Jonathan Kay, managing editor of Canada’s National Post, has made a major contribution to the understanding of the conspiratorial mindset in his recent publication, “Among The Truthers.” By reaching back into the history of well-studied cases of conspiracy theory, Kay brings his insights to bear on the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center that generated a whole new batch of conspiracy theories.
To inform readers of the tenacity and longevity of conspiracy theories, Kay gives such reminders as the 1897 fraud known as the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, and the 1954 deliberate distortion of a meeting held in a Dutch hotel and dubbed the Bilderberg Group. Also included in a long list were the still-thriving conspiracy debates about who was really behind the John F. Kennedy assassination. His primary thrust, however, is his long study of the “Truthers” and their conspiratorial interpretations of the attack on the World Trade Center.
The “Protocols” was an alleged secret plot by a small group of Jewish leaders to achieve world domination. The “Protocols” have long been considered as a fanciful anti-Semitic tract with no credibility. The Bilderberg plot was a half-baked claim accusing 61 American and European businessmen (including David Rockefeller and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands) to be leaders of a one-world government plan. The Kennedy assassination has provided conspiracy theorists with raw material to produce an estimated 2,000 books with no agreement over how many “really” were behind the conspiracy.
“Among The Truthers” was inspired by the emergence of the “Truth Movement” after the 9/11 tragedy. They were in agreement that this assault was an “inside job” orchestrated by people within the government — supported by arms dealers, neo-cons and big corporations. Kay wanted to discover what kind of a person would become an active participant in this new movement.
Wisely, Kay provided a working definition to ensure that readers are clear about the difference between an actual conspiracy and fanciful speculations by those promoting private agendas. He settles on a definition crafted by several scholars from Oxford University. They regard these questionable conspiracy theories as, “A theory that traces important events to a secretive, nefarious cabal, and whose proponents consistently respond to contrary facts not by modifying their theory, but instead, by insisting on the existence of ever-wider circles of high level conspirators controlling most or all parts of society.”
In a most-revealing article in The Washington Post (May 1), Kay presented a short summary of who becomes a “Birther” (or “Truther” or rabid conspiracy theorist). Kay affirms that they are all not of the same pattern who are “unhinged, bug-eyed loners.” Nonetheless, they do have a “twisted relationship with reality” and “retreat into fantasy worlds, bending fact and history to meet their psychological needs and emotional motivations.” Kay isolates five types of personalities who become obsessed with conspiracies. First is the “apocalyptic doomsayers” who reduce all events to an eternal clash between good and evil, light and darkness, or God and the Devil. Then, there are also the “failed historians” who deny valid historical events such as the Holocaust.
The third category includes “the mentally unbalanced.” To be sure, not all conspiracists are completely “unhinged” but they are “troubled.” Next came those facing “midlife crises.” Kay was cognizant of the number of “paunchy 40- and 50-something men facing disappointment in their personal lives.” Finally, there are the “fakers” such as Donald Trump, who use events as publicity stunts.”
At the conclusion of the book, Kay gives some very useful advice about how to confront conspiracism. First, we must clearly realize that you are unlikely to succeed in changing the mind of a dedicated conspiracy theorist. Kay repeats again and again his absolute failure to penetrate their rigid wall of fantasy with reason and fact. But you can train your own mind to disciplined respect for facts and logic.
In an age when we are inundated with information and pleas from many causes and ideologies, we need to cultivate a healthy skepticism and a capacity for suspended judgment as a means to sort out what is reasonable from what is questionable. Lacking these intellectual tools, we are all vulnerable to seduction by conspiracy theorists.
Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.