Sunday, December 30, 2012

Enemies of the Faith: A review of "Among the Truthers" by Jonathan Kay

            You will recall not so long ago the post I wrote in response to a conversation I had with a friend of mine, who happens to be a self proclaimed‘Truther’, (“Puppet Master vs. Naked Ape). That is: an individual who believes that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were “an inside job”, orchestrated by the US government for the purpose of pushing through certain pieces of foreign policy legislation  (say that ten times fast) and implementing certain pieces of domestic policy (including but not limited to gun control legislation, improved airport security, the confiscation of personal property and the genocide of the human race).
         Or in other words, the government did it. Said individual believes this, and has dedicated himself to exposing the truth - pardon me, Truth - of this claim.
         What struck me most about the exchange were not the arguments he made, which were not very impressive, but the ardour with which he made them. It wasn’t just a theory for him, but a capital T Truth, which gave new meaning to his life.  Thus, no amount of counter-evidence would sway him, or even interest him, because it wasn’t the theory itself that really mattered. What mattered were the cozy answers the theory provided.

            So there were many moments I had to nod in recognition as I read Among the Truthers by National Post columnist Jonathan Kay. I recognized the sorts of people he interviews and profiles here, the paranoia, the disillusionment, the righteous anger and the evangelical zeal. Kay doesn’t spend much time in the way of debunking (readers looking for this would be better served by Aaranovitch’s Voodoo Histories or The Journal of Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories), but is more interested in the why the Truthers think the way they do, and how so many people came to think this way - namely, why do so many people in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave now think their own government wants to slaughter them??? It's a fascinating, absorbing and often witty book, which bafflingly decides to wander out into left field on the very last pages with conclusions which are. . .let's call them problematic for now. 

             (Dangerously misleading and disingenuous might work as well, but I want to emphasise the positives).

            For Kay, the popularity of 9/11 conspiracy theories is not an innocent eccentricity, but an alarming, even dangerous trend.“ The Truther phenomenon. . .is simply too important to ignore.”  he writes in his introduction. “ Truther theories may be nonsense, but the disturbing habits of mind underlying them. . .have become threats all across our intellectual landscape.”   Kay nicely summarizes these habits as follows:

            - a nihilistic distrust in government
            - total alienation from conventional politics,
            - a need to reduce the world’s complexity to good-vs-evil fables
            - the melding of secular politics with apocalyptic End-is-Nigh religiosity
            - a rejection of the basic tools of logic and rational discourse.

Jonathan Kay

            It’s as neat a summary of the conspiracy mindset as any I’ve read, and will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to engage a conspiracy theorist. Personally, I find the last one the most significant, the one which enables all the others. The refusal to think rationally allows one to think anything. I’m consistently amazed for example, how Truthers accept with perfect ease the layer-upon-layer-upon-layer of cover-up and deceit (to say nothing of the thousands of necessary participants) required by their conpsiracy, but cannot accept that a lone lunatic could hijack a plane. They’ll insist your is the incredible one. It is the most significant piece of Truther psychology, and unfortunately the one Kay appears to appreciate the least. 

            Kay divides Truthers into eight basic archetypes, and profiles one of each. The profiles themselves are fascinating, though the categories seem cosmetic, as their commonalities are much more striking than their differences. While Truthers may have come to the “Truth” for their own, personal reasons, they share the same basic tendencies of thought outlined above. Whether it’s from a Right perspective or a Left perspective, young or old, a response to trauma or plain insanity (less common than one might think), Truthers all see patterns where there are none, and have a need to assign meaning to the meaningless.  It’s the all too human tendency to assign agency to things.

No truther book would be complete without Dave Mustaine
            Ultimately, no conspiracy theory is actually about the theory. It’s about a world view; a world where someone, somewhere, is still in charge, if not a God, then definitely people with God-like powers. Kay refers to “the myth of hypercompetence”, coined by Popular Mechanics editor James Meigs. “ Even as the conspiracy theorist imagines a world –controlling cabal that is subhuman in its lack of pity, morality, honesty, and empathy, he is simultaneously awestruck by their superhuman intelligence, ambition, guile, discipline and singularity of purpose.” To the conspiracy-theorist, there is simply nothing beyond the powers of this cabal. They have a mind-boggling ability to cover their tracks and micro-manage events. Often they have super-science fiction technology at their disposal. They have near omniscient powers of oversight and foresight. There is practically nothing that happens anywhere in the world, or has happened in history, that is not their doing.    

            Once you accept this scenario, everything else falls into place. Conspiracies unfold as a matter of course, and doubts can be dismissed. The absurd level of deception and planning to pull off a 9/11 are no problem at all: simplicity itself for anyone who controls the world to that degree.  Lack of concrete evidence is if anything all the proof you need: after all, they control the information. So conventional arguments won’t get you anywhere because you’re not debating a theory: you’re debating a world view in which small groups control everything, and all the psychological adjustments which such a view entails. According to Kay:  “ Their entire identity is based on a nest of riddles that will unravel if they allow themselves to step outside their conspiracist mindset”.

