Welcomed visitors – Mahmoud Sarsak and Ian Henshall

Two pieces of bad news.

Unite (the ‘union’) have decided that welcoming ‘noble member’ of Islamic Jihad Mahmoud Sarsak (who is therefore, we may assume, women-repressing, gay-hating and murderously intolerant as well as Jew-hating) is a good way to stick two fingers up at Israel. Len McCluskey, Unite’s Secretary General, blesses their general thrust on this. Verdict: Unite has gone over, is lost in nasty and futile ideological territory, and therefore members should either leave or get very involved and marginalise the deranged ideologues. But they should definitely not just sit there feeding them subs. They’re spending members’ subs on jihadis, it seems. It’s worth noticing that Islamic Jihad and the jihadi murderers of that poor man Lee Rigby have a lot in common. This is a recent statement from an Islamic Jihad leader on the prospect of the Jews Nasser expelled returning to Egypt:

“We shall fight them vigorously if they return, especially the Egyptian-Israeli Jews,” said Mohamed Abou Samra, the leading figure in the Islamic Jihad movement. “Islamic Sharia says they deserve to be killed.”

“They will destroy the economy and foment sedition,” he said. “Their return will be over our dead bodies.”

And this extreme, murderous character, not to mention the standard antisemitism, is a very important thing to recognise about Islamic Jihad and any of its ‘noble members’. Unite has sunk so low that it cares very little about it.

And in my manor or thereabouts Alistair Kleebauer reports in the Ilford Recorder – without comment! – that  Ian Henshall will be welcomed into Woodford Green’s Village Bookshop. Ian Henshall has surrendered all reason to conspiracy beliefs about September 11th. He’s like this. Conspiracy beliefs are psycho-social phenomena which deserve a close look, but anything more that is a mistake. For example, hosting them in your bookshop.

I think of these two unwanted visitations as related – they’re both products of the kind of political dismay and disorientation which leads to desperate gropings for a neat cause and a quick fix. The particular reason I’m fretting is that those two have really weird and not at all warm views about Jews. I’m almost certainly understating. And yet they’re welcome.

HT @welshbeard and Richard at Engage.

Contrasting views of conspiracy theories

Three chapters on conspiracy theories in three separate books, two pursuing a Cultural Studies perspective and the other a rationalist one.

  • Chapter 7 – A few clicks of a mouse. In Aaronovitch, David. 2009. Voodoo Histories – the Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern Histories. London: Jonathan Cape. pp219-258.
  • Chapter 3 – Cultural studies on/as conspiracy theory. In Birchall, C. 2006. Knowledge Goes Pop. Oxford: Berg. pp65-90.
  • Afterword – Conspiracy theory, cultural studies and the trouble with populism. In Fenster, M. 2008. Conspiracy theories. Secrecy and power in American culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp 279-289.

Birchall is a theorist of popular culture who views conspiracy theories as “signalling a healthy scepticism towards official accounts” (p40). Her interest is the conditions under which the “knowledge producing discourses” of conspiracy become “necessary possibilities” to counter government secrecy veiled in “established and rational discourses” (p63), and what this has to teach her as a cultural theorist. So while she alludes to lack of substantiation and commitment in some theories, she is mainly responding to the prevailing invalidation of conspiracy theories as irrational, politically impotent, bad cognitive mapping done in ignorance. Drawing on John Fiske’s view that conspiracism can be “a method by which the negative experience of capitalism can be, if not rectified, then at least articulated” (p67), she argues that distaste for conspiracism on the part of the intelligentsia is symptomatic of a problem with the cultural analysis carried out by the academic establishment, threatened by other meta-narratives than its own. She argues that viewing conspiracism only in terms of political success or failure will fail to recognise “many aspects” (p69), namely that it is positively active and challenging of hegemony. She points out contradictions in scientific appeal to reason which simultaneously refuses to engage with the possibility that conspiract theories may be true (p71). She calls this phenomenon an example of Lyotardian ‘differend’,

