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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.
- Jonathan Kay 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.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. For conspiracy theorists, Osama bin Laden will never die. Facebook pages claiming the terrorist is still alive already have thousands of fans. The dramatic increase of conspiracy theories in recent years is something journalist, Jonathan Kay, believes is more than just a distraction. In a new book titled, "Among the Truthers," he explained why it's happening, and how fringe theories warp our shared American experience.
MS. DIANE REHMJonathan Kay is the managing editor of Canada's National Post newspaper. He's also a fellow at the Foundation for Defensive Democracies here in Washington D.C. And throughout the hour, we'll talk about his book, "Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground." We'll take your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, Jonathan. Good to have you here.
MR. JONATHAN KAYThank you.
REHMWill you tell me why there seem to be so many conspiracy theories and theorists around these days? I know they've always been around, but why so many these days?
KAYI think there's two main reasons. One is that conspiracy theories always flourish in the aftermath of great traumas, wars, depressions, assassinations of presidents, and America is a very traumatized place right now. You have 9/11, you've had two wars, and also the financial crisis. And in traumatized nations, you always get conspiracy theorists trying to explain why this has happened.
KAYI think the second reason is the Internet. You know, it used to be that the mainstream media had pretty good control over the popular imagination of Americans. The Internet has completely changed that. I have a chapter on Internet in my book. One of the things I say is that the Internet has transformed conspiracy theories just as much as it's transformed journalism and social media.
REHMBut, for example, take the Kennedy assassination. You say there have been 2,000 books written about that.
KAYYes. The Kennedy assassination, obviously one of the most focused on issues in the history of human news coverage. And by one study, about 2,000 books about the assassination, most of them dwelling on some conspiratorial element, some theory, the Mafia, Cubans, and that sort of thing. But what's interesting about that is it took years and decades for those books to come put. And they were written usually by solitary authors.
KAYWith the Internet, that's changed completely. Because first of all, the speed, you know. After the announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed, I immediately went to some of my conspiracy theory websites that I monitor, and within hours there were already elaborate theories about how bin Laden was still alive. In the JFK era, it took months or years for these theories to develop. Now they appear in hours, also it's now a collaborative enterprise. You know, it's not one guy sitting creating his conspiracy theory.
KAYNow, it's groups of people creating YouTube videos, blogging on each other's sites, putting comments. It's become a collective enterprise, and it's part of the social media on Facebook pages and stuff. This is a socially constructed universe now.
REHMBut do they believe what they're saying?
KAYThe only exception I found, I think, might be Donald Trump, for whom I think conspiracy theories are a sort of marketing enterprise. You know, in my book, I take it for granted that the conspiracy theorists that I interviewed, genuinely believe these theories. But Donald Trump might be the only exception, who's a guy who's actually just trying to market himself to people who believe these theories.
REHMBut these are otherwise, as you put it, rational thinking people. What is it that's motivating them as individuals? I understand your point about the country going through trauma, the Internet, but what motivates them as individuals, not only to believe, but then to try to promulgate such theories.
KAYSure. I have a chapter in my book, chapter five, in which it's called "A Field Guide to Conspiracy Theorists" in which I go through the psychological motivations of conspiracy theorists, and I break them down into eight different types. The most prominent type is what I call the failed historian. These are people who are simply unable to deal with the way that history has turned out, and they create fantasies to recreate history.
REHMWhat do you mean, unable?
KAYWell, often they're just unable to square history with their ideological beliefs. One example, is many birthers I interviewed, these are people who see America as a fundamentally conservative place, and are simply unable to accept the fact that Barack Obama, a left-leaning president, was constitutionally elected in 2008. And they feel this psychological need to recreate history in some way that satisfies their emotional belief that somehow his presidency is illegitimate.
KAYAnd so they create a conspiracy theory that well, his credentials were forged, he's not a real citizen, his whole presidency is illegitimate, and for them, conspiracy theories is a tool to write history according to their ideological script.
REHMAnd it even goes farther than that. They wish to believe that President Obama is going to impose Sharia law on this country. That he really wants the United States to fail as a country?
