James Farrell had an op-ed
(FRR) in the Saturday edition of our local paper Foster's Daily
Democrat, concerning UNH's own 9/11 conspiracy theorist, Professor
William Woodward. Let's take a look, but
first skip to the author blurb at the end:
James Farrell is an associate professor in the UNH Department of
Communication. He is currently teaching a course titled, Propaganda and
This somewhat explains the op-ed's title:
Woodward controversy: Propaganda or persuasion?
Professor Farrell is attempting, in short,
to fit the square peg of the Woodward controversy into the round hole
of his preconceived propaganda/persuasion dichotomy. I strongly
suspect he will, if he hasn't already, wangle a lecture out of this.
The recent controversy over the views expressed by University of New
Hampshire psychology professor Bill Woodward, along with the petition
against Woodward by some UNH students, offers something of a textbook
study in modern propaganda effects.
lecture material. Take notes, kids!
Before I go any further, let me say that I find Professor Woodward's
hypothesis regarding the destruction of the World Trade Center to be
far-fetched. In other words, in my view, it is more reasonable to
conclude that the collapse of the World Trade Center was the result of
an attack by Islamic terrorists, than the result of a United States
government conspiracy. And, given that the terrorist attack explanation
is widely believed, the burden of proof rests with those who challenge
that prevailing view.
The main point of interest in the above is Professor Farrell's
linguistic contortions to avoid saying anything judgmental.
He dignifies 9/11 conspiracy fantasies as just another "hypothesis."
Woodward's views are not "wrong," they are just "far-fetched."
And note the trick with deeming the standard view of 9/11 as
"more reasonable": the implication is that it's not
between reality and fiction; it's simply a matter of "reasonable" views,
one of which is simply "more reasonable" than another.
It's a neat trick: at the same time that he distances himself
from Professor Woodward's views,
Professor Farrell manages to nudge them
into the "respectable" arena, without even examining them.
Having said that, what I found most interesting about this controversy
was not Professor Woodward's peculiar views, which have circulated in
various forms since soon after the events in question, but rather the
response of the media, of various university and government officials,
and now of the petitioning students.
Professor Farrell is only going to talk about what he finds
"interesting." He'd rather take a hard, critical look at
Woodward's opponents, while giving those on the other side a
It is in their well-trained reactions to the questions raised about
Professor Woodward's views that we witness the classic symptoms of a
ubiquitous and technically-efficient propaganda environment. …
Note the "well-trained" adjective, a neat way of—without
it—portraying the anti-Woodward crowd as a herd
of Pavlovian dogs obediently responding to some ringing rhetorical bell.
(And who's ringing that bell? Could it be … Karl Rove?
Well, let's take a look at the "symptoms" of the "ubiquitous and
technically-efficient propaganda environment."
telling that in independently assessing Woodward's hypothesis, not one
reporter, nor any of those officials or students quoted in the
newspapers, even considered the evidence offered by Woodward's group,
nor evaluated his conclusions in a rational or scientific manner.
I would wager that Professor Farrell has no actual
of what evidence every single one
of the reporters, officials, or
students considered or not. That doesn't stop him from asserting
There is, in fact, plenty of information out there
that counters the claims of Woodward and his group, Scholars for 9/11 Truth.
There is the Debunking
9/11 Conspiracy Theories site; there's
a dead trees book from Popular Mechanics, Debunking
9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can't Stand Up to the Facts,
which will (as I type) set you back a mere $12.95 at Amazon.
Both sources are pretty convincing that 9/11 conspiracists have
about as much academic respectibility as Holocaust revisionists
and creationists; i.e., not any at all.
But it's totally unclear what sort of statements regarding "evidence"
Professor Farrell is expecting
from reporters/officials/students, especially since he's admitted
the "burden of proof" is not on them.
Instead, what we got was "outrage" and name-calling, a kind of concerted
rhetorical response that was indistinguishable by political party, and
which was aimed ultimately at preserving the comforting myth of the
Again, the choice of the "comforting" adjective is telling: Professor
that every single one
of those people
are simply looking to return to their thumb-sucking "comforting myth",
their faith in which has been shaken by merely hearing alternate views.
Also note the
use of the passive: the response "was aimed" at myth-preserving. Who's
doing the aiming? Same guy who was ringing that Pavlovian bell, I
It was not a matter of testing and rejecting Woodward's hypothesis.