“…a case of conflict between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both arguments. One side’s legitimacy does not imply another’s illegitimacy.” (p72)

From this point of ‘epistemic relativism’ she proceeds to Baudrillard’s view that knowledge is imaginary and plural, and from there to a Lyotardian criticism of consensus about ‘bad interpretations’ (p81) – consensuses which bear no inherent relation to the truth, are vulnerable to being hijacked for nefarious ends, and are used by ‘the system’ to consolidate its hold on power. This lays the ground for her to celebrate the hoax cultural studies essay successfully submitted by Alan Sokal to the (non-peer-reviewed) Social Text journal. She argues that rather than compromising the cultural studies project, the Sokal incident affirms it. The essay was accepted, she argues, because despite Sokal’s intentions the essay wasn’t bad. Moreover its acceptance demonstrates the admirable openness of cultural studies to the illegitimate. At this point Birchall, while acknowledging the defenciveness of cultural studies in the face of attacks on its credibility, begins to set out commonalities between the conspiracist ‘forgers’ of knowledge and cultural studies itself, for which “the legitimacy of knowledge cannot be decided in advance of any reading”. She then asserts the illegitimacy of cultural studies: “cultural studies may well be a con, a scam, a swindle” and cultural theorists “a bunch of charlatans” (p86), warning against enlisting metanarratives such as Marxism or Humanism in the hope that “the more respectable discipline’s credibility will rub off on ours” (p87). In a move reminiscent of the embattled conspiracy theorist she first announces that she may be branded a traitor, and then professes herself a sort of cultural studies patriot, putting her neck on the line for the sake of its integrity. She then retorts that everybody who works with knowledge is illegitimate, which she qualifies as ‘undecidable legitimacy’, which in turn implies the need for precautionary inclusivity. This leads to a surprisingly banal conclusion which reads like an appeal: because none of us can claim to know anything, academics should avoid offending the subjects of their inquiry, their colleagues, or anybody by ridiculing their point of view, but should instead be as affirming as possible. She alludes to the propensity of some conspiracy theories to harm politics and sometimes people but this is not her focus. She seems primarily concerned with appropriating illegitimacy as a dignified means to retrieve lost ground and morale in cultural studies. I think you have to be a cultural studies insider to fully understand this self-referential preoccupation.

Nobody seems to have notified Aaronovitch that his pursuit is illegitimate or that conspiracists are to be studied rather than countered. Taking a firmly political historical approach, he is uncompromising towards conspiracists from a position of deep and explicit familiarity with their anomalies and slants rather than prejudicial gut distaste. He views conspiracism as effectively and fundamentally unjust and a threat to some groups who are far from power and influence, most prominently Jews and Zionists. In this respect he takes conspiracy theories more seriously as projects in their own right than Birchall chooses to; his is a different – and you could say more substantial – form of recognition. His chapter begins by recounting a 9/11 ‘truth’ event in 2005 fronted by Susannah York. He points out the habit of ruling out better-evidenced, and consequently most likely, explanations in favour of perverse and convoluted ones. He notes that the speakers are unlikely to have encountered each other without the contact across the usual boundaries catalysed and enabled by the Web, which he views as a “mass of undifferentiated information” (p221) where sites – often self-characterised as ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ – which use new media to proselytise or amplify 9/11 conspiracism far outnumber those dedicated to debunking conspiracism. Aaronovitch moves into this gap with two approaches to debunking: he fully engages with several 9/11 conspiracy theories on their own terms and takes them apart factually, and he also examines the modus operandi of conspiracists. With respect to the latter he demonstrates the dangers of ‘cui bono’ reasoning as a means of identifying perpetrators by asking who benefited from World War. He also points out the double standards of conspiracists in their “lofty incredulity” about establishment accounts while simultaneously insisting that their own highly questionable accounts stand unless each part (for example, the assertion that the FBI benefited from 9/11) is conclusively refuted. Aaronovitch is responding to a “leaching” of conspiracism into popular culture.There is a subtext of concern about the hyperactivity of the conspiracists, and his meticulous attention to detailed debunking of conspiracies positions him as somebody who hopes to shore up facts against sustained erosion as the “theories formulated by the politically defeated [are] taken up by the socially defeated” (p292).

