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Crossing the Line

Crossing the Line

November 2nd, 2007  |  Published in Reporting commentary

In my recent post Stirling Silver Button I talked about the particularly absurd conspiracy theory that asserts President Bush caused the 2004 tsunami by setting off a nuke in the Sumatra trench. Richard Landes picked it up and asked me from some links to it. I found a collection of links here and Richard wrote them up in BBC and Arab Media Promote anti-American Conspiracy Theory. As you can see from his title he emphasizes the problem raised by mainstream media outlets giving credence to such nonsense.

This post deals with one such conspiracy theory. (hat tip: lgude) If it had stayed in the perverse little universe of anti-globalization and anti-Semitic blogs, I would not waste my or your time on the issue. However, the theory, though it is inconceivable to the point of being ridiculous, has made its way into two major media outlets. Their adoption of the theory is another example of their ideology leading them away from what can be considered even remotely respectable journalism. But that makes the theory dangerous.

By emphasizing the difference between the merely daffy and the dangerous Richard’s post made something clear to me that had a bit hazy for me previously. The line, which when crossed, makes it necessary to take such material seriously. When I spotted the BBC article suggesting a conspiracy but not taking responsibility for it I knew it was important but I couldn’t have said exactly why. After reporting the conspiracy theory with a straight face at the beginning of the article they ask, as if it were a legitimate question in the circumstances:

Is America a power for good or ill in the world? Was there a malign hand at work, or has America’s role in the crisis in fact been a model of humanitarian leadership.

Let us know what you think. Is this just anti-US sentiment on the web or something more worrying?

Now I think I can see the difference more clearly. It is one thing to ask if America is a power for good or ill in the world – it is quite another to contaminate the question with an absurdity. This particular conspiracy theory distinctly comes from well outside civil society in what is called the lunatic fringe. The question asking ” Is this just anti-US sentiment or something more worrying” is a libel cloaked in the guise of a reasonable question. The line is crossed because it is disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. I first encountered this kind of ideologically twisted discourse in the fifties in the editorials of William Loeb in the Manchester (New Hampshire) Union Leader in which Loeb regularly charged Eisenhower with being a Communist. I think what we see going on – then as now- is that the tension between an ideological description of the world and the reality of the world causing some to affirm their ideology well beyond the bounds of reason and civil discourse.

Crossposted at Yankeewombat

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