Among the Truthers

By James Kirchick
Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Do we live in the age of conspiracy?  In April, after repeated prodding by then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump, Barack Obama felt compelled to release his "long form" birth certificate to dispel rumors that that he was not a natural-born U.S. citizen.  (In response, Trump initially doubted the document's authenticity.)  In a 2006 poll, 36 percent of Americans said they believe it "somewhat likely" or "very likely" that the U.S. government played a role in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  A book about the Bilderbergers—an elite group of geriatric heavyweights like David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger that allegedly seeks to impose a "New World Order" on mankind—has been translated into 48 languages.  

Jonathan Kay, an editor of Canada's National Post newspaper, set out to investigate the persistence of such conspiracy theories.  His new book, Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground, tells us what he found (Kay is a visiting fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank which I recently joined as a fellow myself).  

Conspiracy theorists come in many varieties.  David Icke, a professional soccer goalie turned new age guru, thinks humankind lives in a fake universe "symbolized by the Matrix."  Barrie Zwicker, known as "Canada's leading 9/11 Truther," agrees to speak with Kay only if he can interrogate him in turn and hits buttons on a chess clock throughout their conversation to control Kay's use of time.  Despite the oddball assortment of personalities Kay interviews, the theories they propagate have common themes.  Whether they focus on the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the 1969 moon landing, they tend to center on secretive powerbrokers of "boundless evil" who exercise a malign grip on the world. 

Modern conspiracy theories also have a common origin.  Their model and template, Kay says, is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the early-20th-century Tsarist hoax that sets out the conspiracy theory underlying modern anti-Semitism. Even if today's conspiracy theories are not anti-Semitic (for example, the belief that satanic activities take place at the Bohemian Grove, an annual men's gathering in California) and even if the theorists have never heard of the Protocols, it is the Protocols from which the theories all take their basic structure.  And these common roots produce common consequences.  "Not all conspiracy theorists are anti-Semitic," Kay writes, "but all conspiracy movements—all of them—attract anti-Semites." Occupy Wall Street, the catchphrase of which is the conspiratorial notion that 1 percent of the population is oppressing the other 99 percent, has attracted at least a handful of anti-Semites, thus rendering it but the latest proof of this assertion.

Many conspiracy theorists, Kay argues, are motivated not by greed or bigotry but by a profoundly misplaced altruism.  Imagine that you believed your government had helped murder 3,000 of its own citizens in order to create a pretext for war in the Middle East.  Could you stay silent?  "I would be compelled by my sense of integrity," one 9/11 Truther tells Kay, "to try to bring the perpetrators to justice."  At the same time, most conspiracists "subconsciously erect a rigid mental firewall" between their ordinary lives and the "life-and-death implications" of their claims.  After all, how could they hold their 9/11 Truth conventions in massive public spaces if they really believed the government was intent on silencing them?  The conspiracists may not be totally insane, but they are extremely good at compartmentalizing. 

In what is bound to be the most controversial part of his book, Kay categorizes various popular left-wing writers as outright conspiracy theorists.  He takes aim at Naomi Klein, whose wildly popular book The Shock Doctrine argued that a cabal of global capitalists orchestrates natural and political disasters for profit, and someone whose "ideas," if one can treat her warmed-over Marxist bromides as such, have clearly had a massive influence on the discourse of Occupy Wall Street.  He also targets Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn and devotes an entire chapter to skewering academic "studies" professors who claim, essentially, that Western civilization itself is a conspiracy to destroy women, the poor, and non-Europeans.  Conspiracism is not just a fringe phenomenon in academe, Kay writes; there is a "vague but powerful baseline belief among educated liberals that mainstream society is divided into victims and oppressors—and that the latter are largely white, male, straight, middle-aged men who look a lot like George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld."  

You would think the proliferation of media and the growth of human knowledge would lay waste to conspiracy theories as they have done to other superstitions.  But Kay argues that the rapid diversification and democratization of the media have actually contributed to the rise of conspiracy theories.  People no longer rely on a few newspapers and television networks for information; countless outlets now cater to every ideological bent.  If a conspiracy theory appeals to a particular constituency, some media outlet will be sure to produce what its audience wants to hear.  Increased skepticism about the mainstream media has had its positive consequences but has also led Americans to talk past each other, relying on the particular facts that suit their purposes.

It is tempting to make light of conspiracy theories and the cranks who perpetrate them.  But Kay argues that the prevalence of these theories threatens nothing less than the Enlightenment tradition on which Western civilization is founded.  It destroys the possibility of rational discourse, "threaten[ing] to turn the country into a sort of intellectual Yugoslavia—a patchwork of agitated cults screaming at one another in mutually unintelligible tongues."

And conspiracy theories can kill.  The Holocaust, of course, like virtually all ethnic or religious wars, was predicated on a conspiracy.  Kay also notes the case of former South African President Thabo Mbeki—who, because he believed that HIV does not cause AIDS, prevented the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs, a decision that helped cause over 300,000 deaths.  There are echoes of this paranoia in the African-American community: Kay points to a 2010 study in which 44 percent of African-American men undergoing treatment for HIV in Los Angeles said they believed that the virus was "man-made."  Thirty-five percent thought it was produced "in a government laboratory."  

It is not just marginalized people who espouse such dangerous, even suicidal beliefs.  Countless suburban "web-surfing soccer moms" with autistic children cling to the notion—promoted by the likes of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—that vaccines caused the disorder. If there's one shortcoming in this excellent book, it's the wish that Kay had devoted more effort to understanding these concrete consequences of modern conspiracism and less time to slumming with the more easily discredited "Truthers."

James Kirchick, based in Prague, is a contributing editor of the New Republic and a Fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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