I found myself once again singing at an antiwar rally two weeks ago, and once again being confronted by a red-faced white man with an ominous hand-written sign reading, “9/11 was a lie.” Most of the crowd was filing off for the post-rally march, aside from a few of my loyal fans who were sticking around for the rest of my set. Among them was the red-faced man, apparently not a fan, who walked towards the small stage with the wild-eyed certainty of a zealot.
“Wake up, David Rovics! David Rovics, wake up to the truth of 9/11!” He was screaming at the top of his lungs, standing about two feet from me. (I continued with the song.) In case I didn’t get the message the first time, the red-faced man repeated his mantra. “Wake up! Wake up to the truth of 9/11!”
People like him, whoever he was, have become a fixture of antiwar and other protests since sometime soon after September 11th, 2001. They regularly call in to radio talk shows, they maintain many websites, produce innumerable documentaries, publish plenty of books, hold regular conferences, and show up with alarming predictability to heckle and denounce prominent progressive authors and activists at their speaking engagements.
Art Bell and company
For over a decade I’ve made a living as a touring musician. As a hardcore news junkie, when satellite radio came into existence I was one of its very first customers, and since I got one I’ve been able to saturate myself with BBC World Service and the English-language broadcasts of public radio from around the world to my heart’s content. But for the many years before satellite radio, during my many late-night drives across the plains, deserts and corn fields of the US, choices were much slimmer.
In the early morning or late afternoon there was usually an NPR (Nationalist Petroleum Radio) station to be found, or, very occasionally, a Pacifica affiliate where I might listen to my favorite radio news programs, Democracy Now! and Free Speech Radio News. (At the very beginning, these programs could be heard on satellite radio via the Hispanic Radio Network, but that channel soon vanished from the satellite airwaves — over one hundred choices offered, but no news channel to the left of Al Franken…)
But late at night, there were four choices. On the FM airwaves, commercial pop anti-music of various prefabricated genres brought to you by ClearChannel. On AM, you could choose from rightwing Christian evangelists, Rush Limbaugh and Art Bell. The evangelists don’t really do anything for me, but when I was getting sleepy, I’d listen to Rush, because he’s always good for waking me up — the powerful desire to strangle someone tends to keep you alert. But most of the time, if I wasn’t tired, I’d tune in to Art Bell.
For those unfamiliar with Art Bell’s show, it was a corporate-sponsored, nightly, several-hour-long show that has since been passed on to other hosts last I heard, and can generally be found on at least two different AM signals anywhere in the country every weeknight, starting sometime after midnight, as I recall. He apparently broadcast from somewhere in Nevada near the infamous Area 51, where he and many of his guests seemed to believe the US military was experimenting with space aliens who had landed there some time ago.
His guests tended to be authors who had written books or made documentaries about aliens from outer space, telepathy, what all the ghosts are up to these days, Hitler being alive and living in the Antarctic, crop circles, and so on. Being a science fiction fan and one who has had personal experiences that have led me to at least consider the possibility that there is validity in some of these claims, about what Art called the paranormal, I listened with interest to Art and his guests, although usually it was fairly evident they were full of shit.
Listening to Art’s guests and to the men (and very occasionally women) who called in, I remembered the excitement I felt as a child, before I developed a more three-dimensional understanding of the world around me, before I developed a fairly solid capability for critical thinking, before I began to understand how to read between the lines of the biases of the various authorities, experts and pundits out there in the textbooks, newspapers and airwaves. I remembered the excitement of having secrets with certain friends that only we “knew.” My own pet theories as a child included the notion that cows were not as stupid as they looked, standing around chewing cud, that they were actually engaged in astral travel, using their apparent stupidity as a grand cover of some kind. I fairly well convinced myself in the existence of dragons and elves and other mythical creatures, long after I had realized there was no Santa Claus.
But the fantasy life of children can become very odd when practiced by grown men. Many, if not most, of Art’s guests and callers seemed to believe that the things they “knew,” such as their prevalent idea that the US military was hiding space aliens in Area 51, were phenomenae that only people like them and Art were being honest about. The rest of the media, society, and the powers-that-be were either ignorant about these realities, or, at least as often, were engaging in a huge, X-Files kind of coverup.
Especially in the context of a fundamentally alienated society, especially for a certain class of white men who seem to be somewhat on the margins of the US system of power and privilege, but are white and male enough to believe that they deserve better, the sort of feeling of brotherhood that comes with “knowing” something that the rest of society doesn’t know is a powerful one. It’s an obvious source of excitement, and gives people a sense of belonging. Without having had access to more rational ways of understanding their place in the world and the complexities of society, current events, history and power structures, they have found some kind of lens through which they can try to understand the world.