            Most conspiracies are thus closely related to each other. Kay demonstrates for example how practically every Truther is also a JFK conspiracist, and how every conspiracy theory, even the supposedly innocuous UFO/Roswell types, attracts anti-Semites like flies. He traces the history of American conspiracism back to the days of anti-Masonic/Catholic/Templar//Jacobin suspicions, to the paranoia of Ignatius Donelly, through to the Protocols of the Eldars of Zion (the conspiracist’s Bible, even for those who aren’t anti-Semitic) to more modern phenomena like the Birther movement and End-of-Time evangelism. These provide the most interesting and informative moments of the book.      
I shouted out who killed the Kennedies: after all, it was you and me!

            I also was also struck some of the book’s more personal moments. Kay is actually quite sympathetic to many his subjects, taking pains early on to paint them as “outwardly normal, articulate people who kept up with the news and held down office jobs” and stressing the movement’s non-violent nature. At one point, he almost seems saddened by their obstenacy:

   “ I imagined it would possible for us to remain on friendly terms, even on the understanding that we disagreed on say, the origins of 9/11. . .This usually proved impossible: Every conversation with a conspiracy theorist tends to migrate in one way or another to their central obsession; and my refusal to accept their revealed truths always strained the relationship to the breaking point.”

Naturally, I thought of my own Truther friend, the one who prompted me to pick up this book in the first place, and wondered how much longer a mutual love of Godzilla movies can continue to bridge this rift. Each day he sends more “information” to my inbox, practically begging me to embrace the Truth. Not surprisingly, Kay writes of “Truther widows” in the same paragraph.
         How so many of these supposedly normal people came to embrace such a “Truth” is Kay’s main focus in the second half of the book.

            The internet naturally shares a large portion of the blame. While conspiracies themselves are nothing new, technology has enabled conspiracists to prop each other up and insulate themselves from contrary opinion to an extent never before possible (Kay uses the term “echo chamber”). The situation mirrors the decaying political discourse, in which no citizen is under any obligation to read anything that doesn’t confirm opinions they’ve already formed.

            That’s all very fine and good, but how to explain the quasi-religious quality of the movement?

            For this, Kay looks to the fickle nature of modern intellectual discourse, which he traces to the “Deconstructionists” like Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida. They believed in the “limitation of textually authority”: basically, truth was not something we could prove with fact, but something we constructed to suit our needs . Kay paraphrases Foucault: “All knowledge – including historical knowledge is merely a pretext for justifying existing power relationships”. In other words, we make it all up.

Whada you know? A scarry looking Jacques Derrida.
            As someone with three university degrees, I can see how these ideas have seeped into academia. “Facts”, as they are generally understood, are very unfashionable things in the Humanities today. Instead, the emphasis is on finding “narratives”, or the aforementioned existing power relationships. “Studies” just aren’t good enough anymore: we have Women’s studies, Queer Studies, African studies and Native (or whatever term is currently permissible) studies. “Study” here meaning reconstruction of the past to suit present day sensibilities. There’s something creepily Stalinist about the whole thing, and Kay examines a bunch of examples, including a truly bizarre meeting with a group of self loathing anti-racists.

            All very interesting, but what’s it got to do with the 9/11 truth movement?

            Well, if truth is something we just make up, something malleable, what’s to stop belief in different “Truths”?  

            For Kay, the stifling political correctness that has emerged is fertile ground for Truthers:

“ It has left. . .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. After a few years spent wandering this coastline, the belief that these people might fly planes into the World Trade Center doesn’t follow automatically, but it certainly becomes a lot easier to assimilate.”

            There is a logic to the idea – I myself spent enough time among student radicals to know some of them wouldn’t put anything past the Bush administration (though I never heard any of them express Truther ideas) – but it is problematic. Many truthers are simply not “educated liberals”. Does Kay really blame anti-racists for a movement so dominated by right wing libertarians? Do end-of-time evangelicals really owe that much to Foucault? From my own readings and conversations, the Truther movement seems more a continuation of the anti-New Deal isolationism of John T. Flynn than the ideas of Paul de Man. Granted, no one in the book mentions Flynn (not even Kay, oddly), but no one mentioned Derrida either.

