Thursday, June 2, 2011


Roger Cohen’s opinion piece – DSK and Conspiracy Theory - in the NYT of May 30, 2011, strikes me as a rather vivid example of our almost universal blindness to our own ethnocentrism. This position can be summed up as

My group’s point of view is objective. To the extent that others disagree, theirs is not.

Cohen’s supposed objectivity on various topics in this essay might be credible if he was a visitor from another planet, or perhaps someone suspended alone since birth above the Earth, thereby able to observe the world below him impartially, as might a scientific measuring instrument. But of course were he either of those two hypothetical observers he would make no sense to us at all. In the former case all interpretation would be through the filter of a totally alien culture, while the latter could offer no interpretation whatever. It is Cohen’s inevitable anchoring within certain recognizable political borders on this planet (like all of us) that both gives him an inevitable bias and renders his remarks intelligible, if not necessarily agreeable.

Without recognition there can be no comprehension, and recognition means bias – i.e. we are following familiar patterns of value. Though we may share our patterns of value with large numbers of other people that doesn’t make them objective. Values are values, and opinions are opinions. There are no "facts" in the sense Cohen uses the term.

Look, to what is Cohen appealing when he points to the assumed factuality of Osama bin Laden’s murder in Abbottabad at the hands of American servicemen? Why should anyone other than an American accept the word of the American president that OBL was indeed killed on that day? Since when did presidents – especially other people’s – tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but? Might it not be in Obama’s interests to have trotted out news of OBL’s death, at this most unpopular time in his career? While our newfound faith in DNA would have us all agreeing that a DNA match would prove the identity of the victim, what proof do we have – that would satisfy anyone other than a patriotic American – that a DNA test was in fact performed? Are we not to be allowed a degree of skepticism about his death, on hearing that he was buried secretly at sea? I am not saying that OBL did not expire as advertised. I am saying that it is not absurd to question that he did. It simply depends on whom you accept as your authority.

Cohen faults the French for siding with fellow Frenchman Strauss-Khan in the recent IMF sex scandal, accusing them of irrational cultural bias -

…his French cohorts — men just as charming and smart as Strauss-Kahn — have made it their business to say, in essence, that he could not have done what he is accused of doing because he is one of us. He is, in effect, innocent by association.

But that is precisely how 99 percent of all facts are arrived at! By their association with people whom we trust. What is truly absurd is to object that "My group is more trustworthy than yours!" Cohen particularly singles out Bernard Henri Levi’s use of the word "absurd" in relation to the charges brought against Strauss-Khan, commenting that “absurdity is no defense”. Yet this is again precisely the universal defense against a contrary opinion, including that of the American mainstream against 9/11 “conspiracy theories”, despite what many reputable non-Americans (and Americans) consider overwhelming evidence. Thus, absurdity is what Cohen (a Jewish American) himself strongly implies we should feel in an example we are apparently to assume is in stark, non-factual contrast to the IMF debacle -

I was put in mind of an unpleasant Paris dinner when a France Télécom manager with international experience began to expound on the theory — more than plausible to his mind — that Jews had not turned up to work at the twin towers on 9/11 because Israel and the Mossad were behind the planes-turned-missiles that turned lower Manhattan into an inferno.

The whole idea is absurd, right? Well, excuse me, Mr. Cohen, but I am neither American, nor Jewish, and what you see as facts appear from my perspective to be as much opinions as those of DSK’s supporters do to you. What few facts there are may indeed disprove this allegation, but how and where are we to obtain them? Moreover, true or not, this allegation says nothing of the Mossad/CIA plot itself, which of course is now damned in our impressionable minds by false association with this single, discreditable rumor.

Cohen - like the French he criticizes - is suggesting that certain ideas in themselves are unthinkable. There are some theories we simply may not entertain. Why? Because to do so would throw open to examination foundational beliefs about the integrity of our leadership and our group's exceptionalism which we are unwilling to question. That is where the fact-finding stops. That is, we could say, the perimeter wall not just of our faith, but of our reason, outside of which we cannot venture and remain part of the group, or even be considered sane.

Consequently Cohen can see the mote in a Frenchman’s eye, but is oblivious to the beam in his own American Jewish one -

French deference to power — with the accompanying conspiracy theories — has encountered the hard-knuckled application of U.S. law as applied equally to anyone accused of a serious crime.

