It’s a challenge to interview someone you’d rather be debating. That was the case when I interviewed Canadian writer and journalist Jonathan Kay this week. Kay, an editor with the National Post, is the author of Among the Truthers, which attempts to examine and explain the world of conspiracy theorists. Why do these otherwise intelligent people believe the “bullshit” that they do, he wonders? He sees the 9/11 Truth movement as being ridiculous and based on arguments that “even an eight-year-old” would see through. I chose to try and cover as much ground in 45 minutes as I could rather than getting into an in-depth debate on any one point. I did find things in his arguments that cry out for further argument , and I will offer my analysis of his remarks in a subsequent post. I encourage readers to offer their own comments at the end of this article.
CM: What is the difference between a conspiracy theorist and someone who does legitimate research to unearth a real conspiracy?
JK: I define according to the method of argumentation of the people who advance the theory in question. I give the example of Iran/Contra, Teapot Dome, the Sponsorship Scandal or Watergate, which of course were real historical conspiracies. If you’re advancing something like this, one person will advance evidence and the other person will refute it, and by that method you could find out the truth about whether it’s a conspiracy. With conspiracy theories, on the other hand, there’s this kind of argument that takes place, which is that one person, let’s say me, the proponent of the conventional theory, will provide evidence, such as for instance the 9/11 Commission Report or the National Institute of Standards and Technology report or media reports or judicial investigations, and what the conspiracy theorists will do is just swallow that into their conspiracy and say, well, the 9/11 commissioners were all in on it; they were friends with Bush, and the people who did the NIST report, they were all in on it, and the media’s all in on it because they’re all owned by George Soros or Rupert Murdoch or whatever. The conspiracy theorist will just keep building a bigger and bigger conspiracy until the imagined conspiracy includes tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. And this is a method of argumentation that I’ve only seen used by conspiracy theorists. When people use that method of argumentation, I call them conspiracy theorists.
CM: So if someone relies on actual evidence, you don’t consider them a conspiracy theorist?
JK: Everybody thinks they’re using actual evidence. I don’t want to use that formulation because it’s not like I’m debating someone, and they say, I’m going to use bogus evidence; everybody thinks they’re using actual evidence, so it’s hard to use that as a criterion. What I am using as a litmus test is the manner in which people purport to offer what they think is real evidence. If it follows the pattern I described before I tend to think it’s a conspiracy theory.
CM: A lot of people who are on the same side of the 9/11 question as I am would argue that the 9/11 official story is itself a conspiracy theory. What’s your reaction to that?
JK: In the most limited sense of the term, yes, it is a conspiracy theory in the sense that it’s a theory of 9/11 that involves a conspiracy. A conspiracy can involve as few as two people. In this case you had at least 19 people. And more like if you add in the others – several dozen more people. They were involved in a successful conspiracy to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and one other target which we don’t really know what it was. And yes, that was a conspiracy. In this case the evidence for it is quite straight forward; it’s all the stuff that’s contained in the 9/11 Commission Report, which I realize presumably you don’t find convincing, and it’s also statements from al-Qaeda members themselves, including an admonition against Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because he was advancing 9/11 conspiracy theories. Folks in al-Qaeda actually got mad at the Iranian president saying, ‘Give us credit for what we did.’ That’s the most recent incident I know of this.
CM: One of the things that early in the last decade led me to believe the official story of 9/11 was the alleged video confession by Osama bin Laden…
JK: I never actually watched that. I know there are all kinds of theories about how it’s fake and stuff. I think there’s abundant evidence even without that. I’m guessing that you take issue with the authenticity of it?
CM: Yes, I think anybody watching it would look at the person who is purporting to be bin Laden and say, that doesn’t look like the same man. Regardless of what theories might go with that, it just doesn’t look like the same man.
