Silver bullets

The strange, sad meltdown of Mel Gibson—his drunken anti-Semitic tirade; his admission of alcoholism and pledge to seek treatment; his second apology imploring forgiveness and asking Jewish leaders to help him “find the appropriate path for healing’”—has prompted an intriguing, public discussion of the episode, along with the obligatory celebrity scandal media hype.

Gibson’s ugly rant (“Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world”) has been widely covered and soundly condemned. Some of the actor/director’s Hollywood friends (including Jodie Foster and Patrick Swayze) have blamed Gibson’s alcohol consumption for the outburst and argued that the actor/director is no anti-Semite.

The commentary on Gibson has ranged from banal to fascinating. Some of the more interesting columns have focused on ancillary issues. Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post hammered Hollywood for cowardice for not more aggressively confronting and denouncing Gibson. She argued that it reflected “the cult of celebrity, sheer avarice, the modern notion that moral failings are a disease to be recovered from” and “Hollywood’s historically uneasy relationship with its own Jewishness.”

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe asked why the media obsessed over the Gibson tirade while downplaying the murder of one woman and the wounding of six others at the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle by, police say, a Muslim American who said he was “angry at Israel.”

And Rabbi Marc Gellman in Newsweek sarcastically suggested a pause from “the trivial issues of the moment like the war in Israel and Lebanon, the slaughter in Darfur and the sectarian violence in Iraq” so that “the defining moral issue of the moment“—Gibson’s “anti-Semitic and sexist and belligerent comments”—could be considered.

Gellman added:

I am now prepared to believe that the actor’s upbringing and his nature have nurtured a poisonous bigotry in his soul. But in the spectrum that includes the head of Iran and Hizbullah and Hamas and the KKK and the Aryan Nation, Gibson is a small anti-Semitic fish.

This is not exculpation, just a simple plea for perspective, and Mel Gibson’s case deserves perspective first of all because the world is filled with really dangerous anti-Semites, and Mel Gibson is not one of them.

Gellman concluded that Gibson is not dangerous but still placed him in the category of anti-Semite. That raises some interesting questions. If you make anti-Semitic remarks—and then express remorse and apologize—does that alter how you should be regarded? Or to put it another way: are you a full-strength anti-Semite if, as with Mel Gibson, you publicly acknowledge your sickness? (Does this establish a new category: recovering anti-Semite?)

What about “casual anti-Semitism,” the lazy acceptance of stereotypes about Jews, or retelling the occasional bigoted joke? The Anti-Defamation League recently sent Keith Olbermann of MSNBC a letter asking him to stop giving the Nazi salute as part of his mockery of Bill O’Reilly. The ADL added: “We are especially concerned that young people viewing your program might take their cues from your free use of the “Sieg Heil” salute.” Is Olbermann over the line? Encouraging anti-Semitism by trivializing the gesture?

And in a consideration of the entire person—do words or deeds matter more? Richard Nixon, for example, whose anti-Semitic paranoia was captured for posterity on audiotape, also came to Israel’s rescue in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, personally intervening to speed the transfer of arms to the Israelis after the Arab attack. Would an anti-Semite have approved “the airlift that saved Israel,” the world’s only Jewish state? Israeli president Chaim Herzog later said: “He supplied arms and unflinching support when our very existence would have been in danger without them. Let his comments be set against his actions. And I`ll choose actions over words any day of the week.”

Or for that matter, what about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi Lutheran pastor executed for his role in an assassination plot against Hitler? When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum honored Bonhoeffer in 1996 for helping to save Jews during the Third Reich, the following sentence was included in the invitation: “Although repudiating Nazism, Bonhoeffer also expressed the anti-Jewish bias of centuries-old Christian teaching.”

Deeds not words?

As a Gentile, I step somewhat lightly here. After all, arguing for restraint is a lot easier when the slurs and hatred are not directed at you or your beliefs.

