Conspiracy theories, . . . are both a leading cause and a symptom of this intellectual and civic crisis. When a critical mass of educated people in a society lost their grip on the real world – when they claim that George W. Bush is a follower of Nazi ideology, that Barack Obama is a Muslim secretly planning to impose Sharia law on America, that the United States government is controlled by Israel, or that FEMA is preparing to imprison political dissidents in preparation for a totalitarian New World Order – it is a signal that the ordinary rules of rational intellectual inquiry are now treated as optional. – Jonathan Kay, Among The The Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, p. xix
Canadian journalist and author Jonathan Kay
On November 5, 2017, 26-year-old Devon Patrick Kelley entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX. He’d already begun shooting before he opened the doors. By the time he walked out of the church just a few minutes later, 26 people were dead – including the 14-year-old daughter of the church’s pastor, Frank Pomeroy – and 20 more were wounded.
This past Monday, two people were arrested after they berated and threatened Rev. Pomeroy at the church. According to Slate;
In the rant, [Robert] Ussery denied the victims’ existence and demanded to see the birth certificate of Pomeroy’s 14-year-old daughter, who was killed in the attack. “He said, ‘Show me anything to say she was here,’ ” Pomeroy said. . . .
Ussery, 54, and [Jodi] Man, 56, believe that mass shootings, including the Nov. 5 massacre at the church, are hoaxes organized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. On Ussery’s website Side Thorn, he also claims the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, never happened.
In a story from just yesterday, CNN reported a senior political appointee to HUD, while still just a right-wing radio commentator during the election campaign in 2016, trafficked in stories that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chair, John Podesta, participated in Satanic rituals that included drinking the blood of children:
John Gibbs is a former conservative commentator who initially joined the HUD as the director for Strong Cities and Strong Communities, a program aimed at spurring economic development at the local level. . . .
On Twitter, Gibbs made multiple references to a conspiracy theory started by far-right bloggers claiming Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta took part in a Satanic ritual.
This particular theory morphed into what became known as Pizzagate, the story that Clinton and Podesta used the basement of a popular pizzeria in Washington, DC to hide children kidnapped for an international child sex ring. That Comet Ping Pong didn’t actually have a basement didn’t stop Edgar Maddison Welch from entering the restaurant in December, armed with an AR-15. He only surrendered when he was convinced there were no children in the non-existent basement.
Once upon a time, following conspiracy theories was kind of fun: whether it was the Grassy Knoll shooter in Dallas in 1963, the fake Moon landings of 1969, aliens and Area 51, or some combination of some or all of these and more, it was marvelous to read people carrying on as if they were the secret proprietors of expertise that foiled the US government’s involvement in a variety of events that demonstrated the criminal nature of various parts of our state apparatus. Of course, even a casual survey of post-WWII American history shows the involvement of the US government in all sorts of nefarious business, from the Tuskegee syphilis study, MK-ULTRA that included dosing unsuspected people with LSD, the CIA’s involvement in a variety of coups d’etat, from Iran and Lebanon to a variety of places in Latin America. Then of course there was Lyndon Johnson’s constant lying about our progress in Vietnam, Watergate, the FBI’s COINTELPRO program that resulted in the murder of several high-profile members of The Black Panthers by police, and the conviction and imrpisonment of Indian Right’s Activist Leonard Peltier for the murder of an FBI agent, after a trial so ridiculous the feds got caught lying in court during the trial.
The difference between the latter conspiracies and those offered earlier is these latter actually happened, were sometimes well-known, perhaps not in detail but in general outline, at the time they occurred, and became well known because many people involved, whether out of conscience or fear of prison, spoke openly about them. That there are criminal conspiracies, including those involving major institutions of our federal government, is obviously true. That these conspiracies prove the existence of other conspiracies far deeper and darker and even, in the case, say, of our knowledge of intelligent alien life, world-changing, is a leap of logic that some people make.
Interested in answering some questions regarding the 9/11 Truthers – how educated, seemingly intelligent people bought into nonsensical claims regarding what happened on September 11, 2001 – Canadian journalist and author Jonathan Kay spent several years investigating the rising tide of American conspiracists. Ranging over Truthers, Birthers, British Reptilian conspiracist David Icke, and more, Kay’s book is less a catalog of the varieties of conspiracy theories as it is one of those odd, journalist-turned-anthropologist journeys trying to find out why it is people who don’t think the way the journalist believes they should (the “rules of rational inquiry” quoted above, in Kay’s case) believe all sorts of things; the stream of stories since the 2016 election profiling Trump supporters is the same type of story, often showing readers far more about the idiosyncrasies of the author than their purported subject.
In Kay’s case, it is precisely that phrase regarding “rational inquiry” that gives the game away. While we actually never discover the reasons engineers, retired military personnel, doctors, and others who would seem to qualify as well-educated are in the midst of conspiracy-mongering; we do, however, learn that Kay believes Marxism is a kind of conspiracy theory; that conspiracists exist on both the left and right (true enough, I suppose), without ever discussing which kinds of conspiracists have influence in American culture; that post-modernism allows conspiracy theories to be taken as seriously as any other “rational” discussion of current events; and that things like white privilege are the fictional creations of underqualified minority academics.
The book is dated. Published in 2012, Kay writes several times about doing final edits toward the end of 2010, it came out before the rise of the barrage of “false flag” claims about mass shootings. These erupted almost immediately after the Sandy Hook shooting in December, 2012, with people claiming the entire event never occurred; that grieving parents were “crisis actors” and the children, like Rev. Pomeroy’s daughter slaughtered last November, never existed. With Pizzagate in the fall of 2016 – a more absurd tale is difficult to imagine – one would have thought we’d reached peak-conspiracy. Alas, with Donald Trump’s election as President, conspiracy-mongers now have one of their own in the White House. Trump has appeared on Alex Jones’ radio show; white supremacist Jim Hoft and others at his Instapundit blog now have White House journalist credentials, with photos of Hoft and others flashing the White Power signal while standing in front of the Presidential podium in the WH Press Room. The proliferation and mainstreaming of nonsensical stories of aliens, state-sponsored domestic shootings to bring about the confiscation of weapons, that global warming is fake (this one is helped out by the fossil fuel industry and members of both Houses of Congress), and more is all the more disconcerting for the fact the President has shown his willingness to traffic in them.
I found Kay’s book underwhelming precisely because I learned little I didn’t already know about various conspiracy theories while learning a bit too much about Kay’s biases. These include a soft-spot for false equivalencies, a serious lack of understanding regarding post-modern theory, and a refusal to understand efforts to alter how we speak to one another when it comes to matters of race and sex in order to dismantle how we think about others. While it may well be the case that America is so inundated by conspiracy-mongering that our “shared reality” is undermined, it might also be the case that, now as ever, the numbers of those adhering to one or another such “theory” continues to be relatively small – hardly “a critical mass” – but is now far more visible with the advent of the Internet as well as a fellow-traveler in high office. Precisely because he refuses to take seriously matters of the structures of power built into both our language and our efforts at “rational inquiry” (which he never actually defines), Kay is unable to see that this is not a matter of numbers, because they’re just not there; it is, rather, a matter of power, cui bono, as the Romans wondered.
In the case of our contemporary conspiracy mongering, it is a status quo that is old, facing senescence, yet still holding enough power to keep the pot of our public discourse stirring with the toxic nonsense that are conspiracy theories.