JK: It could be. I never saw the video. There’s a hundred other reasons why I embrace the official theory of 9/11, and to be honest, I haven’t found the individuals who claim it isn’t him in the video particularly convincing. They’ll show images side by side – ya, I always thought that was completely unconvincing. There are photos of me that when I see them on the Internet I say, that’s not me – I look so stupid. I look 20 years older than I am, and my hair colour’s different depending on how the flash is used. It looks like someone from a different race sometimes. People say, oh that doesn’t look like him; that could describe any photograph of anybody. Sometimes photos just don’t capture someone the way they look.
CM: But we’re not talking about a photograph, we’re talking about a video.
JK: When I look at the web sites, I tend to see stills side by side. You’re quite right that we’re talking about video but the blogs I’ve seen that purport to debunk the video, they tend to rely on stills. I guess if you watch the whole video you could say, that doesn’t look like him, but I’ve never met bin Laden obviously, although some journalists have – but again, I’ve never found that form of evidence particularly convincing.
CM: You advocate an anti-conspiracism curriculum in schools. Could you explain what that means?
JK: In the last chapter of my book I say that we’ve been very successful at educating people about things like racism, teaching them not to be racist, teaching them not to be sexist, teaching them not to be anti-Semitic, teaching them not to be homophobic. And we’ve done that because we want to discourage “isms” that we find negative for our society, that are hateful or divisive or whatnot. What I suggest is that conspiracism falls into this category for two reasons: one, it’s bad for society. It doesn’t matter if the object of your conspiracism is Jews or Muslims; I know people who are convinced there’s a Muslim around every street corner who wants to come blow us up and stuff – I don’t think that’s helpful either; I think that’s just as bad as anti-Semitism. Or Freemasons or the so-called gay lobby – there’s lots of conspiracy theories out there. I think it’s bad for our marketplace of ideas, and I think people should be educated about that. The second way it’s similar to the campaign against racism and sexism and that sort of stuff is the pattern recognition. As I argue in my book, every conspiracy theory is different but they tend to follow the same basic pattern in the way that racists tend to follow the same basic pattern and other forms of toxic “isms” follow the same pattern. The details are different but the basic structure of the ideology is the same. And I think you should teach kids, especially in the context of the Internet where they receive all kinds of propaganda, you should teach them how to recognize the basic ingredients of a conspiracy theory. Some people say there’s this small group of people, and they control the world, and they’re creating terrorist attacks and wars and depressions, and it’s all led by a guy in a smoke-filled room, the Bilderbergers or whatnot – I think people should be sceptical of that.
CM: They should be sceptical, but shouldn’t they evaluate the evidence for and against that?
JK: This goes back to my answer to your first question. You teach kids – when I say kids I mean senior high school students or perhaps university students – you teach them how to recognize and to make distinctions between critical intellectual inquiry and what I regard as non-productive conspiracy theories.
CM: Aren’t there any dangers in that, though? It sounds like you’re discouraging dissent.
JK: That’s a very fair point. It’s a fine line, right? You don’t want to stigmatize legitimate intellectual inquiry, and there is a fine line. And I would never want to say, oh this is illegal or this is a human rights violation – you’re not allowed to create a blog or something about this particular subject; I agree with that. However, I think one of the reasons so many people get sucked into conspiracy theories is that they make a fetish out of scepticism. Scepticism is a wonderful thing, but if you’re sceptical about every single fact of every single opinion of any single piece of information you get you end up inhabiting a world that is completely nihilistic. And some of the people I interviewed for my book fall into that category. They don’t believe anything they’re told by the government, NGOs, the media; they believe they’re living in a complete world of lies, and it’s almost impossible for these people to engage with society cause they just think nothing they’re told is the truth. You can’t have any sort of productive civil society or politics if people believe that. There’s also the fact that it’s just not true; we don’t live in the kind of society. It’s not the case that everyone around us is telling us lies constantly. That kind of society would be unliveable. So I do think people should be sceptical about what the government tells them. My whole profession of journalism is based on that, right? I couldn’t do my job if we couldn’t criticize the government. But you have to educate people around patterns of thought that we live in this police state where we constantly being lied to every second of the day, which just isn’t true.
