Conspiracy theories have existed since the beginning of time, but they have found a newfound prominence in the last decade as a result of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
RFE/RL: Can you tell us now, this is the 10th anniversary of 9/11, would you say that 9/11 conspiracy theories are more or less prevalent than in the initial aftermath of the attacks?
Jonathan Kay: It’s an interesting question. 9/11 conspiracy theories didn’t really peak until late 2003 and early 2004 and the reason for that is the Iraq War. A lot of people felt deceived that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and they started asking themselves, “what else have we been misled about?” And this led to a natural increase in 9/11 conspiracy theories and so 2004, 2005, 2006 there was a lot of conspiracism. The election of Barack Obama in 2008, I’d say marked the point where the conspiracy theories started to turn downward. Every conspiracy theory needs a good villain; it’s like a Hollywood movie. And you had Bush and Cheney and Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld in the White House, they were kind of natural villain figures for conspiracy theorists. Obama didn’t fit the mold as well and since 2009 you’ve seen, I’d say, a downward trend in 9/11 conspiracy theories. At the same time, conspiracy theorists have shifted to other conspiracy theories like conspiracy theories about the Federal Reserve and so forth and of course you have “Birther” conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birthplace.
RFE/RL: Is there something that connects all conspiracy theories? You have conspiracy theories on the right; you have ones on the left. Is there a thread ideologically or psychologically that connects different conspiracy theorists even though they may have different politics?
Kay: Yes, they share the same basic structure, which is that there is some central, overarching puppet master that is controlling all world events in secret that is highly evil and that is creating wars and depressions and human suffering in general in order to advance some kind of sinister agenda. And the prototype for this in the modern era is the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which, as your listeners will know, is a debunked, anti-Semitic hoax that became popular in the early part of the 20th century. And in that conspiracy theory, the Jews were the evil doers and they were creating wars and depressions and revolutions all over the world so they could cement their hold on the globe. And in the last century what we’ve seen is this basic narrative, this basic structure of the conspiracy theory has remained constant. The only thing that’s changed is the protagonist that’s changed. So instead of the Jew you sometimes will get Catholics, the Vatican, Dan Brown-type conspiracy theories. Of course you get “the neocons” and the Mossad and the Zionists have a starring role. You get the new world order conspiracy theorists. You get old-fashioned conspiracy theorists who focus on the Illumaniti and Freemasons. But, in general, the basic structure is there’s going to be this world takeover by some evil, sinister group and they will use events like 9/11 in order to further their purpose
Interview With Jonathan Kay(LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW)
RFE/RL: Is there an element of truth in any of these conspiracy theories? Let’s take the 9/11 conspiracy theory. Is there anything that these people say that is in some small sense accurate?
Kay: Many things they say are accurate. If you interview conspiracy theorists they will often point you to a lot of highly accurate information. They will in some cases cite mainstream news articles. In the case of 9/11 they’ll talk about the Project for a New American Century back more than a decade ago where right-wing Americans were looking to reshape the world to make it a safer place. The problem is how they stitch these things together. It’s one thing to say, accurately, that the Americans did want to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Regime change in Iraq was the foreign policy of the United States going back to the Clinton era, that’s true. It’s another thing to then say, well, then they of course slaughtered thousands of Americas as a pretext to then go attack Iraq. So, all conspiracy theories, with some few exceptions, have little tiny grains of truth at the base of them. What happens is those grains of truth are expanded in an obscene way to create Hollywood-style fantasies about great conspiracies.
RFE/RL: You talk in your book about one of the reasons why you think conspiracy theories have prominence in America, or what drives them in America, is a libertarian ideal of individualism that’s been supposedly perverted over a history of 250 years, and increasing government control and mechanization and whatnot. How does that differ from the environments that give rise to conspiracy theories in other cultures?
Kay: Sure, as you say in the U.S. one of the sources of conspiracy theories, especially on the right, is this comparison of the world the founders lived in, the 18th century, with the world we live in today. And it’s true that, as a result of industrialization and higher population density and urbanization and security threats and all that sort of thing, the government has just by necessity become a greater presence in our life. And libertarians in particular look at that and say this is part of a conspiracy to take away our freedoms. There is no comparable trend in Europe. Europe, which has more of a feudal history, it’s simply taken for granted that some central authority is going to take care of things for a lot of people so there’s that huge political culture gap between the two societies which makes conspiracies about big government just much more popular in the United States.
In other countries, especially in the developing world, there’s a much different narrative for conspiracy theories which grows out of colonialism. Take a place like Iran, for instance. In Iran there is a very real history of the CIA and the British engineering real conspiracies in the 1950s to change Iran’s government around and in many African countries also and in Latin America, you have a colonial history where American corporations and politicians and spies really did conspire with local warlords and such to change governments and take away people’s freedoms. And modern conspiracies [are] an outgrowth of that. In some ways, I have more sympathy for conspiracy theorists in developing countries where they have that history than in a place like the United States which is an open society and it's much less credible, these conspiracy theories.
RFE/RL: You’ve met with a lot of conspiracy theorists in researching this book. To what extent do you think that they really believe what they’re saying, or is there an element, at least among some of these people, that they know what they’re saying is false, but they’re doing it for financial gain. Is there money to be made in this racket?