KAYWell, part of it is the idea -- take the 2008 financial crisis. If you are a big supporter of let's say, fair capitalism, you need some way to square this historical episode with your beliefs. And so what a lot of anti-Obama radicals have decided is that the current malaise, and the crisis that proceeded it was somehow a conspiracy by left-wingers to destroy capitalism. That way they're able to square the way history has turned out with their beliefs. By the way, I should say that this is a bi-partisan phenomenon.
KAYI also interviewed many radical left-wing conspiracy theorists who embrace 9/11 conspiracy theories because they are so convinced ideologically that America is the most evil force in the world, that they had to reinvent history in order to cast the 9/11 attacks as somehow being the fault of the Bush administration. So they created a fantasy that the 9/11 attacks weren't the work of al-Qaida, but were actually the work of Dick Cheney and George Bush and so on.
REHMBut now, take someone like Rush Limbaugh, who has declared publicly that he believes President Obama is out to defeat capitalism. Now, where do you put him on the spectrum between political pusher and conspiracy theorist?
KAYI would not call Limbaugh a full-fledged conspiracy theorist. In fact, I think it's quite interesting, you know, 10 or 15 years ago, I think Limbaugh was seen as out there. I mean, here was a guy really pushing the boundaries of radicalism, or as some would see it, radicalism. Now, in a sense, Limbaugh is almost somewhat moderate compared to, for instance, some of the things that Glenn Beck has said. You know, Glenn Beck, is to my mind a full-fledged conspiracy theorist.
KAYThe stuff he put on his show about George Soros, and the flow charts that he's put on his TV show showing all world events somehow being controlled by some cabal. I mean, these are classic motifs in conspiracy theorists literature going back hundreds of years.
REHMWell, do you think there is something wrong with Glenn Beck's head?
KAYNo, I don't. In fact, one of the interesting conclusions I came to in the book is very few of the conspiracy theorists that I interviewed were mentally ill. In fact, there's one telling sign of a conspiracy theorist who is mentally ill, is that he will involve himself in his conspiracies. So he will talk about his wife or his landlord or people trying to attack him while he's sleeping.
KAYBut 99 percent of the people I interviewed did not have this personal connection. They were talking about political conspiracies that had nothing to do with them. They were simply the observer. And it was actually just a small minority of people who I interviewed who had any kind of mental illness.
REHMYou've said that the conspiracy theorists spring up at times of national trauma. Take us back to the Lincoln assassination. Were there conspiracy theories that boomed into the forefront at that time?
KAYIn the American imagination, yes. The 19th century was a huge period for that. But more so even than the Lincoln assassination, was the populist upheavals of the late 19th century, and the populist movements. And in that case, many of the villains were the same. It was the big banks for instance, and the global financiers, overseas financiers who controlled the gold supply and whatnot. And if you actually look at a lot of the literature from the late 19th century, and populist conspiracy theories about who controlled the world, a lot of those themes again popped up in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
KAYIn my book I go back a little bit to the French revolution, and especially to the aftermath of World War I in Europe, and what I found was that the themes and motifs and the structures of these conspiracy theories were almost identical. The villains change, you know. We no longer thankfully blame Jews, but now we've moved onto neocons or the Bilderbergers are a popular target. So if you substitute the name of the villain, often the conspiracy theory, the basic plot is essentially the same.
REHMBut think about the anger and the hostility toward the banking industry today. Think about the recent conviction of an insider trader. You mean, the American people do believe that these guys end quote are getting away, literally, with murder.
KAYYes. And one thing I acknowledge in the book is every conspiracy theory has some grain of truth to it at the bottom of it. And that's what makes it credible.
REHMJonathan Kay and his new book is titled "Among the Truthers." Jonathan Kay is managing editor of Canada's National Post newspaper. We'll open the phones when we come back.
REHMAnd here's our first e-mail for Jonathan Kay. He's author of a new book titled "Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground." Jerry in Cleveland, Ohio says, "I think part of the problem is the growing demonization of the other, especially in politics. Opponents aren't just wrong. They're evil." So there's kind of a characterization of people who don't believe what you believe.
