Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"My Family Didn't Own Slaves": Argument, or Copout?

I recently was having a complex and sophisticated interaction about race and racism at, of all places, YouTube. One of my interlocutors offered this argument: "none of my ancestors were slave owners (italian family)" . Another on a different site offered this observation: "My great-great grandparents came here from somewhere else, so kindly don't count ME in with the people that may have oppressed YOUR great-great grandparents."

Indeed, this seems to be the white national mantra: "I wasn't alive for slavery." "My family had no involvement in slavery". "My ancestors were dirt poor farmers." It is such an effective standard because of course everyone falls under it. Even direct descendants of slaveowners with access to intergenerational wealth can claim that they weren't around for slavery. Since many of us (myself included) are descended from immigrants more recent than the end of slavery, and the slaveowners formed a tiny elite, it is a perfect apology.

But it is also a microcosm of everything wrong with the white national narrative about race. The amount of things wrong with this argument is so staggering that saying it should require an instant remedial US History and Government class.

The first mistake it makes is to imply that the only bad thing that has happened to the black community as a whole, institutionally, is slavery. As if blacks as a whole never suffered under Jim Crow, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, restrictions on where they could take a drink or go to the bathroom, lynchings and terror. As if black life trajectories and possibilities weren't reduced by racial covenants, inability to access Federal Housing Assistance loans (an amount in the TRILLIONS of dollars, or as Tim Wise put it, "more than the outstanding mortgage debt, all the credit card debt, all the savings account assets, all the money in IRA's and 401k retirement plans, all the annual profits for U.S. manufacturers, and our entire merchandise trade deficit combined."), rampant employment discrimination, inability to acess GI Bill benefits, and so forth. Many of these injustices are in recent memory, such that there are those alive who remember them and were affected by them. Certainly their immediate descendants continue to feel the loss of these opportunities. So the very claim shows a complete contempt or ignorance for the suffering that blacks went through, as if segregation is not an injustice that deserves to be righted.

It also implies that we do not bear responsibility for what our government and communities are doing right now to virtually every black man and woman, a claim that inspires not only amusement but contempt. I hope I do not have to go into the extensive documentation on institutional racism, nor answer claims varying from "What about the Oprahs?" (yes, what about them? as if individual success stories invalidate an extensive backdrop of evidence) nor "What about the white poor?" (yes, social categories are complex, but to be black and poor is to be worse off on average than to be white and poor, even white poor have a benefit from being white and even the black rich have a disadvantage from being black). Instead, it should be sufficient to say that given the extensive racist treatment and barriers blacks endure in education, employment, treatment by police, selection for prosecution, prison sentences, loans, mortgages, housing, firing, and so on, this claim is a call for whites to ignore their responsibility to terminate currently existing injustice.

Third, it obscures the notion of intergenerational wealth and thus intergenerational responsibility. For while only those who owned the slaves directly injured those slaves, everyone from the Founding Fathers to the man on the street to the early capitalists benefitted from the slave's picking of cotton, rice, sorghum, tobacco and other crops. They also bore both the benefit and the cost of the racial hierarchy enhanced (if not actually created) by those in power to turn poor blacks and poor whites against each other rather than against the rich masters. That wealth continues to this day. There are millions of families living on homes provided almost exclusively to whites under the Homestead Act. The Naturalization Act of 1790 and other laws enabled the very presence of our ancestors by naturalizing whites and giving them rights far beyond people of color. The wealth produced by the South was even instrumental in the Revolution, meaning that slaves are owed part of our very existence as a nation! So while those whose ancestors immigrated after slavery may not have been quite poor, they nonetheless benefitted from slavery and from the existence of other laws occurring under the rubric of the racial caste system.

In line with this, it also ignores institutional and social responsibility. After all, when Volkswagen and other German companies were forced to give reparation to some Jews they had victimized, while it is true that they did not pay to Jews writ large and only paid to living people, they nonetheless had changed as an organization, but the organization owed restitution. The American state owes the same to blacks. And even if it does not, in that sense, it would make sense for social policy to be designed to engineer social equality instead of inequality. In this sense, the "my family wasn't responsible for slavery" is the racial equivalent of buckpassing on a national level.

Why Reject Genetic Food?

So reviewing another group of pro-environmental yet anti-environmental-group centrist-type computer nerds' comments on, I felt the need to comment on genetically modified food. It's been awhile since I've written about this issue. It's an issue that anyone with an opinion on seems to be set in. Per usual, I have a different opinion than a lot of the left and 99% of anyone right of Dennis Kucinich. (On a side note: Applause to Dennis for JUST NOW getting out of the race. Fight the good fight, man.)

