Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Review: AMONG THE TRUTHERS by Jonathan Kay (Harper, 2011)

This was my main "down-time" reading matter during the Daytona trip -- and such a compelling read that I wound up reading the whole thing several times...

Every month, when a full moon is in the sky, Michael Medved presents his regular "Conspiracy Day" show, opening the airwaves to callers with all sorts of theories about "the hidden forces that shape our lives." This may sound akin to handing a baby a loaded gun, but Medved is of the opinion that "sunlight is the best disinfectant" and gives callers every reasonable chance to state their cases. So, too, did Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay when he tried to meet "Truthers," "Birthers," disbelievers in vaccines, and manufacturers of other conspiratorial confections on their own terms and understand where their views originated. The result is an ideologically balanced, eye-opening, and frequently alarming book that should be read by anyone who is concerned about the level of political and social discourse in America.

Kay provides important backstory about the development of conspiracism in Western societies, particularly the U.S., tracing many of the essentials of modern conspiracy theories about 9/11, the Bilderberg Group, the JFK assassination, and so forth to a basic template set down in the notorious PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION. Since the PROTOCOLS have long since been "outed" as a forgery, Kay suggests that the work be used as the basis of a college-level educational process that familiarizes young people with the details of conspiracy theories and how to recognize them. I'm not sure that a full-fledged "anti-conspiracist curriculum" would be tenable, but surely this would be a good idea for a freshman seminar. But even that approach may be subject to built-in dangers; Kay identifies postmodern academic modes of thinking as "accessories to Trutherdom" (along with the spread of modern media, particularly the Internet, and the rehabilitation of anti-Semitism on the Left in the guise of "anti-Zionism"), and an anti-conspiracist course would have to distinguish between healthy skepticism and self-examination on the one hand and outright nihilism on the other in order to achieve its desired goals. Strangely, given his belief that education is the key to combating conspiracism, Kay provides no footnotes or bibliography, so anyone who actually wants to try out a course like this is faced with the task of putting together a reading list on his or her own. (Kay has established a blog based on his work; perhaps he and others can build up such a reference list over time. I think it would be most helpful to anyone who wants to pursue Kay's suggestion.)

In Kay's "field guide" to various types of conspiracists, he covers most of the important psychological bases, from the contrarian ("The Crank" -- and those types inhabit the mathematical realm, as well!) to the rabble-rouser ("The Firebrand") to the leftover hippie type ("The Cosmic Voyager"). To his list I would add, "The Overconfident Specialist." How often have we seen individuals with great ability in one field completely toss their common sense to the four winds when they attempt to pronounce on some other topic. Think of various Hollywood actors and actresses' sometimes harebrained ideas about the way the world works, or, even more to the point, academicians' proclamations of "commitment" on matters about which they know little more than the average person but think they know more than they actually do.

Aside from the documentation problem, the major omission in Kay's work is the lack of attention he pays to the question of how/why people abandon the conspiracist mindset. In his final chapter, he argues that it is "impossible" to "talk a conspiracist down" once he or she has bitten on that proverbial blue pill, but, earlier in the book, he also mentions several people who "escaped." A fuller discussion of their experiences would have rounded out the book and given at least some hope to people whose loved ones may have fallen into the conspiracist mindset before an educational program could be put in place to set them straight.

The low ratings that this book has been getting on Amazon should be regarded as a complement to Kay, rather than a condemnation. He has done his job well and has produced a work that should become a standard reference for anyone interested in the development of the conspiratorial mindset, how it can infect rational social and political discourse, and how it can be combatted.

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