Kay: I thought there was money to be made in the racket until I actually interviewed a lot of these people and I was shocked how little money they have. A good example is this guy Richard Gage who is a former architect [and] who is one of the leaders of the so-called “9/11 Truth” movement. He lives out in California. He’s been a full-time 9/11 Truth activist since 2006, and here’s a guy who used to make a six-figure income as a commercial architect. He designed strip malls basically. And then in 2006 he gave that all up and decided he was going to travel all around the world and tell the truth about 9/11, as he saw it. And now he lives in a one-bedroom apartment. He gave up his home and his family and he makes most of his money from fairly meager speaking fees and DVDs.
You go to these 9/11 Truther conventions and there’s guys in the back selling DVDs for 10 bucks each. You don’t really get rich doing that. A lot of these people really live hand to mouth. The only two or three people, I think, who actually have embraced conspiracy theories for commercial gain, someone like, perhaps, allegedly, Alex Jones, who’s a prominent radio host out in Texas. He makes a lot of money because he syndicates his radio shows to a lot of people, and he sells a lot of merchandise. He’s one person, it’s possible, that he has those motivations. Jesse Ventura has had a TV special, that sort of thing. And another guy is Donald Trump. Donald Trump suddenly came out earlier in 2011 as this great, big Barack Obama “birther.” He wanted to see the birth certificate, and he was going to go to Hawaii and he was going to investigate this. And I think a lot of people were dubious about whether he actually believed Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya and I think a lot of people suspected that this was just a way to get attention and jump to the head of the pack of the GOP presidential hopefuls. And I actually believe that I don’t think he’s dumb enough to believe these birther conspiracies. I think he was just a clever marketer and figured this would be just a good way to market himself as a presidential candidate.
RFE/RL: Donald Trump is a relatively mainstream figure in terms of his prominence in the media. To what extent do you think conspiracy theories are relegated to the fringe of American life, intellectual life, and to what extent have they managed to seep into the mainstream discourse?
Kay: Well they used to be on the fringes. But if you look at the reason Barack Obama made public his long-form birth certificate was because he was looking at polling numbers and said, wait a second, if you’ve got 20 or 40 percent of Republicans who believe I wasn’t born in the United States, statistically, that’s no longer a fringe phenomenon. The 9/11 Truth phenomenon, I don’t think is a fringe phenomenon. It’s decreasing now, but you still have 10, 15, 20 percent of Americans who believe or suspect that 9/11 was an inside job. And I meet them all the time. You’re in a taxi or in a hotel and people just casually talk about it. It’s become part of the political culture. And the reason for this is, I think, the internet. Many of the people I interviewed, even fairly mainstream types of people, they just don’t have time to read newspapers or watch broadcast television and they get a lot of their news from email that their friends send them and they often fall into correspondence with people, “Hey check this out, you know, ask legitimate questions about how the Twin Towers fell, or whether vaccines cause autism and then they don’t educate themselves by reading books or listening to reputable radio broadcasts like this one, and it’s a real problem. People have insulated themselves from the mainstream media and are instead getting their information from dubious internet sources.
RFE/RL: What’s the danger of this in terms of conspiracy theories? They’re obviously fun for us to laugh at and make fun of these people. But do they represent a threat to liberal discourse in society?
Kay: Sure, and you’re already seeing this in the United States. I ask people, how can you have a legitimate conversation about foreign policy and domestic security if you think 9/11 was an inside job hatched by the United States government? How can you have a legitimate discussion about healthcare if you think that Barack Obama healthcare plan was just a big conspiracy to send your grandmother in front of a so-called death panel? Or if you think that Barack Obama is an illegal alien who’s trying to secretly institute some kind of Communist, Afro-centric, Shari'a plot in the United States. People who believe these conspiracy theories have basically opted out of reality. They live in an alternative universe and they’re not necessarily dangerous to the United States in that they’re going to create some kind of violent revolution, but they’re dangerous in the sense that they have eroded the marketplace of ideas in the sense that there’s millions of people you just can’t have a sensible conversation with. And that is a danger to democracy. Democracy requires a well-informed citizenry. People who vote on real issues. People who educate themselves on real issues, and people who you can talk to and you can create a political consensus. The United States is rapidly becoming a place where you cannot create a political consensus because people have become radicalized by conspiracy theories.
RFE/RL: Is there a solution to this or is it just going to get worse with the proliferation of media sources and the popularity of the Internet.
Kay: It’s very difficult tor rescue someone, if I may use that verb, once they’ve become a conspiracy theorist. They become immune to rational argumentation. My project in my book was to educate people who are not conspiracy theorists and to show them the basic structure of conspiracy theories so that they recognize them. So that when their brother-in-law sends them the email about Barack Obama or 9/11 or the latest plane crash or how the U.S. military caused the latest earthquake, they will recognize the structure and claims that have been contained in conspiracy theories for centuries. And they will see that structure and compare it to the information or purported information they’re getting and be able to say hey, this is bunk. And arm themselves with the mental tools required to know when something looks like conspiracist nonsense or when it might be legitimate.