Let's get the bombshell out of the way:

I don't have a problem with the idea of genetically modified food.


Yes, despite being anarchist, leftist, pareconist, feminist and polyculturalist, I don't have a problem per se with genetically modifying organisms, or with nuclear power, or with a lot of other things I think the Left is dogmatic on for no especially good reason.


Well, because I agree to some extent with Bookchin's notion of humankind as intelligent guide for evolution and nature. I note that we have already engaged in massive genetic modification for the entirety of human history: It's called breeding, animal husbandry, crops, etc. Any vegetarian environmentalist type who decries Frankenfood then eats lettuce, or corn, or spinach, or tofu has to feel just a BIT hypocritical when bearing in mind those crops' conscious engineering for superior traits for millenia, right? After all, what the Native Americans originally cailed maize looked NOTHING like what we call corn. It was scraggly grass. The brilliant genetic engineering and scientific work of Central and South American tribes turned it into the juicy yellow beauty we have today. The same can be said for a lot of New World crops.

Using genetic modification in line with safety standards and a fully holistic ecological sensitivity could allow us to potentially clean up our environmental catastrophes, produce more food per hectare and therefore allow more room for crop cycling or reduce the amount we irrigate, etc. Smart application of technology should be part of our toolkit for a sustainable human race.

So what's the problem?

There's a lot of them.

1) Safety and food regulatory issues. The difference between the type of breeding our ancestors did and what currently goes on in Monsanto's lab is obvious: It's qualitatively different. There are attempts to splice spider silk into goats to mass produce said silk for industrial applications. There are ideas to take genes from plants and put them in animals, fungi and put them into plants, and all sorts of swapping from between kingdoms, phyla, and every other taxonomy one can imagine.

A few thousand years of effective product testing is a pretty good way of insuring that what you produce is safe. If a particular breed is obviously toxic or massively destructive, one will be much more likely to pick up on it. But the way that GMOs are being produced now, one is lucky to have two decades between theoretical development and appearing on shelves. This has caused innumerable debacles which forms a large part of the anti-GMO material.

One can argue that patent and regulatory agencies should take care of that. The problem with that reasoning? I wouldn't trust the FDA to regulate my Corn Flakes. That ties into our second problem...

2) Capitalism. These developments are occurring in for-profit labs whose job is to provide wealth for the shareholders, period. Companies like Monsanto are profit-seeking corporations, and that causes a number of problems.

a) Years and years of fomenting by radical business groups have eroded at the effective enforcement of a number of regulatory agencies. They simply don't have the time, energy, funding or people on the ground to do an effective job.
b) It gets worse. In principle, many of the free trade agreements and organizations like GATT, the WTO, NAFTA, etc. make it so that if a panel of corporate lawyers and scientists determine a product to be safe, a government CANNOT ban it from their shores. This has been a major sticking point for Europeans in particular, where the backlash has been especially strong. So even if the FDA DID its job, it's entirely possible that a private unaccountable body would overturn their decision.
c) The way that these foods are being produced violates the "holistic ecology" criterion I mentioned above. Some of them, for example, have powerful toxins growing in the plants that are deadly to bugs. Even when it can be proven they are always and invariably harmless to humans, no matter the mutation, these plants are often quite destructive to the soil and to the bugs themselves who do after all form part of the ecosystem. Some of these plants are quite aggressive indeed, functioning as invasive species and devastating local ecologies. The vast majority of these products occur in a Green Revolution-type environment which uses conventional massive irrigation, massive capital investments particularly of fossil fuels, no crop cycling, etc. etc. So the potential of the technology is subverted for profit. This is no big surprise, of course.
d) The patent problem. Companies like Monsanto patent their "inventions". This prevents innovation, like most patents do, wherein farmers take their neighbors' strand and experiment, making something even better. But it gets worse. Farmers have been tried when Monsanto seeds that were on their neighbors' property took over their fields and they gave up and simply grew the Monsanto seed as part of their crop.
e) In line with the patent problem, companies like Monsanto include things like "terminator seeds". A standard model of agriculture, particularly among peasants the world over, is to grow a lot during harvest then save some for reseeding the next year. The problem is that Monsanto's seeds die. You have to buy new ones from Monsanto. They genetically engineer dependance on the company. That ends up producing monoculture as well as poverty and destruction... but we'll get to monoculture at point #4.

