The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: Brain Wash

Coming to terms with conspiracy theorists, with some help from Loudon Wainwright III

By Louis Black, June 29, 2007, Columns

This is not part two of the "Conspiracy Theories" column ("Page Two," June 22). That column is actually mostly written, but the response to the first column, as predictable as it was, leaves me completely lacking any zest for proceeding down the more hysterical side roads of history. I think what I missed was how firm so many are in the conviction that they are right. In a sense, putting it that way suggests that perhaps there are other possibilities (if you have a firm conviction that you are right, it could still allow for the possibility of error). Instead, these people are convinced they know the concrete, rock-solid truth – and it has not only set them free but also made it clear that they are better than the rest of us.

One of the major strategies of those writing in response to my last column has been to invite me to engage in a debate over the "facts" of 9/11. This seems more than reasonable, except that it isn't. Debating a theorist on details is neither a debate nor a discussion. It is the act of the theorist educating you about your own complacent blindness. Theorists know they have the truth. Any detail that vaguely supports their position is true. They discredit and discount sources and experts that disagree with them. They know acres of minor details with which they will happily overwhelm you, losing the forest for the trees, if not also losing the trees for the trees, as well.

Reading over the letters brought home what a mosaic of circumstantial evidence theorists build, with the threshold for verifying any information with which they might agree set so low that it's not even really a threshold. Obviously, in talking about conspiracy theorists, I did a lot of generalizing about individuals. Those who responded cited individuals who did not fit the generalizations offered, as though that proved anything. Exceptions to a rule do not disprove the rule. On the other hand, many respondents are absolutely abstract impressionists when it comes to logic. One of their theories holds that Iran-Contra was a conspiracy, so 9/11 was, too! One letter-writer offered quotes that reinforced his take on the situation but had absolutely no meaning in the context of a serious discussion.

Best of all, many conspiracy-minded correspondents will insult you as well, as often as they can, along the way. One letter that covered all the bases went, "[Y]ou philosophize on 9/11, but never engage in the facts which are in serious dispute. In doing so, you expose your opinion on 9/11 as a matter of faith. Sound familiar? That's one altar (of Cheney) you won't find me at, pilgrim. Following the logic of your column, Enron, Iran-Contra, stolen elections: just run along and forget about it. You can't prove it happened, b/c it was a conspiracy; & if you did, you'd just be wasting your time." I'm telling no one to run along and forget anything. But to many theorists, the fact that those other conspiracies happened means whatever they believe about 9/11 is true. Despite writing literally dozens of editorials attacking this administration, I worship at the altar of Cheney because I'm not a 9/11 "truth seeker"? All the examples of real conspiracies that are offered were exposed in mainstream media; they did not come to light because of conspiracy theorists. The stolen election is still questionable, but it has been carefully covered.

My favorite letter sneered down at me, its author barely able to condescend to point out ways in which the column was worthless. It included a quote about "deep politics" that I suspect was supposed to be proof positive that there was a conspiracy. But my favorite sentence of recent times pointed out that " ... you also do not provide heuristics for knowing ...".

Now, I think providing heuristics is illegal in Texas, but reading that sentence sure delighted the hell out of me, even if I didn't understand what it meant. The writer closed by asserting, "I could go on at length about how poorly thought-out this article is, but I don't think it deserves the time." Not to be a stickler here, but he really couldn't have gone on at much more length, because he had almost reached the limit for the number of words allowed in our letters to the editor.

None of the writers addressed the notion that he or she might be wrong: What if 9/11 was not an inside job? In 10 years, expect to see the "truth seekers" still out there seeking the "truth," with absolutely no real-world consequences to their decade and a half of work.

So, part two, maybe.

In the car driving on MoPac the other day, I was listening to KGSR. They had a station ID done by Loudon Wainwright III. He introduced himself as the "father of Rufus," which I thought wasn't quite right, because what about Martha? But KGSR handled this just right by playing a song by Wainwright about Martha.

Listening brought back how long I had listened to and loved Loudon Wainwright III. This actually came up the day before, because the newest issue of No Depression had an article on the singer-songwriter. It acknowledged that the first two albums were regarded as great but really didn't go into them. They were both albums I played over and over: the first one more solid, the second one more illusory, but both sublime.