KAYYeah, there's a centrifugal effect in the media and I think a lot of that is because of the Internet. If you look at, for instance, the books of Ann Coulter, it's not just enough to say my opponent is wrong. Instead now it is my opponent is dishonest. They’re a liar. They’re a bad person. In fact, these are actually woven into Ann Coulter's book titles. And to be fair, as I say, it's bipartisan, a lot of the books about George W. Bush during his presidency had exactly the same kind of radical character.
REHMSo it's all over the place, that's all there is to it. Who are the truthers?
KAYYes, 9/11 conspiracy theorists. These are the people who believe that it was the Bush administration that itself engineered the 9/11 attacks. They call themselves the 9/11 Truth Movement. And they are often called truthers for shorthand. And from the word truthers we got the word birthers, which of course describes Barack Obama conspiracy theorists.
REHMSo on the cover of your book you have a plane clearly next to the twin towers. You have individual surgeons over a child on an operating table. What does that represent?
KAYWell, yes. The HarperCollins got a great artist to do the cover of "Among the Truthers." The surgical scene represents many of the conspiracy theories I discuss that are medical in nature. One of my whole chapters I talk about people who have traumatic medical experiences and become radicalized in their opposition to conventional medicine, and believe that the health companies and the pharmaceutical companies are trying to kill us. And often they become proponents of alternative health regimes, which in many cases are dangerous. Also you have many people who believe -- and this is more common than I thought -- who believe that extraterrestrials are doing experiments on us, we don't know about them and that the government is in cahoots with them.
REHMAnd of course you have the moon landing.
KAYYeah, although I was disappointed. I actually met very few moon landing conspiracy theorists. It turns out to be actually more rare than I imagined.
REHMWhat was their initial reaction to the moon landing?
KAYTo the moon landing?
KAYI couldn't say actually. It was a theme that I hoped would be more prevalent 'cause it was so interesting to me. But it actually very rarely came up. In fact, conspiracy theorists have a sort of hierarchy and they will sometimes dismiss one another on the, oh, don't listen to that guy. You know, he's a moon landing guy. He's way out there. I'm just into 9/11 conspiracy theories. I'm -- you know, I'm more reasonable.
REHMSo they pick and choose.
KAYYeah, and actually it was very interesting. One of the big dividing lines is on the question of Jews. So you will get conspiracy theorists who will exile other conspiracy theorists because they're anti-Semitic. One of the dominant themes of conspiracy theories now as has been for centuries sadly is Jews. But...
REHMThat they have taken over the world...
REHM...that they run the U.S. government...
REHM...they control the financial institutions.
KAYAnd they have euphemisms. Instead of calling them Jews they'll call them Rothschild Zionists. Or they'll -- sometimes they'll use the term Ethnic Zionists. But what I was heartened to see is that many conspiracy theorists, despite all the crazy stuff they believe, many of them are actually conscious of how bigoted this is and will actually exclude anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists...
KAY...from their so called main stream conspiracy theorist conventions.
REHMWhat about Pearl Harbor?
KAYIt's a huge subject. There was a book that came out some years ago called "Day of Deceit," which was not a crazy book. It actually had some main...
REHMWho wrote it?
KAYThe name of the author escapes me. It's...
REHMAll right. We'll get it.
KAYYeah, it's discussed in chapter three of my book. And, you know, this is part of the narrative that conspiracy theorists have. They will go back through American history and they will try to trace virtually every element, every major plot twist in American history to some false flag operation. Gulf of Tonkin and JFK, 9/11. And in some cases, as I said, there's a germ of truth. This "Day of Deceit" book is not a crazy book.
REHMNot a crazy book...
KAYI mean, I think...
REHM...because what does it say?
