"There's nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it." ~ William James
Thoughts on September 11
Rule your mind or it will rule you. ~ Horace
As humans possessed of (or, perhaps, possessed by) language, we have a need to make sense of our lives ' not just to see the world, but also to determine what it means. My profession of teaching writing has required me to think long, hard, and seriously about the nature of this human thinking, of how people interpret their world and of what they do as a result of that interpretation. Today, on the second anniversary of the collapse of the World Trade Center and the resultant murder of those thousands trapped inside it, I'd like to share some of these ideas with you because understanding the process of interpretation has a great bearing not only upon our interpretation of that event, and upon our acceptance of what the State has done as a result of it, but also upon the way we conduct our private, personal everyday lives.
Five times a semester, I ask my students to present me with an 'argumentative' essay: in other words, I ask them to present a thesis and then develop it to some logical conclusion.
A thesis, which is just a fancy college word for a 'main idea,' cannot express a fact. It cannot be objective. It must, instead, be subjective. It must be an interpretation, an opinion. However, that interpretation must be based on objective fact.
I often give my students this illustration of the difference between subjective and objective: I tell them how, in the past, I have asked my class to spend a few minutes objectively describing, on paper, the room and everyone in it. While they would generally describe the room objectively ' white ceiling tiles, blue walls, green board in front ' their descriptions of people tended strongly to subjectivity. For example, you might describe someone objectively like this: 'in the front of the room sits a man who appears to be in his mid-fifties. He has long, thinning, somewhat wavy hair. He's wearing a red, blue, and yellow tie-dyed t-shirt, blue jeans patched with yin-yang symbols and peace signs, and leather Birkenstock sandals.' But most likely my students would write, instead, that 'there's some damn hippie in the front of the class.' That this person is a 'hippie' is a subjective interpretation of those objective facts.
We have difficulty sometimes recognizing the difference between objective from subjective: the difference between 'what we see' and 'what it means.' Our persistent, compulsive use of language impels us to such subjectivity, and it often happens so quickly and so un- (or, perhaps, sub-) consciously that we barely have any awareness that we're making a judgment or an interpretation at all.
For example, Betty Edwards explains in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain that people have difficulty drawing because they don't draw what they see ' they draw what they think they see. In other words, they don't see objectively. Instead, they see subjectively, immediately interpreting what they see. Only in teaching themselves to distinguish between what they see and what it means can they begin to see objectively and thus begin to draw well.
This is not to say, of course, that we should not interpret. In many ways, life itself depends upon interpretation. We must determine for ourselves what things mean. In An Anthropologist on Mars, Oliver Sacks tells about the difficulties a man encountered learning how to interpret the visual stimuli he began receiving when he recovered his sight after 45 years of blindness. 'In this first moment, he had no idea what he was seeing. There was light, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then, our of the blur came a voice . . . and only then, he said, did he finally realize that this chaos of light and shadow was a face.' As Sacks comments, 'When we open our eyes each morning, it is upon a world we have spent a lifetime learning to see . . . . He saw, but what he saw had no coherence. His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them' (p. 114-5).
And is there then a single, correct interpretation? Perhaps. Perhaps not. In the 1981 film The Gods Must be Crazy, a Coke bottle falls from a passing airplane into a village of Africans who have had little if any contact with the outside world. But they do not interpret it as 'an empty Coke bottle.' They find that they can blow over its opening and make music with it. They can make patterns with it. They can use it as a rolling pin or a hammer. They find the bottle miraculous, a gift from the gods ' until they see the dissention and trouble it causes when everyone wants to use it at once, and they decide that the gods must have been crazy to send such a thing among them.
The great Japanese film Rashomon shows how individual consciousness and interpretation affects our understanding and even our recall of objective reality.
The first step in interpretation, then ' the first step in understanding ' is to see as clearly and objectively as possible. Next, you must begin to ask questions about what you see. What might it mean? What could it mean? What reasons might you have for interpreting what you see in that way? And finally: what significance might this interpretation hold?
In trying to understand the events of two years ago, I first have to see them as clearly, as straight-forwardly, as objectively, as I can, and then begin to ask questions about what I see.
In thinking about what I saw, then, I first have to keep in mind that I did not really see it happen. I did not witness it first hand. Relatively speaking, few of us did. Whatever I saw and heard that day was mediated by the media. Immediately, then, I must suspect. Television can present the similitude of reality but not reality itself. Thinking of television often makes me think of Plato's prescient Allegory of the Cave, in which mankind is held prisoner in a cave and presented by their keepers with a shadow play intended to represent (to replace?) reality. Television is a mere shadow play which, in the minds of too many, has become more real than anything actual or tangible in their lives. I have to remember that television only presents me with part of the picture, and that the part they show is carefully framed.
What, then, objectively, did I see? Through the mediation of television, I saw a film of an airplane hit one of the Twin Towers and disappear inside it. I do not remember the plane disintegrating. I remember no explosion upon impact. I just remember seeing it vanish inside it. I remember watching both towers burn, flames and smoke rising into the New York sky. And I remember watching first one tower, and then the other, collapse straight down upon itself.
What questions come to mind concerning this? What might I ask to help me understand, to interpret what I saw and tell me what it meant?
