All Conspiracy Theories Considered Absurd
For the philosopher, who’s not an “analytic” philosopher, but has analytic training, the set of causes which I’ll call “denialism” (but are usually known by the somewhat more negatively charged, lengthier and more general phrase “conspiracy theory”) present an interesting challenge. In this article I shall prove that no species of denialism can ever be true or meaningful, using a very basic form of the logic of statements.
I shall restrict my attention to denialism, which I’ll define as a conspiracy theory that negates a received truth or opinion. A pure conspiracy theory, such as “the world wide Jewish conspiracy” doesn’t do this. A denialist conspiracy theory often “piggybacks” on the received truth-opinion, gaining currency from the popularity of the truth-opinion. For example, if all the toffs and their women are talking about Shakespeare or Michelangelo
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo
– TS Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
The insecure Prufrock can say that Bramante sculpted the Pieta as a short cut to sounding deep.
Then a strategy to regain cultural capital (what Bourdieu calls Distinction) would be to put the boot in by saying that “Shakespeare” didn’t write Shakespeare, where “anti-Stratfordianism”, the belief that a miller’s and alderman’s son did not write the “Shakespeare” of the First Folio is an example of Denialism.
But first of all, what are some “denialisms”? Here are some of my “favorites”, arranged in an order that will be obvious.
Lo Thus Quoth Dighton, Lay those Tender Babes: The Ricardian Denial
The tyrannous and bloodie Act is done,
The most arch deed of pittious massacre
That euer yet this Land was guilty of:
Dighton and Forrest, who I did suborne
To do this peece of ruthfull Butchery,
Albeit they were flesht Villaines, bloody Dogges,
Melted with tendernesse, and milde compassion,
Wept like to Children, in their deaths sad Story.
O thus (quoth Dighton) lay the gentle Babes:
Thus, thus (quoth Forrest) girdling one another
Within their Alablaster innocent Armes:
Their lips were foure red Roses on a stalke,
And in their Summer Beauty kist each other.
A Booke of Prayers on their pillow lay,
Which one (quoth Forrest) almost chang’d my minde:
But oh the Diuell, there the Villaine stopt:
When Dighton thus told on, we smothered
The most replenished sweet worke of Nature,
That from the prime Creation ere she framed.
Hence both are gone with Conscience and Remorse,
They could not speake, and so I left them both,
To beare this tydings to the bloody King.
Shakespeare: Richard III
The “received” account of the deaths of Edward V and his brother is that they were slaughtered by hired thugs, Dighton and Forrest, in the pay of Sir James Tyrell and that Tyrell was furthermore in the pay of Richard III, who engaged Tyrell when Richard’s buddy Buckingham wimped out of the caper.
This account appears in Shakespeare’s Richard III but that play was sourced on Sir Thomas More’s The History of King Richard III:
For Sir Iames Tirel deuised that thei shold be murthered in their beddes. To the execucion wherof, he appointed Miles Forest one of the foure that kept them, a felowe fleshed in murther before time. To him he ioyned one Iohn Dighton his own horsekeper, a big brode square strong knaue. Then al the other beeing remoued from them, thys Miles Forest and Iohn Dighton, about midnight (the sely children lying in their beddes) came into the chamber, and sodainly lapped them vp among the clothes so be wrapped them and entangled them keping down by force the fetherbed and pillowes hard vnto their mouthes, that within a while smored and stifled, theyr breath failing, thei gaue vp to god their innocent soules into the ioyes of heauen, leauing to the tormentors their bodyes dead in the bed.
The denialist account originates in a work of detective fiction, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and it purports to prove the denial or the dubiety of the received story, found in both Shakespeare (who wasn’t writing history) and his source Thomas More (who was, but in a primitive police state in which it was convenient to establish Richard’s illegitimacy, given that More’s sovereign was the son of Henry VII, who settled Richard’s hash at Bosworth).
But chances are More was telling the truth: chap certainly spoke truth to power later on in the matter of Anne Boleyn: would such a one be quite so willing to tell a lie in his History here?