CM: I would argue that if I were someone who saw things as you do but I was not a member of the media, I would be inclined to want to blame the media for a lot of these ideas. There are a lot of things that aren’t reported that I think should be reported. The obvious example from 9/11 is Building 7. You mentioned the NIST report – that took seven years to come out. When a friend told me about Building 7 in 2007, I had never heard of it. I couldn’t believe he was telling me the truth that there was a third building. And it’s almost never made an appearance on network television since then. Isn’t the media failing to examine that whole question of how it fell, other than waiting seven years for a report to come out?
JK: Building 7 was not entirely unexamined. There was a whole National Institute of Standards and Technology report that came out about Building 7. Also, the World Trade Center wasn’t just the twin towers and Building 7; there were actually seven buildings in the WTC campus, which ended up being almost completely destroyed. And most people just weren’t that interested in the buildings that didn’t have planes flown into them. For the people who were interested in how the other buildings and how they fell, there was no secret about Building 7; there were plenty of media reports about it, and it was well filmed at the time because it fell at 5:20 p.m. on 9/11 so there were lots of cameras. First responders and firefighters were involved salvaging or trying to salvage things from WTC 7 that were profiled in video documentaries. The only reason I think people complained that there wasn’t enough TV coverage of WTC 7 was because there was this theory that it was destroyed by internal demolition, which, as you know, I don’t believe that theory. If there were a legitimate controversy about how WTC 7 fell and whether it fell from internal demolition obviously I would agree with you; this would call for a huge investigation. However, if you have read the NIST report on the fall of WTC 7 they actually went out of their way to investigate this possibility and found there was absolutely no way WTC 7 fell from internal demolition, and one of the reasons they found was that there was absolutely no seismic data that supported the idea that explosives were used.
CM: You say “if” there was legitimate controversy, but most people didn’t even know about Building 7.
JK: Most people don’t know that the Marriot World Trade Center fell or that 4 World Trade Center fell or 5 World Trade Center fell or that 6 World Trade Center fell – all these buildings ended up being destroyed. No one cares about any of these because they aren’t as dramatic as WTC 1 & 2. In terms of the film, I agree with you. 9/11 Truth activists have done a very good job at propagandizing the video of WTC 7 falling, and the angle they pick does make it look like, hey, maybe that does look like it was an internal demolition, but the angle they show you is deliberately selected so you don’t see the localized fires burning on some of the lower floors, which ultimately were responsible for the building’s collapse. If you’re a layperson and you see this video and you have no idea how buildings fall it’s possible you would think this fell from internal demolition. And a lot of the people I interviewed for the book think that. There’s all kinds of videos you could show me and say, hey, don’t you think that this looks like that? And I’d say sure, why not, I guess. It doesn’t mean there’s a scientific basis for supporting this theory. I see the WTC 7 video as a very efficient propaganda device.
CM: So you’re going to go with NIST no matter what? Because it’s the official report?
JK: Not because it’s the official report but because it’s a complete state-of-the-art finite method for analysing building collapse. It involved the work of hundreds of engineers; I think Purdue University’s engineering department was behind it. I think you know this about me, I used to be a metallurgical engineer. I know a little about how engineering departments work, are staffed, the level of technology that goes into them. I also know a little about these claims that these departments can be infiltrated on a mass basis and be used to churn out government propaganda. These are the kinds of people I used to work with on a day-to-day basis. It’s nonsensical to imagine that legions of these people could be co-opted in a government project and sworn to secrecy and put out this massive report that was just a bunch of lies. This doesn’t happen at places like Purdue or other universities that are used for state-of-the-art research of this kind. So, yes, I’m sticking by NIST.
CM: One last thing on the media, one story I was shocked to hear about, and I certainly didn’t find out about it on a network newscast was the confession that E. Howard Hunt is supposed to have made to having been part of the plot to kill Kennedy. There’s an audio recording that he made and asked his son to release only upon his death. Isn’t that something that should be huge news even if people are disputing its authenticity?