John T. Flynn: Pearl Harbour Truther

            Could extreme disillusionment not also have its roots in recent history? The past half century has given us the Vietnam war and the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Kent State and J. Edgar Hoover, Watergate, the Iran Contra scandal, and WMD.  Salvatore Allende, Bloody Sunday, Jean-Babtiste Aristide, and the Rainbow Warrior. Great promise has been followed by great disappointment, as an unprecedented rise in middle class living standards has been ruthlessly clawed back by Government and Industry. Across the pond, the Margaret Thatcher casually destroyed the livelihoods of entire segments of British society, and actually referred to them as “the enemy within”. In times of Austerity, the common man is told he must scale back his aspirations, his living standards, his working conditions and his quality of life, but is told in the other ear that aspirations of Big Industry must never be interfered with. Trillions of dollars in public money are spent bailing out the banks, but not a penny of private profit is proffered to the public when it's in trouble. It is Healthcare, Education and even Infrastructure that gets pinched for pennies, and even as profits skyrocket, wages are slashed to be more "competitive".  The proverbial Big guy is always seen to win. Always.
          In such an environment, is it so shocking that disillusionment festers? And is it really so inconceivable that some of the disillusioned might, just might, come to believe that their own government is dead set against them, and actually means them harm?
          Such speculation does not find its way into this book. Instead, Kay, a Konservative, chalks it all up to a decline in religious belief: “ When the appeal of traditional religion becomes weak, darker faiths assert themselves.” It’s a variation on Conrad’s assertion that a man who doesn’t believe in God will believe in anything. Kay asserts that a decline in faith has lead to a kind of “militant skepticism”, indeed, a “Church of Skepticism” (capitals his) which has lead Truthers to disbelieve everything, since “there is no fact, historical event, or scientific phenomenon which  whose truth cannot, in some way, be brought into question.” Kay singles out new-atheists Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for special blame here.
         Does Kay really blame the new-atheist movement for what amounts to a quasi-religious revival?


            Nevermind that not one of the conspirators in this book cites those three as an influence (they don’t cite Derrida either), I would challenge Kay to find anything in the work of Hitchens, Harris or Dawkins that would suggest they would endorse a deconstructivist view of reality. If anything, they all share a passionate belief in an objective truth which is accessible to us via evidence.  It is a last minute attempt to connect two largely unrelated phenomena with little more than personal distaste in support.

            Likewise, it is quite rich of Kay to condemn a “Church of Skepticism” while elsewhere crediting Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptic’s Society and editor of Skeptic magazine, as “likely the most effective debunker of junk science and conspiracy theories in America”. Or listing the “atheistic” James Randi Educational Foundation as a possible antidote to Trutherism (indeed, the Foundation maintains a forum for ex-Truthers) just a few pages before blaming atheism for the whole damn thing. Kay must surely be aware that Randi is also on the editorial board of Skeptic magazine, as are – guess who? -  Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Surely the “Church of Skepticism” is part of the solution rather than the problem?

            Granted, Kay probably doesn’t mean healthy skepticism, but rampant disbelief for its own sake. It can be a problem when trying to establish baseline facts (and a very useful way of dismissing inconvenient ones). The thing is, this is not what Truthers do. What's clear from the interviews here (and my own experience) is that Truthers don’t just disbelieve facts: they disbelieve certain facts. Facts which are inconvenient to them.  They actively select which facts to believe, and which to discard, based on which support their pre-conceived notions. This is not skepticism; this is faith. Faith is belief without reason, trust which doesn’t have to be earned. Faith is immune to argument, faith doesn’t change just because the facts do. Belief in a “revealed truth” is faith, not skepticism.

            Kay bemoans the decline of traditional faith in society, but makes nothing of the fact that the biggest Truther of all, David Ray Griffin, was a theologian in his pre-truther days. He must also be aware that there are twice as many theologians as engineers among the membership ranks of Scholars for 9/11 Truth. He himself describes how Dave Mustaine of Megadeth embraced conspiracism after becoming a born-again Christian. He mentions the religious parallels again and again. Clearly, faith is not in short supply in the 9/11 Truth movement.   

            Might it have something to do with the need to believe without evidence?

            Conspiracism is not an innocent phenomenon. Thabo Mbeki’s belief that AIDS was spread by the CIA, and Jenny McCarthy’s promotion of vaccination-autism links (both dealt with in the book) has cost lives. Conspiracism, like pseudo science, new age thought or ideological fanaticism, comes from believing what one wants rather than what evidence suggests.   Truthers are no different: they embrace evidence which supports their claims and disregard that which doesn’t (what Shermer might call “cherry picking the data”). They beg questions, they dismiss co-incidence, they know little of history and less of politics, they will make grand leaps of logic, they are utterly credulous. Their faith, far from lacking, is unshakable. They could use a good dose of skepticism: an embrace of the tools of logic and rational discourse. To suggest the opposite, that things would sort themselves out if we just trusted in God (because apparently no one believed ridiculous things in more pious times) is frankly unhelpful.


Read Jonathan Kay's blog here:

The Skeptic Society:

The James Randi Educational Foundation:

The Journal of Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories:

1 comment:

  1. Have a look at "Conspiracy Road Trip", a reality program from the BBC:

    An Irish comic takes five Truthers on a trip across the US to confront the evidence.

    You will notice that the one fella who converts to the official story is the one who confronts the evidence honestly. He goes in full of doubts and questions, and when his questions are answered, he admits he was wrong.

    That is skepticism.

    You will notice the two people who remain Truthers pay no attention to the evidence at all. In fact, nothing will budge them from their positions, and they seem offended anyone would try.

    That is not skepticism. That is faith.