So to be clear: anti-Semitic speech should be immediately and unequivocably condemned.

Passing judgment on the speaker is another matter. I can not claim to see into another’s heart; my religious tradition, shared with the People of the Book, suggests that remains divine knowledge. People say stupid things; they struggle with their prejudices; they can be hurtful and yet not intend to hurt. And as Chaim Herzog argued: “actions over words.”

Moreover, there is the silver bullet question: do you want to waste your silver bullets on the chipmunks, or use them on the werewolves?

The werewolves—those dangerous anti-Semites Rabbi Geller mentions who have guns and bombs—not only speak, but they act on their threats.

Count me in with those who think we should worry about the werewolves. I haven’t heard any apologies or expressions of regret coming from Naveed Afzal Haq, the accused gunman in Seattle, or from Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, a terror group launching hundreds of missiles against Israel every day. History teaches us that we shouldn’t expect any.

*How should we view those in the recent past—especially writers and poets—who have expressed anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic thoughts? Should it define them?

In some cases (Ezra Pound for example, or Celine), it has and should. But what of those who reflected the prevailing prejudices of their time: the many authors of the pre-World War II era and their acceptance of “genteel anti-Semitism” (T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, William Faulkner)?

What of those more recently tagged by some as anti-Semitic (Imamu Amiri Baraka, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote)? What if the evidence is ambiguous? Should the writer get the benefit of the doubt?

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (July 28th): Nobody asked me, but…

Once more, with a tip of the fedora to New York’s great newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

GEORGE ORWELL ONCE SAID: “Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.” So in the hopes of being counted among the intelligent, let me note that C-SPAN is broadcasting “American Perspectives: Symposium on Theories about 9/11” at 8PM Saturday night, airing the conspiracy theories of the “9/11 Cover-up Crew” — theories that 9/11 was an “inside U.S. government false flag operation”– and that these theories have been repeatedly discredited by objective-means journalism.

To restate the obvious: the evidence, the existing scientific analysis, and common sense disprove the 9/11 conspiracy theories, recently promulgated in a “documentary” called “Loose Change” and breathlessly covered in August’s Vanity Fair. These theories are, quite simply, false and a disturbing sign of the recent growth of the Paranoid Style in American Politics.

Rather than getting into a point-by-point rebuttal, suffice it to say there are three or four trenchant journalistic critiques that accomplish that task quite well. For those interested, I would recommend the following articles and reports which throughly debunk the conspiracy claims (and include the science behind the collapse of the World Trade Center Building 1, 2 and 7):

  • The Popular Mechanics investigation of the 16 most popular 9/11 conspiracy claims, “9/11: Debunking the Myths,” is a good starting point. PM talked to more than 300 scientists and experts and found the facts just didn’t support theories of rigged demolitions and phantom aircraft.
  • David Corn of the Nation magazine, no admirer of the Bush Administration (author of “The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception”), has also debunked many of the popular 9/11 theories floating around. You can find his take on the question here.
  • Salon‘s Farhad Manjoo throughly “fisks” the “documentary” film “Loose Change” in his “The 9/11 deniers.” (“To fisk” is, according to Wikipedia, “a blogosphere term describing ruthlessly detailed point-by-point criticism that highlights errors, disputes the analysis of presented facts, or highlights other problems in a statement, article, or essay.”)
  • For a more technical discussion, the National Institute of Standards and Technology produced two reports on the collapse of WTC 1 and WTC 2 and will release its final report on WTC 7 this fall. You can find the reports here.

I learned about the C-Span program in a helpful email from one Bill Douglas, a “false flag” proponent and the founder of; Douglas had sent an earlier email proclaiming that, contrary to a recent Cinemax documentary (“Protocols of Zion“), 9/11 conspiracy advocates are not anti-Semites. Douglas protests too much; some of the more pernicious 9/11 claims are deeply anti-Semitic–for example, that American Jews were alerted before 9/11 and avoided working in the World Trade Center and/or that the Mossad knew of the attack in advance.