It’s a faith-based sort of thing. These people are not looking for different points of view, they are looking for further confirmation of what they already believe — and of course they share this with many, many others who we could call “people of faith,” whether they are Christians who believe Jesus was the son of God, Muslims who believe there is one God, Allah is his name and Mohammed was his prophet, neoliberals who believe the unregulated market will make everybody rich, or Maoists who believe the Chinese cultural revolution was the greatest achievement of humankind. No evidence to the contrary will deter these people in their unswerving certainties.
What I always found most interesting as well as most disconcerting about listening to Art Bell, though, was how he would occasionally — but regularly — have on guests who were talking about very real and verifiable conspiracies. Things like the CIA’s active role in the world drug trade, the State Department’s role in overthrowing governments around the world, or the US, Saudi and Pakistani collaboration in creating, arming and funding the Taleban and Al-Qaeda.
Topics which the corporate media would almost never touch could find an occasional voice in Art Bell — although Art was just as corporate-funded as ABC or CNN. It seemed that if most of the programming was clearly fantasy-based conspiracy theories, the corporate masters felt that it was politically acceptable to allow Art to have the occasional reality check. It would generally go unnoticed by most people, or be discounted as just another wacky conspiracy theory, so it was OK.
Fantasy undermining reality
And if giving a wide audience to the real conspiracies become harmless when they’re presented within a sea of fictional conspiracies, the flip side of that is that the very legitimate investigative journalists such as Seymour Hersch and Robert Fisk who are uncovering and reporting on things like the US role in funding groups like Al-Qaeda can more easily get lost among the static, lost among the hundreds of documentaries purporting to prove that the World Trade Center was brought down by controlled explosives, that the planes that crashed into them were on autopilot and there really were no terrorists on board, that the cell phone conversations passengers had with their loved ones before they died were faked, that there was no plane that hit the Pentagon, and so on.
If you bother slogging through the volumes of books and stacks of documentaries that “9/11 Truth” people will foist on you if you let them, you will find that most of them are propaganda pieces and most of the “experts” are not experts in relevant fields. When you do look beyond this mass of misinformation for real experts, you will easily find pilots who can discount the claims of the Truthers that maneuvering the planes into the towers was a particularly challenging thing for people with only a little flight training to pull off. You will easily find mechanical engineers familiar with the structural flaws in the design of the WTC that allowed it to collapse in the first place, and physicists who can explain why such large buildings would appear to be imploding as if in a controlled demolition, or why people on the scene would have thought they were hearing explosions, etc. My purpose here is not to disprove all the hypothoses presented by the Truthers and their propaganda pieces — if you want to look into “debunking the debunkers” yourself, there is plenty of information out there, and Popular Mechanics’ issue on the subject is a good place to start.
The fact is, the scientific community, while certainly not immune to political pressure, is generally able to function with a grounding in actual science, and is not capable of participating, as a community, in some kind of mass conspiracy of silence or coverup. There is no way to bribe that many scientists. Too many of them believe in the importance of science for science’s sake, in honesty. This can be amply demonstrated by the fact that with all the political pressure and money of the US government and ExxonMobil combined, there is still essentially unanimity among climate scientists worldwide that climate change is real, is caused by humans, and is dangerous for our species and others. Even after all the billions upon billions of dollars spent by the tobacco industry to obfuscate reality and bribe policymakers and the scientific community, the scientific community was able to study the issue and determine incontrovertibly the link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer.
Sowing seeds of doubt
The “9/11 Truth Movement” undoubtedly is made up largely of earnest, decent people, the sorts of decent folks who make up most of Art Bell’s guests and listeners. Since thousands of their fellow countrymen and women died on 9/11 and since this event — whether it was a terrorist attack carried out by US-trained Mujahideen that could have been prevented, or an entirely “inside job” carried out by Dick Cheney with the aide of computers and plastic explosives, as many Truthers claim — many people in many communities have become justifiably agitated and outraged by world-scale injustices, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and so on.
The old Art Bell listeners who used to be entertained by the fact that most people don’t believe there are space aliens in Area 51 are now really extra worked up because the vast conspiracy they have come to believe in are resulting in the deaths of huge numbers of people around the world. And if the rest of us would just understand what they understand, everything would be different. If the media would report on reality as they see it, people would wake up and do something about this situation.
The particularly warped thing about this, though, is that the very media outlets, authors and activists who are doing their best to expose the very real conspiracies that are going on — people like Amy Goodman and Democracy Now!, David Barsamian’s Alternative Radio, Z Magazine, the Progressive Magazine, Norman Solomon and the Institute for Public Accuracy, Noam Chomsky, etc., seem to have become the primary targets of harassment by the Truthers.
Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky, Norman Solomon and others are now regularly heckled at speaking events, and denounced on websites as “gatekeepers.” They are seen, it seems, as being even worse than the corporate media, because while reasonable people know not to trust Fox or CNN, they have faith in the integrity of people like Amy Goodman.
