Radical Cartesian doubt
By David Cogswell
Online Journal Contributing Writer
Aug 29, 2007
I've spent so much of my life traveling, incessantly moving, that I don't even pretend to myself anymore that it is about any particular destination. It's just all this movement.
When I'm driving across the country, I exist in a sort of meditative state, usually with something playing on the sound system. The car interior provides a great sound booth for music I have brought, or audio books, or for exploring the radio landscape of the place I am driving through.
The other day driving through New England, I put on a recent audio book by New York Times Columnist Frank Rich, called The Greatest Story Ever Sold. It's a history of how the Bush administration sold its war to the American people just enough to push it over. It's very recent history as history goes, but it doesn't have the sizzle of Rich's commentary on last week's events. It's a very different form. It's a summary and analysis of events within the last five years.
I like to read Rich's columns and I find that I usually more or less agree with him. But I found myself drifting from the audio book. One might think it was from the fact that it's "old news" in the Internet age of 24/7 news. But that wasn't really the root problem for me. Obviously a history has to accomplish different ends than a column does because the material no longer has the novelty of today's news. But in addition to that, the analysis, the framing of the story has to resonate with the reader. And as I observed my own reactions and tried to understand why I found myself suppressing the impulse to turn it off, I think I finally came to why I could not commit myself for long to it. It's because I don't quite buy into the narrative, or more accurately the worldview from which it is posited.
Rich, like many other successful mainstream political writers has a kind of sureness, a kind of security that I do not share. He is comfortable with certain beliefs, to the extent that he can accept them as premises from which he can then reason to reach a certain level of understanding. But I find myself in a much less sure world than he is in. I cannot accept on faith many of the things that are dealt with as facts in the mainstream. I find myself in a state of radical Cartesian doubt regarding information that comes to me from The Corporate State.
When Rich uses the clause, "When al Qaeda attacked us . . ." I start to drift and he loses me, because I have many questions before I can reach that state of certitude and then begin to build on that premise. I still don't feel like I really know what happened, who attacked whom, and who or what al Qaeda even is. Much of this is my own fault, obviously, I should know much more. But I do see people proceeding with premises and beliefs that to me remain unproven, unestablished. I do know that I do not believe much of what the administration says, and have no reason to. It has zero credibility, really a negative number. So any information that comes from the administration, or is filtered by the administration, is not reliable unless it is confirmed by relatively neutral sources.
That can't be said about much of anything that is considered to be known about 9/11 in the official reality. It is relatively unfiltered, unprocessed, untested information. The 9/11 report was produced under the least advantageous circumstances for finding the truth. Even without reading the whole thing, one can read many assertions that are worse than false, just ridiculous. It is certainly no Bible of the truth of 9/11. Even its authors have said as much.
The 9/11 case is reminiscent of the JFK assassination case in this regard. For example, William Manchester's The Death of a President, was the history of the assassination that was authorized by the Kennedy family. Manchester worked under some duress to produce the history in fairly short order and he worked with the information that was available at the time. Without the benefit of hindsight, and without the experience of the new sort of government that was taking shape at that time, Manchester was fairly trusting of the information he was given, I would say too trusting. He took the official story and extrapolated on it to recreate moments to which there were no known, living witnesses. He used his imagination as any historian, historical novelist or screenwriter must to fill in blanks. But the information was not reliable, and if he'd been strictly rigorous in his testing of it, he could have avoided the errors even at that stage.
In later years information that became available to the public discredited much of what Manchester believed was known at the time. As a result he described what he imagined Oswald to be doing and looking like and thinking on the sixth floor of the book depository, when there is strong evidence to suggest he was not even there, and there is a great deal of other evidence to discredit many other details of the narrative. Certainly the event did not proceed the way it was initially described. Too much is known now for that theory to stand. Establishment voices like the New York Times still cleave loyally to the Warren Commission's conclusions, even though a later congressional committee determined that there had to have been more than one shooter. The Times forgot that.