MEDIA CRITIC HOWARD KURTZ of the Washington Post notes that liberal bloggers have been noticeably silent on the Mideast crisis; and further asks whether this reflects an underlying anti-Israel bias that will haunt the Democrats in the years ahead. Kurtz doesn’t think so, but he does quote Andrew Sullivan: “Are lefties unable to grapple with complex regional wars? Nah. They’re just wimping out.”

WHAT ARE THESE INTERNATIONAL CYCLISTS caught with performance-enhancing drugs in their systems thinking? How do they expect to beat the drug testing? If Tour de France winner Floyd Landis is disqualified for having artifically elevated testosterone levels, a condition he denies, that would be the first question I hope he’d answer.

ARTHUR MILLER, THE AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT, WROTE a searing play, “All My Sons,” about wartime profiteering. I thought of his drama after seeing the Washington Post article “Homeland Security Contracts Abused” which exposes outright mismanagement, waste and outright fraud among government contractors. It’s criminality that the Bush Justice Department could pursue without overreaching, but don’t count on movement on that front from the “bidness-friendly” Administration.

THE OFTEN-BRILLIANT JOURNALIST DAVID WARSH mounts a spirited defense of Boston’s Big Dig at his web-based independent weekly, Economic Principles, in the wake of the latest crisis at the highway project. Warsh, often the contrarian, concludes: “Despite the expense, the Big Dig is a considerable success” and adds:

… the fact is that the Dig itself has delivered on its original promise to a remarkable extent, easing the east-west and north-south flow of traffic through the city, removing a steel scar bisecting its heart, extending its rail network, creating a major new business district, preserving vibrant old neighborhoods from destruction. The old elevated highway had to be replaced one way or another in any event; given the complexity of the challenge, Boston did about as well as it could.

That the Big Dig has benefited Boston can not be denied. But at what cost? At its inception, planners and politicians ignored a more modest mass transit-based solution to Boston’s commuting woes that would have avoided the complex and difficult engineering challenges posed by the overhaul of Boston’s highway system. An unholy trinity of Big Government, Big Business and Big Labor all pushed for the massive public works project as it meant jobs, construction contracts and lucrative consulting engagements. When cost overruns and shoddy work emerged in the $14.6 billion (and counting) project, local pols closed ranks to keep the money flowing in. A sorry business all around.

To look on the bright side, perhaps the experience of the Big Dig will provoke a consideration of “Small is Beautiful” solutions for future public works projects, including the reconstruction proposed for New Orleans. Hope springs eternal.

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The week (July 7th): Nobody asked me, but…

With another tip of the cap to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

AS WE LOSE AMERICA’S GREATEST GENERATION, we also see the passing of the last of the Righteous Gentiles, those who helped save some of the Jews of Europe from Hitler. The Associated Press reports the death, at the age of 88, of Jaap Penraat, “an architect and industrial designer who helped 406 Jews sneak out of Nazi-occupied Netherlands and withstood torture to protect fellow members of the resistance.”

Penraat had a simple explanation for his actions: “You do these things because in your mind there is no other way of doing it.” Sadly, Penraat’s courage stands in sharp contrast to the record in the Netherlands of collaboration with the Nazis, where only some 30,000 Jews (of a population of 140,000) survived. Had there been more Jaap Penraats, had the Dutch (and the French and Poles) acted more like the Danes, many more would have been saved.

The Dutch should remember Jaap Penraat as they consider the shabby treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the rise of Islamo-facism and anti-Semitism in Holland today.

SPEAKING OF COURAGE, the Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) has announced that its 2006 Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning would be shared by Algerian cartoonist Ali Dilem and eleven Danish cartoonists. The announcement from CRNI is worth quoting at length:

Dilem, a cartoonist in Algeria for over 15 years, has faced jail time and threats to his life more than once. Although under death threats from paramilitary forces and legal pressure from the government, Dilem continues to draw and publish in Algeria. He was recognized for his refusal to choose exile or self-censorship in the face of intimidation.