You don’t have to know Norman Solomon, Amy Goodman or her producers personally to see what nonsense this “gatekeeper” stuff is. You needn’t ever have met Amy to know that she has risked her life, and very nearly lost her life, in her decades-long efforts to report the truth. You needn’t know her producers personally to recognize that these are all earnest young progressives working long hours to create a daily news program they deeply believe in. The notion that all of her producers are somehow maintaining a code of silence in exchange for the privilege of having their names mentioned at the end of the broadcast, or in exchange for their nominally middle-class salaries, is preposterous.
However, judging from numerous emails I get and conversations I have with fans and acquaintances from around the US and elsewhere, the efforts of the Truthers to sow seeds of doubt among readers and listeners of progressive media is having some palpable impact. Increasingly, I hear from people who have vaguely heard something about this “gatekeeper” phenomenon, something about Ford Foundation money undermining the entire progressive media.
As is so often the case, there are little grains of truth in here that can fester in the minds of people who are not looking at the information critically. For the cops among the Truthers (of course it’s a matter of the public record that the FBI and other such agencies regularly write “newspaper articles” — propaganda or disinformation of whatever sort they deem useful which they disseminate through newspapers, websites, etc.), undermining the legitimacy of the progressive media is exactly their goal, because they don’t want the population to know the truth or to trust those who are reporting it. For the more earnest elements among the Truthers, undermining the progressive media is also their goal, because they don’t see it as being distinct from the corporate media anyway — so whether earnest or insidious, the effect is the same.
The grain of truth, of course, is that government, corporate and foundation money have undoubtedly succeeded in making PBS and NPR a shell of it’s former self. Foundation money has also had a debilitating impact on the nonprofit world, since support for essential but illegal activities such as civil disobedience on the part of nonprofits will tend to cause them to lose foundation support. Also, nonprofits are prevented by law from participating openly in the electoral process, or they lose their nonprofit status. If progressive media is being influenced by the relatively small amount of foundation money it receives, I don’t see it.
It seems evident to me that shows like Democracy Now! are quite willing — and indeed, are doing their best — to make waves as much as possible. If they don’t report a story it’s because they don’t think it’s a story, or it’s not an important enough one to bother with. In the case of “theories” like the notion that controlled demolition brought down the World Trade Center or there were no members of Al-Qaeda on board the airplanes, this narrative has received little coverage in the progressive media because, upon investigation, most decide it’s patently ridiculous.
The real gatekeepers
Sometime in 2002 I wrote a song called “Reichstag Fire,” in which I asked many of the questions the Truthers were asking. The point of the song was primarily to say that 9/11 has been used as an excuse for the US to carry out a genocidal crusade on much of the Muslim world, and to further the US government’s bipartisan agenda of world domination and control of valuable resources in other countries, such as oil. (This is something Truthers and most other people in the world can generally agree on.) In the song I also posed questions which I now feel have been adequately explained.
Were there really Arab terrorists on board the planes? Yes. Did the CIA know an attack was imminent? Yes. I don’t regret writing the song, or becoming a very minor celebrity within the 9/11 Truth Movement, because I think these questions needed to be asked, and answered. But while some questions can only remain unanswered until certain people within the US government become whistleblowers, other questions have been answered, and my answers (and those of most people who have looked into these things) and those of what now constitutes the Truth Movement differ wildly. Particularly because I have been seen by some as part of this movement (although I seem to be increasingly getting lumped into the “gatekeeper” camp), I felt compelled to write this essay.
The truth is, in fact, out there. Much of it is certainly still there to be discovered, but many fundamental, essential truths are already known. The truth — that, for example, the CIA funded and armed Al-Qaeda and the Taleban, that a tiny minority of very wealthy people control much of the US government and the “mainstream” (corporate/”public”) media, that the US military systematically goes around the world overthrowing democracies, propping up dictatorships, and killing millions of people with bombs — is what the progressive media is reporting on hourly, daily, weekly or monthly. These are the truths that people in the US most need to “wake up” to. These are the truths that are systematically unreported or severely under-reported by the corporate press, which, even in the age of the internet, is still where the vast majority of people in the US get their news, and thus, their understanding of the world.
These corporate media entities and the genocidal, ecocidal plutocracy they serve are the “gatekeepers” that need to be exposed. The truths they are trying to hide from us are the truths that need to be understood, and acted upon. The progressive media that is trying to do just that needs to be supported, not undermined with essentially baseless accusations (legitimate criticisms and suggestions notwithstanding).
The people who are trying, with some degree of success, to undermine these basic endeavors of the progressive movement and the progressive media need to be exposed for what they are — whether they fall into the category of well-meaning but misguided fanatics or undercover government agents quite purposefully and systematically working to spread disinformation and sow confusion and distrust. And, beyond any reasonable doubt, the “Truth Movement” contains both of these elements. To both of these groups I beseech you — wake up! Wake up to the real, easily-verifiable conspiracies — which are extremely big ones! — and quit trying to distract us with all the nonsense about gatekeepers and controlled demolitions!