KAYWell, the author cites some evidence, in particular a memorandum that some say suggests there was foreknowledge of the Japanese attacks. And this is seized upon by a lot of people to say, America wanted war. This was a pretext. And then they will extrapolate from that to -- well, for instance, 9/11 and say this is exactly the same thing. This was an intentional pretext by the U.S. government because they wanted to attack Afghanistan and Iraq. And some, by the way, will also go back to World War I and they'll talk about the Lusitanian and say the same thing, that that was actually an intentional false flag operation and that the United States wanted to get into World War I also.
REHMAnd, by the way, the author of "Day of Deceit" is Robert Stinnett S-T-I-N-N-E-T-T. I'm talking with Jonathan Kay. He's written a book, which he subtitles, "A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground." It's titled "Among the Truthers." So one could argue that there is a generalized lack of public trust, which is moving these conspiracy theorists into a larger and larger group.
KAYYes. A lack of trust in public institutions is the unifying factor here. And it's not just a lack of trust in government. It's a lack of trust in the media, in the mainstream media. This is one of the reasons that I think very few committed conspiracy theorists will assign any credence to my book because they'll say, oh, Jonathan Kay, he writes for a newspaper, he writes...
KAY...I'm in on it. You know, I'm part of the establishment and, of course, I'm simply telling the lies on behalf of the establishment. And this is a real problem because what happens is people who get radicalized and they start to go into fringe media, they start to go into websites, they start to ignore, you know, NPR and the National Post and New York Times and all this sort of thing. And once they are in this fringe media world where it's an echo chamber and they're simply having their own fears read back to them by others, it's very hard to bring them back. Because in that world it becomes a sort of self-contained echo chamber for fear mongers and they have no exposure to the mass media.
KAYAnd this is something new because 20 or 30 years ago if you wanted to live in society you had to a certain extent engage with television and newspapers. And the people around you also got their news from those outlets. And so you couldn't completely cloister yourselves in these echo chambers. That has now changed. For this book I interviewed people whose only source of news is a small group of websites and e-mail distribution lists that is populated by people exactly like them.
REHMIt's interesting. You say that most of these conspiracy theorists are very bright. Most of them are otherwise integrated members of society and they're mostly male. The other element that worries me, I talked with a woman yesterday and she happened to mention that her 13-year-old son had turned on Bill Reilly -- O'Reilly in the evening and then walked around the house saying, well, so-and-so is just a far leftist, so-and-so is just a liberal. And, you know, using that as a word that clearly denoted someone who was not to be respected. Now, if a 13-year-old can do that after watching for the first time one episode of Bill O'Reilly, where does that leave us, Jonathan?
KAYWell, first of all it shows how tribalized political discourse has become, but it also shows the power of video propaganda. Many of the conspiracy theorists that I interviewed told me they were first radicalized -- 'cause my initial question was always, where did this start, and many of them said this began not just on the internet but it began on YouTube or on Google Video where they began watching Loose Change or Zeitgeist or some other Conspiracist video production. And if you watch these things they are hypnotizing. They make very effective use of music, very effective use of special effects. And, you know, video -- since the middle of the 20th Century video has been the medium of choice for propagandists because it is an immersive medium.
KAYMany conspiracy theorists I spoke with talked about these late night video surfing sessions where they'd get on YouTube or Google Video and they'd watch one of these videos. And there are links on the right side of the page which take you to other videos. And they'd describe these addictive sessions where they'd be on the computer for eight or nine hours at a time and then they'd come out of it with sort of a glazed look and they had been programmed. And again, this is something that didn't exist 20 or 30 years ago. You couldn't just click on a set of hyperlinks to see mutually reinforcing videos. But it is the power of video being harnessed for a very unhealthy purpose.
REHMThere was a story in the newspaper just recently about a neo-Nazi father who had trained his son in the use of guns. He had thoroughly inculcated him in the series and ideas and ideals of what it was to have dwelt in Hitler's Nazi world, who, given a gun, shot his father as he lay on the couch. What do you make of that?
KAYYeah, I actually -- I read that story in the New York Times and it was very surreal. I remember there was this bazaar photo of the man's wife actually taking a photo of about two dozen of them in their backyard as if it was some just kind of a regular suburban barbecue. This is a terrible phenomenon and in that case it was, I think, a result of anti-immigrant demagoguery because that particular group, I think they'd go out and do sort of amateur hour patrols to snuff out immigrants.