The 11 Danish cartoonists produced 12 cartoons commissioned by the newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Last September, the Danish daily published the cartoons because, editors said, there was growing self-censorship in matters related to Islam. The feature triggered a diplomatic standoff between Denmark and several Islamic states by mid-October. In February 2006, riots and demonstrations condemned the cartoons. Dozens of protestors from Afghanistan and Libya to Nigeria and Indonesia died in the resulting demonstrations.

The cartoons sparked a crisis in freedom-of-speech circles that reverberates today. Their lives threatened, the 11 Danish cartoonists live under tight security.

ENGLISH HISTORIAN ANDREW DALBY is arguing that Homer, author of the Illiad and Odyssey, could have been a female, citing “a long tradition worldwide” of women “as makers of oral literature,” according to the Times of London. Dalby makes the claim in an soon-to-be published book “Rediscovering Homer” adding: “As a working hypothesis, this helps to explain certain features in which these epics are better — more subtle, more complex, more universal — than most others.”

Cambridge University’s Anthony Snodgrass, an archaeology professor, concedes that the Odyssey could have been written by a woman, because “a world at peace in general terms, with domesticity, fidelity . . . endurance and determination rather than aggression,” but calls the idea far-fetched for the Iliad with its “endless fighting and killings.”

Peter Stothard of the Times notes that the 19th century author Samuel Butler also believed that a woman had written (or sung) the Odyssey (although his reasoning were somewhat more negative in tone).

I could easily believe that Homer was a woman, primarily because writing talent isn’t gender-dependent. A poet or writer, male or female, can depict the interior or exterior life with sensitivity. As with those who argue that Shakespeare was someone else (Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford), how about some evidence, one way or the other?

THE WEBSITE METACAFE.COM offers this rather clever commercial: I never thought the German Coast Guard would make me laugh.

JOHN EDWARDS, former Senator from North Carolina and the Democratic VP nominee in 2004, seems to have Hillary Clinton worried, “running scared,”or at least that’s what Deborah Orin of the New York Post would have you believe. She thinks the recent Washington Post op-ed by Clintonistas James Carville and Mark J. Penn entitled “The Power of Hillary” that touts Clinton’s electability represents a defensive move to counter Edwards’ surprising recent first place finish in the Iowa poll. Orin also argues Senator Clinton is tacking leftward ( “She hired a lefty blogger and cozied up to anti-war activists by pledging to desert pal Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) if he loses a primary over Iraq and runs as an independent.”) to try to appease Democratic left-of-center voters.

It is true that Edwards’ stock has been rising (and Edwards has been visiting Iowa); the National Journal‘s White House 2008 ranking of Democratic contenders now has Edwards in second place, behind Senator Clinton, displacing Mark Warner. (“Non-candidate” Al Gore wasn’t considered for the rankings.) Yet, it is a long, long way to Iowa in 2008…

DEXTER FILKINS’ REPORTAGE from Iraq (“In Ramadi, Fetid Quarters and Unrelenting Battles”), datelined July 4 in the New York Times, offers a disturbing, gritty portrait of embattled American marines in hostile territory. His description of the situation on the ground: “The Government Center in the middle of this devastated town resembles a fortress on the wild edge of some frontier: it is sandbagged, barricaded, full of men ready to shoot, surrounded by rubble and enemies eager to get inside.”

You have to admire Filkins for going into harm’s way to bring back the story; he follows in a long, distinguished line of war correspondents (Ernie Pyle, Homer Bigart, Marguerite Higgins, David Halberstam, Gloria Emerson, and many more) whose battlefield reporting reflected the realities American soldiers faced in combat.

