“I don’t know what to believe any more”

Iraq mobile production lab

False Claims / Empty Beliefs: Why is this not a comedy?


A month or two ago it was brought to my attention that, as there are Holocaust deniers, so there are now those (in Iran, for example) who say that some or all of the “Charlie Hebdo” events in Paris did not happen. The events were, in this view, in some way staged as part of the battle between Islam and the West.

I will quote right below from the Tehran Times, an English-language newspaper that says it is “not the newspaper of the government; it must be a loud voice of the Islamic Revolution and the loudspeaker of the oppressed people of the world.” Wikipedia has been reporting otherwise:

In 2002, Tehran Times established a news agency which later came to be known as the Mehr News Agency (MNA). . . . MNA is one of the outlets for the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (Iran), accused by dissident groups of planting false stories in the media.

The quote from the Tehran Times about the Charlie Hebdo events:

No terrorist attack took place in France. What occurred was theater on a grand scale. It was clear that the video clip showing the so-called execution of a police officer in the street was not genuine since the masked actors masquerading as terrorists were shooting blanks. It was equally clear that the army of police officers “storming” the kosher food store where a different terrorist was allegedly holding Jewish hostages were also shooting blanks. There are other telltale signs—beyond the obvious fact that it involves heroes and villains from all three monotheistic religions—that the Paris incident was staged and orchestrated, such as the identification left behind in the back seat of the getaway car by one of the “terrorists”, the fact that the “terrorists” escaped and managed to leave Paris despite the full mobilization of the security apparatus, and that none of the “terrorists” were caught alive. None were caught alive because there are no terrorists and the Paris “attacks” could only be sold as a one act play.

I happen not to agree with this version of the “Charlie Hebdo” events, though certainly I recognize that there were theatrical elements in the Western response, and I know all too well—from “9/11”—how such events quickly get used to advance the various interests of various parties, individuals, and businesses. But the point I would make here is that we are all—and no matter where we live or what we believe—awash in theater, in versions (or tall tales), in reports we can’t verify, beliefs we cling to like pieces of a wreck.

We are awash in theater, in reports we can’t verify, beliefs we cling to like pieces of a wreck.

No matter which side of which struggle we are on—or in which closets we may be attempting to hide out—we would do well to admit that about all we know is what we read in the papers (or see on TV, on the Web, NPR, etc.). We trust various sources because they seem to us reasonable, because their sources are people who look and sound like us, went to similar schools as us. Since they share some of our most salient values and are on our side, they must know what they’re talking about.

We are touching on the psychology of belief, a large subject. I find myself fascinated, for example, that, even though we see the Sun rise and set day by day, many of us insist that the Sun is relatively immobile while the Earth spins rapidly—a “fact” that we insistors can neither observe nor feel, and even have difficulty imagining. Were we asked to explain our belief, most of us would be hard pressed to produce a reasonable scientific explanation. Rather, our explanation would quickly become: this is what we learned in school. And this explanation applies of course to many a “fact,” be it scientific, historical, or political.

The overarching goal of James Madison’s argument against “faction” was to protect the wealthy minority from the majority: tenant farmers, artisans, and laborers (to say nothing of slaves).

Many of us Americans, for example, were taught in school about how ingenious our Constitution’s “checks and balances” system is. Yet recently I have read that it may be precisely this system that guarantees our unusually high level of income inequality. (See reference at the end of this post.) And it could be said that this inequality was what James Madison and his Constitution-drafting allies were seeking to defend; in Madison’s celebrated argument against “faction” in the Federalist No. 10 and in the various efforts to protect minorities from the majority, the overarching goal was the protect the wealthy minority from the majority of the population: the tenant farmers, artisans, and laborers (to say nothing of slaves).


I remember hearing that one of the key Western reporters on the Solidarity movement in Poland, a man who could not understand Polish, got a great deal of his information through his driver, and that Solidarity, realizing the importance of drivers as the source of foreign-correspondents’ information, had chosen the man carefully. Of course my information about all this may be false. Where did I hear it? From a relative of the journalist? (I’m not sure; it was long ago.)

I remember Colin Powell testifying [5 February 2003] to the United Nations Security Council about how Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and using mobile production facilities “mounted on road-trailer units and on rail cars.” I did not believe him. My friends and I had used logic to deduce that the US wouldn’t be attacking Saddam Hussein if our putative leaders thought he had weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, the Washington Post headlined a 6 February 2003 editorial “Irrefutable” and declared that after Powell’s U.N. presentation it was “hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.” The same day the New York Times editorialized:

Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the United Nations and a global television audience yesterday with the most powerful case to date that Saddam Hussein stands in defiance of Security Council resolutions and has no intention of revealing or surrendering whatever unconventional weapons he may have. . . . Mr. Powell’s presentation was all the more convincing because he dispensed with apocalyptic invocations of a struggle of good and evil and focused on shaping a sober, factual case against Mr. Hussein’s regime.

