Here is another in our long series of ZNet Free updates. If you don't
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ZNet top page = www.zmag.org/weluser.htm (Apologies if you get this

There is a feast of new material online since last we updated you. 

For example, we have a major Question and Answer format essay on
Conspiracy Theory in general, and regarding 9/11 in particular, from
Stephen Shalom and Michael Albert. 

We have Frank, Pilger, and Hoodbhoy on India/Pakistan, Steele on Timor,
Albert's talks from Brisbane, Starhawk on the G8 demos, Healey on
Angola, a couple of Chomsky pieces on current international affairs,
Avnery, Arnove, and others on the mideast, Fisk, Street, and others on
the Terror War, pieces on Colombia, Global Economics, two very upbeat
reviews of Albert's Trajectory of Change, one from Peters the other from
Brecher -- well, really the list is too long even to summarize.

And, then we also have the full Feb, March, April, and May contents of Z
Magazine, updates of many of our watch sites such as alt media watch,
South Asia watch, and others, and updates of translated subsections.
Take a spin through the Spanish, Italian, French, Bulgarian, and other
translated ZNet subsites to get a feeling for the scale of outreach the
operation is attaining. 

We have also added a facility which grabs new quotes every six hours
from our database of user submitted quotations, placing them on a
variety of pages throughout the site. We hope you like the effect.

And please take special note: We have greatly enlarged our Video
Operations, now called Z Video Productions, and placed a link
promiinently near the top of ZNet for you to view descriptions and order
materials. In all there are 22 videos to choose from, some from the WSF
2002, some from the celebrations of South End Press's 25th anniversary,
some from the Z Media Institute, and last, what we call the Shed
Sessions on Economic Vision. They are all available in VHS and many also
in DVD. The prices are good and there are low income options. Among
those who appear in videos are Chomsky (many times), Shiva, Bello,
Klein, Zinn, Marable, Hooks, Bullard, Schecter, Daniels, Frank, and
Albert and Hahnel (many times). Take a look...the link is right the top
of our top page, www.zmag.org/weluser.htm, or if you want to go
directly, it is: https://www.zmag.org/newvideos.htm

And finally, to provide some substance in this mailing...here are a few
questions from the Shalom/Albert essay--the whole thing is too long for
this mailing so only part of it is offered here.


Conspiracies or Institutions: 9-11 and Beyond 
By Stephen R. Shalom and Michael Albert

(1) What Is a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory?

The most common definition of a conspiracy is two or more people
secretly planning a criminal act. Examples of related conspiracy
theories include belief that JFK was assassinated by rogue CIA elements
attempting to ward off unwanted liberalism; that negotiations between
the United States government and Iran to release American hostages in
Carter's last year failed because Reagan aides secretly struck a deal
with Iran to hold the hostages until after the election; or, more
recently, that 9/11 was a plot by a rogue CIA/Mossad team cunningly
engineering rightward alignments in the United States or Israel. 

A broader definition of conspiracy includes legal acts that are,
however, sufficiently misleading. For example, even if the U.S.
president and his top aides could legally perpetrate the secret 9-11
attacks, doing so would still be a conspiracy. Legal assassination
disguised as an accident or secretly pinned on someone else might also
fit the second, broader definition because it's not just secret, but
actively deceptive. But no definition of conspiracy, however broad,
includes everything secret. 

People often secretly get together and use their power to achieve some
result. But if this is always a conspiracy, then virtually everything
that happens is a conspiracy. When General Motors executives get
together and decide what kind of Chevy to produce next year, it would be
a conspiracy. Every business decision, every editorial decision, even a
university academic department getting together in a closed session to
make a personnel decision, would be a conspiracy. Conspiracy would be
ubiquitous and therefore vacuous. Even in the broadest definition, there
must be some significant deviation from normal operations.

Thus, no one would call all the secret acts of national security
agencies conspiracies. Spying is sufficiently normal and expected that
no one calls it a conspiracy. Most business decisions and government
policy decisions are made in secret but are only deemed a conspiracy
when they transcend "normal" behavior, either by working against the
norms of surrounding institutions, in the narrow definition, or by
manipulating and actively imposing wrong perceptions, in the broader
definition. No matter what definition we use, we don't talk of a
conspiracy to win an election when the suspect activity includes only
candidates and their handlers working privately to develop effective
strategy. Seeking to win an election, even secretly, is operating
"normally" within the bounds of surrounding institutions. We do talk
about a conspiracy, however, if the electoral behavior includes stealing
the other party's plans, spiking their Whiskey Sours with LSD, having a
campaign worker falsely claim he or she was beaten up by the opposing
camp, or other exceptional activity transcending electoral institutions
or actively misleading and manipulating events. 

