From the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the 9/11 Truthers.
Jonathan Kay’s compulsively-readable new book Among The Truthers is as definitive a book on the American conspiracy culture as we are ever going to get.
Kay, a managing editor for Canada’s National Post, jumped right into the oddball world of the so-called Truthers who doubt Osama bin Laden’s responsibility for the 9/11 attacks and instead suspect an “inside job.” Kay spent years in this world, going to Truther conferences, interviewing prominent Truthers in depth, and pouring over their literature.
In Part I, Kay describes the history and rise of American conspiracism, noting the powerful effects of the ambiguity of the JFK assassination, the real conspiracy of Watergate, and the shattering of a consensus media reality with greater technological development. He then positions the wide variety of Truther narratives in this context, noting the multitude of different stories. For some Truthers, Osama bin Laden really was responsible for 9/11, except that he did so under the orders of his American government handlers. For others, the hijacked planes were controlled by remote control and all the passengers and hijackers were secretly unloaded before they crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The motive for the attacks is generally the same – a cabal of “neo-cons” wanted to make money, colonize the Middle East, defend Israel, and transform the United States into a police state. (Though, for prominent British Truther David Icke, 9/11 was engineered by his unique boogeymen, the most creative and entertaining in all of conspiracy culture: blood-drinking, child-molesting, shape-shifting lizard humanoids from the fifth dimension.)
More interesting – and important – than the specific stories are the people themselves and the psychological conditions that drive them. Kay does not ridicule his subjects but analyzes them with affection and precision. In Part II, he creates a Truther taxonomy, identifying the following types: Midlife Crisis Case, Failed Historian, Damaged Survivor, Cosmic Voyager, Clinical Conspiracist, Crank, Evangelical Doomsayer, and Firebrand. Those who familiarize themselves with Kay’s profiles will be more than equipped to recognize which type of conspiracist they are dealing with when they bump into one on Facebook or the comments section of a blog.
Kay does an especially good job of carefully threading the needle on the subjects of Glenn Beck and the Tea Party. The claim that Beck is an Alex Jones-style conspiracy kook has been one of the Left’s favorite rhetorical weapons to use against the popular talk radio host. Kay acknowledges that Beck has sometimes explored conspiracist themes but he does not position him amongst the Truther mainstream. Similarly, he does not cast the Tea Party as a conspiracist movement, instead defending it while noting that conspiracists have found a place at the margins – as they have with most political and religious movements:
It would be entirely wrong to call Tea Partiers a straightforward conspiracist movement – and I don’t want to stand accused of doing so here. Many of their political gripes about big government are shared by tens of millions of mainstream Americans: In a September 2010 survey, 71 percent of Republican respondents said they have a “positive opinion” of the Tea Party movement.
But as with all populist uprisings, it has attracted a fringe of angry extremists who will swallow just about any accusation launched against the nation’s elite.
The book’s most important contribution is the way Kay effectively traces the origins of all of America’s conspiracy narratives to a single document: the notorious, fraudulent Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.
Kay argues that the structure of all conspiracies is identical to the Protocols, a document which managed to combine two competing strands of the conspiracist faith into a lethal hybrid:
… ancient forms of conspiracism typically vilified one of two enemies: Jews and secret societies. The Protocols twisted these two venerable strands into one deadly skein: The Jews, by this hateful telling, were both a filthy religious sect seeking to exterminate Christendom and a secret society bent on adapting world trade, politics, media, and all the other secular pillars of civilization to their evil schemes.
Even when the Third Reich lay in ruins, and anti-Semitism became widely detested in its bald-faced Nazi-style form, the Protocols would remain ensconced as a sort of universal blueprint for all the successor conspiracist ideologies that would come to infect Western societies over the next nine decades…
As naked anti-Semitism has gone out of fashion in polite circles since the Holocaust, conspiracism has been forced to evolve. Less frequently does one hear that “the Jews” are out to start wars, cheat Americans out of money, and institute a global slave state. Instead, now the term has been replaced with “globalists,” “neo-cons,” “bankers,” “Zionists,” “elites,” and other epithets.
Some conspiracist tracts even say to do this directly with the Protocols. William Cooper’s bestseller Behold a Pale Horse reprints the Protocols verbatim in one chapter but warns the reader not to be fooled by the Jews being named as the villains. This exposé of the history of conspiracist narratives is ultimately the most effective argument against the conspiracists (not that one should expect much success in persuading the true believers), but it’s still useful for correcting dabblers.
It’s wonderful that someone has finally laid all of this out and in such an effective way. Kay’s book is an important corrective, laying bare the history and psychology so often obscured by the 9/11 Truth Movement. It’s also accessible and written in a comfortable, inviting prose. This is Kay’s first book and I’ll be buying his second no matter the subject.
Among the Truthers’ sole flaw is omitting from the discussion the contributions of America’s most important analyst of conspiracy theory: Robert Anton Wilson, author of such books on the subject as Everything is Under Control, Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati. One need only read Among the Truthers and one of Wilson’s books – perhaps the novel satirizing conspiracy theories that he co-authored with Bob Shea, The Illuminatus! Trilogy – to have a firm understanding of this quirky, paranoid world and the odd ducks who inhabit it.