3) The right of people to not accept or buy products they don't want or trust. Whether or not the GMO corn is the best, tastiest, most efficiently grown corn in the world, if I find it disturbing for whatever reason that octopus DNA was part of it, I have a right not to purchase that product. And I have the right to be informed of what I'm purchasing when I buy it. And I have the right to demand that companies be legally obligated to tell me what I'm buying.

The problem is that the aforementioned free trade laws are being used to undermine this right. Europeans are asking for the right to informed consent: If they don't want to eat something, they shouldn't have to, no matter their reasons. But because a GMO label is a major damper on products, companies are resisting even being required to label their foods. If by some arbitrary standard the end product is identical, totalitarian unaccountable organizations have decided that you should have no problem with where your food comes from.

This was part of an extraordinary explosion of racist indignation. African countries have refused to accept aid of GMO corn for their people, expressing safety concerns. Western commentators lambasted them as dictatorships and idiotic for doing so.

So let me get this straight. Their estimation of their own safety is stupid, whereas our own insistence on giving them food they don't want instead of just agreeing not to subsidize our GMO corn and simply send over the regular stuff instead is prudent?

How racist is that?

4) Monocultural agriculture. The problem with any GMO crop, no matter how awesome, is that it's frequently used as the one crop that a farmer grows. Monocultural agriculture is well known to exhaust soils, require massive capital input (fertilizer, oil, machinery, etc.), and so on and so forth.

5) Dubious advantages. As R.C. Lewontin has documented extensively, many of the crops in question actually do worse, and most of the rest have only marginal benefits. While I think there is potential in the technology, it has yet to unambiguously show itself.

6) In line with #5: The propaganda that this is how to solve the starvation crisis in the world. Monsanto and the rest of the rogue's gallery behind "Frankenfood" frequently like to run a guilt trip argument. How dare these environmentalists resist feeding the world! Don't they know that if we could just produce 20 more units of corn per acre, there would be no more starvation in Africa!

It'd be a good argument if it weren't blatantly false. It'd be an argument that didn't curdle the stomach and enrage the heart if it weren't the VERY SAME COMPANIES who are some of the principal roadblocks against feeding the globe.

There is enough food to feed the planet. In fact, as Kofi Annan points out in his Facts, it wouldn't take that much money. We produce so much food that we actually subsidize farmers to destroy some of it. The problem of starvation has always been a problem of access, not of availability.

The problem? Monsanto and food companies in general are those who keep the food away from the poor.

This is the debate that goes into the GMO discussion.

Now, I imagine that some of you have heard some of these points, but very few have heard all of them as a unified case. Why is this the case? Well, sometimes environmentalists make it an issue of dogma and don't present the points back to back to make their argument compelling.

But the much more serious phenomenon? Reasonable commentators on all side are being shunted aside by powerful media institutions to make the debate one-sided and repetitive. We don't want to acknowledge that there's enough food out there, so go Monsanto spokesperson! Castigate leftists for starving Africans! Never mind that this is wholly out of character for them to do so!

Whatever people's opinion on genetically modified food, it behooves humanity to have a reasonable discussion about it, with evidence and without propagandistic distortions. And the same thing that makes genetically modified food insures that that conversation must occur despite effort to stop it: The destructive organs of state capitalism.

A Militant Rejection of Militant Atheism

Some of you may have heard arguments from a growing militant atheist movement among intellectuals. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others have launched frontal attacks on religious institutions, belief and faith. Though their critique focuses on "Abrahamanic" religions like Islam, Judaism and Christianity, they rarely spend the rhetorical effort to differentiate Abrahamanic religion from religion per se. They argue that religious and spiritual philosophies are inherently destructive, spreading intolerance, and that scientific and rational thinking must be atheist.

Dawkins in a speech featured here in front of TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) reiterates these arguments: . They don't hold water.

For one, he tries to correlate IQ and religious thinking. But any serious scientist has to know that the IQ test is in no way, shape or form a serious metric of "intelligence". It tests a particular type of intelligence poorly and is heavily class and culturally biased. The same data is used across populations to declare people of different races to be stupid. Dawkins compounds this error by implying that religious thinking is also negatively correlated with socioeconomic status and education. But neither of those vectors are true indications of intelligence otherwise, because we do not live in an intelligence-based meritocracy. We live in a class, race and gender-riveted society where perfectly capable people are artificially denied equal wealth and educational opportunity.