More’s compassion for real victims shines through in his use of the unusual word “sely” to refer to the children; for “sely” derives from “saelig”, a Middle (or Old) English word that managed to mean three simultaneous things: “silly happy holy”, like the Christ Child or John Dunbar’s “baby full of benignity”, at his “mothers breast sowkand”, or sucking at her tits. The meaning has disappeared in a world where it is hard to be all three things together. It also came through in Sir or Saint Thomas More’s actions in the matter of Anne Boleyn.
But note how the conspiracy theorist has essentially to reduce people to a subcritical level. Sir, or Saint Thomas More has become a propagandist hack even and the Shakespeare denier cannot imagine anything higher than a hack. The Ricardian conspiracy theorist relies on ignorance of Sir or Saint Thomas More’s martyrdom.
And later in the book in which this poppycock is bruited, a male interlocutor (chosen, I think, to be male to give him a voice of authority) deflates claims that British soldiers killed striking British miners at Tonypandy in 1910 by introducing Tey’s readership to watered down Hume: for as to most callow reader of philosophy should know, empirical claims can be doubted, Tey’s male character “shows” by way of the fact that “the material record can be doubted” that “no miners died at Tonypandy” when in fact the oral record indicates that they did…and the slaughter nine years on of Indians peacefully assembled to air their grievances at Amritsar confirms that British soldiers could and would open fire on civilians.
Anonymous: Shakespeare Didn’t Write the Plays
The recent film Anonymous, directed by Roland Emmerich, hasn’t done well at the box office. It is based on the denial or the claim of dubiety of the “received” account of the authorship of the plays collected by Hemyngs and Condell in the First Folio and attributed to Shakespeare, a glover’s and alderman’s son from Stratford and actor-manager in addition (according to nearly all actual Shakespeare authorities) to being a playwright.
Many amateur and self-appointed sleuths cannot imagine that a mere middle class man with a grammar school education (that seems to have been remarkably thorough) could have written about kings, and queens, and stuff, possibly because the typical amateur or self-appointed sleuth cannot.
The American Civil War Was Not About the Slavery, Stupid
Reputable historians do emphasize that the South made broader claims on the North before our American Civil War than simply the right of Southerners to own slaves. Somewhat apart from the fact that Northern states emancipated their slaves in the early 19th century, the South was also reluctant to approve high tariffs on imports in order to finance infrastructure (notably, the Erie Canal linking Albany with the Great Lakes) that benefited only the North or projects the South did not want.
But mainstream historians do not deny that the South developed the theory that the states could individually and unilaterally “nullify” Federal laws not only to avoid tariffs but also to prevent the free states, which were gradually outnumbering slave states due to Western expansion, from eventually gaining a Congressional majority, banning slavery nationwide.
Perhaps shamed by the heritage and their peculiar institution, Southern apologists in recent years have been claiming, on the basis of Nullification’s economic purpose, that the Civil War was not about slavery, rather about states’ rights.
Thie is the denial or the claim of dubiety of a story accepted by mainstream historians of the left such as Howard Zinn, and of the right, including Charles Johnson and Winston Churchill.
Americans Never Landed On the Moon
I lost my virginity in Wisconsin as the astronauts landed on the Moon, so perhaps this denial, or the claim of dubiety, that the Moon landings occurred is especially offensive to me.
It is theorized that the entire adventure was filmed on a sound stage.
Death of a President
Next we have the denial or the claim of dubiety of the official story of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963.
The official story is that the assassination was performed using rather right wing methods (a bullet) by a malcontent loner with a checkered, expatriate past and a young, beautiful Russian wife, with left-wing sympathies but no real friends among the American left of the time. As is well known there are a vast number of alternate theories.
They were popularized by Oliver Stone’s film JFK. They are collected and rejected in a great whacking book by former Los Angeles District Attorney Vince Bugliosi, Reclaiming History.
I have read this book in its entirety. It is a monument to the legal insight and moral seriousness of Bugliosi, the Los Angeles district attorney who nailed Manson. It demonstrates not only that Oswald, acting alone, killed the President but also that historical “certainty” is possible where historical “certainty” is P(x)=1 “for all practical purposes”.
I was 14 at the time of the assasination and, just prior to the announcement that the President had been shot, I’d been disciplined for retaliating against a bully whose father had established the first McDonald’s outlet in Des Plaines, Illinois.