Rather, those who reacted objected to the hypothesis being proposed and
considered at all. What mattered was that Woodward's views were, in the
words of one petitioning student, "anti-American."
I do not have Professor Farrell's sources, but in news stories
nobody, student or anyone else, uses the term "anti-American". Professor
Farrell seems to have heard it somewhere, though, fine. So?
Gov. John Lynch called Woodward's views "completely crazy and
offensive," and charged the professor with "a reckless disregard for the
true facts," while Sen. Judd Gregg compared Woodward's opinions to
"racist statements" and dismissed them as "insensitive, inappropriate,
I assume all those quotes are accurate. Again, so?
In the stories about the controversy, and in the remarks of officials,
Woodward is very quickly typecast in a drama that invokes an almost
archetypal American fear. …
Ah, there we go. Woodward's opponents are appealing to "fear".
Of course, consider the notion that US government officials masterminded
the cold-blooded murder of thousands of Americans. Naw, that's
not scary at all. Professor Farrell doesn't think the people
promulgating that "hypothesis" are appealing to "fear"; or, if he
does, he's not mentioning it.
But calling someone's opinions "insensitive, inappropriate, and
inexcusable" is apppealing to fear.
He becomes the embodied ideological threat to vulnerable students at the
"public university which is supported with taxpayer dollars." He is
compared to "idiots out there who say the Holocaust never occurred." He
is the "nutty professor," who is "teaching our kids" and "bringing the
radical theories into the classroom." He is that "member of several
left-wing political action groups" who "peddles his beliefs," to
"indoctrinate the kids," and "impose his opinions on students."
Professor Farrell holds all these quotes up as if they were dreadful
examples of … something. But (to use his lingo), he's not
interested in "testing and rejecting" any of these hypotheses. He's
simply objecting to those views being "proposed and considered at all."
Something is wrong with this picture.
To ease the ideological panic, reporters and officials habitually offer
slogans and character assault, an unthinking, uncritical, automatic
response that assures that Woodward's hypothesis is never given serious
consideration. The idea itself is simply incompatible with the myth of
American virtue, so it cannot, even briefly, be entertained.
Professor Farrell is straining mightily to detect "ideological panic"
in Woodward's opponents
. They are irrational believers in "myth",
blindly and thoughtlessly shutting out contrary opinions.
Oh, and he's also against name-calling.
As scholars, the petitioning UNH students should approach this
controversy differently. My sense is that Bill Woodward is neither an
idiot nor a traitor.…
We set the bar very
low for the professoriate here. "Not an idiot
or a traitor? Fine!"
There must be some grounds for his conclusions, at
least evidence as strong as that which supports the widely held belief
in extraterrestrial visitors, or a conspiracy to assassinate President
Kennedy. (And, I'm sure that many of the same people now expressing
"outrage" at Woodward are among those who continue to insist there were
weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.)
I'm not sure Professor Farrell really wants to imply that the 9/11
conspiracy "hypothesis" is in the same league of academic respectability
as UFOs and JFK assassination theories. Nevertheless …
We should ask, then, is it
possible there was some level of U.S. government complicity in the 9/11
I have to answer, based on historical precedents, sure it is. It is
highly unlikely, and probably inconsistent with objectively verifiable
evidence, but still possible.
Well, hey, it's possible
that we're all just brains in a vat
and reality is simply a joint neurological
illusion imposed by our supercomputer overlords. Unlike 9/11 conspracy
fantasies, that's not even "inconsistent with objectively verifiable
The problem with Woodward's critics is that they seem unable to even
conceive of, let alone think critically about, such a possibility. To
judge from the public reaction, Bill Woodward's error was not in saying
something "controversial" in the classroom, it was in challenging the
prevailing myth, invoked and rehearsed especially in time of war, that
only the noblest of abstract values motivates our national government.
Oh, please. This is the strawiest of straw men.
The problem with Professor Woodward is not
simply that he's
challenging the "myth" of a government devoted to "the noblest of
abstract values". Such challenges happen every day
college campus in America. To imply otherwise
is arrant and obvious bullshit.
Professor Woodward is doing
something different than that; if Professor Farrell can't see that,
he's wrapped up in
his own "comfortable myth."