What a wonderfully, robust, fair, and unflinching image this paints of American society and jurisprudence, doesn’t it? So unlike those emotion-driven French!

But this patriotic trumpet-blowing-disguised-as-objectivity is, frankly, just hot air. Rape may be a serious crime, but in the political scheme of things it counts for nothing, unless it occurs to someone famous, or in someone else’s country. Only then does it become political, only then does it attain the racial overtones which have the host country screaming and the foreigners flying to the defense of their friend. American servicemen accused of rape in the Philippines or Japan are cast in a completely different light from Filipinos or Japanese of equivalent local status accused of the same crime. On the other hand, the 9/11 event was a truly serious political crime, but because strong evidence suggests it involved the American leadership, as well as a foreign power to which many in a leadership position also owe loyalty, few Americans are able to see the evidence as outsiders see it. Absurdity is not another’s lack of objectivity. Absurdity is a measure of our own culture-bound, mental limitations. Let me requote Gary Zukav (in The Dancing Wu Li Masters) –

The more clearly we experience something as “nonsense”, the more clearly we are experiencing the boundaries of our own self-imposed cognitive structures. “Nonsense” is that which does not fit into the prearranged patterns which we have superimposed on reality. There is no such thing as “nonsense” apart from a judgmental intellect that calls it that… Nonsense is nonsense only when we have not yet found that point of view from which it makes sense.
Yet this is the defense used by everyone who doubts the Mossad/CIA theory of 9/11. Not that the evidence refutes it, but simply that it’s "nonsense".

There are plenty of facts, incidents and complaints — never fully investigated by the French press — to suggest that the serious charges against Strauss-Kahn are not “absurd”.

For “French press” substitute “American mainstream media”, and for “Strauss-Khan” substitute “the government version of 9/11” and you have the same situation exactly.

Ridicule is what we direct at people whose choice of facts we disagree with. And shown those facts we inevitably ignore them, asserting that only facts which come from “trusted sources” – i.e. people we identify as of our group - are permissible. Right? Cohen thus ends, with appalling but near-universal cultural hubris -

Facts count. Conspiracy theories are the refuge of the disempowered.

This is a culturally biased, populist distortion of a profound truth - that “conspiracy theory” is what the majority label any theory which contradicts their own version of events. Ask yourself - How could a belief of any kind held by the majority ever be described outside scientific circles as a theory? What the majority believes is popularly known as “the facts” – and hence “the truth”. That is what “facts” and “truth” are – majority beliefs.

Are we getting it yet?


  1. Very nicely put, Paul! I posted a link to this piece in the comments at

  2. Thank you, Kevin. Your post addresses the same phenomenon! For a particularly egregious example of what I'm referring to, go to -

  3. Here's another one for you to chew on, Paul:

    No time now for a long reply to this post of yours, Paul, but I must reply to this: "... a profound truth - that “conspiracy theory” is what the majority label any theory which contradicts their own version of events." A profound truth, Paul? Tsk tsk. A bit melodramatic, that. On a daily basis I read descriptions and interpretation of events I view differently and I rarely consider these views/opinions "conspiratorial"... Just a different point of view.

  4. Yes, Francisca, that was a bit melodramatic! :-)

  5. Francisca, I've just read the NYT essay your comment links to. Yes, it's worth another blog. This is an important subject (so think I). Knight's comment is exactly right - “As soon as you lose faith that the mainstream media are telling the truth, anything is believable.” This is - am I being too melodramatic? - a profound truth! :-)

  6. I do not argue with Knight's comment you quote. His overall point is, however, that there is a distinction to be made between "believable" and "factual". Many "believed" Strauss-Kahn was set up until more facts came out. Many "believed" bin Laden was not killed (or had already been killed years before) on May 1 until more facts came out. Many "believed" Obama was a Muslim not born in Hawaii until more facts came out. Some people, of course, choose to tenaciously hold on to their beliefs - their "I'd rathers", as belief can be defined. And they are entitled to, perhaps until a source more credible to them give them facts they have faith in. Lest you misunderstand me, I also do not have a ton of faith in mainstream media. But is Knight being profound? Well, not really... just an interesting point of view. :-D