The June 6th issue of National Review On Dead Tree had an intriguing essay by Andrew Roberts on Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, by Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay. I haven’t read Kay’s book yet, but it certainly sounds fascinating — and timely, if not a few years overdue. As Kay does in his book, Roberts begins his review by asking how and why so many Americans have gone off the rails, and into the tall grass of conspiracy theories of all sorts. (Subscription required to read at NRO):
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.”
Just ask former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, as Mark Steyn noted in the summer of 2004, shortly after the Democratic politician resigned from office:
“My truth is that I am a gay American,” announced Gov. James McGreevey to the people of New Jersey last Thursday.
That’s such an exquisitely contemporary formulation: ”my” truth. Once upon a time, there was only ”the” truth. Now everyone gets his own — or, as the governor put it, ”One has to look deeply into the mirror of one’s soul and decide one’s unique truth in the world.” For Jim McGreevey, his truth is that he’s a gay American; for others in the Garden State, the truth about McGreevey is that he’s a corrupt sexual harasser who put his lover on the state payroll in a critical homeland security post, and whose I-am-what-I-am confessional is a tactical feint that distracts the media sob sisters from the fact that, as his final service to the Democratic Party, he’s resigned in such a way as to deny the people an early vote on his successor.
We’ll see whose truth prevails in the fullness of time.
An expedient postmodern Oprahfied excuse is a useful device for a politician while falling on his sword, and in the case of Anthony Weiner’s elite media defenders, conspiracy theories became a sort of modified limited hangout to explain away his very public online mistakes, while they hoped the scandal would blow over. But for millions of everyday people, as Kathy Shaidle likes to say, paraphrasing fellow Canadian journalist Robert Fulford, conspiracy theories are “history for stupid people.”
But they also provide some nifty mental escape hatches, particularly for people who consider themselves anything but stupid. Believing that George Bush personally blew up the WTC avoids any introspection whatsoever about the state of Islamofascism, and thus avoids the doubleplusungood crimethink that could occur when questioning the religion of multiculturalism. And second, it takes into account the tremendous scope of the end result of the incident in question, and builds a sufficiently large mechanism to have caused it. Instead of a handful of attackers armed with box cutters on 9/11, presumably the average truther pictures in his mind a crack CIA squad parachuting or helicoptering before September 11th and rigging the WTC with explosives, Mission: Impossible-style.
Similarly, instead of one crazed Communist shooting JFK (and thus risking having to think that maybe there’s something to the Cold War after all), in his 1991 film, filmed at the corner of the Manchurian Candidate and the Parallax View, Oliver Stone has half the country involved in shooting Kennedy, from the mob to the CIA to the Joint Chiefs to Lyndon Johnson. (Stone’s film wasn’t exactly the first drama to make that last claim, incidentally.) Perhaps so many go down that particular rabbit hole because the size of Stone’s fevered conspiracy and the planning that would be required to pull it off equalizes much better with the end result — the killing of a beloved young president — than the randomness of one rather pathetic man. (Though as we’ve seen time and time again this past decade with those who’ve been struck by “sudden jihad syndrome,” they’re all pathetic Travis Bickle-style losers, until they get “lucky” and pull it off.)
Perhaps not surprisingly, Kay blames the Web for the rapid dissemination of conspiracy theories. Of course, it’s not like they weren’t rampant before the rise of the Web, as implied by this quote by Tom Wolfe from 1980, on his days as a newspaperman covering the reaction to JFK’s death:
I’ll never forget working on the [New York] Herald Tribune the afternoon of John Kennedy’s death. I was sent out along with a lot of other people to do man-on-the-street reactions. I started talking to some men who were just hanging out, who turned out to be Italian, and they already had it figured out that Kennedy had been killed by the Tongs, and then I realized that they were feeling hostile to the Chinese because the Chinese had begun to bust out of Chinatown and move into Little Italy. And the Chinese thought the mafia had done it, and the Ukrainians thought the Puerto Ricans had done it. And the Puerto Ricans thought the Jews had done it. Everybody had picked out a scapegoat. I came back to the Herald Tribune and I typed up my stuff and turned it in to the rewrite desk. Late in the day they assigned me to do the rewrite of the man-on-the-street story. So I looked through this pile of material, and mine was missing. I figured there was some kind of mistake. I had my notes, so I typed it back into the story. The next day I picked up the Herald Tribune and it was gone, all my material was gone. In fact there’s nothing in there except little old ladies collapsing in front of St. Patrick’s. Then I realized that, without anybody establishing a policy, one and all had decided that this was the proper moral tone for the president’s assassination. It was to be grief, horror, confusion, shock and sadness, but it was not supposed to be the occasion for any petty bickering. The press assumed the moral tone of a Victorian gentleman.
