Jonathan Kay: "Among the Truthers"
Throughout American history, conspiracy theories have flourished as a way to explain pivotal events: the Kennedy assassination, Pearl Harbor, and the moon landing. But in the decade since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the number of those who believe in such theories has blossomed. Diane and her guest take an in-depth look at the underground world of conspiracy theorists.
managing editor, columnist, and blogger at Canada's "National Post" newspaper.
The New Rise of the Conspiracy Theory
Have conspiracy theories been gaining momentum in the past several years? Why do there seem to be so many conspiracy theories gaining traction these days?
"Conspiracy theories always flourish in the aftermath of great traumas...and America is a very traumatized place right now," author Jonathan Kay said. In addition, the mainstream media used to have fairly good control over the flow of information, but the Internet has drastically shifted this power.
Diane wondered if the theorists believe what they're saying. Kay says he believes most do, with the possible exception of Donald Trump, who he says has made a marketing campaign out of false information (most recently centered around planting doubt in the public mind about President Obama's country of birth).
The "Need to Recreate History"
Conspiracy theories can be a tool to write history according to an individual's ideological script, Kay says.
Conspiracy theorists are bi-partisan, Kay says, as evidenced by the group of 9/11 "truthers" who tend to ascribe to extremely left-wing ideology; and "birthers," or those who question President Obama's U.S. citizenship, who ascribe to right-wing ideology.
Every conspiracy theory has some grain of truth to it, Kay said, and in the end, that's ultimately what makes the theory credible.
Watergate and Iran-Contra were fairly limited, and even so, people have a hard time keeping secrets. "The problem that most people have with ambitious conspiracy theories is that people are just really bad at keeping secrets," Kay said.
JFK's assassination is obviously a special topic, Kay says. In that case, it's impossible to disprove the conspiracy theory, and that's why it's so tantalizing. There really could have been someone else acting with Oswald. You can't put JFK in the same category as 9/11 or the birther movement, because there really could have been someone else," Kay said.
There are so many places a person who has information can go to disseminate that information in a country like the U.S., says Kay, as opposed to in a place like Iran or Syria.
Author Extra: Jonathan Kay Answers Your Questions
Jonathan Kay stayed after the show to answer a few more questions.
Q: I so appreciate Jonathan Kay for highlighting this phenomenon, and Diane for hosting him. I've been aware of this trend for several years and know some people involved (and they perfectly fit the general profile Jonathan described). I'm wondering, does Jonathan see any potential for this trend eventually leading to violence - either by individuals or in uprisings? Also, is Jonathan aware of the book Behold a Pale Horse which seems to be seminal for many conspiracy theorists?
- From Blondie via Email
A: The conspiracy theorists I interviewed generally were not violent in any way – and did not even pose any threat of violence that I could see. Most were bookish internet addicts, not gun-toting types (though, of course, there are always exceptions). 9/11 conspiracy theorists, in particular, emphasize the need to pursue the “truth” through activism, litigation, public education and other peaceful methods. At 9/11 Truth events, the leaders take great care to ensure that demonstrators do not get out of hand. And when they hold protests in public places, they obey the instructions of police. I am aware of the book Behind a Pale Horse, and allude to it briefly in my own book – but the influence of that book, and those like it, generally were/are confined to militant survivalist/militia types in the Midwest. And these movements were mostly infiltrated and broken up in the last 15 years, as part of the fallout to the Oklahoma City bombing.
Q: I was wondering if Mr. Kay has anything to say regarding gender as it relates to conspiracy theorists, i.e., are most of these folks men rather than women, or are there any notable differences as to which conspiracy theories men and women are attracted to, etc.?
- From a listener via Email
A: Good question. And I will respond with a quote from my book: “[The science-fiction aspect of many conspiracy theories] is one of the reasons why conspiracist movements tend to be so overwhelmingly male in their core membership. (Another is that the male mind tends to become more easily obsessed with abstract logic puzzles and eccentric ideological systems that are disconnected from the reality of day-to-day human existence—a subject to which I shall return in Chapter 5). For all their pretensions to sophisticated truth-seeking, conspiracists often seem stuck in the suburban-basement universe of secret decoder rings and Star Wars action figures. As Popular Mechanics editor James Meigs put it, many conspiracists have seen “too many movies”—particularly in the action genre. Like James Bond, freshly equipped at the beginning of each film with the latest gadgets from MI6’s weapons lab, the government agents of conspiracists’ imaginations have access to every sort of weapon ever invented—as well as many that are still imaginary. They possess Bond’s skill and savvy, as well. How else could they constantly avoid detection and capture?”
Q: Greatest overlooked conspiracies in this conversation: "Lobbyist." Don't all lobbyist conspire?
- From Jay via Facebook
A: Yes, they do. But they are all conspiring in different directions. And this is how a democracy should work — thousands of different actors, all seeking their own advantage, co-operating with one another where they have common interest; but also opposing one another where they do not have common interests. This is how things are supposed to work in an open society more generally — and I am speaking here not just about lobbyists, but also the media, NGOs, different levels of government and voters themselves. Massive ongoing, undiscovered conspiracies are only possible in nations where information and power are tightly controlled (such as modern-day North Korea). But that does not describe the United States.