How can a nation founded on a Constitution that, in its logic and rationality, is “the crown jewel of the Enlightenment” have so fallen prey to conspiracy theorists that today no fewer than 36 percent of Americans believe that it is either “somewhat likely” or “very likely” that “federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or took no action to stop them”? How can it be that one-sixth of Americans think it “somewhat likely” that “the collapse of the twin towers in New York was aided by explosives secretly planted in the two buildings”?
If you yourself believe either of those things, stop reading now, and please don’t bother sending me your green-ink scrawlings from the Planet Zog, as I get quite enough of them already. (As I was reading this book on a flight from Milwaukee to La Guardia, the lady next to me told me that JFK had been assassinated by forces loyal to Karl Rove and the Bush family. When I pointed out that Mr. Rove could only have been about 13 at the time, she replied: “That’s old enough to fire a rifle in Texas!”)
In attempting to understand why conspiracy theories are thriving in modern America, the (Canadian) National Post journalist Jonathan Kay immersed himself in the Truther movement, the people who believe 9/11 was an inside job, and also investigated various other groups, such as those who believe that vaccines cause autism, Israel controls America, George W. Bush is a follower of Nazi ideology, and FEMA is preparing to imprison political dissidents prior to imposing a totalitarian New World Order. Kay has hit these nutjobs’ websites, attended their rallies, interviewed their leaders, gone on their marches, and delved deep into their sadly twisted minds.
As well as being superbly written, utterly absorbing, and occasionally very funny, this is an important book, as it investigates why we currently have what the author calls “a countercultural rift in the fabric of consensual American reality, a gaping cognitive gap into which has leaped a wide range of political paranoiacs previously consigned to the lunatic fringe — Larouchites, UFO nuts, libertarian survivalists, Holocaust deniers, and a thousand other groups besides.” As my mother used to say: “There are more out than in.”
Kay notes how some periods in history have created more conspiracies than others, specifying France after the Revolution, America’s Great Plains after the late-19th-century depression, Germany after the Great War, and the entire Western world after JFK’s death, Vietnam, Watergate, and the rise of the 1960s counterculture. He argues that “these have been the moments when shrieking prophets and conspiracy theorists have found their moments.” The trauma of 9/11 was clearly another such moment, and, in Kay’s view, has created “a state of intellectual agitation that isn’t a temporary phenomenon” but instead “has far-reaching social, political, and psychological consequences that have yet to be fully absorbed or understood.”
Conspiracy theories provide what has always been demanded in a secular age, “a cosmic explanation for evil,” and this also has taken place in today’s postmodernist intellectual environment in which, as Kay puts it, “thanks to the rise of identity politics, it is imagined that words — and even facts — have no meaning independent of the emotional effect they produce upon their audience. Everyone feels entitled to their own private reality.”
Kay also notes “the intellectual balkanization created by the World Wide Web”: “For the first time in history, ordinary people can now spread their opinions, no matter how hateful or eccentric, without them first gaining the approval of editors, publishers, broadcasters, or paying consumers.” Far from ushering in a world of blissful realism, freedom, and mutual comprehension, the Internet has unleashed the private fanaticism of millions of crackpots into cyberspace, where it flies around, mutating and cross-pollinating, without any real policing or rational input from society. If there has ever been a case for old-fashioned elitism, the phobias, fanaticism, fetishism, and fascism found on the Web made it.
When an anarchist site like WikiLeaks, run by the preternaturally weird Julian Assange, publishes huge tranches of secret documents it claims undermine America’s “authoritarian conspiracy” against “a more just society,” fuel is heaped onto the flames of global paranoia and anti-Americanism. As it was, remarkably little in the way of any conspiracy was actually uncovered by WikiLeaks, and the U.S. seems to have been remarkably honest and open in its dealings with foreign governments, and far less two-faced than most other global hegemons in history. Yet the proportion of Americans who say that they “basically trust their government” has fallen from 75 percent in 1958 to a mere 22 percent today.
