Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground

The sell copy inside the front flap of Among the Truthers’ dust jacket calls Kay a journalist. But Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground evinces none of the objectivity that one would expect from a journalist. Canadian Jonathan Kay is an editorial writer and columnist who has been working to debunk the 911 truth movement essentially since its arrival. This book continues his quest.

In it, Kay sallies forth with a broad brush, surveying a mĂ©lange of familiar targets of ridicule—Senator Joseph McCarthy, purveyors of tales of Atlantis, anti-Semites, skeptics questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s works, academic deconstructionists, and others, along with 911 truthers—targets that share no logical relationship. They share only an implication of being related every time somebody utters the phrase, "conspiracy theory".

One brand of glue Kay uses to try to hold together his conspiratorial herd of cats is The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a scurrilous document that purports to be a collection of notes taken from lectures given by Theodor Herzl, in which the outspoken Zionist outlined a Jewish takeover of the world. Outside hardcore anti-Semitic circles, the document universally is dismissed as a fake. But the Protocols surfaces again and again in Kay's narrative as if he felt a need repeatedly to smear anyone who rejects official proclamations by associating them with this example of hateful propaganda.

Digging to the historical roots of his subject, Kay observes, "British colonial rule under King George III truly was designed to keep Americans in a state of perpetual subservience, and to steal the fruits of their industry. Over time, resentment of this fact grew into a deep suspicion of government power more generally."

The Monarch’s Court might have replied to Kay’s assessment as follows:
The oppression of the king was "truly" a "fact"? No, Mr. Kay. You don't understand. Good King George sought only to protect and care for the vulnerable colonists. Conspiracy theories swirled through the colonies, and this was unfortunate, but the colonists were a peculiar sort of people, prone to delusions and paranoia. Certainly your own ruling class acts always and only in the best interests of your laborers, as did King George. Why would you imagine that the rulers of the past were differently constituted from your own? You seem to have imbibed the kool-aid of Messrs. Jefferson, Franklin and Paine. They are such rabble as needs to be debunked in a book about the wrong-headedness of mistrusting authority.
During his quixotic journey, Kay effectively achieves the opposite of his intended effect, because he repeatedly admits that history provides many real-world precedents for the events and official narratives that raise eyebrows among today's conspiracy theorists, ". . . including the unsatisfying Warren commission Report on the JFK assassination, the secret bombing of Cambodia and the military cover-up of My Lai, a program of foreign coups and assassinations by the CIA, and other questionable activities officially denied and only brought to light after the fact [.]" Add to this list the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the plots hatched under Operation Northwoods, and you’ve got plenty of reasons to dismiss blanket dismissals of conspiratorial suspicion. The theorists too often are on target.

In discussing a favorite topic of conspiracy theorists, the secretive Bilderberg Group, Kay shoots himself in the foot again. "Over time, something called the 'Bilderberg Group' evolved into a once-a-year, off-the-record talk shop for a rotating cast drawn from the world's foremost politicians, corporate leaders, and intellectuals—Davos without the cameras, essentially." But Kay admits that, "Even most educated readers are unlikely to know much about the Bilderberg Group."

Really? And why is that? Aren't the most educated readers the ones who would be most conscientious about informing themselves regarding the comings and goings of the world's foremost politicians, corporate leaders and intellectuals? Is something frustrating their attempts to stay informed? Do the mainstream media fail to inform because they are ignorant of the Bilderberg Group and its calendar of events? They would need only to consult any of many conspiracy websites to discover where and when the Group meets. It's no secret among Bilderberg investigators. But the mainstream media fail to inform the public regarding these meetings of the world's foremost politicians, corporate leaders, and intellectuals. What gives? And why the secrecy on the part of the group? If the world's foremost politicians, corporate leaders, and intellectuals are just exchanging cookie recipes and showing off pictures of their grandkids, then why the cloak and dagger? What do they need to hide? The questions are endless.

Kay accommodates readers with an answer. He leans on a colleague, publisher Conrad Black, to explain. Black "has attended more than twenty Bilderberg conferences, and even sat on the group's Steering Committee for the better part of two decades." Cool. So this fellow has an inside seat. What does he say goes on at the meetings? Kay quotes him:
"In my time, starting at the end of the 70s, it had become a Western Alliance meeting place—with a few others, i.e., Swedes, Finns, Irish, Austrians, Swiss, and an Icelander—where attendees discussed how to deal with the Soviets, how to organize and manage Western economies. [. . . .] It was an atmosphere of hauts functionnaires, altruistic businessmen, and self-important people, sufficient in what they fancied to be their influence and right-mindedness."
(Kay fails to mention that this colleague in 2007 was convicted in U.S. federal court of three counts of mail and wire fraud and one count of obstruction of justice and sentenced to 6-1/2 years in jail.  Ah, the company we keep . . . .)

