At Aaron Bady’s suggestion, I read Eve Sedgwick’s classic essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You.” It begins with an account of Sedgwick’s conversation with Cindy Patton about the possible origins of HIV, which was at the time rumored to be deliberately engineered by the US government in some way. At one point, Patton asks, if all the conspiracy theories were definitely true, “what would we know then that we don’t already know?” For example, we already know that the US government views the lives of Africans and African Americans as cheap, that it views homosexual men and drug users as dispensable, etc. What actionable information does the explicit conspiracy theory add?
I’ve been having similar thoughts about Seymour Hersh’s famous article alleging that the official story of bin Laden’s death is basically all lies. (I am a print LRB subscriber and refuse to read the articles online ahead of time.) I don’t pretend to be in a position to assess the merits of his claims, though from my perspective it all sounds eerily plausible. If everything Hersh said was true, though, what would we know that we don’t already know? I think it’s safe to say that we already knew that the killing of bin Laden was a political stunt with little to no relationship to any sincere national security interest (whatever that would even mean). We also know that the relationship between the US and its client states is fraught with tension and dishonesty. Both of those facts remain constant between the official story and Hersh’s version.
Am I missing something?
7 thoughts on “What if Obama did lie about the bin Laden raid?”
good point tho I’ve seen this argument deployed in reverse by conspiracy theorists – you know our rulers are lying bastards, you know they do bad shit and cover it up, you know they hate XYZ, so what exactly do you find implausible about my lizard thesis? huh? HUH?
incidentally intrigued as to the rationale for this: “(I am a print LRB subscriber and refuse to read the articles online ahead of time.)”
I just prefer to read them in print. That’s why I’m buying the magazine.
In the official version (intel gained from networks and torture) vs. the other version (Pakistan knew where he was the whole time), the difference seems actionable.
seems to me that the difference is the possibility of political life. the question isn’t about knowledge, but the effects of political or official lying on politics and public life more generally (see Arendt). it’s not about what we don’t already know about this or that social reality or event, but about the conditions of possibility for distinguishing between true and false in public discourse about such realities or events. if all conspiracy theories are true, then all official discourse is false, which posits a radical disjuncture between the people and the government who supposedly represent them, and the realm of public discourse writ large becomes domain of illusion and appearance with no connection to the real. it’s a fundamentally anti-social, as well as anti-political attitude, since at bottom, it denies the fiduciary bond that grounds all human speech, and social life in general – the “i promise” and the “i believe” that is the condition of possibility of any social address or relation, a condition all the more necessary because speech can be both untruthful and unworthy of faith. hence the reference to narcissism in the paranoid’s “you probably think this essay is about you.” the difference is that the epistemological stance of conspiracy theory fundamentally disables any possibility of deliberation or contestation, and ultimately, of action.
Trevor, That is a good point.
Writing as not a leftist, but a kind of progressive:
It has occurred to me that those people on the left (I write with all possible warmth and sunniness) do not take account of the extent to which non-conspiratorial thinking allows great injustices to be naturalised and made seem less outrageous. It would be unwise to riff on the AIDS example here, where anyway there was no conspiracy.
So let me say, recently I read a fascinating book, “Disconnecting the Dots” by Kevin Fenton. And the subtitle, I’m afraid, is “How CIA and FBI officials allowed 9/11 to happen and evaded official investigation.” Fenton incidentally is a colleague of the well-known Paul Thompson at historycommons.org, who ended up published by Judith Regan (i.e. Rupert Murdoch), but has not said exactly the same things as Fenton.
Long story short, if I say it’s terrible the way Bush used 9/11 to launch a war in Iraq, everyone agrees yawns. If I say, some guys in the CIA knew Mihdhar and Hazmi were in the country since January 2000, knew they were dangerous and did nothing, people are just a little big more prone to appropriate anger.
People do like detective stories and Hersh’s detective story undermines an official detective story. The official detective story relied on the oracular power of hi-tech snooping and on an unstoppable force of elite commandos. Hersh’s narrative debunks that omniscient narrative with a tale of ordinary snitches and gossip, and a relatively easy collaboration to kill a sitting duck. If Hersh’s story were shown to be true, it would open the possibility that we could allow ourselves know that we can be free.
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