This social understanding is one of the Dawkins/Hitchens school's most severe misunderstandings and utter failings. There was hardly a more antagonistic atheist on the globe than Bakunin, who as an anarchist declared that were there to be a Lord of the world he would try to overthrow that Lord as he would all others. But Bakunin also knew that scientific oligarchy or rule would be just as onerous and disgustinig as rule by a priesthood. I think quite a bit of people's knee-jerk reaction to Dawkins and his ilk is their extreme contempt for people's views and their quite clear implicit belief that those people do not have equal capacity to discharge their rights as human beings.

Why have we seen an upsurge in fanatical religious thinking the globe over? Well, globalization and American foreign policy have intentionally deprived governments of the capacity to control their own societies. There is a "democratic deficit" that is quite alarming. When people's faith in secular political institutions decline, their faith in religious institutions as an alternative civil society grows. This can occur even without religion: The fascist uprisings in Europe were roughly the same phenomenon. One can harshly oppose fanaticism and inflexibility of
all kinds while bearing in mind their structural causes.

One might argue, as a good friend of mine has, "So what? Everyone has their battles. Why not let them focus on the religious fanaticism?" The problem with this is manifold. For one, Hitchens in particular are in support of the very institutions that propel fanatical thinking. Putting aside Hitchens' support for globalization and conventional "capitalism", he also has been in support of the American imperial project in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet a greater hotbed of Abrahamanic fanaticism could hardly be found. "Christians" (read: radical statists subverting authentic Christian belief) use crusading rhetoric and real bombs to devastate Muslims (both ordinary, innocent, decent people and a tiny nasty minority), while "Jewish" Israel slips further and further away from democracy and towards a military-run state.

Second, people like Harris go further and even let their monomaniacal focus on religion obscure obvious truths. Harris has declared that there is a "problem with Islam" that inherently drives terrorist acts. The fact that this argument could fit in George W. Bush's living room does not seem to bother him. This kind of rhetoric that views the beliefs of Arabs and Muslims as somehow inhuman and less than worthy is an integral part of the problem. Of course, the true phenomenon is that butchers on all sides point to justifications as they always do while fighting for their own interests.

Third, religion per se is not the problem. One can look superficially at the Crusades and see that, yes, people of varying religions battled. But then why the siege of Constantinople? Why the horrible atrocities on all sides? Why the enslavement of the Children's Crusade? The answer: Religion was the pretext. The Muslim empires and the rising European empires were destined to battle. The way to mobilize ordinary people was religion.

One could look at the above and say, "All right, religion was still a problem though, it was still the pretext used for recruitment." But religion is by no means the only way of getting the message out. Nationalism, racism, fear, greed, any number of justifications and appeals can be used to spread war and violence. The solution is to eliminate the war and violence, not the religion.

One can go down the line with this logic. Religious fanatics? Get rid of fanaticism, not religion. Religious intolerance? Get rid of intolerance, not religion. Religion leading to closed minds? Get rid of closed minds, not religion. There has been no argument anywhere, precisely because it's absurd, that religion can't be separated from those bad outcomes, that there is no way to have faith and spirituality without accepting negative consequences.

Dawkins also makes a quite abusive analogy, taking advantage of Douglas Adams (a man who I have nothing but admiration for), by pointing out that religious thought has been made socially inured to challenge. I agree that this is unnecessary and problematic. So do almost all religions. The Trickster mythos in almost every religion I'm aware of, from Nasrudin in Islam to Coyote to Ananasi to Buber's irreverant interpretations of Judaism, is a myth that defiles the sacred in order to remind people of what really matters. Being able to discuss openly any aspect of life, religion included, is essential, and anyone who opposes that because they favor their dogma is wrong. But that includes atheist dogma. What many Christians and religious people derive their hostility to people like Dawkins and Hitchens from is not the notion of having the discussion but the notion that the discussion will inherently be from militantly hostile people who have it in their minds that the only right answer to the questions they're asking is their own. No one willingly gets into that conversation. The answer to dogmatic religion is not dogmatic atheism.

Dawkins goes on to extend Adams' analogy far beyond what it was ever intended to say. For Dawkins, anything that we can't subject to rigorous scientific analysis is bunk. Well, say goodbye to ethics then, because there is no litmus test in the world that will tell you why murder is wrong. One must have an ethical edifice that says so or not. Indeed, most human inquiry is largely immune to scientific analysis. Some of it is simply the limits of science: Things like human emotions, say. But others are in PRINCIPLE beyond any empirical or objective argumentation: Aesthetics, morals, etc. Dawkins doesn't dispense with these because he sees that there is more to life than science. But he inconsistently dispenses with religion on that ground. Unfortunately, the reasoning is just as bad in this context.

