"Among the Truthers" reviewed in backofthebook.ca

Originally published in backofthebook.ca

By Jonathan Kay
Harper Collins
368 pages, $32.99 hardcover, $25.99 ebook

Reviewed by Frank Moher

On the evening of Saturday, June 26, 2010, Jonathan Kay headed out on his bike into the streets of Toronto to see what was up with the G20. What he saw, he wrote early the next morning in the National Post, convinced him of “”the extraordinary professionalism of the police patrolling Toronto this week.” The city was intact: tourists thronged Yonge Street, a band played on the corner. He toodled west along Queen, where he found a line of police staring down protestors. But: “There wasn’t any violence — at least none that I saw.”

Er, not so much.

We know now, of course, that the police were engaged in widespread brutality and violations of civil liberties all over Toronto that day. But Jonathan Kay didn’t see any of it and, so, of course, the police acted with “extraordinary professionalism.” Or perhaps he would argue that a little head-bashing and snatch-and-grabbery is not really violence, as in, you know, violence, and the police and state agree with him, and so that is that.

We don’t really know what Kay was thinking in the wake of the G20, as he didn’t blog much about it after that, except to call Toronto a “city of wimps.”

And so we come to Mr. Kay’s latest item of “reporting,” a book titled Among the Truthers: A Journey into the Growing Conspiracist Underground of 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, Armageddonites, Vaccine Hysterics, Hollywood Know-Nothings and Internet Addicts.

All the tropes evidenced in his G20 coverage are present here, too: perception peddled as reality, ad hominens, and a firm conviction that anyone who sees things differently than he does must be a nut. Kay, Managing Editor of Comment at the Post, bills himself on his twitter feed as an “Engineer-turned-lawyer-turned-journalist-turned-book-writing-guy.” But while he is indubitably a journalist and a book-writing-guy, he is not a reporter; he is an editorialist, and remains so here.

I should mention that I am referred to in passing in the book, which identifies me, bizarrely, as a “poet.” (I have worked in theatre and journalism for some 35 years, but the last poem I wrote, other than this piece of doggerel, was in high school.) It also lumps me in with the rest of its specimens as a “Truther,” which is more arguable, though I don’t identify myself as such, not only because the term is subject to the sort of mish-mashing Kay gives it here, but because it strikes me as pompous (kind of like calling oneself a “pro-lifer”). In any event, if I am a Truther, I’m a pretty bad one: I don’t think George Bush or Dick Cheney or anyone in the White House hatched the plot, I do think an airplane flew into the Pentagon, I’m agnostic about what brought down World Trade Centers 1 and 2 (though not so much 7), I regard Alex Jones as a highly unreliable (if entertaining) source of information, and I think Ron Paul would be a disaster as president. If the Truther movement issued membership cards, I’d probably be required to turn mine in.

I also wrote for the National Post for 11 years (including a piece with Jonathan Kay as editor). It was their itchy-trigger-finger syndrome when, in a book review, I alluded to the suspicious stock trading that preceded 9/11, that caused me to stop doing so.

What I certainly am is a sceptic — about the official version of 9/11 as well as much else I am told, whether by government or others who have a stake in a story. That, to me, is what is involved in being a journalist. But Jonathan Kay tells us that too much of that sort of thing can get out of hand. “Voltaire understood that man cannot survive on skepticism alone,” he writes, in the sermonly conclusion to his book — “that society requires some creed or overarching national project that transcends mere intellect.”

One thing that can be said for Among the Truthers — it certainly transcends “mere intellect.”

Kay’s tactic here is the same one used by Michael Shermer of the seriously missnamed Skeptics Society, which is, as the subtitle indicates, to mix up the 9/11 truth movement with The Protocols of Zion, holocaust denial, birtherism, moon hoaxism, etc., into one big wacky ball of racism and lunacy. And his method is as dishonest as Shermer’s as well. Thus, in his interviews, he emphasizes figures he can most easily characterize as charming but quaint, such as Ken Jenkins, a “Bay area flower child” who “embodies the sixties soul of the 9/11 truth movement’s older members.” Or, where he does speak with Truthers who are more immediately credible, he makes short work of their bona fides before reverting to the book’s default mode — a sort of bland superciliousness. Thus Barrie Zwicker, a journalist of longer standing and quite a bit more distinction than Kay, becomes “an amiable crank,” of interest mostly because he insisted on conducting his own counter-interview when they met, complete with “a chess clock to regulate our usage of time.” And David Ray Griffin, who has spent not two but eight years studying his subject and published 11 books about it, is also, simply, a “crank.”

