Feature

Book of the week: Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground by Jonathan Kay

The Canadian newspaper columnist explains why Americans are increasingly willing to indulge in conspiracy theories about the government or about politicians they dislike.

(Harper, $28)

It’s amazing that Jonathan Kay “emerged with his sanity intact,” said Jacob Heilbrunn in The New York Times. After spending years immersed in the head-spinning world of “truthers,” “birthers,” and all manner of other conspiracy theorists, the conservative Canadian newspaper columnist has somehow managed to produce a thoughtful treatise on what drives so many people to believe that the 9/11 attacks may have been perpetrated by the U.S. government or that the president may be a secret Kenyan. Concerned about what he sees as a dangerous surge in paranoid thinking, Kay sought out many of the professors, journalists, and other self-styled whistle-blowers who have devoted time to researching and propagating theories about secretive cabals that manipulate world events. He’s returned with a warning: Examine your own ideological commitments—you may be more prone to joining the conspiracy thinkers than you’d expect.

It’s certainly easier to be duped by a bogus conspiracy theory than it used to be, said David Weigel in Slate.com. Kay excels at explaining why Americans are increasingly willing to indulge nightmare fantasies about the government or about politicians they dislike. Virtually every one of the 9/11 truthers he comes across—including Rob Balsamo, an airline pilot who co-founded a group called Pilots for 9/11 Truth—was motivated to search for alternate explanations because the story Washington was telling about the war on terror didn’t make complete sense. Once they turned to the Web, they were able to find or construct a whole alternate history whose pieces seemed to fit together better.

“Kay has a knack for making even the silliest conspiracist sound sympathetic,” said Sonny Bunch in The Wall Street Journal. But he eventually overreaches in his attempts to explain why there may be more of them now than ever. Noting that Democrats are particularly susceptible to doubts about the official 9/11 story, he argues that our universities and media have been overly successfully in promulgating the idea that the world is divided into victims and oppressors. That makes some sense when the target of suspicion is a Texas oilman but a lot less sense when the supposed chief oppressor is a black man who was raised by a single mother. Kay wants our nation’s teachers to do a better job of producing citizens who are equipped to separate truth from paranoia, but my suspicion is that conspiracy theories will “survive all attempts to thwart them.”

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