When faith and science clash, that is when there is an empirical fact that science has observed that faith disagrees with, who should win? By and large, science. But that's neither here nor there.

Dawkins focuses almost entirely on Hitchens' Abrahamanic religions, the monotheisms of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, any number of other religious thoughts simply do not fall under his criticisms. For example, it is not actually the case that we are all atheists except for one God. Most polytheistic religions are perfectly fine with throwing in another God from another culture. But Dawkins nonetheless repeatedly says the term "religion".

This is a problem much deeper than semantics, though. Dawkins has irresponsibly coupled dozens of aspects of religious and spiritual inquiry, including myths, faith, spirituality, organizations and institutions of religion, dogma, laws, etc. Religion is not a monolith: There are dozens of facets, some not so good and some quite good.

Dawkins reminds me of the anti-science postmodern crowd. For these people, science's failures, its creation of the nuclear bomb, make it completely destructive whereas its successes, say the theory of relativity, are irrelevant. The entire project begins with the notion that we should deliberately throw the baby out with the bathwater and hope a new baby springs to life when we run the tap again. The answer to Dawkins is the same answer given by scientists to postmodernists: Get rid of the bad and keep the good, because the bad is not intrinsic to the structure.

Has religion done destructive things? Yes, depending on how you define your terms; so has science. Have religious people been dogmatic, been jerks and warmongers? Yes; same for atheists, science, people with political or economic dogmas, people named Jeff and Bob and Nancy, and indeed pretty much every person alive at some point in their life. But what these thinkers are never able to do is make the argument that would say that there is no context, no proper deployment, for spiritual thought, precisely because the argument would be both offensive and stupid. If spiritual feeling is kept within its sphere of inquiry, it can be the source of brilliant and wonderful passion, philosophy, ethics, and beliefs.

One can look into the stars and see the wonder of the universe, or into the woods and see the wonder of life, and be profoundly moved whether one sees God or not. One can embrace basic human decency, respect, tolerance, compassion and ethics whether one is religious or not. Religion can help with acquiring such moral guidance, but so can other means. The point is that the questions of faith and spirituality are ones that we should answer ourselves, and that there are an array of rational choices, not just one.

I reject militant atheism. I support people embracing their beliefs, whatever they are, and being ready to proudly discuss them. I look forward to a revival across the globe of what China succeeded at: Realizing that many spiritual ways are all in fact on one path, trying to resolve core questions about who we are, what makes us happy and what is out there. Across the millenia, if we commit to a society of discussion, might we find that all of the spiritual thought we had was deeply inadequate? Absolutely, as with science, philosophy and any other worthwhile sphere. Will atheists have a part to play in our journey? Yes. Atheism is the null hypothesis. It answers the spiritual question by saying "Nothing on the table is valid". If we can't explore the null hypothesis, we cannot fully explore the question. Atheists act as skeptics, as people who will help to buoy our wildest notions and anchor our philosophies. In the end, I hope we will collaboratively as a human species find a spiritual truth that resonates as brilliantly and logically as any other essential philosophy we have discovered.

9/11: Shifting Blood

Reviewing South Park's take on the 9/11 truth movement ("The Mystery of the Urinal Deuce"), a classic bit of satire, I began thinking to myself about the 9/11 truth movement. I was wondering, as I often do, what common ground progressive and radical people could have with these folks. And I began to realize: Neither story of what happened that day, the conventional explanation of a cell connected to the bin Laden-oriented movement or the various 9/11 truth hypotheses about sleeper cells or the US government having advanced warning and allowing the planes to hit or bombs being planted in the basement or missiles being fired at the Pentagon or any permutation, really actually changes anything. Either or both could be true and we as Americans, we as a species, would face some irrespective truths.

It wouldn't change that thousands of innocent people died for no justifiable reason, and millions more were collectively terrified of losing loved ones, saddened by death, and angered by violence. It wouldn't change that Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush, and their respective systems are without question responsible for innumerable atrocities and should be brought to justice.

It wouldn't change that the US government used the atrocities of that day and sullied the memories of those who had died by launching a new cycle of hatred. It wouldn't change that the US government and its elites had a vested motive in seeing their own people die because, whoever the perpetrator, the attacks facilitated military, economic and political objectives of an extraordinary reactionary nature. It wouldn't change that we have a political system that benefits from, indeed in a twisted sense needs and feeds off of, chaos, disorder and violence.