IN PARIS, THE HAUTE COTURE fall/winter 2006 season has kicked off and Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune critiqued collections by Christian Lacroix, Valentino, Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld (Chanel), and John Galliano (Dior). Menkes loved the Lacroix, I think she liked the Dior and didn’t like the Armani and Chanel, but with the way she writes about fashion, I’m not quite sure.

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The week (May 5th): Nobody asked me, but…

With an obligatory nod to the late, great Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but….

THE REAL STORY BEHIND the sudden resignation of Porter Goss at CIA has yet to emerge, but if I had to place a bet, I'd wager that intelligence czar John Negroponte pushed for his ouster. That Goss did not give an explanation at his press conference with President Bush on Friday added to the mystery, but his silence also suggests that he was ousted because of friction with Negroponte. The expected appointment of a Negroponte deputy to head CIA would lend credence to that explanation.

Other theories circulating are much less likely, or patently absurd: the notion that Goss will return to Florida and replace Katherine Harris as the GOP Senatorial candidate doesn't hold water because Goss only postponed his retirement from political life to try to reform the CIA; that he is somehow implicated in a rumored investigation of the agency's third in command, executive director Kyle Foggo, a probe involving poker games and prostitutes, is ridiculous considering Goss' record and long-standing reputation for personal integrity.

To that point, those who covered Goss when he was a Florida congressman quickly learned that neither he nor his staff members would accept anything of value, including shared cab fares or lunch tabs, as a matter of principle.

"YOU WILL BE EXPECTED to bow as a gesture of respect at the statue of Kim Il Sung and at his mausoleum," counsels the Harvard Alumni Association's memo for Harvardians planning to visit North Korea on a special tour. Why? The memo explains: "Demonstrations of respect for the country's late leader, Kim Il Sung, and for the current leader, Kim Jong Il, are important." Important? Not to anyone with any self-respect or knowledge of the nasty track record of Fearless Leader. When should any American bow to statues of Kim Il Sung? When hell freezes over… (This nauseating example of People's Republic of Cambridge cultural sensitivity was revealed by the New York Post's Deborah Orin.)

WASN'T IT A BIT MUCH to hire a police escort to rush newly-reacquired Red Sox catcher Doug Mirabelli from the airport to Fenway Park so he could handle knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield on Monday, (even if the home side was facing the hated Yankees)? Red Sox Nation loyalists would disagree, no doubt, because Mirabelli caught all 99 pitches successfully (no easy feat with Wakefield's fluttering deliveries) and the Bosox won the game, 7-3. For the record, the Red Sox paid $160 for the rent-a-cop to drive Mirabelli to the Fens.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER'S column "Never Again?" in the Washington Post is a disturbing must-read: Krauthammer notes that "there are once again more Jews living in Israel — the successor state to Judea — than in any other place on Earth" and that, in "a cruel historical irony" this makes it a "tempting target for those who would finish Hitler's work." Krauthammer writes that Iran's drive to acquire nuclear weapons has led famed Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis to liken the situation to Europe in 1938. Will the tragic legacy of the American intervention in Iraq be that it forestalls dealing with bona fide weapons of mass destruction and anti-Semitic Iranian leaders apparently willing to use them?

ON THE LIST OF THOSE HAVING A TOUGH WEEK, add a number of candidates for the U.S. Senate. In Florida, Republican Katherine Harris' slow-motion meltdown continues as she faces allegations of quid-pro-quo favoritism with a defense contractor who made campaign contributions. (Florida governor Jeb Bush is now openly hoping for an alternative candidate). In New Jersey, Republican Tom Kean, Jr. and Democrat Robert Menendez launch cheesy attack websites ("Bob Menendez brings more baggage with him to Washington than a hotel bellhop"; "Too Junior for Jersey, But Just Right for Bush").

In Virginia, incumbent Senator George Allen must face questions about his character and racial attitudes after tough pieces in the New Republic by Ryan Lizza. But the worst of the week: the nasty spat between New York Republicans John Spencer and Kathleen Troia McFarland, with McFarland's advisor Ed Rollins calling attention to the conservative Spencer's extramarital affair with his onetime mayoral chief of staff. Senator Hillary Clinton's own campaign staff couldn't have devised a more damaging scenario for her opponents if they had been given control of the GOP effort.

