Myth Communication: Professor Farrell on Professor Woodward

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 Persuasion.
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.
Definitely 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 a contest 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 free pass.
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 actually saying 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? Eek!)

Well, let's take a look at the "symptoms" of the "ubiquitous and technically-efficient propaganda environment."

It is 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 knowledge of what evidence every single one of the reporters, officials, or students considered or not. That doesn't stop him from asserting otherwise.

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 benevolent nation-state.
Again, the choice of the "comforting" adjective is telling: Professor Farrell knows 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 bet.

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 here, here, here, or here, 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, and inexcusable."
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.

Go figger.

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 attack?

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 evidence".
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 on every 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."

Last Modified 2012-10-22 10:17 AM EDT

V for Vendetta

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Well, I just got around to seeing V for Vendetta. You probably know this, but: it was made by the Wachowski brothers, who also did the Matrix movies; it's based on a comic series by Alan Moore. Taken at face value, it's a pretty good mystery thriller as a masked revolutionary (V) takes on the fascistic British government, enlisting a reluctant foot soldier, played by Natalie Portman, as he goes along. Caught in the middle is a frumpy cop, Stephen Rea, trying to be both honest and decent.

Not taken at face value, however, the movie is pretty heavy-handedly stupid, trying to present "issues" of justifiable terrorism. The extra "making of" featurette on the DVD makes this even more explicit, as the actors and others involved in the flick mouth the usual tedious "progressive" clichés on revolution and "understanding the root causes" of terrorism. And then go home to their undoubtedly lavish homes, having pocketed the hefty checks made possible by the system they despise, that real terrorists would destroy in a second if they could.

A pretty good review is here; Damon Dimmick argues persuasively that the movie villians don't even have the depth and nuance of their counterparts in the comic book.

Last Modified 2024-02-03 7:55 AM EDT