(2) What characterizes conspiracy theorizing?

Any particular conspiracy theory may or may not be true. Auto, oil, and
tire companies did conspire to undermine the trolley system in
California in the 1930s. Israeli agents did secretly attack Western
targets in Egypt in 1954 in an attempt to prevent a British withdrawal.
The CIA did fake a shipload of North Vietnamese arms to justify U.S.
aggression. Conspiracies do happen.

But a conspiracy theorist is not someone who simply accepts the truth of
some specific conspiracies. Rather, a conspiracy theorist is someone
with a certain general methodological approach and set of priorities.
Conspiracy theorists begin their quest for understanding events by
looking for groups acting secretly, either outside usual institutional
norms in a rogue fashion, or, at the very least to manipulate public
impressions, to cast guilt on other parties, and so on. Conspiracy
theorists focus on conspirators' methods, motives, and effects.
Personalities, personal timetables, secret meetings, and conspirators'
joint actions claim priority attention. Institutional relations largely
drop from view.

Thus, conspiracy theorists ask "Did Clinton launch missiles at Sudan in
1998 in order to divert attention from his Monica troubles?" rather than
seeking a basic understanding of U.S. foreign policy. They ask "Did a
group within the CIA kill Kennedy to prevent his withdrawing from
Vietnam?" rather than examining the shared Vietnam assumptions and
policies of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, as an examination of
institutions would prioritize.

Because personalities matter so much in conspiracy theories, attention
focuses largely on what one individual said to another, whether a phone
conversation implicates so and so, the credibility of this or that
witness, and who knew what when. Suspicion abounds. For conspiracy
theorists, no sooner does something happen, then a conspiracy is
suspected. Is there a new disease called AIDS? A biological warfare lab
must have created it. Did Clinton aide Vincent Foster appear to commit
suicide? Someone must have killed him. Did flights TWA 800 and Airbus
587 crash? There must have been a missile involved.

(3) What characterizes institutional theorizing?

An institutional theory emphasizes roles, incentives, and other
institutional dynamics that promote or compel important events and, most
important, have similar effects over and over. Institutional theorists
of course notice individual actions, but don't elevate them to prime
causes. The point of an institutional explanation is to move beyond
proximate personal factors to more basic institutional factors. The aim
is to learn something about society or history, as compared to learning
about particular culpable actors. If the particular people hadn't been
there to do the events, most likely someone else would have.

To the institutional theorist, the behavior of rogue elements is far
less important than the ways in which defining political, social, and
economic forms lead to particular behaviors. An institutional theory of
the U.S. missile attacks on Sudan or the Iran Contra affair focuses on
how and why these activities arose due to the basic institutions of U.S.
society, not on the personal quirks of a womanizing Clinton or a loose
cannon Ollie North.

(4) Can thinking about conspiracies ever be institutional? Can thinking
about institutions ever highlight conspiracies?

There are, of course, complicating borderline cases. A person
investigating personal proximate causes of some occurrence in what
appears to be a conspiracy-minded way could do so to make a larger
institutional case. Thus, a person trying to discover a CIA role in 9/11
could be trying to verify a larger (incorrect) institutional
theory--that the U.S. government is run by the CIA. Or, more subtly, a
person might be trying to demonstrate that some set of U.S. institutions
propels actors toward conspiring. Someone studying Enron, for example,
may be doing so not as a conspiracy theorist concerned with condemning
the proximate activities of the board of Enron, but rather to make a
case (correctly) that U.S. market relations instill motivations and
provide contexts that make conspiracies against the public by major
corporate decision makers highly probable. The difference is on the one
hand, trying to understand some broad claim about society by
understanding its institutional dynamics, and, on the other hand, trying
to understand some singular event by understanding the activities of the
direct actors in it.

(5) What are the relative features and attributes of conspiracy
theorizing and institutional theorizing?