These days of course, information moves much more freely, no longer being trapped by a handful of gatekeepers at the New York Times, the WaPo, and the wire services. But it’s a dual-edged sword. There’s no doubt that the Web has helped numerous conspiracy theories to flow, right from its start as a popular medium, as Kay writes in his book, republished as one of several excerpts available at Canada’s National Post website:
But there was another exacerbating factor, as well, one that would herald a new era for all species of conspiracists: the release of the Netscape Navigator web browser in late 1994, and the explosive growth of the World Wide Web that would immediately follow. For the first time, conspiracists were able to get their theories into the public sphere instantly. As Eastern Illinois University scholar Shane Miller concluded in a published analysis of the Flight 800-themed websites that came online in late 1996 and the years following, “this was the first major conspiracy of the Internet age.”
Over the last decade and a half, the Internet has utterly transformed conspiracism — no less than it’s transformed pornography, music distribution, journalism and social networking. Prior to the mid-1990s, conspiracy theorists pursued their investigations in isolated obscurity, typing out manifestoes on basement card tables, or amid the nonfiction stacks at their local library. The stigma associated with their craft, in conjunction with the communications limitations predating the World Wide Web, meant that each conspiracist was essentially a unique movement unto himself, his ideas mutating and evolving without social input from others — like an obscure species of land animal confined to a remote island.
Just about every author in the field of JFK conspiracism, for instance, has the president dying in a somewhat different way, at the hands of a customized menagerie of secret agents, gangsters, and Cubans (a state of conspiracist confusion captured nicely by a faux headline in the Onion, datelined in 1963: “Kennedy slain by CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemasons: President shot 129 times from 43 different angles”).
Flight 800 marked the moment that the solitary aspect of the conspiracist métier ended. Amid the plethora of newly blooming blogs and discussion fora, the construction of conspiracy theories became a collaborative exercise — what modern computer scientists would call an “open source” project. Rather than authors offering their own scattered, mutually incompatible, proprietary ideas, they began operating within a collaborative network, much like the editors and contributors who produce Linux and Wikipedia. All of the tiny little islands of paranoia suddenly were linked up by virtual causeways.
One result is that elaborate conspiracy theories now can be cobbled together literally overnight through the efforts of hundreds of scattered dilettante conspiracists. Another result is that conspiracists all around the world now tend to focus on the same few dozen talking points that figure prominently on the top websites.
But as with the aforementioned Jim McGreevey and Oliver Stone, plus former Obama administration “Green Czar” Van Jones and scads of Hollywood celebrities, including some with national daily megaphones (cough — The View — cough) , note that it was remarkably famous member of the left who was among those taken in by the conspiracies surrounding Flight 800:
It might have stayed simply an Internet conspiracy had it not been for Pierre Salinger, President Kennedy’s press secretary who had worked as a network news correspondent for a time.
Three months after the TWA tragedy, while working as a freelance public relations director, he claimed to have verified the friendly fire cover-up.
“It’s a document I got about five weeks ago — came from France — from an intelligence agent of France. He had been given this document from an American Secret Service agent based in France,” Salinger said at the time. “He had been doing an inquiry and had some contacts with the U.S. Navy.”
It turned out to be a discredited document that had been floating around the Internet for weeks. Salinger took to the news airwaves, including CNN, touting his theory. But as baseless as it sounded, Salinger could not be ignored. His accusations gave conspiracy theorists a voice of distinction and credibility.
“He was an idiot,” said Bob Francis, the former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “He didn’t know what he was talking about, and he was totally irresponsible.”
There are no doubt plenty on the right who believe in shadowy forces just behind the scenes, and conspiracy theories such as President Obama cooking the books on his birth certificate. (Recall some of the more fever-swamp conspiracies about Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s.) But it’s curious isn’t it, that those who seek to grow government ever and ever larger, and are often highly intelligent, high-earning and well educated individuals, are also those most likely to believe that government conspiracies killed a sitting president, shot down planes, destroyed office buildings, and killed thousands of innocent lives. Or believe that life as we know it is coming to an end.
How does one square that circle?
Related: “When all truths are equal, everything becomes true.”