Comes now the denial or the claim of dubiety of the official story of 9-11. The official story is that it was the work of hired suicide killers engaged by Osama bin Laden, the scion of oil wealth who’d been enraged by the continuing presence of American soldiers in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War and the American abandonment of Afghanistan after its people had effectively won the Cold War. Some alternate stories claim it was staged by American spy agencies to mobilize the country against Israel’s enemies, etc.
This is the denial or the claim of dubiety of Darwin’s theory of Evolution and its modern restatements. In recent years this has been on the face of it a claim of dubiety in the form of claims that people who believe scientific authority are being excessively credulous, and that in the interest of fairness, the Creationist and “Intelligent Design” “theories” deserve “equal time”.
Global Maybe Not Warmingism
This is the denial or the claim of dubiety that “global warming”, most conveniently former Vice President Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”: that the world is getting warmer, that this is due to the properties of additional carbon dioxide in the upper atmosphere, that the increase is due to human activity and finally, that this will have bad effects, some of them with positive feedback such that, caused by global warming, the effects (notably release of methane from melting sub-arctic permafrost) will be magnified.
The Nadir: Holocaust Denial
The denial or the claim of dubiety that Hitler killed the Jews is the most tragic form of Denialism. It often takes the form of denying the most extreme parts of the Holocaust; for example, some “respectable” Holocaust deniers concede that German Einsatzgruppen shot Jews in Russia during the Nazi offensive, but deny, for reasons known only to them, that Jews were gassed by design.
Truth or Consequences
All of the above Denialisms are issues of truth, but the first and most trivial (the “Ricardian” denial of Richard III’s guilt) has no “pragmatic”, no corresponding actions to be taken if either side is “proven”: since the United Kingdom is ruled by the descendants of an elector of Hanover and not by a Tudor monarch, the discovery of proof that Richard III did not kill Edward V and the Duke of York would have no effects, whatsoever, save on the Beefeaters’ morale, which I’m sure they’d restore by insisting upon retailing the old story and quaffing ale, or something like that.
The pragmatics of the Shakespeare authorship dispute are more serious, since quite a lot of Shakespeare analysis and interpretation, especially but not exclusively Marxist, accounts him to be a representative of a rising middle class empowered by technology (printing) and the Reformation (and the abandonment of the mediaeval Mystery play, leaving an initially unmet demand for idle entertainments) to make money and create works of art without being beholden to princes and magnates. Most of the Shakespeare Denialists prefer to say that an aristo (such as the Earl of Oxford, who inconveniently died in 1604) or at least a man with university training (such as Marlowe) wrote the plays, which denies the story of the self-made man of which the received biography of Shakespeare is an example.
The pragmatics of the American Civil War question are quite serious, since an official, Northern and “liberal” account powered the American Civil Rights movement: Dr Martin Luther King presented the need for equality as an “uncashed check” dating to the Civil War in which slaves were formally freed and enabled until 1876 (the end of “Reconstruction”) to use their formal freedoms practically. While latter day slavery Denialists deny they are racists, their cause is for this reason offensive to many African Americans. And as opposed, say, to Brazil, there remains at least a perception of racism in renarratives of the Civil War as being about “states’ rights”, and in cases like that of Trayvon Martin, whose shooting by a white-Hispanic security guard was not investigated by local authorities.
Moon landing Denialism has few pragmatic consequences because very few people believe it. The American moon landings were, according to some philosophers of science, the first real confirmation of Galileo’s heliocentric astronomy but very few disbelieve Galileo at any rate.
The JFK assassination Denialism has had mostly consequences in the form of a lot of wasted time, although it did trigger a separate investigation beyond the official investigation, in the House of Representatives.
The consequences of 9-11 denial have been equally small.
Evolution denialism and Global Warming denialism have had very, very serious consequences, in the USA as regards Evolution (where school systems have had to teach either the Biblical story of Creationism, or more commonly the “doubt”) and world-wide, especially in the USA, as regards Global Warming denialism: Republicans in Congress will not pass any laws that treat Global Warming as a possibility and as a result, no countermeasures were taken last winter against the possibility of high-strength EF4 and EF5 tornados recurring in 2012, where such large tornados had damaged large parts of the USA.
