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Among the Truthers

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.  

Relevant Links
Get Organized!  Nick Pinto, Village Voice. Naomi Klein tells a new generation how to protest globalization and free trade.
Trilateral Commission Wants War with Iran  Alex Jones, It’s not just the Bilderbergers; you also have to watch out for the conspirators at the Trilateral Commission. (Video)
Overcoming Revisionism  Eric Trager, New Republic. So long as conspiracy theories persist in the Middle East, Arabs will continue to view American policies aimed at preventing “another 9/11” as illegitimate.
Mossad's Most Dastardly (Alleged) Plots  Joshua E. Keating, Foreign Policy. From spying vultures to psychological warfare using heavy metal bands, is there nothing the Mossad can’t do?

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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Bklynguy on November 9, 2011 at 4:16 pm (Reply)
This article does a disservice by failing to distinguish between anti-Semitic hatemongers, 9/11 Truther and Birther crackpots, and their ilk, and those who analyze the consequences of the gross economic inequality in America. One sees impossibly vast conspiracies of evil men operating in secret, while the other shows how the inequality is a result of a combination of impersonal economic forces like globalization and conscious political choices such as lowering income tax rates, and further studies how the hierarchies formed by this inequality distort our political system to maintain their privileges. The overly large share of income and wealth enjoyed by the top 1% of earners is no secret; the data is easily obtainable. The 1% is no secret conspiracy; these folks exist and operate in plain sight, and they have achieved their power and wealth not by secret evil plots but through the ordinary operation of an increasingly unfair ecomomic system. All the Occupy Wall Street protestors are doing is drawing public attention to how unfair our society is becoming and that we can do something about it.
Assistant Village Idiot on November 12, 2011 at 11:00 pm (Reply)
Bklynguy, the difference isn't that great. One group is just closer to your point of view, so it seems more reasonable. I have concluded that the paranoid tendency precedes the identification of the conspirators. There is a cast of mind which readily believes that all would go along pretty well if it weren't for this dangerous small group spoiling it for the rest of us. Then it goes looking to find who those dangerous ones are. An interesting theology of sin undergirds it--a belief that most of humanity is good or only mildly sinful (though perhaps stupid and easily misled), while there exists a percentage of superevils among us.
David Alman on November 13, 2011 at 10:16 am (Reply)
I'd like to add to the conspiratorial identifications made by James Kirchick, some of which actually predate the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: the belief by George Washington and his cohorts that King George III meant to subjugate the American colonies to his will; the belief by the ancient Jews that Rome wanted to destroy the Temple; Caeser's belief that there was a plot on his life. Among the post-Protocol conspiratorial beliefs was that Adolph Hitler intended some sort of harm to Jews, and, of course, Kirchick's identification of the ridiculous conspiratorial belief that poverty affects only the 99% and never affects the 1%.
Bklynguy on November 14, 2011 at 10:50 am (Reply)
According to Avi, there is no real difference between someone like David Icke, with his belief that earth is controlled by alien shape shifters, and someone like C. Wright Mills, the sociologist who wrote "The Power Elite," an analyis of political and economic hierarchies created by an economic system which inequitably distibutes wealth and the power that comes with it--except that one is closer to my view. I agree that it is closer to my view to take a well-researched and thoroughly documented analysis, which conforms to standard academic protocols, more seriously than the ravings of someone who appears to be off his meds; but that must be because I am so biased that I am unable to see both as the same sort of conspiracy-mongering junk. Mea culpa.
Assistant Village Idiot on November 14, 2011 at 6:33 pm (Reply)