For social activists, it makes sense to develop institutional theories
because they uncover lasting features with ubiquitous recurring
implications. On the other hand, if an event arises from a unique
conjuncture of particular people who seize extra-systemic opportunities,
then even though institutions undoubtedly play some role, that role may
not be generalizable and an institutional theory may be impossible to
construct. For a district attorney, it is sufficient to identify
individual wrong doers, but for those seeking social change it is
important to go beyond particular participants. Unique events, of
course, could be hugely consequential--as in the attempt to assassinate
Hitler--but exploring the details of such events rarely if ever
facilitates understanding society or history.

Institutional theories claim that the normal operations of some
institutions generate behaviors and motivations leading to the events in
question. For example, an institutional theorist is much more likely to
explain U.S. foreign policy in terms of corporate and geopolitical
interests, than in terms of the operations of shadowy characters, and
when they look at corporate interests they are much more likely to focus
on corporate interests generally rather than the interests of one rogue
corporation that tries to hijack U.S. foreign policy to its narrow
interests at the expense of the corporate system more broadly. When
institutional theories address personalities, personal interests,
personal timetables, and meetings, it will be to enumerate facts that
need explanation, not because these are seen as explanations themselves.
With institutional theories, organizational, motivational, and
behavioral implications of institutions are the heart of the matter.
Particular people, while not becoming mere ciphers, are not regarded as
primary causal agents. 

With conspiracy theories, regardless of the type of conspiracy
identified, the balance of attention is inverted. The specific deceptive
actions of rogue or at least greatly duplicitous and deceptive actors
are highlighted.

Consider the media. A person seeking conspiracies will listen to
evidence of media subservience to power and see a cabal of bad guys,
perhaps corporate, perhaps religious, perhaps federal, censoring the
media from doing its proper job. The conspiracy theorist will want to
know about that cabal and how people succumb to its will, when they
meet, etc. Discussion will highlight the actions of some coterie of
editors, writers, newscasters, particular owners, or even a lobby of
actors. In contrast, an institutional theorist will highlight the
media's internal bureaucracy, socialization processes, profit seeking
motivations in a market system, and funding mechanisms (selling audience
to advertisers), as well as the interests of media owners directly and
more broadly due to their class position. The institutional theorist
will want to learn more about the media's structural features and how
they work, and about the guiding interests and what they imply. The
conspiracy approach will tend to lead people to believe that either they
should educate the media malefactors to change their motives, or they
should get rid of the media malefactors and endorse new editors,
writers, newscasters, or owners who will behave differently. The
institutional approach will note the possible gains from changes in
media personnel, but will explain how limited these changes will be. It
will incline people toward a campaign of constant pressure to offset the
constant intrinsic institutional pressures for obfuscation, or toward
the creation of new media free from the institutional pressures of the

(6) Why and how does much (but not all) conspiracy theorizing create a
tendency for people to depart from rational analysis?

In a famous study back in the 1950s, researcher Leon Festinger wanted to
find out how a religious sect would react when its prophecy that the
Earth was going to come to an end failed to come true on the predicted
date. When the fateful date arrived and nothing happened, did the
believers cease to be believers? No. Instead they revised their beliefs
to explain away the failed prediction by asserting that God had given
humankind one more chance, and they maintained the rest of their belief
system intact. One is entitled, of course, to hold whatever beliefs one
wants, but beliefs like those of the religious sect are not rational or
scientific, for it is a basic requirement of scientific beliefs that
they be in principle falsifiable, that there be the possibility of
disconfirming evidence. If a scientific hypothesis predicts X, and
instead not-X occurs (and recurs repeatedly with no off-setting
explanations for the discrepancy), then the hypothesis ought to be
doubted. If the hypothesis flouts prior knowledge as well as current
evidence, and is accepted nonetheless, then the behavior is often no
longer scientific, nor even rational.