I believe that I can prove all conspiracy theories false, first by showing how they are logically false or meaningless (which I shall together call “absurd” to best express both ideas) and then showing how they cannot guide pragmatic action. To do so, I shall present the special case proof as regards Global Warming denialism.
Refutation of Not Warmingism
Here are Gore’s “inconvenient truths”, again: “the planet is warming, it is warming as a result of industrial activity by way of a known mechanism called the ‘greenhouse effect’, this will have bad effects, some of which will interact in positive feedbacks with warming, possibly creating a permanent change in our planet’s habitability”.
Mainstream climate scientists assert these Inconvenient Truths as a scientific statement: roughly, all of them taken together using “logical and” as a single Inconvenient Truth: mainstream scientists do so as scientists. Now this of course is to go out on the empirical limb, since this claim, as science, has a certain probability of being true, and a complementary probability of being false.
Let’s symbolize Gore’s Inconvenient Truth as IT.
If P(IT) is its probability, P(IT) is between 0 and 1 (0<P(IT)<1). It cannot be, as Hume discovered, exactly 0 (false with certainty) or exactly 1 (true, with certainty). The logical denial of the Inconvenient Truth, ~IT (not IT) has 1-P(IT) probability and it can’t be 0 or 1 in truth value, either: 0<P(~IT)<1 because 0<1-P(IT)<1.
But this is the logical denial of the Inconvenient Truth in English: “the planet is not warming (baby, it’s cold outside), or it is warming but owing primarily to sunspots or something, or the greenhouse effect isn’t real (CO2 is good for you), or all the foregoing is false but baby, Global Warming is good for you, or, anyhow, we could use a new planet. Might be cool. Or warm. Or something.” Logically, the sequence of individual claims connected by “and” is negated by a logically weak series of the negations connected by “or”: where IT is (A & B & C …), ~IT is (~A | ~B | ~C …).
Now this shows that Al Gore was making a remarkably strong claim, as is any claim that uses a lot of “ands”, and the denier is apparently more humble, since an “or” claim is logically weaker.
Logically strong claims are hard but brittle and easy to refute with one counterexample, whereas logically weaker claims are hard to refute, since they are refuted by the refutation of all their terms.
But, the logically weak or claim is not consistently asserted by the Denialists; their assertion is that they doubt the Inconvenient Truth. They do not claim “not IT” they say “IT is doubtful”…if we let ? be a doubt operator, the GW Denialists claim ?IT.
Now, this ordinarily seems both quite Enlightened and easy to prove.
To prove the or as opposed to the doubt, all the Denier has to do is disprove (but not to certainty, this cannot be done) any “link in the chain”. He needs to show that globally as opposed to local conditions (where it’s easy to show that global warming, in activating the movements of air, can create, chaotically, dramatic instances of local cooling), it’s not getting warmer, or that the greenhouse effect isn’t occurring, or another denial.
But: consistently, the Denialists do not do this. They speak as individuals (with an interesting pose of the vox clamant in deserto) or as members of foundations whose main goal is not to prove anything but to prove the doubt.
Now, as it happens, this is “nice work if you can get it”. We already know that when R is any empirical proposition whatsoever, its probability is 0<P(R)<1 but this is almost exactly the same thing as saying that the probability of ?R (“R is dubious as hell”) is unity: P(?R)=1.
Not only is no proof of the Denialist’s case needed (nice work if you can get it) it also allows the GW Denialist (who’s actually a Doubterist) to strike poses and quote Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” It makes him seem to himself and his pals as a brave, Enlightened skeptic like Galileo.
But, Houston, we have a problem.
As scientists, who only as part of their professional remit assert empirical propositions with probability P between 0 (certainly false) and 1 (certainly true), the Inconvenient Truthers already know that they may be mistaken!
This has two serious problems. The first is that insofar as the dubiety of IT is used as a call for debate, it’s a strange debate. Rather than a debate over an assertion and its negation, it is a debate between a climate scientist who asserts, taking the risk that she may be wrong, a claim, and someone else who asserts, without taking the risk that he may be wrong, that the IT assertion is doubtful. The second party can never be wrong because all scientific statements are asserted with implicit probability between 0 and 1 but expressions of doubt are, per Hume, always true, assertions about language guaranteed to be so.