OK, let me get this straight. Self-important people, sufficient in what they fancy to be their influence and right-mindedness, meet in secret to organize and manage Western economies. Whew, I was afraid it was going to be a conspiracy.  I guess it’s just bad luck that their policies always manage to further enrich the wealthy and impoverish the poor. Maybe they need a new consultant.

Kay shoots himself in the foot once more when he dredges up commie-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy as an example of a conspiracy theorist, but then concedes, parenthetically, that "(one should not overlook the grain of truth in his assertions—despite the mendacity of his trumped up charges, there were in fact Communist agents in the U.S. government, as later revelations would confirm.)" So, McCarthy's suspicions were merely imprecise, not inaccurate. Let’s give each side half a point.

Then there's this: "The CIA in particular, an organization whose MK-ULTRA mind-control and chemical-interrogation experiments truly were something out of a conspiracist's nightmare, seemed to symbolize a world in which average citizens were targeted by their own government.” Seems to symbolize? No. They really, actually, factually did target average citizens. It's not symbolism. It's history, documented. Indeed, the CIA’s heinous MK-ULTRA program is an excellent place for a newbie to these matters to start researching justifications for conspiracist thinking.

It's tempting to conclude from so many examples of conspiracy thinking that turn out to be justified that Kay himself is conspiring (with his typesetter? Heh-heh, who knows?) to soften opposition to conspiracy theories. But that would be delusional thinking. Let's move on to the crux of Kay's conspiratorial biscuit, the 911 Truth movement.

Apparently untrained in critical thinking, Kay knocks 911 truthers for "having notebooks full of esoteric debating points about avionics, building demolition, NORAD flight-tracking procedures and a dozen other scattered subjects" in lieu of a coherent alternative to the official narrative.  Kay wants truthers to put the rhetorical cart before the grammatical horse.

Collecting raw data is the necessary first step (the grammar) needed to attain wisdom according to the traditional critical thinking method of the trivium. When one has sufficient relevant data, then the process of analysis of the data begins (the logic), and one draws conclusions from the logical analysis of the data that are consistent with the data and with logic. Only then is it suitable to provide a narrative (the rhetoric). But Kay wants truthers to jump straight to their version of what happened. However, to obtain all of the relevant data would require a new investigation, conducted by an apolitical commission with international participants and observers and subpoena powers. Kay fails to advocate for such an investigation. He would rather be handed a set of premature conclusions to debunk.

From there he goes on to indulge his fantasy of being a psychologist by offering readers a typology of conspiracy theorists. My favorite of his proposed types is the crank, whom Kay says has the defining feature of "an acute, inveterately restless, furiously contrarian intelligence." You know, like Edison or Einstein. "Many cranks,” he says, “have an Asperger's-like obsession with arithmetic, flowcharts, maps and lengthy data lists." You know, like the minds at NASA who figured out how to get people to the moon and back. "The crank can be satisfied only once he has personally established the truth of his theories using nothing but primary sources and the rules of logic." "Nothing but" might be extreme, but a reliance on primary sources and logic is not a sign of softheadedness.

Kay is downright disingenuous when it comes to WTC 7, the third tower of the World Trade Center complex to fall on that fateful day. He says,
"Even many architects and structural engineers who've never heard of Richard Gage [head of Architects and Engineers for 911 Truth and tireless public speaker] will concede that the collapse of WTC 7, a fairly typical 1980s-era structure located about a football field away from WTC 1, was unusual."

No. It was unprecedented. It was (and remains) a singular event.  Never before had office fires brought down a steel-framed skyscraper (except the two that went down earlier that day, but they were hit by airplanes). WTC 7 collapsed perfectly vertically into its own footprint, falling for a brief period at free-fall speed, behavior typical of a controlled demolition.

In conclusion, the author has traveled a safe and familiar journey to produce a book of hyperconventional opinions that will appeal to a popular audience.  No doubt the book will reassure many readers that ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, NPR, BBC and the rest, despite their variations in emphasis, tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in the interests of informing a free electorate. And anyone who presumes to distrust these corporate voices joins a vile tradition that slithers forth from The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and believes that a conspiracy lurks behind every bush.