Saturday, February 11, 2006

On the surface, The Manchurian Candidate is an engaging amalgamation of The Pelican Brief and Courage Under Fire. Let's face it, it's just Denzel Washington, having served as a commanding officer in the Gulf War, trying to get to the bottom of a cover-up orchestrated by powerful corporate interests who are apparently a couple of handguns and henchmen short of omnipotent, and will stop at nothing, I repeat, absolutely nothing, to achieve their deadly corporate goals.

However, given that it is 3:10 in the morning and I have been lauded repeatedly for the astute observations I have made in recent posts, perhaps it would be prudent to examine carefully, but not too loquaciously, the epistemological considerations at work in this film that I rented for 99 cents from the convenience store down the street.

A conspiracy theory, real or fake, is very enticing for obvious reasons, the same ones that drive us to the cold side of the pillow. It is also very nice to possess knowledge of a conspiracy because not all knowledge is created equal in its social import. There is, for example, a difference between knowing that no left-handed pitcher has won more games than Warren Spahn, the population of Canada is 31 million, and the office of the Prime Minister is still beholden, privately, to the family of nineteenth-century merchant Joseph Bloor. The first example is one of knowledge that is obscure but of no import, the second is of knowledge that is common and of some import, and the third is hardly common and of great import. It is nice to have knowledge of the third sort because it is insider knowledge and makes one feel smarter and more powerful than they really are.

There are two paradoxical properties of this third sort of knowledge, and of all conspiracy theories in general. Conspiracy theories are generally, I would say by definition, lacking in empirical proof or even proof of any sort that can be verified through ordinary means. This, however, can be attributed to some clandestine impetus toward silence, such as the ownership of media outlets and their vested interests, death threats to witnesses and potential whistleblowers, and so forth. The proof that does exist for a more mainstream explanation is rejected as being either erroneous or outright fabricated. However, the same skeptical apparatus that demands that we reject the mainstream explanation is not to be applied to the conspiracy theory, which somehow is The Real Deal.

In other words, we are asked to suspend our belief of knowledge with respect to a given claim on the grounds that we simply do not know, for a variety of reasons that can most often be attributed to a very powerful villain or a conflict of interest on the part of mainstream media outlets. The extraordinary standard to which we subject our ordinary claim can not be applied to the conspiracy, which is usually the product of connecting a few isolated data points, the proverbial loose ends of an intensely complex event that may have lasted years. Leaving aside the perplexing contradiction by which most facts considered to be ordinary knowledge are rejected save those that support a taxing claim (ie, most things CNN says are false, except for this, this and this), the more relevant question to ask would be: if indeed we can not claim to know that the world is as it appears, how can it be that the world is as you say it is?

The corrosive effects of skeptical scrutiny must be applied consistently in all cases. Given that a theory asking us to make tremendous twists and leaps is, in philosophical terms, no different in its claims (A is B because of the following reasons), it is reasonable to reply to these claims with an almost-sarcastic "how do you know that you know and that I don't know?" and maybe even to follow that up with a "how do you know that you know you know?" and so forth. There are numerous reasons, sociological and psychological, as to why it is nice to believe that, for example, it was the Russians who captured Saddam Hussein and not the Americans, most of which might go something along the lines of "I've got the world figured out, yes sir" or the more familiar "I know something you don't know". These are largely immaterial to the issue, save the motivational origins of such claims.

More important is the ability of such competing claims to offer an explanation for the vast tracts of contradictory evidence that do not rely on emotional appeals, political considerations, specious arguments, or worst of all, idle speculation ("Okay, if you had a gun and you wanted to..."). If no such proof is available, or if the claim itself cannot be proven either way, a reality that is perplexingly enough sometimes the linchpin of a claim, then the claim requiring less acrobatics of the mind wins.

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