KAYLook, a lot of this is based on fear and that fear comes from bad economic times. These are people who are looking for someone to blame for a bad economy, for losing jobs. And sadly this is part of human history. They are blaming immigrants, they are blaming people with different skin color. The different part is now they are using the internet to attract new followers to their cause.
REHMSo it's not education.
KAYThe education system?
REHMNo. Education about who we are and have always been as a people.
KAYOh, well, yeah, I mean, educating people about civic values is always important. The problem is that there are certain people you just can't get because they opt out of even the mainstream education system. You get some people who are home schooled. And, you know, home schooling can be a wonderful thing...
KAY...but it could also, in some cases if the parents are bad apples, lead to people who lead very cloistered lives and are exposed not to proper civic values, but to hateful values.
REHMThe book is titled "Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground." Jonathan Kay is the author. He's managing editor of Canada's National Post Newspaper. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Lavonia, Mich. Good morning, Mike, you're on the air.
MIKEHi. I just wanted to comment on the notion of combining all conspiracy theorists. I know you made some distinctions, but it seems to me there's a distinction to be made between people who believe a one-off conspiracy theory, say 9/11, versus people who think, say, the Free Masons or whoever are controlling everything. And there's a very different mindset, I think, related to these two different groups. So I'm wondering if you have thought about that or made that sort of distinction.
KAYThat is a very good question. There -- you have global conspiracy theories that involve the idea that one group is taking over the entire world. And then you have more particular conspiracy theories, for instance, involving the death of Vince Foster. In my experience 9/11 conspiracy theorists tend to be in the former group, that is they are global conspiracy theorists. Because when I sit down and interviewed them for a couple of hours, you know, the first 20 or 30 minutes they will tell me about how they think the world trade center fell. And then inevitably -- inevitably the interview goes in another direction where they talk about how this is part of a plot to control the world's oil supply through foreign wars, and thereby control the entire fate of the planet.
KAYRight wing conspiracy theorists will typically say that 9/11 was part of an operation to create a one-world government, New World Order, United Nations, that sort of thing. Left wing conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, will tell me, oh, this is a big plot by Halliburton and Dick Cheney and the weapons manufacturers. But the central theme of their conspiracy theory tends to be the same, that there is one entity, whether it's the Bilderbergers or the New World Order, whatever it is, whatever name you have, one entity that is trying to control the entire planet. And 9/11 was a false flag operation aimed at furthering that global plot.
REHMHow have we dealt with, you know, massive conspiracy theories in the past? For example, the Kennedy assassination or the Twin Towers?
KAYThe media's response to it often is to try and ignore it. Putting aside JFK, which is a more complex phenomenon, you know, in the mainstream media, they have done their best, I think, to ignore 9/11 conspiracy theorists in the same way that they ignore holocaust deniers. Not to put the two things on the same level of hate, but basically fringe conspiratorial ideas, mainstream news editors say, well, this is a fringe idea. I'm going to do the responsible thing. I'm going to ignore it. The problem is it doesn't just go away. It goes to the Internet and eventually sometimes you have to deal with it.
KAYI think the birther thing was a great example. For two years, Barack Obama and the people around him kind of assumed that it would go away. And maybe in an era without the Internet, the birther thing might have gone away. But it didn't go away and polls showed that many Americans believe the conspiracy theory. So he had to come out and show his long form birth certificate.
REHMYou talk about the sort of conspiracy theorists who are going through a midlife crisis.
KAYYeah, 'cause I have this typology where I show the eight different psychological profiles of some of the people I met. And sometimes it's 50-year-old men who are just looking for something new in life.
REHMJonathan Kay. The book is titled "Among the Truthers."
REHMAnd just before the break Jonathan Kay was talking about the kind of midlife crisis example of men, especially, who are involved in these conspiracy theories.
