You can’t defeat the Enlightenment’s enemies unless you understand them,” writes Jonathan Kay in the preface to this book. It’s an important statement because anyone looking for a volume debunking the myriad conspiracy theories floating around talk radio and the Web will have to look elsewhere. This is a book that sets out to peek into the world of the interesting array of characters who peddle conspiracy theories, to see what makes them tick, why they believe what they believe and how the society in which we live has facilitated a culture where such beliefs can flourish.

Kay succeeds admirably in blowing the cover off this heretofore underground world. The comment pages editor of the National Post spent months travelling and getting to know these people: talking and debating with them, attending their conferences and reading their materials.

What he finds will surprise many readers. Most of us have a preconceived idea of what conspiracy theorists are like, and some of us even know some. Images of young guys with the computer geek look, old crazies with Einstein hair or uneducated hillbillies come to mind. But the character sketches offered by Kay paint conspiracists as surprisingly sympathetic figures — educated, well-spoken and in several cases, rather normal seeming, aside from their bizarre views on specific subjects.

Kay divides this book into three parts. First, he takes us through the history of conspiracy thinking from its beginnings at the time of the French Revolution to the present. He then explains the ideas that motivate the believers and the means by which they are spread. Then Kay explains why conspiracy theories have gained an increased following in today’s world. Finally, he offers solutions on how to stop their spread.

A typical character Kay encounters is fringe radio show host Alex Jones. In Jones’ mind, pretty much every official account of a major event in modern history was a cover-up. He believes the RMS Lusitania, the British ship sunk by the Germans in 1915, was allowed to be hit deliberately to bring the Americans into the First World War. The US government’s 1993 storming of the Waco, Texas, compound of David Koresh was a deliberate “PR stunt” for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to justify its existence. The Oklahoma City bombing was an inside job to kill the states’ rights movement. And of course 9/11 was concocted by the government — remote controls were used to override the pilots and drive the aircraft into the Twin Towers. “The future as I see it is this: 70 percent Brave New World, percent Nineteen-Eighty-Four. There’ll be lots of video games, drugs, Soma, Prozac, parties — but if you get out of line, the SWAT team’s coming,” Jones told Kay.

These are beliefs of the Truthers: many, or all, of history’s great events were inside jobs, and powerful, dark forces have conspired to keep the truth hidden from the masses.

Beliefs of this sort have mushroomed in the West, particularly since 9/11. One of the strangest to take root in the US, and it receives significant attention from Kay here, is the notion that President Obama was born outside the United States. Some adherents to this conspiracy, commonly known as “Birthers,” continue to disbelieve that, or at least question whether, Obama is eligible to be president. This despite his having produced unimpeachable evidence of his birth in Hawaii (including, since the publishing of Kay’s book, his long-form birth certificate). Even Donald Trump has peddled the idea. There is virtually no evidence to show that Obama isn’t a native-born American, yet the myth continues to have traction.

These are beliefs of the Truthers: many, or all, of history’s great events were inside jobs, and powerful, dark forces have conspired to keep the truth hidden from the masses.

Kay interviews Joseph Farah, the founder of the populist right-wing Web site WorldNetDaily, whom Kay saw give a speech outlining how the birth story of Jesus Christ was better documented than Obama’s. (I once heard Farah advocate during a speech to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington that conservatives ought to pull their kids out of the public school system to leave it only for the “atheists, gays and Muslims.”)

Kay finds many blameworthy targets for the rise of these theories, including political correctness, irrational hatred of George W. Bush, the fragmentation of and loss of confidence in the media, the Internet, talk radio and even academia. Relying on his own research and some of his experiences at Yale Law School, Kay concludes that political correctness, racial identity politics and the pervasive belief on campuses in a Marxist world view that divides society neatly into oppressors and the oppressed has contributed to the rise of conspiracist culture.

It undoubtedly has. Conspiracism is, just like environmentalism, feminism and a host of other isms, not unlike religion. These views have filled the void formerly filled by organized religion in Western society.

The problem is how to curtail its spread. Kay admits it is virtually impossible to argue with a Truther.

They begin from such a fundamentally different paradigm that it is a challenge to even have a thoughtful discussion. He proposes that anticonspiracist curriculum be taught in schools, giving airtime to all the different theories in the hope that sunlight will be the best disinfectant. I’m not convinced that would actually work — if anything, it may attract more followers — but given the increasing pervasiveness of these irrational views, any effort to roll back their spread should be welcomed.

Photo: mark reinstein / Shutterstock

Adam Daifallah is a senior partner at Hatley Strategies, a Montreal public affairs firm. He is co-author, with Tasha Kheiriddin, of Rescuing Canada’s Right: Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution, and of Gritlock: Are the Liberals In Forever?, with Peter G. White.

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