Bklynguy, if you take the farthest of one side, versus the closest of the other, and tell yourself, "AVI is being ridiculous to compare those," I suppose you can make that case--if your intent is to try to win arguments rather than try to arrive at understanding. If your only point is that David Ickes's belief in lizard people is crazier than Occupy Wall Street, granted. But it is the same Type of thing, varying only in degree. I don't necessarily disagree with you entirely on these matters: I have kicked around right-wing paranoids online. But before you tell me how uninformed I am, you might consider that by profession I deal with psychiatric emergencies and can tease out some differences between paranoid schizophrenia, anosognosia, paranoid personality disorder, grandiosity--and simple wrongheadedness.
Bklynguy on November 15, 2011 at 11:34 am (Reply)
Why do you say that Icke and Occupy Wall Street are the same type of thing? They're not. The Icke, Truther, Zion/Protocols types think the world is controlled by evil conspiracies for which no real solid evidence exists. Their beliefs are not rational and are not the fruit of research but of some pyschological dynamic having little to do with reality. Occupy Wall Street and others, like C.Wright Mills, who study how the world works do research and assemble evidence to support their view that, because of the way the economic system operates, a very small section of the populace has an outsized influence on the shaping of events. You do acknowledge the difference between craziness and wrongheadedness. Icke et al. are insane; Occupy Wall Street may be wrongheaded. They are not the same.
Assistant Village Idiot on November 15, 2011 at 8:49 pm (Reply)
C Wright Mills posited theories; they are not facts. I don't call "thinking about things" research, because confirmation bias is too easy. Assembling evidence sounds nice, but fanatics assemble evidence as well. In fact, they are quite obsessive about assembling evidence, overinterpreting all of it. Occupy Wall Street does assemble evidence, but it is not irrefutable; in fact, it is often refuted. You might start by discovering who the 1% actually are and asking yourself why Occupy Wall Street would not know that this is a group of doctors, lawyers, and entertainers, with a few financiers thrown in. Who in Occupy Wall Street knows that, do you think, and why do they nevertheless persist in their accusations? I call them the same because the belief that a small group has an "outsized influence" is a plausible-sounding but ultimately paranoid idea. I recognise that it is a common idea, shared by most people on the left, but it is still paranoid. Power is diffuse in America. Bill Gates, or even the top 100 richest people, have little control over your life. Actually, the people who can make your life miserable are the government. They can charge you money, put you in jail, prevent you from building or keep you from certain trades. But even government is a pretty diffuse group. Belief in a small coterie of powerful people is a cast of mind that precedes the identification of such persons. And now I am done, not because you aren't worth talking to but because I have made my few points as well as I might.
David Alman on November 16, 2011 at 3:42 pm (Reply)
Assistant Village Idiot has a nice, comfy point of view in which all of us--billionaires and the homeless--are equally the victims of a very bad government. I think he's saying that while the 1%, the billionaires, spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year in sending lobbyists to make the government do what makes billionaires happy, the homeless and the unemployed poor could do the same--if they wanted to, instead of wasting their money on food and medical care, for which they're not insured. David Alman
b on November 17, 2011 at 10:38 am (Reply)
Most of the 1% are financiers, CEOs, etc., with a handful of others thrown in. They do have an outsize influence--unless one really believes that Bill Gates has just as much influence as, and no more influence than, average middle class Americans, not to mention homeless ones.
Assistant Village Idiot on November 17, 2011 at 6:35 pm (Reply)
Bill Gates does have much more influence than a homeless person, but not billions of times more influence. There are some pretty hefty categories of people who have little power--sometimes because they make themselves that way, sometimes unintentionally, mostly some combination. And there are hefty numbers of people who have power in limited realms. Persuasive people, rich people, people who control bottleneck resources, people well-placed in churches, entertainment, a hundred industries, academia, journalism---all of these exist in abundance in this country. Only the government has power in many realms in our society. Even there, few people control more than a little portion.