It wouldn't change the fact that, either way, the events of that day in September are extraordinarily poorly understood given their extensive study by just about everyone in the world. And it wouldn't change the fact that this ignorance is due to the imperial system refusing to investigate what happened, blocking the 9/11 Commission and others trying to discover everything about how and why the events transpired. It wouldn't change the motive for this refusal: That a simple myth of Osama masterminding the entire enterprise on dialysis in a cave in Afghanistan is far more useful to imperial prerogatives than the truth, whatever that truth is. (Of course, if the US government were behind the attacks, it would provide an additional motive, but the one I mentioned is more than sufficient). It wouldn't change Chomsky's sobering argument that even months after the invasion Mueller and US intelligence agencies could only be "probably" sure about what precisely happened and about Afghanistan's ties. It wouldn't change the fact that funding for the enterprise supposedly came from Germany and the United Arab Emirates, nor would it change that neither of those countries were bombed (unlike Afghanistan), because that would have been insane.

It wouldn't change the fact that the attacks opened an exceedingly short window wherein the majority of the world expressed compassion for the United States, compassion that in large part stemmed from their own knowledge of what it feels like to have your buildings blown up and your people in terror. It wouldn't change the tragic reality that the Bush Administration squandered that opportunity to advance their and their true constituency's core interests at the cost of insuring that hatred and violence would become even more entrenched. It wouldn't change the alternate reality that could have been, where that sympathy for the globe was parlayed into a sea change wherein America would abandon its imperial domination of the globe and work with others to root out terrorists whereever they may be and bring them to justice, even if those terrorists are white and on cushy book tours or even American Presidents, current and former.

Osama bin Laden could have hijacked every single plane and escaped in a Cobra Commander-esque rocket pod and it still wouldn't change that he, and the mujahadeen, and Saddam, and Islam Karimov, and the Shah, and a long list of others owed their power and existence in no small part to the CIA and American imperial power. It wouldn't change that the bombings of Afghanistan and Iraq were criminal idiocies that turned both countries into cauldrons of chaos, terror and death. It wouldn't change that Saddam Hussein had no connection with Osama bin Laden and no plausible connection with any serious terrorism, yet the invasion of Iraq caused an explosion of new opportunities for radical Islamic terrorism. It wouldn't change that al Qaeda as a whole is stronger now than in 2001, that Osama bin Laden has not been brought to justice, or that the State Department estimates that terrorist actions are becoming more, not less, common in the world. (And it wouldn't change that the State Department's interpretation of terrorism would never include US terror against the globe). It wouldn't change that justifiable rage at what Osama did was no justification or excuse for anything that came after, for retribution and death being visited upon Afghani civilians who had done nothing to Americans and were Osama and the Taliban's victims.

It wouldn't change the fact that all one needs to know about the bankruptcy of the system is in plain view, easy to find. It wouldn't change the fact that one can tell something about the bankruptcy of mainstream culture when it can be seriously argued that it is justified to bomb a country and turn it into a terrorist battleground because that way "we'll" fight them "there" not "here"; in short, using innocent people who have done no wrong to you as human shields so you don't have to be inconvenienced. Or that no one bothers to mention that bombing a country that has weapons of mass destruction is not especially likely to allow one to secure those weapons, but is much more likely to lead to those weapons and materials being looted and sold on the black market. It wouldn't change the fact that conservatives may end up being vindicated in a tragically ironic way when Americans are killed in a chemical weapons attack or by a dirty bomb facilitated by the capture of Iraqi material... thanks to the invasion. It wouldn't change the fact that the average American needs no more reason to resist the system than what their own eyes and ears tell them. They know how bad it is: They suffer from the poverty, the failing health care system, the myths of opulence juxtaposed against the failure of slowing growth rates, the "outsourcing", the mind-numbing work that condemns them to eight hours of servitude daily in a supposed democracy. It wouldn't change that all that is needed to foment change is not stories about US government complicity in yet another crime (as if adding a few thousand more dead really turns the government from saint to sinner compared to their millions) but a movement that can unmask both the injustices of the system and its vulnerability to courageous resistance. And, as South Park's creators Trey and Matt point out, it wouldn't change the fact that, barring hope that the system can be confronted, all the majority of the population accepting their theories would do is further amplify the belief that the system is invincible.

