June 3, 2002
I am publishing the work authored by Mr. Jon Phalen, "Let's Step Out Of The Box For A Moment, Shall We? A reply To The Anticonspiratorialists" with a mix of ambivalence and apprehension.
I regularly receive unsolicited submissions and always look at them carefully. Guest columns are welcome for several reasons. One of them is quite pragmatic. We are a small shop with just a handful of regular authors who send me their column(s) every two weeks. If one or two of them miss the deadline or can't write for one reason or another I can find myself scrambling for material to publish. So, to have a few unsolicited columns in the pipeline is an opportunity that I cannot disregard out of hand even if, when fully considered, I'd rather only publish authors who are committed to Swans as well as short excerpts of books and various poems.
Most submissions are never published on Swans as they fail one criterion or another but a few end up published and I am always grateful to the respective authors, even hoping that they will become more frequent contributors. By and large I make the decision on my own. In some instances I'll ask advice from one or two of Swans' regular columnists (the members of the flock), mostly Jan Baughman or Alma Hromic.
In this particular instance, I posted Mr. Phalen's article on our internal Listserv (a list limited to the flock and used for sharing our views or working on a future rendition, etc.) and requested the opinion of the members. They all agreed that the piece should be published. Hmm, I keep asking for participation and for collective decision making; so when I finally get what I ask, it'd be difficult to turn around and ignore the opinion and advice. Therefore, Mr. Phalen's article is published.
But, and I want to emphasize this, I remain quite ambivalent and apprehensive and far from convinced that this is a proper addition to Swans.
First and foremost I am deeply uncomfortable with conspiracy theories. They are based on irrationality, appeal to the emotional side of the brain, and inherently presuppose the existence of evil. They are dualistic, hence simplistic. There are always dark forces at play that grab the imagination and respond to the existentialist fears associated with our human condition. The more ungraspable an issue or the cause or causes of an event is (AIDS, 9-11, Pearl Harbor, UFO's, Waco, etc.), the deeper the thirst for an explanation becomes. Conspiracy theories feed on ignorance and the longing for knowledge. They attempt to paint a rational vision of the unknown. Mystery writers constantly use these techniques in their trade; some of them selling millions of copies, but what they are selling is nothing more than fairy tales of another genre. Conspiracy theorists are mind polluters and they proliferate in times of uncertainty. They are anchored on, or rooted in a system of beliefs. In some perfidious ways they are religiosity incarnated! Actually, the most potent conspiracy theories, from an historical perspective, may well be the three monotheist religions, the sky-gods. If we really want to win the "war on terrorism" we should fight irrationality. It would also take care of those theories. Personally, if I had to "believe" in conspiracy theories, only one would pass muster, that of the dunces...
Secondly, when reading Mr. Phalen's piece -- a somewhat reflective discourse -- one could deduct that he attempts to actually debunk the notion of conspiracies rather than condoning or advancing them. I do not think so. There are too many incorrect facts and innuendoes. For instance, the finger-pointing toward the Mossad (Israeli secret services), or the reference to some kind of supra-national secret organization doing the bidding of "the world's most powerful 'government' -- the coalition of transnational corporations" (the very wealthy controlling the world, a not-so-subtle allusion to the Bilderberg) and to "some sources" (the only one cited is a Website whose bread and butter are conspiracy theories, whatreallyhappened.com.
The Web is a fertile ground for conspiracies. Sites feed upon each other; whether From the Wilderness (Michael Ruppert), Antiwar.com, Emperor's New Clothes, to cite a few. Even a French so-called respectable think-tank, Réseau Voltaire, came up with a story -- and a book -- alleging that no plane had struck the Pentagon! And they all loudly shout their pet theories: Bush knew (Emperor's no Clothes), the Israelis knew (Antiwar.com), etc. It's the capitalists, or the Jews, or the communists, or, who knows, aliens (I'm surprised that no one has yet suggested that the "evildoers" were aliens that crashed UFO's in the WTC... Maybe, Jeff Rense will indulge me)!
It may be profitable in some ways to agitate people and take advantage of their credulity but it neither brings solutions nor clarity to the immense complexities straddling our modern world. Then again, is not it what conspiracy theories are really about, a diversion?
However, I'll refer you to the clear analysis by Stephen Shalom & Michael Albert on ZNET, "Conspiracies Or Institutions: 9/11 and Beyond," published on May 31, 2002. While I do not often agree with Michael Albert this article is worth reading to understand the damages made by conspiracy theorists and for exposing them for their inherently reactionary tilt. Furthermore, you may also want to look at the excellent and quite extensive work of Chip Berlet et al., of Political Research Associates. These folks are to be commended for their efforts and their clarity.
I always endeavor to learn about a potential contributor. I usually do a search on the name on Google and other search engines. I did it with Jon Phalen but could not find much beside a few environmental posts and a comment regarding 9-11 in the GreenYes Archives. I sent him a first e-mail asking about him, what he did, where else had he been published, whether the piece was original, etc. He did not answer. Once the decision to publish was made, I sent him a second e-mail but I have yet to hear from him.
You may consider that I am slightly paranoid or you may think that I indeed take my job seriously, or anything in between. However, the fact of the matter is that when a person sends a contribution and then remains silent I do not jump on the conspiracy theory bandwagon -- it could well be that Mr. Phalen's computer is down, or he is on vacation, or he has fallen ill -- but I certainly feel kind of uncomfortable.
I just hope it does not come back and haunt me!
Finally, if you are wondering why the piece is still published in light of my ambivalence and apprehension, I can only say that I was definitely a minority of one... Seven people read the piece and found it publishable. None appears to have read it as I did. These are people with whom I have been working for a good while, whose judgment I value. They probably read it correctly and I probably did not.
In any case, Jon Phalen's discourse provided me with the opportunity to express my opinion on these mushrooming conspiracy theories; and it allows me to declare emphatically: Swans is not, and is not turning into yet another site for conspiracy buff. We are about ideas, opinions and thoughts. Perhaps should I add, and rationality.
[This text was updated on July 22, 2002, to include the reference to the work of Chip Berlet et al., of Political Research Associates. ed.]
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Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.
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