Jonathan Kay is a prominent Canadian journalist, former columnist for the National Post newspaper, and lately editor of The Walrus general interest magazine. Ironically, as he acknowledges, it’s just that stature within the MainStream Media which completely delegitimizes his 2011 book Among the Truthers: A Journey into the Growing Conspiracist Underground of 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, Armageddonites, Vaccine Hysterics, Hollywood Know-Nothings and Internet Addicts to its subjects. Kay therefore focuses not on refuting particular conspiracy theories but rather on the psycho-social impulses which give rise to them. The result, however, is that Among the Truthers does little to challenge the believers he writes about and not quite enough to encourage the skeptics he writes for.
With his Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History (2010), David Aaronovitch made a better job of tackling conspiracy theories first and diagnosing conspiracy culture afterwards. Among the Truthers, in contrast, is a polite and almost sympathetic (how Canadian!) study of individual conspiracy theorists. Kay presents some diligent research, notably on the origins of the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but elsewhere he tiptoes around the most explosive conspiracy claims and more than once admits that some of them contain “a grain of truth.” I kept wishing he would have spent more time separating facts from phobias regarding, say, modern medicine, modern Zionism, or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but he mostly leaves the reader puzzling over his own omissions and emphases. Could it be that Kay himself is part of a coverup?
Well, no. Kay may not be the fairest arbiter of contested ideas, but at least he sees what the contests are really about. The most valuable insight of Among the Truthers is the author’s observation that even diehard conspiracy theorists seem more interested in being proven right than in actually taking on whatever great wrong they think they’ve uncovered. “What drives cranks at an emotional level isn’t the substance of their theories,” Kay writes, explaining,
Many of the Truther cranks I’ve interviewed…treated the issue of 9/11 Truth in large part as a debating exercise, and seemed curiously detached from the profoundly disturbing implications that follow from their claims. What cranks truly crave is the exhilarating sense of independence, control, and superiority that comes from declaring oneself a self-sufficient intellectual force.
To accuse a government or ruling group of cynically manipulating events and murdering people for secret, greedy purposes is an extremely serious charge, yet no one – with the dubious exception of Timothy McVeigh – is going out planting bombs or otherwise trying to topple the edifices of authority. Some of Kay’s interviewees have concocted such pervasive “flow chart” chains of conspiratorial command (from the Trilateral Commission to the Bilderberg Group to the Illuminati, et cetera) that it’s hard to see how such omnipotent overlords can ever be escaped, or if any alternative social system could be much better. To conspiracy theorists, even the broad freedom to postulate and disseminate conspiracy theories is no argument against the theories themselves; they never quite get around to defining what a conspiracy-free order would look like.
An even greater contradiction at the core of most conspiracy theories is in the alleged logic of the conspirators’ aims. They are said to be, in Kay’s term, “hyper competent,” and can pull off plots involving hundreds or thousands of collaborators (e.g. 9/11), yet the plots are only intended to nudge public opinion in the conspirators’ favor. So let me get this straight: Oligarchs’ most potent weapon is their exploitation of democracy? Hidden cabals wield absolute control over world affairs, but they are still beholden to popular will? Elites have the power to do anything they want, but they can’t afford to be seen doing it? Evil politicians and tycoons have no accountability to the masses, which is why they contrive such complex schemes to obtain the masses’ approval? It’s these kind of fundamental questions which conspiracy theorists never answer, and which Jonathan Kay’s Among the Truthers, for all its respectful reasonableness, unfortunately never asks.