It took all of about two weeks after the massacre of September 11 before I heard the first of the many conspiracy theories about that awful day. I was having a lunch with a business colleague from Montreal, and he assured me that Mossad was behind the attacks. After all, how else could you explain that all of the Jews who worked in the World Trade Center had stayed home that day?
I was taken aback. This was an educated and successful business man, well travelled, curious about the world, and he was spouting the sort of nonsense that I associated with the schizophrenics who used to hang out at the bottom of the very long escalator that led to the World Trade Center PATH station, some of whom probably died that day. How was this possible? I quickly changed the subject, but that moment stayed with me.
I had seen conspiracy theorists in action before, and was not immune to the malady myself. I briefly questioned the Warren Commission’s findings with respect to the Kennedy Assassination, and even wondered how Vince Foster ‘really’ died. I lost my taste for conspiracy theories when I started to practice law. As an attorney, I had to review the facts of a given case, and develop a theory based on those facts, a theory that could be sold to a judge or jury. I quickly learned that there are always ‘stray’ facts, things that do not make much sense. I also learned that the simpler theory of a case is the one that makes the most sense.
Journalist Jonathan Kay explores the world of conspiracy theories in Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Conspiracist Underground. The title is a bit misleading, as Kay looks beyond Truthers to Birthers, Assasination Doubters, Anti-Semites, New World Order Cranks, UFO believers, Gold Bugs, and many more. It is a fascinating look at the weird American underground.
The book opens with a discussion of the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 and how in the aftermath of that devastating event there was a widespread need to explain what had happened and by doing so, find some greater significance to the event rather than it was just a random earthquake. Kay uses this an example of an early conspiracy theory, as it contains the essential element of all conspiracy theories, the need to explain and give significance to an awful event.
Kay focuses on what he calls the psychological aspects of trutherdom (which he breaks down into the following categories: midlife crisis, failed historian, damaged survivor, cosmic voyager, clinical conpsiracist, crank, evangelical doomsayer, firebrand) with the unifying theme among those categories being that the conspiracist believes that he is privy to secret knowledge and is therefore smarter than most people (who are often derided as “sheeple” by conspiracists). Kay does not dismiss them as stupid; Rather, he tries to understand their mindset.
Kay observes that while conspiracy theorists have always been with us, usually operating in the dark corners of society, the internet has allowed conspiracy theories to flourish, allowing like minded people to exchange information, theories, pictures, video, etc. He points to the crash of TWA Flight 800 over Long Island Sound as the first true conspiracy theory of the internet age, and shows how it served as a template for future conspiracies to play out on the internet. Kay also lays out how conspiracy theories have served to poison the civic atmosphere.
In the final section of the book, Kay offers a strategy for fighting back against the scourge of conspiracy theories. The first strategy, what he calls the “Pound of Cure”, is to confront conspiracists wherever and whenever possible. Kay notes this can be a difficult task, as many, if not most, conspiracists claim they are not putting forward any particular theory but are just “asking questions”. Once you answer those questions, the conspiracist just rolls on to the next ‘question’ yet never questions his or her own beliefs. I can report that calling conspracists on their bullshit is a maddening experience, having attempted to do so many times over the years. They are quite slippery, as their conspiracy theory creates a self contained world with its own internal logic, and once you knock one ‘question’ down, another pops up, like a crazy game of whack-a-mole.
The second strategy, which Kay describes as “an Ounce of Prevention” is to teach the history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Holocaust Denial (as part of a broader course of studies in rationalism and skepticism) so that the basic themes of all systemic conspiracy theories can be recognized. I think Kay is a tad too optimistic about this tactic being successful. Teaching students the history and background of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (it has been exposed over and over again as a complete and total fraud) will only lead to accusations that the American education system is an integral part of the worldwide Zionist conspiracy, and teaching about the background and history of Holocaust Denial will only lead to further ‘questions’ about the Holocaust itself. While I share Kay’s hope that there is a way to slay the conspiracist menace, I fear that it is a permanent part of our culture. Despite that minor quibble with the author, I enjoyed reading this book. It is well worth seeking out.
You can read the preface and introduction here.