Infamy is about 9/11 and Kennedy’s assassination, but those two topics don’t state its subject matter all that well. To me, the essays taken together are about philosophy of knowledge in a political context. One way to approach a subject like that is to consider what shapes political opinions. Walter Lippmann wrote a book on that and other problems, published way back in 1922, called Public Opinion. It’s a somewhat hard book, but I suppose that quality should not keep it from one’s reading list.
Another way to approach basic questions about political knowledge is to ask how we distinguish truth from untruth in this sphere. Laboratory scientists develop fairly sophisticated methods to sort truth from falsehood, as they investigate all kinds of questions. People who seek knowledge about the political world cannot apply methods like those to the questions they investigate. Nevertheless, they do examine evidence and test hypotheses, so scientific methods are not entirely irrelevant.
We know that both crimes – Kennedy’s murder and the events of 9/11 – have generated monumental disagreement about who committed these crimes and how they executed them. The disagreement suggests disagreement as well about standards of truth, and evaluation of evidence in these two cases. When you observe conflict this fundamental, where people disagree not only about what happened, but also about how to reach judgments in the matter, you know you have an interesting problem. You know you have a case that might help us understand how we know what we know.
I’ll say right off that Infamy does not resolve this question. It does look at problems of political knowledge in somewhat unusual ways. Let’s take as an assumption that one way to make judgments efficiently is to decide which authorities we trust, and which we do not. We know we have to do that in numerous areas, because for most cases, we cannot possibly conduct our own primary research, engage in trial and error, conduct experiments, interview experts, observe events or after effects first-hand, or even read very many second-hand accounts. Everything we might do to gain knowledge we trust, without relying on authorities we trust, requires inordinate amounts of time. Except for our own areas of expertise, where people pay us to learn and develop knowledge, we must rely on authorities.
That creates a difficult set of issues for political knowledge, for the heavyweight authority in this area is government. Aside from its legal authority, and its monopoly on the use of force, a fair number of people trust what political leaders and government officials say or write. Naturally that’s not true for everyone, but we are raised, from the earliest years, to trust the people we obey. If you obey your parents at home and your teachers at school, you obey the law when you become an adult. All of these authorities – parents, teachers, government officials – would not be authorities if you did not trust them. So, by habit, we trust what they say, even if what they say is not in the nature of a command. If we can’t trust the people who care for us, then we truly inhabit a pitiless wilderness.
I don’t want to become too pessimistic here, but I want to ask this question: what if we look at political crimes with the opposite presumption? What if we set aside government’s account of these crimes at the start, because we know that anything government officials say is not believable? We may be wrong about that presupposition from time to time, of course, but we’ll have opportunity later to bring government findings back into consideration, if we find reasons to do that. If we are strict about this matter, we should not privilege official accounts, or even feel that they call for a response. If we want to be efficient in the sorting process, no type of evidence should take precedence. If we have to rely on authorities for the reasons cited above – lack of time or opportunity to conduct original research – then place government authorities at the bottom of the list of sources to be trusted. In fact, they place themselves there.
The implications of conducting political inquiry in this way are actually quite radical, since we can easily get into a position where we question absolutely everything. We know that kind of framework is psychologically untenable: we instinctively stay away from it. Nevertheless, we should examine the habits that reinforce these instincts for stability. We are habituated to paying serious attention to reports that bear a government seal. They bear the imprimatur of people like the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The chief justice presents the research to the president in a formal ceremony, with photographers present to record the historic deed. Expert researchers write the reports. They contain findings. They compile and analyze far more evidence than we could ever gather ourselves. More than that, we pay for those reports. Do we want to say that they are garbage, after all that?
If we want the truth, then we have to answer yes. Saying we want the truth, however, is not itself such a self-evident presupposition. A lot of people might honestly say, no thank you, we don’t actually want the truth. The truth is kind of difficult to bear, it’s destructive, it’s troublesome, and it’s unpredictable. The last thing you want, if you’re comfortable and want to stay that way, is the truth. You’d be right about all those things. If you want comfort, then a government report that appears true is just the thing.
Infamy‘s argument does not try to address that position, as it does not lead anywhere. If you want to solve a crime, you solve it, no matter where the evidence leads. Jim Garrison famously said, let’s know the truth, though the heavens may fall. That’s a dramatic way to describe the discomfort that results when you seek the truth, but that’s the nature of the whole inquiry. You can’t know, when you start, what the outcome will be, where you’ll wind up, or what consequences you’ll suffer. You just have to trust, from beginning to end, that the truth yields a better outcome than untruth.
Another way to think about political crimes is quite disturbing. That way of thinking might be called pre-modern, or simply primitive. It deals with numerology, symbols, secret societies, and ancient hatreds against people perceived as different or set apart. Anti-semitism is the disturbing part of this primitive mindset. For obvious reasons, this way of thinking presents problems for more rational strategies used to find the truth. Problematic or not, we want to recognize these non-rational strategies when they appear. See Why do we even encounter anti-Zionism when we look for alternate explanations of 9/11?