Kay never addresses the arguments of his interlocutors, because, he tells us late in the book, a New York City editor warned him that “Debunking books don’t sell.” Instead, he refers the reader to various of those books, and sites. This is defensible on editorial grounds; were he to get into his own reasons for rejecting 9/11 Truth theories, the book would be even weightier than it is. But it is also a convenience; it means Kay never has to address what he calls the “anomalies” in the official story of that day. We never learn why his interviewees are so head-shakingly wrong — they just are.

He does, though, fall back on some of the easier explanations for why so-called conspiracism has thrived since the Kennedy assassination: the world is too complex, conspiracy believers can’t deal with its chaos, and so they develop over-arching narratives to make its unpredictability more palatable. All of which is nonsense; the notion that one could take comfort from the idea that Kennedy was killed by a cabal, still unidentified to this day, or that somebody blew up the World Trade Centre towers (and got away with it), is sillier even than the most exotic conspiracy theories. But there’s more where that came from. Kay is a proponent of the “If I Write It, Maybe It’ll Become True” school of prose. As I got deeper into his book, with its explanation that conspiracism is the result of “middle-aged ennui” (or that, as an alleged “poet,” my day job requires me to “weave a self-invented reality”; I wish), I began to find Among the Truthers as ludicrously entertaining as any Alex Jones broadcast.

Kay does offer an interesting history of conspiracy movements (though this leaves him in the uncomfortable position of having to acknowledge that some are legitimate; again, we never find out what makes one plot real and another not). And he is right that, for some adherents, 9/11 Truth evolves into a kind of religion. The comfort believers find in it, however, comes not from a simplifying explanation of the world, but from a group of shared verities, repeated over and over in incantatory fashion. Mind you, this could also describe the editorial pages of the National Post.

Less harmless than Kay’s pop-psychologizing is his zeal to eradicate ideas other than his own. Having concluded that “any effort to engage committed theorists in reasoned debate is a waste of time” — because, of course, they refuse to come around to his way of seeing things — he offers, in his final chapter, a proposal to shame them out of their wrong-thinking, by “applying the same self-critical, self-aware mindset that has served to stigmatize racism, overt anti-Semitism, and related forms of bigotry in recent decades.” What he has in mind are first-year university courses using an “anticonspiracist curriculum” to teach students “to recognize the patterns of conspiracist thought.” In other words, if you can’t beat ‘em, kill their young.

Well, okay. Sounds like an interesting course. Of course, the problem is that if it were taught in any way other than Jonathan Kay, dreamer-upper, envisions — if, say, discussion as to the merits as well as the vagaries of the 9/11 Truth movement were allowed — then Jonathan Kay, National Post writer, would no doubt take off after it. Kay got his start on this beat when, as he reminds us, he discovered that a Liberal candidate in the 2008 federal election had six years earlier reported on some of the findings of various independent researchers into 9/11. He immediately employed the Post in a successful campaign to have her turfed as a candidate. More recently he’s been trying to work the same voodoo on a student at the University of Lethbridge. For all that Kay affects to be really, really interested in 9/11 Truth as a sociological movement, and to really, really want to understand its actors, Among the Truthers is of a piece with his daily journalism. He isn’t out to understand them; he’s out for their scalps.

Six months after the G20, Jonathan Kay had a bit of a rethink. “A few weeks ago,” he wrote in his Post blog, “I thought the police response to the G20 protests was yesterday’s news — and I never really reconsidered the opinion I formed at the time of the event, based on what I saw with my own eyes.” But then the Toronto Star got on the case of Adam Nobody, the G20 peaceful protestor tackled and beaten by cops, and lo-and-behold: “. . . it’s now clear that there was some thuggish police behavior that that went on.”

“Thuggish.” So it’s a start.

We can hope that someday some mainstream publication gets on the case of 9/11, thus allowing Jonathan Kay to reconsider that also. We can hope, as he approaches midlife ennui, that he decides it’s okay after all to have heretical thoughts — or, at least, to let others have them. We can hope that he learns to use YouTube. Meantime, we can be reasonably sure Among the Truthers will have little impact, except to buttress the beliefs of the orthodox in the same way he claims (quite rightly) that the outpourings of the Truth movement reinforce its gnosticism. It’s a Battle of the Bibles, whether Kay accepts their equivalency or not, and, Brother, it’s not going to be settled in my lifetime.

But while debunking books may not succeed, neither do books that aren’t better at peddling their hortatory wares than this one. I would have liked to read an insightful study of conspiracy movements. Among the Truthers, on the other hand, is a failed salvo, that might just as well have been titled The Protocols of All Those People Who Make Me Think Twice.

Originally published in backofthebook.ca.