Now, this sounds pretty nifty to the Denialist. “I can never be wrong, wow”. Guys love that when that happens.
But by way of Sir Karl Popper’s well-known “unfalsifiability” critique of Marxism and psychoanalysis, the Inconvenient Truth Denialist is not as he usually claims doing science and does not belong in “open scientific debate”.
Worse than asserting that the sun goes ‘round the earth theory when that’s been finally confirmed false (probability close to 1, perhaps .9999999, but not 1), most recently in the Moon landings (oops, aren’t they bogus? NO), the Denialists “argue” for a proposition as necessarily true as 1+1=2…the tautology that the Inconvenient Truth is doubtful. Of course it is.
Worse than the Indiana legislature of the 19th century that asserted that pi, the ratio of the radius to the circumference of a circle, is exactly 3.14 as opposed to its unclosed continuing value (3.1487…), the Denialists want to “argue” that 1+1=2 in arguing that a scientific statement can be doubted.
It is noble and heroic to do so when arguing as does Winston Smith with O’Brien that five fingers remain five fingers, in 1984, and recreationally, the denialists like to pretend that world science is in cahoots with world government. But O’Brien asserts that four is five, an assertion of probability 0, whereas the climate scientists assert IT, equivalent to 0<P(IT)<1, and this is logically consistent with the claims of the Denialists.
Let’s now move to pragmatics. The Inconvenient Truth has serious policy implications, therefore the next step is analyzing the costs and benefits of acting as if it is true, or false.
Now, this analysis was made informally by the Bush administration at the time of the non-signature, by the USA, of the Kyoto accords in 2000. Basically, the administration said that Kyoto would retard economic growth in the developed countries.
However, their linkage is weak and uses a curious American axiom. This is that the profits of existing large firms and the incomes of their first set of benefactors (the wealthy majority stockholders and the bondholders of energy companies) will benefit ordinary Americans, indirectly but automatically, through job creation.
We Americans often believe (but I do not) that if the rich get richer, they will go crazy and start companies, creating jobs. But, of course, and as Keynes noted, sometimes if you’re rich, you prefer to just punch in your ID at an ATM and admire the numbers. Sometimes you like to take a girl along to help you admire them. Sometimes you flash your wad. Sometimes you light cigars with one hundred dollar bills and overtip snooty headwaiters.
We are encouraged to believe along with Milton Friedman that all the rich rise at the crack of dawn to run ten miles and, during their run, hatch schemes for spending their money on job creation. But Thorstein Veblen would ask about the idlers and wastrels who rise at noon, providing at best jobs for manicurists, barbers and bartenders.
Call the rich who create jobs the “productive rich”, it’s quite possible that deregulation and globalization increased their ranks in the 1980s by creating opportunities to spend money on investment as opposed to consumption.
It is unquestionable based on anecdotal, literary sources that in the 1930s and 1940s, there were fewer outlets for productive investment as a result of a global flight to autarky, which was why the rich of the 1930s were very different from the rich of the 1980s.
But, and this is a key point, this has nothing to do with today’s rich. The rich of 2013 may be job creators, or wastrels.
In terms of what we hear on the media…it’s as if Thorstein Veblen never lived.
To philosophy, which is well aware (probably more so than the actual players) of undecidability, there are two open questions. The first is, how much money handed over to the wealthy investors in existing energy companies, which rely in some measure on global warming inaction, flows into productive reinvestment. The second is whether Keynes was right, and if you redirected the money hose at the poor, whether they would create immediate sales numbers for existing companies by immediately spending their money on common household appliances…and stuff.
Philosophy, without having to decide, knows that in this case, a golden mean might be the way to go. And, global warming Affirmationists want as it happens policies that are Keynesian.
Rather than preserve the incomes of existing energy companies invested in doing things they will fund startup businesses in alternatives, and redirect through carbon taxing the profits of the energy firms.
