I had intended to turn immediately to my Marx lecture this morning after my walk, but the discussion in the comments section proved too interesting, so let me say a bit about what, somewhat presumptuously, might be labeled popular epistemology. In short, how do I know, indeed do I know, that 9/11 was the work of Al Qaeda terrorists seeking to strike a death blow to American Democracy?
I might think to begin by asking how I know that the twin towers were actually destroyed on September 11, 2001, but that would reveal a distressing credulity. Clearly, I must first ask how I know that there ever were two tall buildings in lower Manhattan commonly referred to as the twin towers. You think I jest, but I am serious. How do I know that? Indeed, do I know that?
I grew up in New York [well, Queens, which is not quite the same thing], and after leaving in 1950 for college, I returned in 1964 to teach at Columbia. But Wikipedia says the World Trade Center was built in 1973 [if you can believe Wikipedia], and I left Columbia in 1971. I never saw the twin towers in person, nor can I recall talking about them with anyone who saw them up close. To be sure, I have seen pictures of them, but in some of those pictures King Kong is climbing up the side of one of them and then jumping to the other, so I am not sure I can rely entirely on those pictures.
Clearly, my belief in the existence of the twin towers depends on what in the old days was called the consensus gentium. But that same consensus has it that the destruction of the buildings was the work of Al Qaeda, and I am a trifle puzzled how to know which bits of common knowledge to accept and which to reject. I mean, I was alive when Jack Kennedy was assassinated, or at least when it is said he was assassinated. I never met the man. I went to college with his baby brother, Teddy, but I never met him either, so that is no help. Maybe LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover spirited him away, put out the unlikely story that a loser named Lee Harvey Oswald shot him, and then kept him alive, wearing an iron mask, until he died during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Stranger things have happened.
So I am reduced to assessing probabilities, since my personal knowledge is, speaking generally, inadequate even to establish decisively something as non-controversial as the existence of Iowa. And I must say that it strikes me as implausible that Cheney and company arranged for a bunch of Taliban backed Saudis to slam some hi-jacked planes into two big buildings and the Pentagon so that they would have an excuse for attacking Iraq. If that was the plan, why on earth didn’t they just recruit some Iraqis for the job?
More to the point, I have enjoyed enormously the contributions of Jerry Fresia to our on-going conversation, but I have never met Jerry, nor do I know personally anyone who has told me that he or she has. I believe that Jerry is an accomplished artist with a doctorate from UMass, but maybe, in the immortal words of our glorious leader, he is a four hundred pound man in his mother’s basement.