The Reel Truth Hunters09-23-2011
Leading up to the Hannah Arendt Center’s fall conference “Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts,” the Center is screening a series of feature length documentaries that examine the current state of truthfulness. On Wednesday September 21st the Center hosted the first screening in the series: “Loose Change,” which was made by 9/11 conspiracy theorists who claim the attacks were orchestrated by officials inside the U.S. Government.
Journalist Jonathan Kay, who will be speaking at this year’s conference, has immersed himself in these conspiracy subcultures. His book Among the Truthers, chronicles his encounters with those who challenge the veracity of the official 9/11 story. You can listen to or read an interview with Jonathan Kay about his fascinating work on Radio Free Europe here.
As Hannah Arendt reminds us, and as Kay’s work reinforces, facts possess an inherent fragility in our day and age, becoming increasingly susceptible to adulteration or erasure that rents the realm of human affairs. For Arendt the ability to “say what is” was a basic precondition for the endurance of the human world. In its absence we fall into a risky zone of non-reality that has politically perilous consequences.
The group of students, faculty, and staff gathered for the viewing Wednesday night attempted, in a post-screening discussion, to grapple with the contentious claims made in the film, the immense popularity of the movie (Vanity Fair called it possibly the first “internet blockbuster”), and why its conspiracies are so seductive to Americans.
Some of the assertions the film makes include the following: The cell phone calls made from Flight 93 were manufactured since cellular communication is improbable at such altitudes. Given their design the Twin Towers could not have collapsed in the manner they did. Flight 77 could not have been the aircraft that flew into the Pentagon, since the aeronautics of the specific model meant if it was traveling at the reported speed it would have “fallen out of the sky.”
While the viewing public lacks the scientific expertise needed to assess many of these claims there is still the sense that, though the film can quote Newton’s formulas all it likes, its arguments remains dubious. Many may dismiss such theories as harmless or at worst a nuisance to reasoned reflection. However, Arendt warned us that this kind of commitment to the uncorroborated kills off a healthy political space by breeding cynicism. If everything is a hoax and no one is to be trusted then there is effectively no way to have a viable relationship amongst and between citizens and their governments.
The filmmaker’s explanation of the 9/11 conspiracy is that it emerged out of the neo-conservative think-tank, the Project for the New American Century. PNAC was explicit about their desire to reshape the world to secure American might, and many of its members came to form Bush’s inner circle. While the country was given good reason to doubt the intentions of the Bush administration and the doctrine that infused post-9/11 policy, there is a distinction between engineering an event and exploiting it that “Loose Change” contorts. The economic and political profiteering that occurred after 9/11 does not mean we can rearrange the facts to explain away Bush’s taking advantage of atrocity. As Arendt highlighted, the quality of facts that makes them both politically pertinent and problematic is that they cannot in fact be explained away.
It is this very effort to explain away the day as it unfolded that is perhaps most staggering about the film. “Facts,” Arendt writes, “have no conclusive reason whatever for being what they are; they could have always been otherwise, and this annoying contingency is literally unlimited.” The way in which events occurred on 9/11 is simply too confounding, too “haphazard,” as Arendt would say for things to be neatly stitched together the way the filmmakers have tried to. The Truthers are after a certainty about the circumstances of 9/11 that in reality does not exist. As one Bard student astutely commented there is a sense the film’s treatment of factual material is an attempt to salvage all that disappeared so starkly and inexplicably that September day. The strange stubbornness and contingency of facts Arendt knew means no theory, whether it be conspiratorial or official, can alter or reverse the temperatures at which steel melts or flesh burns.
As emerged in the discussion after the film we have come to use the metaphor of ‘hunting’ to describe the process of getting at the truth. From an Arendtian perspective this is, I would argue, the wrong analogy to use, and one that exacerbates the tension she articulated between truth and politics. One of the gaps the film highlights is that the last three minutes of the recording from Flight 93 are mysteriously missing; where they went is one of the countless questions the filmmakers demand “need to be answered.” This is a stance shared by many regardless of whether one is sympathetic or not to specific claims the film makes or its mission as a whole. It is worth asking whether such a stance is sound. Do such questions truly need to be answered, even if they could, or is it possible that all our truth-hunting has become a poor substitute for the messier but often more accurate, not to mention rehabilitative, process of truthtelling?
The way we have come to prey upon the past is a reminder of the inherent violence Arendt saw accompanying our search for truth and its opposite in this day and age. “The difference between the traditional and the modern lie,” she tells us, “is the difference between hiding and destroying.” It would likely come as no surprise to her then that we insist on harassing the facts as we try to stalk the truth through to every forgotten fuselage.