For the last couple of years whenever I strolled along the shelves at my public library one book in particular kept catching my eye. Occasionally, I would pick it up for a closer inspection but in the end I would always put it back. Who knows why I couldn’t bring myself to read Jonathan Kay’s Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground. Did I feel I knew everything there is about conspiracy theories after reading Voodoo Histories and Debunked! Was I feeling so overwhelmed by the rising tide of anti-reason, anti-science and conspiracism that the reading of one more book wouldn’t do a thing to adequately address this coming age of intellectual darkness. (OK, a bit melodramatic, I’ll admit. But hey, I’m starting to get really frustrated!) Or maybe I felt I was already reading too many books. Who knows. But for whatever reason I never grabbed it.
Then, during one of these library visits after seeing Among the Truthers sitting on the library shelf I suddenly remembered something. A few years ago I caught a debate on Book TV between a 9/11 conspiracist and a debunker. I then remembered the debunker happened to be Jonathan Kay, the author of Among the Truthers. Feeling inspired to read Kay’s book, with a new-found gusto I grabbed it and headed to the automated check-out machines.
I found this an interesting book on a number of levels, starting with its author. Even though it’s a book about American conspiracists and their wild conspiracy theories, Kay is a Canadian. I think this is cool because I have a feeling it gives him a kind of outsider’s perspective to what’s going on in the United States, much like fellow Canadian conservative pundit Mark Steyn or novelist Margaret Atwood. However, even though Kay is a conservative, he’s not a far-right nut job. He’s broken ranks with a lot of conservatives when it comes to issues like gay marriage, global warming, the Iraq War and the growing gulf between North America’s rich and poor. If you like reading stuff by David Brooks or David Frum, you’d probably enjoy reading Kay.
Just as its subtitle proclaims, Kay’s book is a detailed look at America’s growing conspiracist underground. Maybe because the overwhelming majority of 9/11 conspiracists inhabit the left-wing of the political spectrum Kay being a conservative devotes much, but in no way all, of his energies profiling the lives of some of these conspiracists and debunking their theories. He also takes on the “birthers”, those on the political right who claim President Obama was not born in the USA, but a secret Muslim hell-bent on the destruction of the free world. In passing he also talks about the anti-vaccine movement, fluoride haters and Holocaust deniers.
About the only thing I didn’t like was Kay’s attack on higher education. I thought he went a little too far with his jeremiad on the excesses of political correctness and intellectual deconstructionism in colleges and universities. (But I think he raised some good points. One could see how a lack of academic vigor and accountability could open the door to university-based whackos who cloak their 9/11 conspiracy theories with an air of academic respectability.) He also shows his conservative side when asserting that Obama received more favorable press coverage when compared to that received by Bush and Palin. I found this claim a bit suspect as well.
While I might have my disagreements with Kay, I totally agree with his somewhat pessimistic conclusion. Traditional wisdom has dictated that conspiracy theories are temporary phenomena. For years social scientists and those like them have seen conspiracy theories as merely symptoms of greater and more overarching social stresses and political instability. However, the rapid decline of print media and its replacement by the Internet has led to the propagation of misinformation and outright lies to a degree unprecedented in human history. No matter how ridiculous your beliefs are, somewhere on the worldwide web there are dozens of websites that validate those beliefs. Unlike traditional magazines and newspapers, these websites have no fact checkers or editorial boards to evaluate content worthiness. Therefore, don’t be surprised when those crazy conspiracy theories leave the underground and go mainstream.