AND I AM NOT making this stuff up…

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Conspiracies, bunkum and the Paranoid Style in American Politics

Bunkum floats

A bit of a role reversal this week: Charlie Sheen fronts for 9/11 conspiracy theories while Sting labors to bring a strip club to New York. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? (Columnist Marina Hyde in the Guardian Unlimited has great fun with this, and manages to get a dig in at Tom Cruise as well).

It’s too easy to mock the Hollywood and rock stars who fall prey to the lastest bunkum conspiracy theories. The continuing appeal of these paranoid fantasies, however, does not bode well for the American body politic. The Internet has fueled the spread of wild rumors and theories, and “evidence” of any given conspiracy (the assassinations of JFK or RFK; 9/11; Bush and fabricated WMD intelligence) can be found on numerous websites. More disturbingly, there are signs in national polls that popular attitudes and beliefs are being formed by some of this bunkum.

For example, the “Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction (WMD)” meme has become accepted Gospel for many on the fringe left ­and, sadly, many closer to the Democratic mainstream ­who argue for a “multifaceted conspiracy that included not only as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice, but also Colin Powell, then serving as secretary of State; British Prime Minister Tony Blair; the CIA; British intelligence; and even the Clinton administration, all of whom maintained that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD.”

What are the facts? As Patrick Chisholm pointed out in a recent Christian Science Monitor piece, the claim doesn’t hold up:

“The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report, the Robb-Silberman Commission report, and Britain’s Butler report found that the Bush administration did not lie, distort, or prod intelligence agencies to alter their findings on WMD. Robb-Silberman concluded that it was “the paucity of intelligence and poor analytical tradecraft, rather than political pressure, that produced the inaccurate pre-war intelligence assessments.”

It is not hard to find fault with the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy (want the list? do you have all day?); yet it is not necessary to assume the worst–­a conspiracy to lie the U.S. into war, or some nefarious plot to wrest oil riches from Iraq. An even more unappetizing version of this particular paranoid fantasy, recently surfaced by an unlikely provocateur, the dean of Harvard’s JFK School, floats the idea that a small cabal of neoconservatives and the “pro-Israel lobby” are controlling American foreign policy and had steered the U.S. to attack Saddam to protect…Israel.

As the historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, a reflection prompted by the Age of McCarthy, those who fabricate convoluted conspiracy theories do not let the facts get in the way; their fantasy world becomes satisfyingly coherent, “since it leaves no room for mistakes, failures, or ambiguities.”

Hofstadter had focused on the far Right of 1950s, but his observations were timeless. He looked back at the paranoid style in American political history (including the anti-Masonic, anti-Mormon and anti-Catholic movements, and elements of abolitionism, etc.) and at the anger of the fringe Right after World War II and concluded:

“The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest–perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demand–are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed.”

Sound familiar? Now it is the angry American Left that has seen its favored national candidates defeated, its favored social and economic policies ignored or rejected, and has been shut out of power. Thus the turn to the paranoid style.

Hofstadter also noted that those who adopt the paranoid style are convinced of their own righteousness and see themselves as “the Elect, wholly good, abominally persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph.” He concluded that “to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population.”

Real conspiracies

Conspiracies do exist. They can be kept secret (although usually not for too long). They involve small groups of dedicated people, are commonly limited in scope and time, and are most successful when focused on a single, or discrete, action or outcome.

Examples? Iran-contra. Soviet espionage efforts to steal A-bomb secrets in the late 1940s. Watergate. The attempt on Pope John Paul’s life. What distinguishes real conspiracies from the paranoid conspiracy theories is their simplicity.

Real conspiracies conform to Occam’s Razor, the principle of parsimony: they are not complex, following the idea that “one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything.”