Conspiracy theorists tend to develop a similar attitude to Festinger's
religious zealots toward counter-evidence. Where God's mysterious ways
salvage the religious believers' failed predictions, added layers of
conspiracy salvage disconfirmed conspiracy theories. To the
conspiratorial mind, if evidence emerges contradicting a claimed
conspiracy, it was planted. If further evidence shows that the first
evidence was authentic, then that further evidence too was planted. One
website, for example, claims that the Palestinian suicide bombers are
actually hoaxes by Israeli intelligence organizations wherein bombs are
set off by Israeli agents and a Palestinian body is later added to the
debris. But what about the family members of the suicide bomber who
speak to the media? This seems like pretty strong counter-evidence for
the conspiracy claim. But actually it poses no problem for the
conspiracy theorist. He or she promptly claims that the family member
interviews are all also staged by the Israelis. (See

But don't we all ignore evidence that goes counter to long held beliefs?
And aren't we often right to do so? When magician David Copperfield
apparently saws a woman in half, most of us don't suddenly give up our
belief in physics and biology. We instead stand by past evidence and
suspect a hoax and even if we can't figure out how Copperfield did it,
we're not likely to walk into a chain saw anytime soon. We sensibly
maintain our beliefs because we have an immense body of prior evidence
supporting the prevailing view, and only the one televised magical
counter example.

Conspiracy theorists rarely have a vast amount of evidence confirming
the conspiracy and only a little detail or two that doesn't quite fit
and can reasonably be set aside. Quite the contrary, conspiracy theories
are often strung together from the thinnest reeds of evidence and the
counter-evidence is often an irrefutable negation of the very piece of
evidence that the conspiracy theorist previously claimed was decisive.
Obviously the World Trade Center attack was a U.S. government hoax,
declared the conspiracy fans within days of 9/11, because most of the
hijackers have turned up to be still alive. This claim took advantage of
early confusions, but became completely discredited a short time later.
The conspiracy theorists didn't miss a beat. The loss of their crucial
evidence weakened their belief in a conspiracy not one iota. Likewise,
why is the government not letting people listen to the voice recorders
for Flight 93, the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, they intoned.
To conspiracy theorists, this hid the fact that the official story of
the hijacking was bogus. But when the government belatedly allowed the
families of the victims to hear the tapes, few if any conspiracy
theorists retracted their claims.

(7) Is a conspiracy theory regarding 9-11 credible?

There is no single conspiracy theory regarding 9/11, there are dozens of
them, often mutually contradictory. Thus, it's not just institutional
theorists who reject most conspiracy theories, but most conspiracy
theorists reject most of them as well, except, of course, the one they
happen to champion.

Here are some of the leading 9/11 conspiracy theories:

1. The World Trade Center was destroyed not by planes but by explosives.

2. The planes were not hijacked at all, but commandeered by remote
control by Norad.

3. The planes were hijacked, but the hijackers were double crossed and
the planes were taken over by remote control by Norad.

4. The hijackers were actually working for the U.S. government.

5. U.S. intelligence knew about the plot, but intentionally did nothing
so as to cause massive deaths that would mobilize public support for a
war on terrorism that would benefit the government.

6. The plot was actually organized by the Mossad.

7. The Mossad knew about the plot, but did nothing, hoping that the
massive deaths would mobilize public support for Israel's war on the

8. Tower 2 of the World Trade Center was hit by a missile.

9. A joint plot by rogue elements in the CIA, the Mossad, other U.S.
government agencies, Mobil (being investigated in a criminal case, all
of the evidence against whom was in FBI offices in the World Trade
Center), and Russian organized crime (which profited especially from
Afghan heroin with which the Taliban was interfering).

We should be forthright here. None of the above strike us as remotely
interesting much less plausible. Neither of us would ordinarily have
ever spent even five minutes exploring the above claims, because they
all fly in the face of our broad understanding of how the world works.
But, because such theories seem to have some popularity among
progressives, we are taking the time in this essay to briefly address
them. However, before considering some of these specific theories, we
need to be clear what isn't a conspiracy.

And here are the rest of the questions in the essay, detailed answers
being available online...

(8) Doesn't the existence of lies and cover up point to a conspiracy?
And aren't lies and cover ups profoundly politically important?  ...

(9) Do all the ignored warnings about 9/11 prove conspiracy or just
incompetence? ...

(10) Why are conspiracy theories regarding 9/11 not credible? ...

(11) What about bin Laden's former ties to the U.S.? Don't they reveal
the secret roots of conspiracy? ...

(12) What about looking at who benefits to see who must be responsible
- doesn't that imply conspiracy?

(13) But surely the U.S. government is capable of committing atrocities,
isn't it? Doesn't that make plausible a conspiracy? ...

(14) Why is conspiracy theorizing popular among critics of injustice?

(15) How do conspiracy theories lead to harmful political inclinations
and allegiances? ...

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