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CITIES IN THE 21st CENTURY: A Primer

Book Review

John Matthew Barlow reviews John Lorinc's new book, Cities: A Groundwork Guide. Last year marked the first time that the majority of the world's population lived in cities; Lorinc's introduction to the subject offers a timely, and lively, critique of the issues confronting cities and humanity as a whole as we confront this radical restructuring of our way of living in the urban century.

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  • Cities: A Guide

    Book Review

    John Matthew Barlow reviews John Lorinc's new book, Cities: A Groundwork Guide. Last year marked the first time that the majority of the world's population lived in cities; Lorinc's introduction to the subject offers a timely, and lively, critique of the issues confronting cities and humanity as a whole as we confront this radical restructuring of our way of living in the urban century.

    Read more...

  • The Hurt Locker

    Review

    Eric Randolph reviews Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, and notes a shift in film-making sensibilities from the war-as-heroics paradigm of earlier Hollywood, towards the everyman's war-as-hell model that has now lodged itself in Western cultural consciousness.

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  • Architecture & Biopolitics

    Interview

    Berlin-based writer Daniel Miller's October 2008 interview with Swedish philosopher and SITE Magazine Editor-In-Chief Sven-Olov Wallenstein, on his new book Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009).

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  • Wired For War

    Symposium

    The second symposium in CTlab's 2009 series, focused on Peter Singer's new book, Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (Penguin Press: 2009), ran from 30 March to 2 April. Singer and half a dozen scholars from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Austria debated the use and ethics of robots in war.

    Read...

  • DEFCON 17

    Current Intelligence

    Tim Stevens reports back from the DEFCON 17 conference in Las Vegas: are hackers thinking meat isn't just meat anymore?

    Read...

Tuesday
12May2009

Conspiracy Theories: A New Orientalism

By Eric Randolph.

I went to see Times columnist David Aaronovitch talking at the LSE last week about his new book, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History. (A podcast of the lecture can be found here).  It’s an interesting topic and he is an amusingly tough-minded speaker, but in the end the whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth, partly because the project seemed rather aggressively motivated, and partly because it underlined the disturbingly old-fashioned Orientalism that imbues popular conspiracy theories about 9/11.

Naively, I had not expected so many conspiracists to be in the audience, but as soon as the questions started, I realised what sort of evening was about to unfold. The problem was that Mr. Aaronovitch was there to describe the mental make-up and subconscious desires that drive people to believe in conspiracies, while the theorists themselves had come to read out bits of information that ‘proved’ 9/11 was an inside job. It’s how I imagine a group of militant creationists would react to a lecture from Richard Dawkins. Indeed, in their singularity of interest and their embracing of a shared answer, 9/11 conspiracists mirror much that describes faith.

Mr. Aaronovitch put forward some eminently sensible ideas about the modern individual’s “desire to give agency to accident,” to create “a defence against the feeling that we are defenceless in this world.” He talked about the comfort that comes from believing that someone has their hands on the controls – even if it’s an evil cabal of conspirators – because that means there is the potential for a benevolent but equally powerful force to take over in future and solve all our problems.

One friendly reviewer (Conspiracy Alert!, he works for The Times) has described these views as “humane”. But it was hard to escape the feeling that Mr. Aaronovitch’s real motivation (which he all but admitted to me in conversation later) was the rather base desire to pick a fight with the most intransigent group of people he could find, having armed himself with a set of psychological put-downs aimed at parading his own intellectual superiority. However erudite and persuasive his cod psychology, the overall effect was of a man shouting: “Oi, conspiracy theorists: you’re idiots!”

A NEW ORIENTALISM

My own concern about 9/11 conspiracy theories is not that they might be wrong or defamatory, but that they distract attention away from much more important issues, and in doing so I think they evoke a disturbing lack of interest in the non-Western world.

Making their presence felt in the audience were several members of London Truth Action who are passionately devoted to the 9/11 conspiracy. Interviewing some of them outside the lecture, they came across as intelligent, politically engaged and compassionate people, but their attitudes were concerning, not least because they probably reflect a widely accepted narrative on transnational threats and global politics.

In their narrative, 9/11 can only be the work of Westerners – it is too complex, too devious, too well-executed for the humble, little Muslim. Muslims, as I was repeatedly told, are “peaceful people”. In this view, they are not political beings, they are not the agents of change, they are merely passive receptacles – a faceless group of victims.

When I ask about Islamist terror networks in Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia – it is of no apparent interest. The talk quickly returns to Washington, to what Westerners are doing, what Westerners want. Worst of all, one of them describes Islamist terror as the actions of “a few crazy people”. Again, only the West are capable of acting rationally or purposefully when committing acts of violence. When a Muslim perpetrates an act of violence, he is a madman. The logic of this view is that if you remove that person, you remove the problem – because he can’t possibly be the product of a wider politico-ethical movement of any significance. As everyone knows, Muslims just want to tend their sheep and lead bland, peaceful existences.

The theoretical underpinning of all this is a neorealist conception of international relations as state-centric and working according to rational strategy-based models of decision-making. No room here for ideologies, ethics or subjective notions of justice and victory that might be seen as motivating jihadist violence. It also paints the terrorist as a stand-alone problem that can be neutralised kinetically, an ironic reflection of some of the West's more misguided policies in the war on terror.

That these attitudes still continue around the public discourse is worrying, and I suspect from purely anecdotal evidence, that they are more common than those of us who spend our time immersed in the (relative) mainstream would like to believe. I want to reiterate that the intentions of most 9/11 conspiracists are good and peaceful, but by failing to engage with the true complexity of global politics, they further alienate large swathes of the public from the policymakers. At a time when the policymakers are making so many mistakes, that alienation is a threat to us all. Perhaps this is a point Mr. Aaronovitch makes more forcefully in his book than in his speech, and hopefully his crusade against conspiracies can persuade a few people away from a narrow and increasingly anachronistic focus on the bizarre details of September, 11 2001.

David Aaronovitch will be laying into conspiracies again at the Frontline Club in Paddington, London on 27 May.

Reader Comments (1)

Conspiracy theories are indeed very similar to religious beliefs. It's all about reduction of complex realities. The human need to have someone – anyone – control things is an interesting addition to this.

I think your observations regarding the Orientalism is spot on. However, it's not just the “Orient” but the Third World in general. People there are depicted as nice, warm, and friendly … (which many no doubt are) – all the things Western societies presumably are not. But beyond these attributes those people don't seem to have much agency.

I'd also qualify the remarks about the neorealist conception of IR. In my IR seminars I've seen various people subscribe to constructivist IR theories (in a broad and simplifying sense). However, as soon as US foreign policy was discussed, the same people put forth solely neorealist arguments to explain it. It seems to depend on who you discuss.

May 13, 2009 at 21:54 | Unregistered CommenterTCHe

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