It wouldn't change the fact that the mainstream corporate media is structurally designed to obfuscate essential truths, to safeguard the egos and guilt of the rich that it serves, that power in our society is concentrated in a very small set of hands.

And even if the CIA planned every step of the hijackings, even if the Pentagon was struck by a missile, even if the plane sent to hit the White House was shot down, even if bombs were planted in the WTC buildings, it still wouldn't change that the 9/11 truth movement seems to cling to some disturbing myths. Like the quasi-racist notion that a group of Muslims couldn't pull this off: It had to be white people and their intelligence agencies. Or the apparent belief many of them have that America was at one point a city on a hill and only recently has it been corrupted by bad politicians. Or the lack of insight they have into the core fact that all the conspiracy theories would prove is that a small group of people did something horrible, saying very little about the whole systemic injustice the world faces. It wouldn't change that their singular and often fanatical focus is used by the mainstream media to ridicule those who resist atrocities. It wouldn't change the fact that a large portion of the population does already believe them and that there has nonetheless been no revolutionary upturn in activism, a sign of the real impact of their critique: Hopelessness and cynicism.

And what if the American government were somehow behind the attacks? Would it change the extraordinary incompetence of FEMA in New Orleans (an incompetence especially palpable to those with a better "tan"), or the inability of regulatory agencies to stop massive corporate fraudsters from ripping off even the rich the government protects, or the failure of the strongest military on the planet's surface to battle an underfunded and underarmed insurgency in Iraq? Would it change that the private insurance system the US runs by costs more per person to operate and is therefore by definition deeply inefficient?Would it change that the system as a whole is riddled not only with criminality but actual inability to perform basic tasks?

And what if the American government were not behind the attacks? Would it change their complicity in creating a climate of hate and violence that facilitates attacks like 9/11? Would it change that even Eisenhower knew that the perception of America and Americans as evil had to do with the US government's campaigns of warfare, overthrowing elected regimes, installing dictators, blocking economic growth, and securing control of other peoples' natural resources, and that he and every President after made a decision to continue this pattern even if it would harm Americans? Would it change that many of the organizations that are responsible for these atrocities were created by the CIA to punish the Russians during an invasion that Brzezinski claimed he was responsible for? Would it change that the US government should have been able to prevent the crimes of that day had they not made several crucial mistakes along the way? Would it change that the FAA should have noticed the planes making massive deviations from planned flight paths, that the FAA should have alerted trained scrambler jets, and that if they were not in on the attacks the US government's bureaucracy must then be guilty of truly colossal ineptitude? Would it change that even the CIA admitted sadly that had Clinton not been so determined to crucify the Sudanese he could have accepted data they had compiled that may have allowed arrests and investigations to be made that would have prevented 9/11? Would it change Time's allegation that, due to the government failing to actually adopt Richard Clarke's recommendations, that "many of those in the know-the spooks, the buttoned-down bureaucrats, the law-enforcement professionals in a dozen countries-were almost frantic with worry that a major terrorist attack against American interests was imminent. It wasn't averted because 2001 saw a systematic collapse in the ability of Washington's national-security apparatus to handle the terrorist threat[?]" Would it even change the fact Michael Moore decried post-2001 that people were being allowed to bring lighters on board thanks to pressure from tobacco companies?

I suppose if the American government was behind 9/11, one might be skeptical about moves like PATRIOT and undermining the Geneva Conventions to reduce civil liberties in the hope of catching terrorists; after all, 9/11 truth activists point out, the terrorists are right here on American soil. But a conservative could accept that the US government planned 9/11 and nonetheless argue that there are real threats from abroad and that there needs to be enhanced means to deal with them. More importantly, perfectly mainstream understandings are more than adequate to respond to PATRIOT and moves to justify torture. After all, if the US government had been doing its job, it wouldn't have needed PATRIOT. It could have stopped antagonizing Arabs, or not created the mujahadeen in imperial war games, or accepted the Sudanese data, or listened to the warnings and fears of its intelligence agencies. It could have prevented the attacks years ago by making any number of different moves. Adding more plays to the playbook of a team that can't throw the ball, to use an oft-maligned sports metaphor, seems hardly the correct move. If even after the US stops behaving in ways that the Left has rightly predicted would spread hate and the desire to strike back with terror, if the US' bureaucracy is brought under control and actually does its job with the knowledge and capacities it had, if the US military stops creating enemies by invading countries and killing innocents, we still have a risk of terrorism, then perhaps we can talk about curtailing civil liberties (and not simply be rushed into doing so by fear and unaccountable political systems). And the usage of torture's mainstream success record has been providing "intelligence" that Osama was connected to Saddam Hussein and that Saddam Hussein was imminently capable of destroying the world, hardly a stellar performance. (And, of course, that "intelligence" is not only obviously wrong in hindsight, but was clearly and transparently wrong then, and the CIA knew it). After all, torture has been banned not just because we have come together to say that there are minimal standards of human decency and treatment but because torturing people causes them to tell you what you want to hear, not necessarily the truth. All PATRIOT and easing of human rights restrictions allow is the capacity of the American government to harass peace activists, innocent Muslims and Arabs, and all sorts of other groups it doesn't like.