Harping on the outsized influence of the rich sounds obvious, but try to describe it. They have power to make the U.S. Congress do . . . what? Carve out a loophole for their particular industry, so that one company does better than another, similar one? That may be unfair to the similar company, but how does it affect you? What prevents people getting or paying a mortgage? Some of the problem may be laid at the feet of politicians who made bad policy, some with wealthy people who gamed the system, making rates marginally higher or lower, jobs marginally more or less available, and some with individuals who made decisions that were slightly or greatly wrong. A local zoning board, a corrupt cop, or a local criminal can affect your life far more.
David Alman on November 18, 2011 at 2:37 pm (Reply)
Lobbying for tax exemptions is only one lobbying function. The billionaires also lobbied successfully for nearly a century to keep the minimum wage so low that working families earning the minimum wage live at outrageous poverty levels. The billionaire lobbies have also succeeded in depriving unions of the right to elect dedicated leaders who will protect wages and working conditions (see the Taft-Hartley Act, which gives employers the right to complain that dedicated union candidates for office are "communists" and, when those complaints are upheld, deprives the unions of the right to negotiate for their members unless they oust the "communists"). Congress never passed a law intruding on the unfettered right of business organizations to elect whomever they wish. The billionaire lobbies have also succeeded in keeping the after-tax income of corporations and the wealthy 1000% higher than the after-tax income of average workers.
Sam Posin on March 1, 2012 at 7:50 am (Reply)
This provides a good opportunity to illustrate the importance of understanding the necessity of left-wing movements such as Occupy Wall Street. True socialism, such as the claim that a minority holds a monopolizing grip on society through its financial power, is not a conspiracy theory. In fact, it is the opposite--an institutional analysis. The fact that minorities hold such power and exploit the masses is not a cabal but the inevitable and natural consequence of capitalism. It is the institution that must be opposed, not the (usually well-meaning) people who make the best use of it. In contrast, to the conspiracy theorist, the institution would be fine if only that damn Jewish cabal weren't wrecking everything. The problem with movements such as Occupy Wall Street is that some people are seduced by a pseudo-leftist worldview, in which sinister cabals and men behind curtains are responsible for all the world's ills, rather than seeing capitalism for the uncontrollable, destructive Golem that it is. One is true socialism; the other, the "socialism of fools," is precisely what paved the way for fascism and fueled the dissemination of the Protocols.
David Alman on March 1, 2012 at 12:01 pm (Reply)
It is correct that capitalism is the social order responsible for poverty and other sufferings. But capitalism is an abstraction, not a tactile player that, without the activity of humans, fires workers, sets low wage levels, sets profit goals, and so on. Humans do these things. They do so to their own profit, not because they are capitalist robots with no will of their own. The Occupiers correctly identify them as the 1%. Finally, capitalism, as an abstraction, is not a social order with an eternally unchangeable form. Under sufficient public pressure, it can be regulated and even replaced by a social order based on public cooperatives or other entities that better serve the public. That will not be easy, of course. The leaders of capitalism, like the leaders of past monarchies and feudalism, govern with soldiers and executions at their side. There eventually comes a point at which terminal greed grips the 1% and creates a counterforce that overwhelms the soldiers and the executionsers. That time is not around the corner, but the terminal greed is growing.
Assistant Village Idiot on March 1, 2012 at 9:16 pm (Reply)
Where did all those poor people--a much larger percentage of the population before 1800--come from before capitalism? The idea that the free market is responsible for some unfairness and misallocation, and hence suffering, is worth discussing. The idea that it is largely responsible is simply insane.
David Alman on March 2, 2012 at 11:11 am (Reply)
Speaking as one of the "insane" who think the greed of the "free market" (a nice name for capitalism) is responsible for poverty, I'd like to suggest mentioning the alternatives. It can't be that the poor of feudalism are the poor of capitalism, because the poor would each have to be hundreds of years old to qualify as victims of feudalism. The poor are not mutants of some kind; all humans are said to be in the image of God. They are not swarms of fiends risen from Hell, though they may appear to be so when they strike a profit-making factory or communications enterprise. It is very doubtful that the poor are poor because they are lazy, because they can't afford to be lazy unless they have wealthy parents. Finally, if there were no poor, there would be no rich. In all of human history, these two strata of humans have been intimately linked, like the two sides of a coin.
Assistant Village Idiot on March 2, 2012 at 11:31 pm (Reply)
It is hard to to imagine, on short notice, a worse understanding of history. Getting free is nowhere near as hard as it feels. It can be done. Liberalism is a social, not an intellectual, phenomenon--based on feelings about poverty rather than actually improving the lives of the poor.
Sam Posin on March 4, 2012 at 1:54 am (Reply)
Of course capitalism requires the work of people. However, in many ways it has formed itself into a knot which cannot be untied. Go into any poor area of town; you will find that the most powerful multinational corporations are often centered there, with the lowest economic strata of people employed there--in the very companies that seek to oppress them by influencing government to adopt austerity measures detrimental to the poor. No matter how you cut it, conspiracy theories are always an unhealthy and fascistic, not to mention moronic and close-minded, way of viewing history; it just so happens that capitalism, with its complex, interwoven, golemesque institutions, is a great example of how bad conspiracy theories are at providing an adequate understanding of the world. Paranoid simplifications of capitalism have been the bane of the populace's ability to know how to fight capitalism and, accordingly, have provided the origins of modern anti-Semitism and reactionary pseudo-egalitarian movements like fascism. We should fight equally hard against both capitalism and conspiracy theories.
David Alman on March 4, 2012 at 4:26 pm (Reply)
Capitalism is not a "conspiracy;" it's a social order, as feudalism was. I learned as an organizer and union shop steward that if you wanted a raise hike, you talked to the boss or his agent and, when you were lucky, worked out a deal that was about 65-percent satisfactory. If you were unluckly, you struck the plant; when you won, you got between 70 and 80 percent of what you needed. Where is the conspiracy in all this? In a fair number of European countries, some natural resources and industries have been nationalized, which has stabilized wages, pensions, and medical programs. Suggesting that we might do the same is not a conspiracy. Creating cooperatively owned factories, farms, communications services, and other social functions is not conspiratorial. Criticizing capitalism is not a conspiracy. What conspiracies regarding capitalism have you discovered that have any relevance to it as a social order?
Sam Posin on March 4, 2012 at 11:36 pm (Reply)
Yes, capitalism is an institution, not a conspiracy; therefore, the use of conspiracy theories to explain capitalism will never produce anything but reactionary garbage.

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