KAYYes, a surprisingly large number of conspiracy theorists were middle age men who had come to their beliefs very radically and suddenly. And the -- perhaps, the best example is Richard Gage, who is one of the leading 911 conspiracy theorists. He's a guy who lives in California. He was -- for two decades he had been an architect working on retail malls mostly. And then, I think it was 2006, he was driving along the highway and he heard another 911 conspiracy theorist on the radio, whose name was David Ray Griffin, and all of a sudden he had to pull his car to the side of the road because just, as he describes it, the truth just hit him about 911.
KAYAnd from that day forward, he gradually -- he quit being an architect and he started traveling the world telling people that 911 was an inside job. He lost his family. He lost his house. He now lives in an apartment. He has a completely new set of friends. He lives life mostly on the Internet corresponding with his admirers. He has completely changed his life over. And I've met several men like him and, for these people, a lot of it is just this idea that conventional life, conventional reality, as they know it, is unsatisfying and numbing and they just find this -- they create this entirely new reality for themselves and conspiracism is sort of a trip into this new life.
REHMTo Rochester, N.Y., good morning, John, you're on the air.
JOHNHi, I wanted to make a couple points and get the author's feedback. First of which is that, you know, I think, an important element in the, sort of, creeping paranoia that a lot of people who are branded conspiracy theorists and who are conspiracy theorists have is this feeling of being marginalized by the way democracy has developed in the U.S. where it's, you know, we've got this kind of a pay-for-play system and the sense that people in certain sectors of society just feel very marginalized and powerless because of that.
JOHNWith the revolving door in Washington and these sorts of phenomena that come out, the TARP bailout where many people -- many credible people have gone on at length discussing how, you know, we're actually almost paying people with some of the bailout money who are the people who, you know, almost, you know, single-handedly brought down the economy. The second point I wanted to make is that, you know, in the '60s and into the '70s it was sort of a renaissance period of black ops and covert operations, which came out during the church committee hearings.
JOHNAnd some of the information that came out was about operations and plans that, if they hadn't been confirmed, would -- people discussing them beforehand would have branded conspiracy theorists. I'm talking specifically about some of the discussions about -- there was a program that almost was enacted called Operation Northwoods. I don't know if the author knows anything about that.
REHMYes, I think he does. Go ahead, Jonathan.
KAYYeah, Operation Northwoods, this was a plan which was never enacted, but it was a plan that –--I believe it was the joint chiefs of staff who created it. It was a false flag operation that would have been used in the time of JFK as a pretext to launch war against Cuba. And the idea -- well, there's several variations of it, but the idea was that the United States would fly a plane near Cuban airspace and then destroy their own plane and then blame it on the Cubans and this would become a pretext to attack Cuba. And this was a real plan. This is documented. JFK said no to it and the plan was never enacted, but to this day, Operation Northwoods is a famous by word that you hear at every 9/11 conspiracy theorists convention.
KAYAnd they will say 9/11 was just like Operation Northwoods, except this time they actually did it.
REHMWhat about Iran Contra and what we learned after the fact?
KAYYeah, or what about Watergate? You know, however, it's true that these were very real conspiracies, but, at the same time, they also showed the limits of government agents to enact conspiracy theories. Compared to some of the theories people have about say 911, Watergate and Iran Contra were fairly limited. They involved a small group of people and, even so, people have a hard time keeping secrets and they were unveiled as conspiracies. This is the problem that, I think, most people have with ambitious conspiracy theories which is that people are just really bad at keeping secrets.
KAYAnd if you did have a conspiracy to blow up the World Trade Center or mask the origins of Barack Obama's birth, people would find out about it because people tell what they know, generally, eventually.
REHMHere's an email from Jimmy who says, "I'm not, as a rule, a conspiracy theorist, but the one event I resent being labeled as such is the Kennedy assassination. As far as I'm concerned, there is no doubt it was a conspiracy and I am in good company considering that President Lyndon Johnson is captured on film telling Walter Cronkite that he believed there was more to it than a lone gunman."