Thinking about Wainwright, I consciously chose not to concentrate on the time that he was in town to do a show many years ago. I ran into Jody Denberg with him at the Driskill, if memory serves, and he introduced me to the singer-songwriter. I was thrilled to meet Wainwright. I had seen him in concert a number of times at this point. Still, when Jody asked if I was going to the show, I could have come back with any number of responses more diplomatic and thoughtful than, "No, I'm going to see King Sunny Ade at Club Foot." Immediately, I felt like an idiot; Jody, to his credit, brought this up only a half-dozen to a dozen times in the months afterward.

Driving north on I-91, shortly after I had moved to Vermont, and surveying the stunning natural beauty in every direction, I vowed to myself never to take this richness for granted. As often as I drove around the state, I was determined never to let it slip into being so routine that I noticed it more as if it were only a memory, a flat-painted backdrop, than appreciated in the present. It was 1970; I was 20, and I would live in the state on and off for the next half-decade.

I was a suburban/bridge-and-tunnel New York City kid. I never nursed any secret desires to get back to the garden or live on, and off of, the land. I was overly antsy, with a minute attention span; impatience was my only lover, because it went by so quickly. The tempo was arrhythmic, with the present just an almost-vacant bridge between thinking about the past and anticipating the future. I was almost never in the here and now, but instead between memory and dream, the experienced and the anticipated. I was too often absent for most of what was actually happening in my life.

Vermont changed me. I calmed down, though at the time I had no idea that was what I was doing. Instead, calm seemed like a fever, a head-stuffing allergy. I was still charged, always preoccupied; the speeds I spun my wheels at were simply slower. Instead of too many possibilities becoming such a blur that it was as if there were none, there were so few distractions that, though I tried hard, I was not always distracted.

The first time I went down from Vermont to Boston (where I had been living), I didn't even last a day. I hitchhiked down, visited friends briefly, and then turned around to hitchhike back. The city was too noisy, too crowded and busy; my nerves were shot. I missed the quiet.

Eventually, it got to where I would visit Boston and New York without my nervous system completely shorting out. In early July 1971, I went back to New Jersey, where I had grown up. I then headed up to Rhode Island for the Newport Jazz Festival. We ended up sitting far back but up on a hill, so we had a pretty good overview of the whole area. The Dave Brubeck Quartet played a brilliant set, with Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan just beautifully interacting. The rhythm section was Jack Six on bass with Allan Dawson on drums.

Sometime later, Dionne Warwick came on. A small army of young folks had gathered right outside the fences enclosing the festival. They chose this moment to come swarming over the fence, filling the field, and crowding the stage, where they tore up everything they could lay their hands on. From where I was watching, it looked like a scene in a movie when one army, having breached the castle's walls, comes swarming into the courtyard. The police showed up and attempted crowd control, as well as chucking tear-gas canisters at the crowd. It was the last time the Newport Jazz Festival was held there. The next year, it was in New York City.

In my memory, it was the very next night that we went to a Greenwich Village club to see Loudon Wainwright III. I'm guessing it was the Gaslight but, whatever: It was a very small club in the cellar of a building on Bleecker Street.

Now, we were there to see Wainwright and quite excited at the prospect of actually getting to watch him perform live. We hadn't really paid any attention to the rest of the bill. Keep in mind that this was a very small folk club.

The opening act was a British band about which I really didn't know much: It was Soft Machine, featuring Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper, Elton Dean, and Mike Ratledge. The music turned out to be a wall of sound (though not in the Phil Spector sense) as well as being very, very loud. In a very, very small club. Think of the advertisement of the guy in the chair being blown back by his new stereo. Our ears were ripped open, and our bodies pinned to the wall.

Wainwright came out and did a set. Frequently his tongue would be hanging out of his mouth. "Dead Skunk" had not yet come out, so the material was mostly from his first two albums.

On MoPac, during the rain's intermission, listening to the radio, I thought back to Wainwright's performance at that club on that night. Now, I'm a big fan of rain regardless. But for a bit of time that afternoon, it was just all right, and the world was okay by me. end story

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