JK: I think there’s a little bit of Kennedy fatigue. I’ll confess, I actually used to be a Kennedy assassination buff 15 years ago, and I remember reading all these books; there have been over 2,000 books published about the Kennedy assassination, and the vast majority of them involve some kind of claim that it was Lyndon Johnson or it was the CIA, and I remember reading several of them, and this is lost in the mists of my memory because it`s been a while since I was into that, that claimed deathbed confessions from Jack Ruby`s grandmother or Lee Harvey Oswald`s long lost step mom or whatever. In many of these books the author got energized by getting what someone claimed was some kind of sensational tip about someone`s deathbed confession or something, and I think a lot of people in journalism who report on this have a sort of fatigue about this, and when someone, even a famous person like Hunt, it’s claimed they had a deathbed confession I think there’s a lot of people who say, ya ya. It’s been 50 years and there’s been all kinds of crazy theories that have come forward, including some that have been supported by alleged deathbed confessions. And people just don’t believe it anymore. By the way, I’m not 100% sure Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t have some help; it’s possible he had an accomplice. You can’t prove a negative. It might be the case that there was someone who at least knew about the plot. I don’t think it was Lyndon Johnson or anything like that; it was probably some other Marxist like Oswald was. It’s possible. I don’t really know. I do think people have kind of moved on from theories about this because they can`t be proved and there`s so many of them.
CM: I guess I find an actual audio recording of Hunt saying he was part of the plot at least worth reporting and evaluating.
JK: It was reported. I did see it in a few sources; it’s not like it was completely ignored. I think people were sceptical. I’m sceptical. I think you’re sceptical, too. You don`t have a hundred per cent certainty that it was Hunt, right?
CM: I don’t have a particular reason to doubt it, but I like to go on evidence. I get suspicious, frankly, and this is what I was getting at with the media being partly to blame here, when you don’t report something like that, people say, what’s going on? Why is this being ignored? It causes conspiracy theories surely to thrive.
JK: I think there’s a grain of truth to what you’re saying. It’s true, the ignore stories sometimes. For instance, many Barack Obama conspiracy theorists I interviewed – these are people who think Obama was born in Kenya or Indonesia or something – when I ask them why they believe this stuff, a lot of the time they’ll say the media never really investigated Obama’s background, and they always gave him an easy ride. And that’s true; I think there’s some validity to that. Barack Obama was seen as this perfect candidate. He was black, and reporters didn’t want to seem racist by probing some of the less savoury aspects of his background. And I think it was true, a lot of reporters gave him a free pass, and that gave encouragement to conspiracy theorists who said there’s this media conspiracy to cover up some disgraceful aspect of his past. I don’t think that was the case; reporters just didn’t want to seem racist or whatever so they gave him a free pass. There is a grain of truth to saying that there are some stories that reporters just stay away from – there’s sort of a herd mentality. But eventually reporters do come to these stories. The 9/11 Truth thing, the idea that this could have been internal demolition, trust me, I work with dozens of reporters that would love to win a Pulitzer Prize by being the first mainstream journalist to really tear the lid off the story and interview people and get eyewitnesses who planted bombs and everything. Look, I’d be a millionaire, I’d be the most famous journalist in the world like Woodward and Bernstein. This is one of the craziest aspects of 9/11 conspiracy theories. They ignore the fact that almost any journalist in the world would give 10 years off their life to be the one to report this amazing story. It’s crazy to think that we’d actually go in the other direction and avoid reporting the story. Who doesn’t want to be famous?
CM: So there’s no censorship or self-censorship going on in terms of going against the official story?
JK: Look, I mean, Robert Fisk, probably one of the two or three English-language foreign affairs journalists in the entire world, and he wrote a column in the Guardian a couple of years ago that suggested that he was open to 9/11 Truth conspiracy theories, in the Independent I think. Last time I checked he still had his job. I’ve met him. He’s on the other side of the political spectrum from me but he’s done some good reporting, he’s famous. Here’s a guy, he could reporter any story he wants, he has complete autonomy. He hates the United States. If there was one guy who’d be ready, willing and able to follow any legitimate lead that pointed to Dick Cheney or any of the others being complicit in 9/11, he would be the guy who’d investigate it – huge budget, famous, book contracts but he found nothing even though he’d written a column saying that he was open to it. If anyone has any good evidence they should e-mail it to Robert Fisk; 10 years later he still hasn’t found anything.
