Among the Truthers

By Jonathan Kay

The truth is out there . . . and so are the truthers. This label, originally derived from the 9/11 Truth Movement, is used by National Post editor Jonathan Kay to designate conspiracists of all stripes and not just those who question the “official” story about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Truthers are modern Gnostics convinced that they possess a secret knowledge being kept hidden from the general public by a shadowy cabal of sinister puppetmasters. In an information age such knowledge is linked to power and control of the media, making the truthers, at least in their own often tortured minds, heroic resistance figures as well as, paradoxically, both radical sceptics and true believers.

It’s wonderful material for a book, and indeed there have already been quite a few taking the same approach to the subject (I’ve even reviewed a couple: Jon Ronson’s Them and Matt Taibbi’s The Great Derangement). Kay does more with the background, but ultimately doesn’t add much to our understanding of the conspiracist phenomena and at times seems unsure as to what his book is all about.

For one thing, despite some quick character sketches and interviews, Among the Truthers is not really immersive journalism. Nor does it look at any of the subjects mentioned in its subtitle – 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, Armageddonites, Vaccine Hysterics, Hollywood Know-Nothings and Internet Addicts – in any depth. Instead, Kay is chiefly concerned with the anti-Semitic subtext that he sees in many contemporary conspiracist movements, and in particular the legacy of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which he sees as being the archetype of modern conspiracy thinking.

Kay also has his own right-leaning “ideological commitments” that he tries to stay alert to but which colours much of what he has to say. Placing Noam Chomsky and Paul Krugman on one side of the conspiracist spectrum and Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck on the other is fair and balanced only in the way of Fox News. And the frequent attempts made to turn Marxism, “in its broad contours,” into a conspiracy theory are unconvincing. The classic statement on conspiracies headed by exploitative capitalists was made by Adam Smith, not Karl Marx.

There are a lot of hits and misses. Among the hits are Kay’s checklist of conspiracist personality types and his (frustratingly brief) analysis of the way the Internet has contributed to the spread of conspiracist culture. Among the misses are an attack piece on academic political correctness that has little connection to conspiracy theories and some rather general background history cribbed from a handful of popular secondary sources.

The conclusion, which suggests ways of combating conspiracism through education and the balancing of faith (especially in public institutions) with scepticism, is optimistic given Kay’s awareness that there is no arguing with a true believer.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, July 2011.

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