Saturday, February 18, 2006

Err America

I have a secret vice, which is that I occasionally listen to Air America Radio. The experience is sometimes cathartic and often (and often unintentionally) comical, especially in times of great stress. I listened quite a lot during the run-up to the 2004 election, and once or twice a week since then.

Listening intermittently over the past week has helped me to crystallize some of my thoughts about what, exactly, is wrong with Air America. Ever since Vice President Cheney pulled the trigger last weekend, they - and I mean everyone on every show, from Jerry Springer to Janeane Garofalo to Randi Rhodes - have been in ecstasy. They've been howling about secrecy, riffing on the metaphorical connection between hunting accidents and foreign policy, spinning out salacious gossip about alleged affairs and binges of drinking and hunting, and indulging in that most popular of rhetorical tropes: the conspiracy theory.

Most of this is bullshit, in the precise, technical sense of the term (following Harry Frankfurt): utterances made with no regard for truth and at best a tenuous connection with reality.

Now, I'd be the first to admit that I am always worried and frequently outraged by the secrecy of this administration, and that I've made jokes at the Vice President's expense. I once referred to his 2004 debate with John Edwards as "Darth Cheney v. The Boy Wonder."

Still, a bit of intellectual modesty is in order here, and a willingness to give the Vice President the benefit of the doubt in this instance. I mean, what would I have done if I were in his position? Would I not have been deeply mortified and shocked by the sudden realization that I came very close to causing the death of a friend? Would I not have wanted to hide out for a day or two? Vice President Cheney deserves at least some credit for coming clean about the incident, even if it did take him several days, and whatever his other faults may be.

But the hosts on Air America are too single-track for those kinds of subtleties. There's blood in the water, and they're circling, thrashing around recklessly as they go in for what they vainly hope will be "the kill." In the process, they only make themselves ridiculous.

Getting to the core of it, consider the conspiracy theories being spun out. Maybe something was going on between Cheney and Whittington, something unseemly; maybe Cheney actually meant to kill him, but missed. As with JFK conspiracy theorists, there has been speculation about ballistics and distances, angles of entry, and so on.

There is a twisted sort of selective skepticism at work here. The other night, Janeane Garofalo actually said that the reason she feels justified in spinning out conspiracy theories is that "They" have not given us any reason not to.


A few months ago I was up late, working on decorations for my daughter's birthday party and listening to Mike Malloy's show. He devoted the entire thing to conspiracy theories about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Malloy listened intently as wacko caller after wacko caller picked out little anomalies - real or imagined - in news accounts and existing evidence, mixed them together with a whole lot of paranoia and ideological opposition to the current administration, and came up with a story of "the inside job" - that is, the contention that the Bush Administration orchestrated the collapse of the World Trade Center in order to justify the invasion of Iraq, the creation of a police state at home, and lots of no-bid contracts for Halliburton.

"Uh-huh", said Malloy, his few critical faculties failing in the face of politically-motivated credulity. "How interesting." He tried to cast himself as reasonable and modest in letting the wackos give vent to their theories, giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Thing is, Malloy, Garofalo, Springer, and their ilk would be the first to cry foul when others use the same kind of logic for any other purpose than to bash the Bush Administration, say, when Intelligent Design theorists pick out little anomalies - real or imagined - in evolutionary theory, and some more extreme advocates for creationism mix these anomalies together with paranoia and ideological opposition to all things secular, and come up with the story of the humanist conspiracy to destroy religion. The same again holds for those who pick out little anomalies - real or imagined - in climate science, supporting the story of the liberal environmentalist conspiracy to destroy capitalism.

Malloy's credulity and Garofalo's self-justification suggest a misplacement of the burden of proof. If conspiracy theorists want to make allegations that 9/11 was an inside job or that Cheney had some reason to shoot Whittington, it is up to them to offer more than just hints and innuendos. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

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