CM: I wonder what kind of examples you might be able to cite for your contention that people like David Ray Griffin, Richard Gage, and Barrie Zwicker are cranks or men going through a mid-life crisis.
JK: Mid-life crisis… the guy I mentioned was Richard Gage. I identified him as the prototypical mid-life crisis guy, and if you talk to him, everything he describes is textbook mid-life crisis. In 2006 he had this humdrum job. He was an architect and designing two-storey retail malls, he ended up working on this project in Nevada that went bankrupt. In 2006 he was driving down the Pacific Coast Highway and heard David Ray Griffin on the radio. It was the Guns and Butter program on the Free Speech station out of Berkley, as he tells the story, he just pulls to the side of the road; his mind was blown, and within a year or two he’d quit his job, his wife was gone, he was estranged from the kid, moved out of the house, his life turned upside down, he lost his friends, and now goes around the world preaching 9/11 Truth. I have friends who’ve gone through a mid-life crisis and it looks exactly like that. None of the friends have gone through the 9/11 Truth stuff, but in terms of ditching the wife, ditching the kid, ditching the job, and doing some weird thing – climbing Mount Everest or something… This is what a mid-life crisis looks like, and that’s why I describe him that way.
CM: How is that relevant to the case he’s trying to make?
JK: It’s not. But it’s relevant to the chapter in my book. Unlike you, I take it for granted that the 9/11 Truth stuff is bullshit, and I try to analyse why otherwise sane, intelligent, and accomplished people would dedicate their life to it. Now if you believe in 9/11 Truth theory, you’re obviously not going to be convinced by what I say in that chapter. But I wrote that chapter to explain intelligent people would pursue a movement that I find completely ridiculous.
CM: There are a couple of different definitions of crank that I located – one of them saying that a crank is “an unbalanced person who is overzealous in the advocacy of a private cause” and another one that says a crank is “an eccentric person, especially when obsessed by a particular subject or theory.” Which definition are you using in your book?
JK: The second one. In fact, you know what? I’ve confessed this to other people: I regret using the term crank because too many people thought I was using the first definition instead of the second. The words I would have preferred to use in hindsight would be puzzle-solver because I think these people are motivated by a desire to solve puzzles. In this regard, puzzle-solver would describe Barrie Zwicker, and David Ray Griffin. The puzzle-solver, as I describe it in the book, are hyper-intelligent people who often come to their conspiracy theories late in life when they’re retired from a very intellectually demanding job and they no longer have this very taxing intellectual job to occupy their mind, and then they use all this intellectual firepower for chasing ghosts on the Internet and stuff. David Ray Griffin is a good example; he was a process theologian. It’s this extremely technical branch of metaphysics. He was very good at it apparently; I know almost nothing about process theology, but apparently he’s one of the world leaders on the subject at the Claremont School of Theology. Then he was mostly retired but he still had this massive brain looking for something to do, so all this intellectual firepower went into the search for the truth about 9/11. Barrie Zwicker is something similar. He used to be one of Canada’s top journalists – clearly a very smart guy; I met him. And a lot of these guys become prisoners of these obsessions. In some cases they become Shakespeare conspiracy theorists or 9/11 or they become birthers. David Solway was a guy; I think he’s more of a mid-life crisis case, very smart guy, one of Canada’s top poets, lots of intelligence but not a lot to do with that intelligence and they become trapped in conspiracy theories.
CM: We know for a fact that the CIA had a program to infiltrate newspapers, in fact they did infiltrate newspapers. They had quite a number of journalists on their payroll. It was called Operation Mockingbird…
JK: They probably still do. They have a lot of money, and for all I know there’s still CIA personnel on journalistic payrolls, especially in places like Russia or the Middle East or places like that.
