I’m Right, You’re Wrong

The insidious pleasure of conspiracy theory

Michael Lewis’s wonderful 2003 Book, Moneyball, is not about conspiracy theories at all. It is about a faction of baseball fans and team managers who changed the game in the late 1990s by rigorously applying statistical analysis to players’ performance. One of the heroes of the book is a guy from Kansas named Bill James, who, in 1977, began publishing an annual analysis of game statistics called the Baseball Abstract. He sold 85 copies of the first edition in its first year. By 1988 he was selling the thing by the truckload. Then he stopped. But his ideas eventually caught on, and meanwhile he had a certain special feeling to keep him warm.

The central argument of James’s writing was that the people running baseball were ignoring the plain truth of the game. The skills that were valued by team managers were not useful; the skills that were useful were not valued. Bill James spent countless thousands of hours poring over stats until he could measure the gap between ability and recompense. Eventually his notions became influential, but for James true satisfaction came not from changing anyone’s mind, but simply from knowing. “It is a wonderful thing,” he wrote in his last Baseball Abstract, “to know that you are right and the world is wrong.”

That really is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Some people get hooked on that feeling. Among them, some get so hooked they prefer to believe they are right and the world is wrong, even when all the evidence suggests right and wrong are situated the other way around. There are people like that in every field. I write about politics in Ottawa. The city is full of people who will puff out their chests and explain to anyone who will listen what is really going on, whether they know or not.

If mundane topics like baseball and politics can attract obsessive blowhards, then it is not a huge surprise that truly extraordinary events, like the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, will draw some of the hardest blowers and the most obsessive obsessives. This seems to me as good an explanation as any for the assorted cranks, crackpots and conspiracy theorists Jonathan Kay chronicles in Among the Truthers: A Journey into the Growing Conspiracist Underground of 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, Armageddonites, Vaccine Hysterics, Hollywood Know-Nothings and Internet Addicts.

Kay, an editorialist at the National Post, is vocationally attached to the idea that reasoned argument can be persuasive. Adherents of the so-called 9/11 Truth movement seem to offend him personally, not so much for what they believe but because they refuse to see what he sees. In the course of researching this entertaining book, Kay tried to debate a few Truthers formally. By their lights, at least, he lost big. Kay says he feels “disillusioned by what this experience taught [him] about the limits of intellectual discourse itself. Even the reality of lived experience—the most direct path to truth there is—has been undermined by the conspiracist mindset, which overlooks eyewitness reports—of a plane flying into the Pentagon, or skyscrapers collapsing without any hint of internal demolition—in favour of tortured inferences from scattered esoterica.”

To which the Truthers might answer yes, but it is a wonderful thing to know you are right and the world is wrong. “Do your own research,” one of these fellows—they are almost always fellows—tells Kay, “and the conclusion cannot be avoided: The events of, and since, 9/11/2001 were and are the actions of a global coup d’état.”

“You have to do your research,” another says. “A lot of the patterns and sequences we’re seeing now descend from Bavaria.” I am not even sure what that means. This sort of thing happens a lot when reading Kay’s book, but it’s not an unpleasant feeling. “Patterns and sequences from Bavaria,” after all, makes about as much intuitive sense as “Hamburg-educated adherents of an ultra-orthodox faction of Islam.” You and I know, of course, that the towers fell because of the latter, not the former. But why do we know it? Truthers would say it is precisely because we have not done our own research. We have been sucked into the big lie.

Whose lie? Conspiracy theorists are often vague on the answer to that. The truth they believe they have found, the truth they treasure, is often not a positive truth; it is a negative or prophylactic truth. They cannot always tell you what happened, but they know what did not: whatever the People in Charge want you to believe.

Kay discusses in detail the example of Richard Gage, a California architect who has become a big draw on the 9/11 conspiracy circuit. Gage will show up at a hotel ballroom with a 600-slide PowerPoint deck disputing the notion that it was hijacked airliners that brought down the Twin Towers. He believes the catastrophe was some kind of controlled demolition. But he makes a show of refusing to speculate about what caused the near-simultaneous explosions at the Pentagon. “We’re building and technical professionals,” Gage tells his audience. “We’re not conspiracy theorists.”

Which is funny, because in other moments he sure sounds like one. “I would rather die speaking the truth than live in a police state, which is what 9/11 set the groundwork for,” Gage tells Kay later.

One virtue of this book is that Kay spent a lot of time actually talking to the people who peddle these theories. The cozy assumptions he brought to his work were an early casualty of those confrontations with his subjects. He seems at first to have embarked on a study of the 9/11 Truth movement because it would give him a chance to do what National Post editorialists have long enjoyed doing—mocking leftists. Reality is not so neat.

“While I once supposed Truthers to be simply radical specimens of the anti-American, Bush-hating Left,” Kay writes, “many of the Truthers I’ve met actually turned out to be self-described conservatives who see 9/11 as part of a plot to strip Americans of their liberty, and transfer Washington’s sovereign powers to the United Nations.”