Fenster’s chapter is between these two opposing views. A fellow cultural theorist whom Birchall quotes approvingly before rejecting this final chapter of his book, he is concerned that while conspiracism is a manifestation of “often justifiable discontent with contemporary institutional democracy and governance” (p281), cultural studies must accept that far right conspiracism, which hurts and even kills, should not be valorised and empowered. He explores the difference between the experience of black Americans with a history of enslavement, systematic exclusion, exploitation (including their unconsenting involvement in the Tuskegee syphilis study), and the assassination of their leaders and supporters, and on the other hand the experience of white working class American men who adopt far right conspiracy theories, concluding that black Americans are more justified in tending towards conspiracism. However he disagrees with John Fiske’s view (p264) that ‘blackstream’ and ‘counterstream’ knowledge should always be championed as not only legitimate but also presumptively emancipatory simply because it actively and radically resists the dominant forms of rationality.  Fenster points out that conspiracism, being simplistically constituted round a monocause such as race, “precludes linkages to other movements of resistance” (p286) and can as easily be used to oppress as to empower. Instead he paraphrases Eve Sedgwick,

“…a paranoid hermeneutic may aid critical practice and yield important insights and strong theory but it will not necessarily lead to good theory, correct answers or better practice.” (p285)

He concludes, compassionately nevertheless, that conspiracy theory is political failure.

Matt debunks the debunkers of the debunkers of 9/11 truth

A while after this episode, I just popped into Book Etc on London Wall on my way home and as I was snouting through the bargain bucket I saw this:

You can’t fault these people for tenacity.

I bought a novel about two women and three children who staff a lighthouse of the Isle of Man in the 1830s.

Today Matt wrote the following guest post. It begins with an assessment of the proportion of professionals who doubt the consensus on 9/11, gives an overview of the report of one academic, and finally quotes some correspondence between a conspiracy theorist and a fire protection engineer involved in the official investigation into the collapse.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Time for the previously threatened 2nd guest blog from me, after a quick burst of commenting regarding the conspiracy theorists (on 9/11 and global warming) Flesh suggested I could produce a slightly longer piece on the 9/11 truthers. This was on the assumption that as an engineer I might have something intelligent to say!

So I started where all good research does now days and headed straight for google, without a great deal of difficulty I turned up the following blog.

http://911-engineers.blogspot.com/

This blogger seems to have made it his mission together the evidence which refutes the 9/11 nutters (sorry truthers). Now for a start this is something to bring joy to the rational engineer in me but also strengthens my faith in humanity a bit. So what does he have to say?

The front page starts with:

Architects and Engineers

I guess a lot of you have heard about the website ae911truth where a group of individuals claim that what happened to WTC 1, 2 and 7 could not have happened. This is just a claim, because they have nothing to show for their allegation that it could not have happened the way it did. You won’t find any calculations that show how the NIST Report is wrong. On this site, you will find many structural engineers – those who actually know what they are talking about – explaining why the towers collapsed the way they did. So feel free to look at all the information I have gathered about the research done on the collapse on the towers. The research has been published in numerous engineering magazines and all over the internet on engineering sites (See the links on the right side of this site).

Only a handful of architects and engineers question the NIST Report, but they have never come up with an alternative. Although at first blush it may seem impressive that these people don’t believe the NIST Report, remember that there are 123,000 members of ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) who do not question the NIST Report. There are also 80,000 members of AIA (American Institute of Architects) who do not question the NIST Report.