Readers may retain echoes, let’s call them, of how subsequently [in January 2004], the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a report concluding that top officials in the Bush administration “systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq’s WMD and ballistic missile programs.” At the U.N., Powell had stated:

Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent. That is enough agent to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets. Even the low end of 100 tons of agent would enable Saddam Hussein to cause mass casualties across more than 100 square miles of territory, an area nearly five times the size of Manhattan.

In September 2004, Powell acknowledged that it was “unlikely that we will find any stockpiles.”

“Purpose of counterintelligence action is to disrupt . . . and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge.” J. Edgar Hoover

Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush & Co. were engaged in systematic misrepresentation (a.k.a. deliberate lying). There are also many cases in which government officials—perhaps deceived or simply misinformed by their multi-billion-dollar espionage operations—simply get things wrong. Presidents, Congresspeople, cabinet ministers, spokespeople, governors, mayors, etc., often broadcast untruths that they themselves do not realize are not true.

And then, again, it is also the case that the manipulation of facts (deliberate lying) is used to advance one’s own interests and harm others. This from a 1970 statement by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to Bureau Special Agents: “Purpose of counterintelligence action is to disrupt the BPP [Black Panther Party] and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge.” (It was this sort of police mentality that led to my arrest when I was 15 years old. A paid informer in my high school identified me as part of a leftwing conspiracy to chop down highway billboards. I didn’t even know that any billboards were being chopped down, but I was a “student leader” who was playing a [quite small] part in campaigns against racism and the Vietnam War and in favor of improving education in our high school. The police do not seem to have made any attempt to ascertain whether I had anything to do with billboards. Facts would have made it more difficult to disrupt my life.)


The Tehran Times story was brought to my attention by a young American who earnestly asked me what I thought of it. The story made a certain sense to him. In hearing of this, I had a sense of how we, young and old, deluged by commercial and political propaganda, and perhaps by some information which does not qualify as commercial and political propaganda, . . . Understandably, we’re having trouble keeping our minds above water. We skip like stones from one bit found on the Web or heard on TV, to a tweet, something heard from a friend of a friend, back to the Web, a movie, . . . until we sink or are sunk? Or until we simply lose track of where we are?

This is hardly a comic matter, but for some reason—for good reason, I will say—when the young Westerner was asking what I thought of the Tehran Times story—couldn’t it be true or have at least some truth to it?—I found myself recalling—taking refuge in—a comic bit. It is Demetri Martin’s wonderful little riff about the product “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.” The text:

I use this product called “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” because sometimes when I’m having toast I like to be incredulous. “How was breakfast?”

Unbelievable. Fooled again!

It even tells me how to feel.

Sometimes I mix “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” with butter to make “I Can Believe Some Of It’s Butter.”

I was in a restaurant and the waitress said, “Do you want butter with that?”

I said, “I don’t know what to believe any more.”

We are lucky to be able to laugh.


I can't believe it's not butterCredits & Links

Top graphic, of an alleged mobile production facility for biological weapons, was used by Colin Powell in his 5 February 2003 speech to the United Nations Security Council.

The Demetri Martin routine is from his These Are Jokes CD. The whole thing’s available on YouTube. For the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” bit, slide up to 14.45 and go from there to 15.39.

Canadian expert: What occurred in Paris was theater on a grand scale,” Tehran Times, online 25 January 2015; in print 26 January 2015.

Argument about income inequality and checks and balances (or “vetoes”) is made at the tail end of Jill Lepore, “Richer and Poorer: Accounting for inequality,” The New Yorker, 16 March 2015. The argument is a brainchild of two scholars of comparative politics: Alfred Stepan, who teaches at Columbia, and the late Juan J. Linz.

James Madison, The Federalist No. 10: The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection (continued), first published in the New York Daily Advertiser, 22 November 1787.

US Department of State website, “Remarks to the United Nations Security Council,” Secretary Colin L. Powell, New York City, February 5, 2003.

Ten Years After Powell’s U.N. Speech, Old Hands Are Ready for More Blood,” by Norman Solomon, founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and author of War Made Easy. See also the Institute’s news release of 4 February 2013: “Colin Powell’s Infamous U.N. Speech, 10 Years Later: Deceiving Public, Ignoring Whistleblowers Led to War.”

New York Times editorial, “The Case Against Iraq,” 6 February 2003.

Bill Moyers, “Buying the War,” Frontline/PBS, 25 April 2007. Examines the press coverage in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Click for transcript.

J. Edgar Hoover quoted in FBI document, 16 September 1970, Director FBI to SAC’s [special agents in charge] in Baltimore, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Haven, San Francisco, and Washington Field Office. Document is apparently available at the FBI reading room. It is quoted in Wikipedia’s article on the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, as accessed March 2015.

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False Claims — Empty Beliefs

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