KAYYes. You know, the JFK assassination is obviously a special topic. In that case, it is impossible to disprove the thesis that there was a conspiracy because, by definition, if there was someone we don't know about who was acting with Oswald, by definition the lone gunman theory is wrong. So you cannot disprove it. That's why it's so tantalizing because we'll never know. There really could have been someone else. And that's why, as you said before, there have been over 2,000 books written about the JFK assassination and every single one of them has a slightly different conspiracy theory that's involved.
KAYBut, as I said, you can't put JFK into the same category as 9/11 or the birther movement because there really could have been someone else. We just -- we'll never know.
REHMTo Arlington, Mass., good morning, Jonathan.
JONATHANGood morning, Diane, some of my thunder was stolen because you've just discussed, you know, the fact that the blanket dismissal of conspiracy theories can, in turn, make way for the big lie. And that is, you know, an actual conspiracy that flourishes because it's ignored as, you know, just another loopy conspiracy theory. So I'm hoping to have some comment -- I mean, my individual concern and work has to do with elections and the counting of votes in elections. And, you know, there is quite a bit of -- there's agreement on the part of experts that the vote counting system, the computerized system, is vulnerable to manipulation.
JONATHANAnd there's a lot of strong and copious statistical evidence that this may actually be happening and, yet, the conspiracy theory write off, you know, being lumped with people who say that, you know, aliens have put chips in our brains or whatever, and the, you know, never happened here idea, that wall of denial that this is America, the beacon of democracy, winds up thwarting any serious investigation of what is, actually, potentially a very serious threat to democracy. So how would you distinguish between the ideologically motivated, the plain nutty and, on the other hand, attention must be paid flavors of conspiracy theories given that history is, in reality, strewn with undisclosed agreements, aka, conspiracies?
KAYIn general, the big lie only works in totalitarian societies that have complete control over information flow. America is an open society and there are many channels available to challenge the received wisdom. So you can go to court to challenge vote counts; you can disclose it in the media; obviously, there's all sorts of activist groups. So it is very difficult to maintain any kind of big lie in an open society. In North Korea, obviously, it's much easier because you have a single conduit for information. You know, in terms of what you were saying about American democracy, you know, I think Americans don't realize how many checks and balances they have against the kind of conspiracies they allege.
KAYAnd, to a certain extent, I understand why there are conspiracy theories in places like Iran or places like Syria where the government really is oppressing people. It's just much less realistic in a place like the United States or Canada where there are so many places that a person who has information can go to get that information disseminated to incriminate government actors who are doing bad things.
REHMWhere does the Tea Party fit into your theories about what's happening?
KAYI went -- part of the book -- one chapter is based on Tea Party stuff. I went to the Tea Party national convention in 2010 in Nashville. And right off, I should say you cannot say the Tea Party folks are conspiracy theorists, generally. They want things like lower taxes and smaller government, which are completely legitimate political demands. It is a completely legitimate mainstream political movement. However, if you go to their conventions, you will find a fringe who are bona fide conspiracy theorists.
KAYFor instance, at this 2010 Nashville convention, which was the first national Tea Party convention, one of the featured speakers was someone named Joseph Farah, who is a birther and runs a website called WorldNetDaily, which is probably the leading birther website out there. And he gave a lengthy speech in which he devoted about ten minutes to the subject of Barack Obama's birthplace, which he compared it to the birthplace of Jesus, which he said that the documentation on Jesus' birthplace was much more validated than the documentation on Barack Obama's birthplace, which I found shocking and astounding
KAYAnd yet, at the time, the national media didn't pay any attention to it because they were just waiting for Sarah Palin to show up and give her speech the next day. But here you had, at the national Tea Party convention, a person giving, basically, a conspiracy theory speech about Obama and you had about 1,000 or 2,000 people on the floor of that convention gave this guy a massive ovation despite the fact that what he had said was total nonsense.
REHMI was about to ask how the audience reacted.
KAYOh, it was very well received. And, in fact, he wasn’t the only conspiracy theorist there. You had a judge gave a -- he gave speech about how the future of America under the democrats would be a United Nations soldier being stationed in every house. I mean, real hard core conspiracist stuff and this was at an event billed as a mainstream Tea Party event. I found it quite shocking.
