motive [for the administration’s lies] is that the lead people within the Bush administration were convinced from before they ever came into office, from the early 1990’s, when they began to work together when they were outside of power, when they were not in office in the Clinton years and they formed the group that later became known as the Project for the New American Century, when they were working for Bibi Netanyahu in the Israeli election. That same group of neocons had the view that the overthrow of the regime in Iraq was a crucial component of expanding U.S. power in the world…it had to do with oil, it had to do with the expansion of creating new permanent bases throughout the region, it had to with protection of Israel, it had to with a whole range of both regional and international goals.

Nothing in the above passage is false or misleading; PNAC's website alone is enough to confirm most of it. Note that while Goldfarb attacks Bennis what he doesn't do at all is attack the veracity of anything Bennis said.

Halo 3 doesn't run at 720p

I had to include this one for the sheer audacity. The theory is explicitly acknowledged as true while still rejected as the product work of tinfoil-hatters. Now that's real chutzpah!

The grand finale

Dismissing valid arguments as conspiracy theories is invariably ad hominem, an attack not on ideas but on their progenitors. Hitchen's conspiracy theorists are "wailers", Rumsfeld's are cartoonish characters, Goldfarb's are anti-Semites and Bungie's (makers of Halo) are "tinfoil hats." The term "conspiracy theorist" itself brings up images of kooks and crazies.

The common thread in the above examples is that the invocation of conspiracy theory is the main argument while facts are a distant second at best. That's why I wrote up top that such attacks only increase my credulity. If Hitchens or Goldfarb or Rumsfeld had definitive proof why didn't they simply present it? That they rely on slurs is more reason to believe that the "conspiracy theorists" are correct.

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