First, where did those planes come from? From where did they take off? Didn't anyone see them coming? Weren't these commercial jets tracked? If so, why didn't some warning go out when they all went off course? If a warning did go out, what happened to it? In 1999, a private Lear jet carrying pro golfer Payne Stewart lost contact with air traffic controllers and, according to The War on Freedom, within 20 minutes F-16s were checking the jet out (p. 148). This question becomes particularly important when you consider that four planes were apparently hijacked at about the same time on the same day. If fighter jets responded in 1999 within 20 minutes to the diversion of a single Lear jet, why didn't a single one respond to the simultaneous diversion on a single morning of four commercial jetliners ' something unprecedented in history?
Who was flying those airplanes? How many people were involved? How did they get on board? Did they have weapons? If so, what kind? How did they commandeer the plane (assuming, of course, that they had to do such a thing)? How did they learn to maneuver such large planes so well? Why were they willing to sacrifice their lives in this manner? What drove them to it? How organized was it? And why was State Intelligence unaware of it?
Thinking just of the direct hit on the one tower, I wonder why the airplane disappeared so cleanly, as if the tower simply absorbed it. Why didn't the airplane at least partially smash apart? Why didn't either tower crumple at least slightly once an airplane had gone into it, taking out at least part of the outer wall? And why did the towers both collapse straight down? Is it probable that such an accident could occur ' that such a tower could be struck at random by such a force ' and result in a collapse that appears to the untrained eye to be almost planned or controlled and that, fortuitously, results in the least amount of damage and the fewest number of casualties? Is it just luck that at least part of those towers didn't topple over madly and uncontrollably into the Manhattan morning, damaging and destroying even more buildings and killing even more innocents in that most densely inhabited part of the United States?
And why would someone target, of all the possibilities, the World Trade Center ? Why take that building down? Did it contain something that whoever attacked it wanted destroyed? Or did they choose it for some more intangible reason ' for its visual and symbolic power, perhaps, and because its destruction would televise so powerfully and so vividly? Was it in some way less an act of death and destruction than it was a television show carefully designed to instill fear in the hearts and souls of its viewers? And on whose part, in whose interests, to what ultimate ends?
Many will say that those questions have already been answered, that these events have already been interpreted. Yes ' but by whom? They've been answered and interpreted by Power, by the State speaking through the media. And how did Power ascertain these answers? Upon what specific facts does it base its interpretation? And where did it get these facts? How can I believe Power's interpretation ' one which began developing, which began reaching into the minds of the millions, almost as those towers were falling live on television?
Now, no doubt part of this wondering and my questioning of the official answers stems from my personality, from my reading, my writing, my work, and the things I've experienced. Perhaps the media event during my lifetime most similar to the collapse of the World Trade Center was the murder of President Kennedy in 1963. There, too, Power provided television with quick answers and explained everything away. And at first, Power's facade worked. But the years wore it down until, now, people who look openly and honestly at the facts and circumstances of that autumn afternoon 40 years ago must marvel at how willingly, how eagerly, the public, their questions having been answered by Experts and Authority, accepted such obvious lies and never looked into the answers themselves.
Think logically: Plato likened most people's sense of reality to a shadow play put on by society's masters. If that was true thousands of years ago, how much more true might it be today with the power of television broadcasting the official State interpretation to millions at once? Perhaps we 'know' that 19 Islamic men hijacked those jets two years ago in exactly the same way that we 'know' Lee Harvey Oswald murdered John F. Kennedy. It took twelve years before the general public got even a glimpse of the Zapruder film of Kennedy's murder showing his head being thrown, as Oliver Stone's film JFK repeated over and over, 'back and to the left . . . back and to the left' ' something impossible for a bullet fired from six stories up and 100 yards behind.
Two years after the fall of the towers, we still do not know objectively what happened. We have interpretations, of course, most of which have served as an excuse to send Americans to kill and be killed in Afghanistan and Iraq and to justify the additional spending, according to this week's news reports, an additional $87,000,000,000 (is that enough zeroes for 'billion'? Or is that only a 'hundred million'? My god, these numbers are so impossibly, unimaginably astronomical . . .) in war expenditures, much of which apparently will go to private companies like Dick Cheney's Halliburton. A thesis ' a belief, an opinion, an interpretation ' depends upon objective fact. And in this instance we still have little if any fact upon which to test Power's interpretation ' we have, for the most part, only its unsubstantiated assertions. We have, for the most part, only a shadow play.
If this were a mere essay in my class, I could say that Power hasn't developed or substantiated its thesis very well and I could ask for a revision. But it's not an essay. This is real, so real that people are being murdered every day because of this.
What, then, can we do? As always ' as ever ' change depends upon each individual, upon each one of us, taking small steps every day. It depends on us examining and disciplining our thinking. Do we have control of our minds? Can we express our beliefs ' can we articulate them, put them into words? Can we say them, let alone write them down? Once we do, can we substantiate those beliefs? Can we give ourselves as well as others reasons for what we think and what we do? Or will we continue to drift, mindlessly, thoughtlessly, through our lives, sated by our comforts, dulled by our distracting entertainments?
We need, each of us, to think for ourselves. We need to understand and take responsibility for our thoughts, for our beliefs, and for the actions we take based upon those thoughts and beliefs. Until we do, we will continue to slide, helplessly and without understanding, ever closer to the end of those comforts, the end of those entertainments ' the end of our civilization and even of our very lives.