The cute thing about philosophy is that it teaches you to keep on thinking when you do not know, at least with the certainty most people like, and what we’ve discovered is that in one minor way, the Denialists, who are mostly conservative in the rest of their politics, are Hayekian, and believers in the free market (especially as currently jury rigged in favor of the big shots…excuse me, that wasn’t philosophy, it was me channeling Tony Benn and Michael Foot, not germane, an aside) whereas the Affirmationists are Keynesian or socialist. Which means that as scientists making a pragmatic recommendation based on what they have discovered, the climate boys are well advised to argue for the Golden Mean.
If we do a cost and benefit analysis the cost of the truth of IT is probably high enough to the least well off to justify a pragmatic acting on its truth. The people most impacted by global warming, if it is occurring, are poor, they live on flood plains, they live on prairies, they live in forests, or they live in teeming cities where “austerity” has recently caused cutbacks in emergency services, or has prevented them from being instituted in the first place.
In the pragmatic cost-benefit calculation, the opponents of the Inconvenient Truth use as stakeholders the wealthy who benefit from existing corporations through bonds and equity. Its proponents worry more about the “99%”.
We can conclude that in the known absence of certainty, we should act on Global Warming.
The Proof Generalized
Now, let’s generalize the proof of the falsity or meaninglessness of IT denial to that of all conspiracy theories.
A scientific or legal conclusion is made about states of affairs, let it be C. The Denialist doesn’t assert ~C (not C) he asserts !C (C is doubtful pronounce it “bang, C”). But because any meaningful official or legal conclusion as to a state of affairs has probability P(C) where 0<P(C)<1, the probability of ~C is 1-P(C) and the probability of this is also between 0 and 1.
The received story of Kennedy’s assassination, while never having P=0, has a probability less than 1, and its denial has 1-P which is also between 0 and 1.
But the “probability” of !C is unity.
But this means that !C is not science. Jibber jabber can consist of false statements ("jibber jabber the earth is flat"), meaningless statements ("jibber jabber the current regnant King of France is bald") or even, as here, true statements ("jibber jabber Global Warming is doubtful"): Mr Jibber Jabber, funded as you may be by the Heartland Institute to raise doubts and impede, you are still talking nonsense.
The “Ricardian” who seeks to re-open debate about the disposition of the two Princes, the JFK assassination buff who seeks to re-open debate about Kennedy’s assassination, and the Holocaust denier do not strongly argue for their alternative claims, rather they argue for the dubiety of the mainstream story.
This is because as conspiracy theorists, they also argue for the corruption of the documentary record when it presents evidence confirming the mainstream story. Perhaps Sir James Tyrell was paid to confess (and endure the usual 15th century torture? Oh well): perhaps Thomas More wrote what Henry VIII told him to write (and later on stood up to the King in the matter of Boleyn? Oh well): perhaps an odd lot of men like Hemyngs, Condell, Ben Jonson, a variety of ink-stained printer’s devils and who knows who else were in on the First Folio caper.
This indeed is Josephine Tey’s main idea in The Daughter of Time: the gullibility of the sort of people who believe documentary records. It’s a popular form of what philosophy students learn, hopefully in their first course: the fourfold division of statements into analytic versus synthetic, and apriori versus aposteriori.
But it ignores the radically different logical status of “P is doubtful” and “P” or “not-P”. All meaningful scientific statements are doubtful, and as Popper knew, if they are not, if they are not in his view “falsifiable”, they are jibber-jabber mumbo-jumbo, like Marxism or Psychoanalysis. The question is pragmatic: without even knowing the specific numerical value of the probability of P we must decide what is to be done.
In the past, conspiracy theory and denialism were at the shadows and in the margins, a sort of B-level. However, the Internet has nearly destroyed the distinction between high Culture and low. It makes people feel that they are “just as good as anyone else” for today, they do not have to visit the Bodleian Library to find a copy of Thomas More’s History of King Richard III.
Reading science fiction has long been a way for people to feel as if they participate in the glamor of science without having to do math or think very hard. Likewise, being a Denialist makes you feel, I’d guess, that you’re an authority. If some twerp, poolside, has read every play by Shakespeare several times over, you can recapture the attention of the ladies by announcing in a weary, superior tone, “did you know, my dear boy, that Shakespeare did not write the plays”?