Oh, and I almost forgot about racial profiling, which 9/11 truth movements would theoretically undermine. Of course, racial profiling is idiotic and unfair because it assumes that because of the actions of a tiny minority of any population, however disproportionate to that population, it is justified to harass the majority. It is idiotic and unfair because no one recommended looking for white skinheads after the Oklahoma City bombing. It is idiotic and unfair because it is not the case, as Bill Mahr seems to think, that al Qaeda is exclusively Arab: As anyone who pays attention knows, it can recruit Asian Indonesians, black Sudanese, and even the occasional John Walker Lindh. It is idiotic because such policies alienate precisely that group of people who need to be most communicated with: Muslim and Arab communities, who could be valuable assets in preventing terror. It is idiotic and unfair because ordinary people's ability to identify "Arabs" or "Muslims" has been severely called into question by their abusing Sikhs, who are generally neither but wear a turban and therefore match the stereotypical concept of those groups. It is idiotic because it makes people look for criteria that have an infinitesimal chance of true positives and a colossal chance of false positives, i.e. people's skin color and appearance, rather than criteria that all terrorists of all colors and ethnicities share. And, as rude as it may be to point out, it's idiotic and unfair because we will never racially profile for those who are truly responsible for massive terrorist acts: Primarily rich old white men.

Neither truth about that day would change corporate malfeasance, or ecological destruction, or the omnicidal risk of nuclear war that has not declined noticeably since the Cold War, or the major nuclear powers' undermining of non-proliferation norms and treaties, or cruise ships dumping their waste in resplendent coral reefs, or the thermostat being slowly and inexorably turned up on the world, or Bill Gates and the Walton family having more wealth than most countries, or the utter failure of market and corporate economies in providing for the majority of the world, or the criminal Israeli persecution of the Palestinians, or the elections Bush stole in 2000 and 2004. It wouldn't change that the American economy is being spent on a seemingly endless imperial war, that several thousand American soldiers died for this unjust cause, and that both the latter charges are mainstream but the million or so innocent Iraqi lives and the million or more refugees are beyond the pale to mention.

No, I'm afraid that the 9/11 truth movement's ultimate goal is even less effective than swapping deck chairs on the Titanic. It is simply reallocating blood from one set of hands, the al Qaeda network, to another, the American empire. The crucial insight is that both hands are already soaked with carnage.

I'm not saying that there's no utility in investigating the truth of what happened, nor at taking the American government to task both for its inability to actually close the books on 9/11 (i.e. figure out what happened and bring all the perpetrators and connected individuals to justice) and for its cynical usage of 9/11 to promote its own goals, damn the consequences. I'm not saying that it's impossible that the US government could have performed such a task. I'm skeptical if only because the political ramifications for being caught would make Watergate look like South Park's Closetgate. I'm also skeptical because motive alone does not prove a crime: After all, in some ways the US government benefitted from the tsunami, yet no one alleges that the US government built an earthquake machine. Questioning the government about the true meaning and implications of 9/11 in all its forms is vital. And I think that many in the 9/11 truth movement are expressing skepticism about the motives of leaders and hope that they can be brought to justice, motives that no one in the Left should lambast.

There's one more thing these critiques don't change. They don't change the courage and humanity of the global resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They don't change the need, the possibility, the responsibility to replace our existing systems of death and violence with systems that promote peace, justice, tolerance, diversity, efficiency and freedom. They don't change the bankrupt nature of the nation-state, or archaic forms of authority, or capitalism, or racism, or sexism. They don't change the fact that it is possible for us to create a new world, one where all the above facts chang, hopefully even the need to be angry at institutional injustice. Because if we do our job right, all of the above will be a sad memory of a time of hate and violence long since transcended.