30 Jul The Conspiracy Book the World Has Actually Needed
I apologize in advance if you are a crazy conspiracy advocate who saw the title to this piece and got all excited about a new book regarding the CIA’s assassination of John Kennedy, or George Soros’ plan for one-world government, or Dick Cheney’s destruction of the World Trade Center. The book I am about to write about does cover all of the above, but unfortunately I have nothing new to add to the aforementioned diabolical plots. However, I would suggest to you that if you are pre-disposed to believing in such comical delusion, you will benefit from reading this book more than the ones you generally take in.
That probably is not true. Implied in what I just said is some idealistic notion that a conspiracist could read this book and then find religion. It will not happen. One character trait is more reliable in conspiracists than anything else, and that is incorrigibility. They will not be convinced by this book, just as they are not convinced by all sorts of various tools (like logic, reason, facts, rationality, and common sense). But this book is extremely valuable, even where it can not hope to be a source of persuasion amongst the most fringe members of our society. Indeed, Jonathan Kay’s powerful work does all the rest of us a huge favor in analyzing the roots of conspiracism, and providing interesting tools for how we as a society can better engage this crazy attack on mental sanity.
I do not want to review this book in such a way that it takes away the need to read it. Everyone reading this review ought to be buying and reading the book. He does a fantastic job walking his readers through the history of conspiracism, and connects dots in such a way as to be fair, reasonable, sympathetic, and yet unrelenting. Kay does not apologize for believing that conspiracy theorists represent an all-out assault on those who believe in reason. But he is careful in how he portrays them, and delivers insights that readers will find compelling.
This issue is a special passion for me because I have been forced by circumstances outside of my control to spend a fair amount of my life surrounded by the most unstable of conpsiracy theorists you have ever met. My past life in the world of Reconstructionism and paleo-Libertarianism introduced me to some pretty zany stuff, and the zaniest stuff was never theological or ideological – it was always, without exception, sociological and psychological. At a younger age the realization that so many of the people I was surrounded by were, well, kind of unstable, was a very, very bitter pill to swallow. I feel a great deal of peace about the fact that God led me out of that world. But regardless, an impact remains, and I believe these conspiracy folks are not merely fruitcakes relegated to the fringe parts of society (though they are surely that); unfortunately, they leave a trail of misery behind them when it comes to what they do (and are doing) to their spouses, their children, their friends, and in many ecclesiastical circles, their churches.
The conversation about conspiracism needs to start with a fundamentally obvious point: It is nearly universally true that its advocates are people who extremyl unaccomplished in their personal lives. This is not an elitist statement; it is an empirical fact. One has every right in the world to draw inferences from this – obvious inferences. Conspiracy theorists are almost always male, and conspiract theorists are almost always overwhelmed with disappointment in their personal and professional lives. One need not pass Psychology 101 at their local community college to conclude that this kind of thing often attracts people to a world where they can differentiate themselves from others – the world of non-falsifiable conspiracy theorists. Conspiracism is as safe as it gets for these people – it comes with a built-in superiority complex (“I know something no one else knows”), a built-in terminal uniqueness (“I am not a confirmist robot like those other dolls who believe everything their government tells them”), and a built-in existential purpose (“As long as there is this unrevealed evil out there I have to be the one to expose the ugly truth”). Nice meatloaf, eh? Fantasy-land itself couldn’t provide more cover for these very scarred people.
And yet, in a sort of sick kind of irony, the various disappointments in their life that force them into the warm comfort of conspiracism are exactly why they lack the critical skills to see hair-brained conspiracy theories for what they are. In the real world, those of us with jobs, and careers, and accomplishments, and healthy families, and connections to the community, and involvements in various institutions, we all know the deep dark secret that is itself the most obvious refutation of conspiracism: We know that people are way, way too inefficient, too disorganized, too disloyal, too distracted, too unreliable, to ever be able to pull off a tiny fraction of what these people accuse them of. We know that, because we live and function in the real world and engage these things on a daily basis. Most of us are not offended by this reality – we accept it, manage it, and live within it. The idea that four people in our office can finish a task perfectly and on time has to be taken with a grain of salt; the idea that four hundred people can plan fake phone calls on flight 93 as they remote-controlled fake laser images of airplanes into pre-bombed Pentagon buildings is, well, not very credible.
At the end of the day, I agree with Kay that there are some conspiracists who are truly suffering from a clinical form of psychosis. Rampant drug use and even various forms of schizophrenia are not funny, and I do not criticize those conspiracists with this review. I just want them to get needed help. But for your run-of-the-mill folks who truly believe that there are secret forces pulling the strings of the universe, they suffer from a spiritual problem that requires immediate attention. They not only fail to understand the self-refuting problem of conspiracism in the inability of human beings to succeed with such grand and secretive evil ambitions, but they implicitly seek to provide a cause and explanation to things where one is not necessary. There is a certain chaos, a certain randomness, a certain evil, and a certain ugliness to humanity that is extremely uncomfortable for all of us. Healthy people who have achieved aduly maturity generally accept these things for what they are. Conspiracists, though, actually believe that there really is some all-powerful cabal out there guiding human history. I imagine it comforts them to believe that a deep, dark Federal Reserve is having secret meetings with bankers to plot the destruction of the middle class, rather than simply understand that some people have flawed economic philosophies. Rather than believe that U.S. security let its guard down prior to 9/11, it feels better to think that a massive force of globalist corporate interests plotted the mass murder of American lives (presumably to push Haliburton’s stock price up??). I am not even addressing the massive prevalence of anti-semitism in conspiracism, something that Kay does a great job at exposing himself. At the end of the day, conspiracists have gotten the creator-creature distinction all wrong. Men seek to play God all day long; but they never do it well. That is the story of human history.
I have purposely avoided engaging the specifics of particular conspiracy theories in this review. You should too. The author of this book explains how unfair media coverage adds fuel to the fire of people pre-disposed to conspiracism, and I agree. I am well aware that some bad things have taken place throughout history. A denial of conspiracism is not a denial of conspiracies … What I desire to see is a time in which the various psychological and sociological causes of conspiracism (at the root level) are addressed so that conspiracism itself can die the death it ought to die. With more books like Jonathan Kay’s, we are well on our way.
(NOTE: I do not hold out any special opposition to conspiracy theories of the left over and against conspiracy theories of the right. Neither does Jonathan Kay. I find the rapture-fever cult of evangelicals along with the birther movement of the far right to be just as disturbing and flawed as the Dick Cheney conspiracies and big oil conspiracies of the left. Conspiracism is one of the ultimate non-partisan flaws in our society; anti-conspiracism must be equally non-partisan).