Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay quotes Joseph Bottum on cranks: "There are three infallible signs of the crank. ... The first is that he has theory about the Jews. The second is that he has a theory about money. And the third is that he has a theory about Shakespeare."
Mr. Kay, who works for the National Post, engaged in an anthropological survey of American cranks, publishing his findings in Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiratist Underground (HarperCollins, 340 pages, $27.99). His main subject is the Truthers, the collection of schismatic sects that believe that the September 11, 2011, attacks were a "false-flag" action by the United States government, a government in thrall to various sinister and secretive forces.
Though the Truthers may have received less attention from the mainstream media than the more recent phenomenon of the Birthers (the cranks who think that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen, to whom Mr Kay gives disappointingly slight attention), these 9/11fantasists have been busy churning out innumerable books and Web posts for years.
The Truthers, the Birthers, the anti-vaccination crackpots, and the other fauna Mr. Kay encounters display "disturbing habits of mind": "a nihilistic trust in government, total alienation from conventional politics, a need to reduce the world's complexity to good-versus-evil fables, the melding of secular politics with apocalyptic End-Is-Nigh religiosity, and a rejection of the basic tools of logic and discourse."
What makes them largely immune to rational discourse is "an overlapping tangle of emotional and psychological factors that typically elude intellectual self-awareness, and which can't be refuted by logic and evidence: ethnic bigotry, fear of social change and new technologies, economic uncertainty, midlife ennui, medical trauma, coming-of-age hubris, spiritual hunger, narcissism, the psychic scars left by past traumas, and outright psychosis."
The prototypical conspiracy theory, he argues, is the anti-Semitic czarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which embodies the central elements of modern consiracy theories: the faceless, shadowy, sinister forces in the background (Pick one: the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderburg Group, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, Council on Foreign Relations, or your choice) that control the government and nearly every aspect of daily life.
Their fantasies are comprehensive and ecumentical, Talk long enough to a Truther, Mr. Kay finds, and it will not be long before you discover that Watergate and the Kennedy assassination and the Bay of Pigs and, yes, Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford as the author of Shakepeare's plays will have been knit into the fabric. Space aliens and the "reptile gods" described by David Icke will not be far off.
Human beings learn by identifying patterns and have a need to explain the complexity of experience through such patterns. Especially in a time of uncertainty and fear, that need can push people over the edge into a compulsion to identify all-encompassing patterns, explanations of everything. Conspiracy theorists can display everything from mild dottiness to the full-blown paranoia.
Arguing with the Truthers and their ilk tends to be futile. They will deny that evidence is evidence, or weave it into some larger pattern, or pick some minor detail to focus on while ignoring the major ones. What we need, Mr. Kay suggests, is education, to teach people to recognize crank theory before it can take hold of them. Encourage intellectual self-awareness.
One might also, I suggest, give cranks less publicity.
As helpful as Mr. Kay's insights are, his book is not as shapely as one would wish. He veers back and forth between a number of Truthers, who are a little hard to keep sorted out in mind. While identifying post-Modernist deconstructionism as an unhealthy encouragement for everyone to create his own reality, he veers into a digression about political correctitude on campus that is not particularly original. And his chapter on the changing shape of anti-Semitism with regard to the State of Israel, whatever its merits, doesn't fits very closely with his conspiratist subject.
On the whole, though, he has given us a field guide to some remarkable species.