But there is something worse, that emerges in Holocaust denial most plainly but even occurs in trivial “Ricardianism”. In Tey’s book, a male protagonist (where Tey may have selected that gender to provide authority) is equally dismissive of the claim that British troops, in 1910, fired upon striking miners in Tonypandy.
I know the Holocaust occurred as a direct result of Hitler’s intentions mediated through a society without rule of law.
I do not know what happened at Tonypandy, in part because miners’ families in Britain then, and perhaps even now, have an oral and not a written culture. Any government support for a continuing written working class record is now ancient history for this is considered, in Britain and my own country, to be lunatic leftism. I spoke to a British man from mining families and he strongly believes that the shootings occurred. He does so because his great grandfather was there and told his son, and so forth. But this testimony is not to be found at the Bodleian, and as a Yank, I have no opinion.
But the common feature of Holocaust and Tonypandy Denialism (if there is such a thing as Tonypandy denialism) is the denial of suffering and the normalization of daily life as nonviolent and safe.
If Shakespeare in fact made a name for himself in a primitive police state where every word he wrote had to be approved by censors, in the teeth of opposition of envious men like Robert Greene who used Shakespeare’s own lines to mock him, while supporting a family long-distance, this is a tale of suffering and triumph. Its denial erases this.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went to the Moon at the risk of their lives. Moon landing denialism erases this.
People sat on roofs in Katrina begging for help for days. Global warming denialism makes the disaster just a case of “shit happens”, not something that may have been avoidable.
Holocaust denialism doesn’t in most cases deny that Jews and others were rounded up and ethnically cleansed, it merely seeks to deny that Jews were deliberately gassed; it is asserted that the Jews died of cholera. Some forms assert that while Jews were shot by Einsatzgruppen they were not gassed as if all the Denialist sought was to deny the apex of evil.
Now, this shows how Denialism is a Pop culture phenomenon if the purpose of media that at least in the past was labeled “B level”, “middlebrow” or “escapist” is essentially to reconcile the exhausted office worker with a daily pain of existence which cannot be squarely faced.
If Shakespeare didn’t struggle to write the plays and become a successful businessman, this excuses us from doing much of anything. If we can only deny climate change, we can return to daily existence and not worry so much. And if the Holocaust was in part not true, this is an anodyne of a sort.
Yeats said it best, in “The Stare’s Nest by My Window”, a poem about the way in which the Irish, to Yeats, habit of spinning stories can help us to avoid pain by selecting the most pleasant, or least unpleasant, story from the media…which now falls over itself, and not only in the USA, to retail pleasant stories.
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
Denying suffering is a form of hatred. Mass media entertainment techniques persuaded the people of my country to support a lie about WMD, so the denial in this case was not a denial of suffering in the direct sense, yet it was used to deny Iraqi suffering, for if Iraq had had WMDs the brutalizing ten year period of sanctions and the brutalizing war may even have been justified. If the Holocaust denier can “prove” that there was no “proof” than eight million died, he is content that one or two million died, for he’s shown how we can feed on fantasies.
We can deny suffering on order. Certainly, part of the reception of Shakespeare’s Richard III was pity and terror based on the belief, in the contemporaneous audience, that two kids were destroyed, accompanied by relief that Elizabeth had put an end to religious wars that had succeeded the dynastic wars of the 15th century and the reigns of Henry VII and VIII.
Deaths of children such as the nine day Queen Jane were known to have happened in the living memories of Shakespeare’s audience who it may be said was anxious, in a way we of course are not, that England return to the undecidability of religious conflict, an undecidability in which kids got killed. Denialism uses a strange, but comforting, logic: that because the Holocaust may not have happened (or did not happen) then our fears of being Holocausted in turn (say by our Serbian friends and neighbors) are silly.
But (as Fight Club seemed to imply) the office worker trades her autonomy for security which renders her relations superficial and insensitive to pain in a virtual reality of media in which violence is so ultra as not to be believed.
Philosophy’s job is here to open a door to some disturbing possibilities, and a disturbing way in which popular media can numb us to some real problems far more serious than the deaths of the Princes. Sometimes the fly has to be shown how to get back into the fly bottle.