Although their field of expertise is not related to the construction of buildings – they don’t seem to have a problem with that over at AE911truth – there are also 120,000 members of ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) who do not question the NIST report. There are also 370,000 members of IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) who do not question the NIST report. There are also 40,000 members of AIChE (American Institute of Chemical Engineers) who do not question the NIST Report. There are also 35,000 members of AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) who do not question the NIST report. So who would you rather believe?”

To be fair this is a weak argument – I doubt he has cross-checked every member of all of these organisations against the 4000 signatories. However, even if you assume that the much heralded 4000 Architects and Engineers are members of these above mentioned professional bodies (which is by no means certain) then they make up a very small % of the professional community. For example if they are only Architects and Civil Engineers from America then they are 1.9% of those 2 institutions [4000/(123000+80000)], it isn’t even worth doing the sums for all of the professional engineering bodies as that adds on another 565,000. All in all these opening remarks seem to set out the case for ignoring the conspiracy lunatics and getting on with our lives. However, just in case I did delve a little deeper.

A brief review of the site turns up some interesting stuff in particular something that might have helped out poor old Mark Lawson when reviewing the 9/11 nutters film. Last year Dr Keith Seffen a researcher from Cambridge University published a paper refuting one of the key theories namely that the buildings must have been demolished with explosives because they fell straight down. He says it far better than I can summarise:

“The initiation part has been quantified by many people; but no one had put numbers on the progressive collapse,” Dr Seffen told the BBC News website.

Dr Seffen was able to calculate the “residual capacity” of the undamaged building: that is, simply speaking, the ability of the undamaged structure to resist or comply with collapse.

His calculations suggest the residual capacity of the north and south towers was limited, and that once the collapse was set in motion, it would take only nine seconds for the building to go down.

This is just a little longer than a free-falling coin, dropped from the top of either tower, would take to reach the ground.

The University of Cambridge engineer said his results therefore suggested progressive collapse was “a fair assumption in terms of how the building fell”.

“One thing that confounded engineers was how falling parts of the structure ploughed through undamaged building beneath and brought the towers down so quickly,” said Dr Seffen.

He added that his calculations showed this was a “very ordinary thing to happen” and that no other intervention, such as explosive charges laid inside the building, was needed to explain the behaviour of the buildings.”

Further details are available on the BBC article 9/11 Demolition Theory Challenged.

Something else I found on the site were copies of a number of papers and interviews from MIT. One in particular, The Collapse: An Engineer’s Perspective gives a reasonably simple and straight explanation of how the towers came to collapse without resorting to complicated science or engineering principles/jargon. It is very consistent with the substance of Dr Seffen explained above. I defy anyone sensible to read this and not conclude that there really is a wealth of evidence to support what we all saw on that day – Planes flying into buildings causing massive damage, huge fires and then a catastrophic collapse – it just isn’t very complicated.

Of course there are still plenty of people desperate to believe that there is a grand conspiracy to scare us all into allowing Bush and Blair to go to war. A particularly interesting exchange took place between one of the authors of an official report on the collapse (Professor Jonathan Barnett) and one of these theorists (Elias) which you can read in full on Elias’s site http://snipurl.com/3n3hq  [www_aldeilis_net] but here are some parts that interested me.

You mean the numerous explosions’ testimonies were not ignored? The reports do not mention, as much as I know, these multiple testimonies. Nor were the witnesses invited to testify, as much as I understand.

You say that the collapse of the towers occurred “exactly as one expect from a fire”. Could you refer to examples of other buildings who collapsed in this way due to fire?

You say that there were no predetermined ideas. Yet the hypothesis of controlled demolition was not examined in spite of many elements which suggested this to have happened. Wouldn’t a thorough investigation look at all possibilities and attempt to verify which one fits best to the observations?

Elias
3 January 2007

***

Well, we did talk to eye witnesses. In our opinion the “explosions” were local events, not demolitions but rather the sound of structural failures.