Kay rightly blames some of the excesses of the Seventies for this, such as the secret bombing of Cambodia, the My Lai cover-up, CIA assassinations, and of course Watergate, but he is probably going too far in blaming “the unsatisfying Warren Commission Report on the JFK assassination,” which could hardly satisfy people who continue to insist that Kennedy was killed by anyone other than a lone, highly experienced gunman. Kay is on surer ground when he points out that every journalist’s desperation to be the next Woodward or Bernstein has meant that the media have become obsessed with conspiracies and thus “interested partisans manipulating public perceptions.” The way that Hollywood continually peddles movies in which any white, middle-aged male working for a government agency — especially the White House, Pentagon, or CIA — is automatically assumed to be a slimy, vicious traitor must also have had its effect on public psychology over the past four decades.
Kay is genuinely concerned that conspiracists have “spun out of rationality’s ever-weakening gravitational pull, and into mutually impenetrable Manichean fantasy universes of their own construction.” This is dangerous for American democracy, especially as it seems to be moving into the mainstream. In analyzing the minds of the Truthers, Kay finds “a nihilistic distrust in government, total alienation from conventional politics, a need to reduce the world’s complexities to good-versus-evil fables, the melding of secular politics with apocalyptic End-Is-Nigh religiosity, and a rejection of the basic tools of discourse.” These people are poisoning the well of democratic debate in modern America, and need to be countered. Instead, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a committed Truther and Holocaust-denier — visited Yale last September, the senior research fellow who organized the event, Hillary Mann Leverett, claimed that his smooth performance proved that he was “not a crazy, irrational leader.”
Yet if this hard-hitting, perceptive, and highly readable book proves anything, it is that impressive speaking ability and smooth charm are often to be found among crazy people. It is what they say that matters, rather than the way they say it. And what Ahmadinejad actually says about 9/11 — that it was staged by the U.S. government “to reverse the declining American economy and . . . save the Zionist regime” — shows that he is the very model of a crazy, irrational leader.
Kay divides conspiracy theorists into eight distinctive categories — The Midlife Crisis, The Failed Historian, The Damaged Survivor, The Cosmic Voyager, The Clinical Conspiracist, The Crank, The Evangelical Doomsayer, and The Firebrand — and illustrates each with a case study. He points out how little serious academic research has been done into the psychology of conspiracy theorizing, despite its being a classic “symptom of a mind in flight from reality,” and how Truthers are almost always men.
A young construction worker from Brooklyn called Luke Rudkowski must have won the record for multiple conspiracy beliefs, when in April 2007 he asked Zbigniew Brzezinski in a public meeting: “How do the American people know that 9/11 wasn’t staged, wasn’t engineered by you, David Rockefeller, the Trilateral Commission, the Committee on Foreign Relations, and the Bilderberg Group, sir?” (I love the deferential little appellation “sir” at the end of this accusation of mass murder.) But the British Truther and former MI5 agent David Shayler easily wins the prize for the most far-fetched theory; he believes that “no planes were involved in 9/11.” (In fact, he says, they were giant holograms.) But then he has also stated that he is “the Messiah” and has “the secret of eternal life.”
The only thing that sane people can do is to repeat, slowly and comprehensively and often, that no, Jesus wasn’t the first Freemason, that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a czarist forgery, that Jews weren’t told to absent themselves from work in the Twin Towers on 9/11, that William Shakespeare wrote the works of the playwright called William Shakespeare, that there wasn’t a plot to kill New Orleans’s black population during Hurricane Katrina, that the Queen of England is not an international drug dealer, that AIDS wasn’t invented by the CIA to cull global population, that aircraft vapor trails don’t contain chemicals designed to alter human behavior, that the government is not inserting microchips into our bloodstream, that Mohamed Atta does not have a body double, and so on and so interminably on. But then perhaps I’ve written all this just because I’m secretly in the pay of the Vatican, MI5, and the Mossad.
– Mr. Roberts is the author of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (HarperCollins).