REHMTo Catonsville, Md., good morning, Dan.
DANGood morning. Look, you've presented what, I think, is sort of a false dichotomy that both sides of the political spectrum engage in. So, I think, my observation is that conspiracies rocket to the top of concerted consciousness in a way that is just not true on the left-hand side of the political spectrum. And, I think, that you have Fox News, frankly, to thank for that. I mean, they have an hour-long program every night in the form of Glenn Beck, until he was cancelled, where these kinds of theories were given wide credence and endlessly played up. And that kind of structure simply does not exist on the left.
DANI mean, you can find examples, certainly, of nuts on my side of the table, but it just isn't the same. Nuts get much more prominent and credible stature in, frankly, the Republican Party.
KAYI would agree with your caller that there is no equivalent to someone like Glenn Beck on the left. That is to say someone who has had this sort of mainstream daily television platform to spout conspiracy theories from the left. You get plenty of leftist conspiracy theorists but none who are the equivalent of Glenn Beck. What I would say, though, is that if you were someone on the right, you would counter that by saying the left doesn't need to have its own TV show to promote conspiracy theories because so much of university life and campus life for students is dominated by left wing professors who parade their own kind of bias against the United States.
KAYAnd, in some cases, as I document in my book, actually present their students with outright left wing conspiracy theories as part of their course work. I document some of these examples in my book. So, yes, it's true there is no, right now, no left wing equivalent to Glenn Beck, but the cultural influence of left wing academics is, I would argue, equally pervasive.
REHMWhat do you...
DANWell, I think, that's kind of a simplification of my point. I mean, the party structure receives these people totally differently on the right than they do on the left. Forget Glenn Beck. The party treats them differently.
KAYThat is true. But I would argue that what that is is a reaction to power. Typically, the most radicalized political factions are those that are out of power and become very agitated as a result. Right now you have a democratic president so the most radicalized factions are on the right in opposition to that president.
REHMThanks for calling, Dan. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an email from Gloria in Traverse City, Mich. She says, "I have intelligent, sane friends who believe President Obama was born in Kenya and he is a secret Muslim. Once these seeds of fear are planted, it seems almost impossible to reason with them. What can I say or do to convince them that these are lies?"
KAYThat's a great question. In my book, I call it an ounce of prevention and a pound of cure because once a person becomes a conspiracy theorist, it becomes very, very difficult to get them out of the rabbit hole. In fact, one thing I confess in the book is that I have never won an argument with a conspiracy theorist. They always have some other debating point that they can throw at me and, because their commitment to their theory is typically emotional, it's very difficult to argue them down intellectually. What the strategy I took in this book is to show people that this is a recurring historical phenomenon.
KAYShow them what happened after the French Revolution. Show them what happened with the protocols of the Elders of Zion. Show them what happened in the 20th Century and show them, look, your theories are not unique. They have appeared at every point in history. And once people, perhaps, recognize that they are not onto something original, but are simply mouthing something that comes up in every generation, and that this is old hat, they've just changed some of the names, perhaps, maybe they'll become self aware about their ideas and realize that maybe they should listen to others.
REHMHow long do conspiracy theories put aside the Kennedy assassination? How long does the bubble last?
KAYOh, they never go away completely. What happens is they simply become part of the conspiracist's bedrock that other conspiracy theories are built onto. So, for instance, you know, people who believe 911 conspiracy theories, that's been almost ten years now, and their moment is beginning to pass, but, instead of actually putting aside those conspiracy theories, they cite them as a precedent for new conspiracy theories. For instance, Fort Hood, after the horrible Fort Hood massacre last year, I went onto the conspiracy theorists websites and they were saying well, this was in inside job just the same way 911 was inside job.
REHMJonathan Kay. He is a managing editor and columnist and blogger at Canada's National Post newspaper. His new book is titled, "Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground." Thank you so much for being with us.
KAYThank you for having me.
REHMThanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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