In contrast, the conspiracies dreamed up by conspiracy buffs are rarely simple. They tend to be global, all-encompassing, complex. They explain the major shifts in history as a function of plots by the powerful or hidden-hand conspiracies. A fundamental flaw in this thinking: it presupposes that large numbers of people will go along with (usually) illegal, immoral and covert activities and remain silent.

Take the Area 51 conspiracy: the idea that the U.S. government has covered up its knowledge of UFOs and aliens for more than 50 years. How could a secret of that magnitude be kept for that long a period of time? In today’s tabloid world, wouldn’t the lure of a big-money book and movie deal loosen the lips of those in the know about the aliens? (As an aside, why do UFOs only show up in lonely and remote places? Are aliens anti-social? Why don’t flying saucers ever buzz Times Square?).

Another example: the idea that the U.S. government, Mossad, the “international Jewish conspiracy,” the CIA, or other “nefarious” organizations somehow staged 9/11, and that they have been able to keep this monstrous deed quiet, is absurd. A few weeks ago Porter Goss, head of CIA, complained in the New York Times that, ­in essence,­ the U.S government couldn’t keep anything secret because of leaks and these disclosures were hurting the war on terror. How could a conspiracy of the size and scope imagined by the “9/11 Truth” groups remain secret? (Unless, of course, “everyone” is in on the cover-up. That sort of paranoia calls more for treatment than debate).

Conspiracy theorists overestimate the competence of the supposed conspirators, both in carrying out their plots and in their ability to keep them secret. As Hofstadter noted, more likely explanations ­which might involve human error, stupidity, incompetence, or chance ­are always discarded in favor of the overarching and elaborate theory.

Is there any long-term danger with this? That a sizeable minority of the American electorate might cling to explanations that rely on fantasy and paranoia for events and policies they don’t like is troubling. This worldview may satisfy certain psychic needs, as Hofstadter suggests, and it may provide great material for late-night comics to mock the latest Hollywood ignoramus, but it doesn’t make for sound political debate, or a healthy Republic.

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The week (March 24th): Nobody asked me, but…

With a nod to the late, great Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

HOW CAN you not admire the way Gonzaga's Adam Morrison plays basketball passionately, like every game is his last? Or the grace of UCLA's Aaron Afflalo and Ryan Hollins in helping Morrison to his feet after the All-American had collapsed at center court, sobbing, devastated by the Zags' last-second NCAA loss to the Bruins?

AS A FIRST AMENDMENT advocate I will defend New York magazine's right to publish "The Ground Zero Grassy Knoll – A New Generation of Conspiracy Theorists are at Work on the Secret History of 9/11," however dubious that decision was. That said, it's bad journalism. Did New York's editors run the piece largely for its shock value? Since there is no "secret history," what is the point? Newsstand sales? What does that say about journalistic and ethical standards at the magazine? Spare me the specious argument that New York published the theories linking Mossad or Jews to 9/11 (outright anti-Semitism on the order of the Protocol of the Elders of Zion) in order to debunk them. It only serves to encourage the witless (vide Charlie Sheen) or the evil.

ONE THING you can say about Tory pols: they ain't mealy-mouthed. MP Michael Gove offered the following in a column in The Times of London: "Recently in the House of Commons I reminded the House that 'Scientology is an evil cult founded by an individual purely in the interests of enriching himself and sustained by those who are either wicked or wayward'." Not much nuance there, I'd say.

INDY MUSIC group October Project has finished its album "Covered," a limited edition compilation of OP songs (by Emil Adler and Julie Flanders) recorded by other artists. You can pre-order the album at OP's website.

FROMA HARROP's column on gambling in the Providence Journal spotlights the sleazy and cynical hypocrisy of governmental efforts at preserving the state monopoly over "gaming." Legislators shamelessly seek to protect government-sanctioned gambling–including state lotteries, slot machines and casino gambling–from competition. The truth is that such gambling is nothing more than a damaging regressive tax targeted at the gullible and the poor.