As far as collapse mechanisms, these buildings were unique. There were no other built like them, how can I give you an example of another failure in identical structures? However, when one looks at structural failures in fires in unprotected steel structures (which is what we really had as the fire proofing was knocked off by the impact of the aircraft), you find exactly this kind of failure. The literature abounds with examples, take a look at the last 40 years of the NFPA journal and in almost every edition you’ll find an example.

We did meet with and talk to the number one controlled demolition man in the world; Mark Loizeaux. I don’t know where you get the idea we didn’t do these things. If you’d like, we can continue this by phone. I”m in Australia at the moment and my personal number is +61 – xxxxxxxx . As you see, I’m happy to respond.

Jonathan
2 January 2007

***

I was just speculating on the official story which is premised on the assumption that the 20+ floors including the floor where the aircraft on 9/11 hit, could by their gravitational weight pulverize the lower floors which were at about four times heavier, and all of that could be achieved at free-falling speed (which presupposes no resistance whatsoever from the lower floors) and in a symmetrical manner.

Elias
16 January 2007

***

Remember, its not the weight, but the momentum. The dynamic load is much greater than the static load which is why the building collapsed the way it did. Also, remember that although the columns on the lowest floors were much stronger than the ones on the upper floors, the transition from less strong at the top to strongest at the bottom occurs slowly through the height of the building. So a floor 1 % stronger than the one above needs to resist the impact of that floor plus all the load above that floor plus the momentum load.

The roughly symmetric failure (of course the top part of Tower 2 didn’t fall symmetrically), is to be expected as buildings just aren’t strong enough to fall any other way.

[Jonathan]
16 January 2007

As this exchange goes on the statements by Elias become more and more outlandish. Each time one of his questions is answered with a rational explanation something else is brought up, culminating with assertions about mysterious power outages and the ‘fact’ that there is no proof there were any hijackers – the US Government is defaming some innocent dead people apparently. In a moment of what I think is probably genius Professor Barnett tries to explain that many of the conspiracy theories and especially the one about the explosions are not required in order to support the ‘big’ theory that this was all cooked up the US government (and the Israelis with help from their lizard friends for all I know [Flesh adds: who is the conspiracy theorist? He's a former Mandate Palestinian whose parents had immigrated there from Nazi Germany. At some stage he got into anti-Zionism, left Israel in '62 and now writes - against Israel, among other things - at http://www.aldeilis.net%5D ):

Finally, I don’t see why you need to have explosives present to prove or disprove your theories. Why don’t you just assume that the buildings collapsed due to the impacts of the planes? That will not change your conspiracy theory one iota, but will eliminate the need for you to prove that explosives were in the building. You can then focus on the crux of your message instead of fighting an engineering battle that you are incorrect on.

Jonathan
17 January 2007

In my view this whole exchange is an object lesson in what happens when you try an engage with people whose ideas are based on belief rather than fact. Whatever evidence Professor Barnett puts there is some other unsubstantiated (lets be charitable and say part substantiated it makes no difference) or unconnected issue thrown up for him to refute. I can only salute him for the time he put in to responding to this stuff which even stretches to giving Elias his telephone number.

So what is the point of this engineer focussed rant? Well I am left thinking that if without much effort I can unearth all manner of compelling evidence/research which has common themes but has been put together by disparate organisations and people, is a conspiracy to fool us on this scale credible? I will leave you to make the decision for yourself but I know whose side I am on.

Conspiracy debunk

Conspiracy theories preoccupy me a bit and without even going out of my way I run into September 11th ones on a fairly regular basis.

It’s very difficult to debunk a conspiracy theory because the conspiracy theorists are only rational in one direction – confirming their theory. They have an unfeasible suspicion about the motives of people in power, and an unshakeable confidence in the capabilities of small cabals to effect control over entire states or even the world, without any evidence being found or any leaks escaping. It is a bit worrying that these have gained so much currency that BBC2 screened a documentary debunk tonight as part of their Conspiracy Files series.

Well worth a watch.