Quite a lot of the official story of 9/11 just does not add up, even to rudimentary principles of science, so it makes it very difficult to draw any conclusions about what happened. We certainly don't know enough answers to the thousands of unanswered questions about the event to accept the conclusions being foisted on us by the Bush administration. When they say "9/11 changed everything" they are stating a fundamentally untrue assertion, but what the event did change we still can't be very sure.
The History Channel's conspiracy theory debunking show on Saturday night, August 25 ("The 9/11 Conspiracies: Fact or Fiction"), veered off from consideration of the questions raised by the 9/11 Truth Movement, into a sort of analysis of the supposed personality type of the "conspiracist," which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as "one holding a conspiracy theory." That's especially funny in light of the fact that the official story is by definition a conspiracy theory.
In the History Channel film, one of the people presented as an expert said that these conspiracy theorists all "think they are right and everyone else is wrong." This may apply to some people on any side of any question, but there is no logical basis for making that assumption about everyone who questions the official story of 9/11. Essentially the 9/11 Truth Movement represents people who are asking questions, challenging an established view. That does not mean they necessarily think they know the answers and no one else does. It may be true of some of them, but it's a mischaracterization of many of them, and not only is it a false generalization, it's a distraction from the issues being discussed. By that logic it is wrong to question at all. Asking questions about that makes one a sick, abnormal person. And that was the dominant underlying message of the show.
I for one am a doubter, but I don't enter the debate believing that I have the truth and "everyone else" is wrong. I come not from a position of sureness, but one of inquiry. Descartes' radical doubt was designed to use doubt as a method for finding reliable truth. To sift through the confusion, the lies, the snares in any criminal case, it is important to start from a place with as few assumptions as possible, and then proceed carefully, applying principles of logic and science and not calling something true until there is very strong evidence that it is true. That was Descartes' method, and it may not lead to total understanding of the universe, but it's a good way to think clearly through a set of issues.
That which cannot be securely established using fundamental principles of logic needs to be kept in the category of the unknown, with judgment suspended. For many people it's very uncomfortable to carry around unknowns in their heads. Loose ends, unresolved questions can be disturbing, so many would rather accept an untested idea than to exist in a prolonged state of uncertainty. Unfortunately in 21st century America, that is our lot. There are many unknowns and many uncertainties.
I believe that the state of radical doubt is the appropriate one for the scientist, the reporter, the judge or even just the rational person. The old journalistic maxim, "If your ma tells ya she loves ya, check it out," describes the appropriate attitude for a journalist. Only through disciplined processing and testing of information can any facts be established as reliable. As little should be taken for granted as possible. In the mainstream corporate media, it is not the attitude of skepticism that prevails, it is more an attitude of belief, of respect, almost of reverence, or as close to it as we get in the Land of the Almighty Buck.
The great power of ubiquity and repetition enables the corporate media to frame the debate, to create the vessel through which we view the world. In regard to 9/11, as in the case of the JFK assassination and many other incidents, an official story line was locked into place in the first hours after the incident and that narrative never changed in the official media. What was reported as known in the first unfolding hours was never changed by the official voices. It has been steadfastly held to and any deviating points of view were ignored or somehow bent to fit into the original theory. Any questions are considered strange, unacceptable behavior. The information in the public domain, however, has expanded rapidly since the beginning and much of it tears those initial conclusions asunder. But never mind. Those establishment voices will never budge an inch. The original story must be held very rigidly. Any atom that moves may bring down the whole house of cards. That's why even speculation is discouraged violently.
This is the attitude of a religious organization toward its doctrine, its truth. But it is not the appropriate attitude of scientists or jurists or journalists. Nevertheless, it is primarily what we are stuck with in our mainstream media at the moment.
It is deeply fascinating, however, to see the changes taking place in the public domain. One by one people are removing the barrier and asking questions. Robert Fisk became one of the most recent voices of reason to suddenly ask unacceptable questions. But when the contradictions pile so high that it becomes very difficult to move at all without having to step around them, some rational people are going to give up the effort of trying to maintain a belief system which no longer has logical integrity. First it is the questions. The answers come later.
David Cogswell publishes HeadBlast.