THERE IS a deep-structured grammar to the love songs of whales, or so say the scientists. Who would have thought humpbacks were so properly romantic?

WOODY ALLEN was having fun lampooning the health nuts in his sci-fi spoof "Sleeper" when a doctor in the year 2173 explains that steak, cream pies and deep fried food "were thought to be unhealthy — precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true." Maybe he was closer to the truth than he realized. Now it looks like eating fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids may not help your health as scientists once maintained. T-bone steaks, anyone?

And I am not making this stuff up….

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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A Quango Free Speech Fandango

Do you know what a quango is?

I didn’t, until I read Jackie Ashley’s commentary in The Guardian entitled “Livingstone’s suspension is an affront to democracy” with this marvelous subhead– “Londoners voted for a mayor they knew to be outspoken. They don’t need a faceless quango to protect them.”

Quango is a Britishism for quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization (QUANGO). Quangos are nominally independent bodies, developed largely by the Tories as an alternative to official government agencies.

The quango in question, the Adjudication Panel for England, has suspended Livingstone, mayor of London, for what many see as anti-Semitic comments.

Here’s Jackie Ashley’s account of those remarks:

So his now notorious late-night exchange with a reporter from the London Evening Standard, who happened to be Jewish, was pretty unexceptional by Livingstone standards. His relations with the paper are dire and he accused its man of being “a German war criminal” and “behaving just like a concentration camp guard … doing it because you are paid to”. Then he described the reporter’s employer as “a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots”.

Robust, certainly: but does this really warrant his suspension as mayor of London for four weeks, from Wednesday? Who, you may want to know, has the power to suspend someone with a huge democratic mandate anyway?

Ashley complains that it is anti-democratic for this three-person quango to discipline Livingstone. She also defends him against the suggestion of anti-Semitism:

You may or may not agree with Ken’s views on the Middle East, but to move from his hostility to the actions of the state of Israel to suggest that he behaved in an anti-semitic way is gross. He has made clear, on these pages and elsewhere, the distinction between his loathing of the Holocaust and his admiration for the Jewish people, on the one hand, and his anger about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, on the other. He has worked with the Board of Deputies of British Jews against the National Front. His hatred of the Mail group is connected to its pre-war admiration for the Nazis. He has to be allowed his strong views.

As a free speech advocate, I couldn’t agree more with Ashley’s call that Livingstone (dubbed “Red Ken” for his hard left politics) should “be allowed his strong views,” even when, as in this case, they are needlessly insensitive and hurtful.

The response to speech we don’t like, should be…more speech, to borrow from Justice Brandeis. Unfortunately many in the European Union lean towards the “social responsibility” school, which inevitably leads to legislation banning “hate speech” and, as can be seen in the Livingstone situation, government oversight of political discourse. Not good. In the United States, most attempts at enforcing politically correct speech have occurred on college campuses–and are increasingly being resisted.

Let’s agree with Ashley that Livingstone should be able to trumpet his often bizarre and provocative views without fear of removal from office or governmental reprisal, but also without accepting her notion that he is free from anti-Semitic inclinations.

This is man, after all, who is on record as arguing that Britain’s treatment of the Irish was worse than Hitler’s of the Jews; who gave Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi (an Egyptian cleric banned from the U.S. because of his advocacy of violence) a warm welcome to London; and who begins tossing around the word “Zionist” whenever he discusses Israel and the Palestinians. Note well: Livingstone’s most objectionable comments to the London Evening Standard reporter came after the reporter had identified himself as Jewish.

(The Anti-Defamation League has few doubts about “Livingstone’s record”).

At best, Livingstone is a boor. At worst, he is infected with the virus of anti-Semitism, despite his recent claims that his maternal grandmother may be Jewish. The sunshine of free speech is the best disinfectant.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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