Pretty soon, in fact, the left-right spectrum proves to be of limited utility for sorting through these folks. And Kay has hardly begun his investigation before he realizes that the paranoid American mindset operates far outside the realm of 9/11 speculation. His book’s ungainly subtitle gets closer to its content than does its pithy title. There is a well-reported chapter on the people who refuse to believe Barack Obama was born in the United States and that he therefore cannot legally be president. There are digressions into other corners of the paranoid mindset. Along the way, Kay finds themes that flow through the various perceived conspiracies, even though the people doing the perceiving are often dissimilar. The movement or network behind the supposed plot often shows five characteristics Kay calls singularity, evil, incumbency, greed and hypercompetence.

Greed and evil are easy enough to explain. Texas syndicated radio host Alex Jones believed they were behind the worldwide movement to cap carbon emissions when he asked his audience, on the eve of the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, “Do you like being sterilized? Do you like being killed?! You better grow up, ladies and gentlemen. You better realize that we’re facing a threat far more dangerous than Mao Tse Tung and Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin!”

Hypercompetence is Kay’s term for the notion that vast, ornate conspiracies could be carried out by governments not normally skilled at any of the ordinary business of state. Singularity is the idea that all the world’s woes are caused by some eternally powerful clique—the Bilderberg conference, the Masons, the Jews—that cares little who is formally in charge.

Incumbency might be the most intriguing item on Kay’s list. A lot of these theories put the plotters not at the fringes of society threatening to bring the government down, but at the highest echelons of the state itself. That is far more menacing, especially if the masterminds seem impervious to the whims of the electorate. Dick Cheney worked for presidents Nixon, Ford and Bush father and son. He was a senior congressman during Reagan’s presidency. He got rich doing Lord knows what at Halliburton when Bill Clinton was in the White House. He is perfect.

Kay’s patience in sorting through all these Byzantine theories and nodding politely while the believers recount their theories to him makes Among the Truthers a valuable book. If there is a weakness, it lies in Kay’s inability to get comfortable with the notion that modern western governments have worked hard to earn widespread mistrust of their motives, actions and official explanations.

Those pesky conspiracy theorists, he writes, have fashioned “not only an alternative vision of modern American history, but also an alternative vision of America itself. Gone is the image of a free nation, spreading liberty and human rights around the globe. In its place is an imperialist faux-democracy ruled by deep-state oil barons, weapons dealers, intelligence officers, and Pentagon warmongers.”

Well, I am not sure I need a tinfoil hat to point out that oil barons and weapons dealers generally do pretty well in America, a country that operated a global network of unacknowledged prisons for terror suspects and wildly overstated the rationale for getting into at least one shooting war.

Kay writes at length about the so-called “Northwoods” memo of 1962, in which assorted spooks advised then defence secretary Robert McNamara on methods for destabilizing the Castro regime in Cuba. “We could sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida (real or simulated),” the memo says, cheerfully offering the Kennedy administration a choice between murder and fraud. Northwoods has become a totem among the conspiracy-minded, but for Kay it “actually helps demonstrate why Truther theories are so far-fetched.” How’s that? Well, Kennedy refused to implement any of the recommended dirty tricks. This, to Kay’s mind, shows that U.S. administrations would never plot against the plain truth. Sure, but Kennedy did sign on to the Bay of Pigs invasion. And is it really such a stretch to imagine that some president since Kennedy might have chosen to be even less scrupulous about the facts?

Please do not take any of this as an endorsement of the specific conspiracy theories Kay canvasses here. I am not saying the FBI planted explosive charges inside the Twin Towers, or that the Masons take out coded ads in Toronto newspapers to coordinate their nefarious plots (a favourite theory, we learn from Kay, of Marshall McLuhan). All I am saying is that the choice is not between the real world, free of plots, and a deluded fantasy world where the authorities conspire against the citizenry. No, the times demand an altogether subtler distinction between the lies the powerful do tell and the lies they do not. It should be no surprise that some people do not manage to draw the line in the right place.

If Kay is surprised, it is partly due to his politics. He wants to see the United States as the free nation spreading liberty. He would like that to be always and obviously true. But he is also a conscientious reporter, and writing this book has clearly been a personal journey for him. Sweeping judgements, unmoored from available evidence, no longer have the charm they once held. “The act of writing this book has had a gradually moderating view on my attitude toward politics, and in my judgments of others,” he writes.

What’s the point of the book? Now and again, Kay argues that Truthers and their affiliated fantasists are some kind of danger to the broader population. Conspiracy theorists threaten to turn the United States “into a sort of intellectual Yugoslavia—a patchwork of agitated cults screaming at one another in mutually unintelligible tongues. It’s a trend that every thinking person has a duty to fight.”

That is the editorial writer in Kay talking, and it is unpersuasive. As he himself points out, conspiracy theorists are not a source of violence or lawbreaking. They are simply overfull of odd guesses about why bad things happen. When he is not handing out homework assignments to “every thinking person,” Kay admits that in fact there is not much that can be done to stop the occasional self-starting, entrepreneurial, internet-connected paranoid. Such folk have always been with us. Google has made it easier for them to find one another. Life goes on. Knowing you are right—even when you are not—is so wonderful it seems curmudgeonly to deny anyone the pleasure.