CM: What about Western newspapers?
JK: You can’t prove a negative. The way the media works, let’s say you have a hundred journalists at a newspaper, and let’s say there are five CIA agents or 10 – all you need are one or two to break a story. Like if the guy at the next cubicle from me is a CIA agent – to take like a ridiculous example; I’m sure they wouldn’t be interested in infiltrating a Canadian newspaper – who cares? It’s not like he’s going to come over and say, ‘Hey, John, you really shouldn’t pursue that story if you know what’s good for you.’ Even if every American newspaper is entirely permeated by CIA agents you still have broadcast media, you still have British newspapers, you still have European newspapers, you have bloggers. We live in a media world where it’s impossible for any organization, even one as powerful as the CIA, to even begin to try and censor individual ideas from investigation. This might have been possible 30 or 40 years ago; in fact the CIA did this 30 or 40 years ago; there were certain stories you couldn’t report on. Or even stories like JFK’s sexual dalliances. There was no CIA involved, it was just reporters who decided on their own. That’s the kind of thing you could do when there were only three TV networks – all the newspaper journalists were all in their little club. Things don’t work that way anymore, right? There’s just too many outlets for information. People can’t keep secrets anymore. And I guess that’s my big complaint about 9/11 conspiracy theories is that the way government works if there are five government people who have a secret, four of them will eventually go to the media with it. People can’t keep secrets, and people spill stuff to the media all the time when it’s to their advantage. And I see this happen all the time; it’s the basis of leaks, right? And if you had a secret as explosive as an inside job on 9/11 do you really think it would take 10 years before this would come out? It would come out within days. People aren’t good with secrets, I’m not good with secrets. You give me someone’s phone number and I’ll spill it. It’s not in the human constitution to deal with confidential information.
CM: Let me finish with a quote from David Rockefeller speaking at a Bilderberg meeting in 1991. I’d like your comment on it. He said:
“We are grateful to The Washington Post, The New York Times, Time Magazine and other great publications whose directors have attended our meetings and respected their promises of discretion for almost forty years. It would have been impossible for us to develop our plan for the world if we had been subject to the bright lights of publicity during those years. But, the work is now much more sophisticated and prepared to march towards a world government. The supranational sovereignty of an intellectual elite and world bankers is surely preferable to the national autodetermination practiced in past centuries.” –David Rockefeller [June, 1991] Bilderberg meeting in Baden, Germany
JK: In 2009 when I was investigating the 9/11 Truth movement, they were holding a rally, and I joined them, and we were outside the Council on Foreign Relations building in Manhattan, they were chanting, you know, “Down, down CFR,” and “Come out Richard Haas, you can’t have your one-world state.” And then a bunch of us went to protest outside David Rockefeller’s apartment or condo – I think he’s like over 90 years old now – and I remember I’d never really heard of Rockefeller, and some folks were telling me what a horrible person he was, and that’s when I started hearing all this stuff about the Bilderbergers. If you’re interested in the Bilderbergers you should read Conrad Black’s new book. He’s been going to Bilderbergers stuff for decades and decades, and he thinks the obsession with the Bilderbergers is hilarious because every major trend in the world, not only did the Bilderbergers not plan, they didn’t even see it coming. Black writes about being at the Bilderberg meetings in the 1980s, and everyone at the Bilderberg meetings thought the Soviet Union was going to go on for generations. None of them foresaw the end of the Cold War. In 2002, none of them thought the Iraq War was going to happen. Not only did they not plan world events, but they’re actually probably more dense than you and me about predicting world events. Bilderbergers, from talking to Conrad Black who is one of my columnists at the National Post, and talking to a few other people who go there, say it’s like this group of blowhards from Europe and the United States; they think they’re really important. They kind of lend this note of drama to the meetings by not allowing media, which I think is a mistake because it just encourages conspiracy theorists. But these are the types of people who write op-eds in the New York Times, they’re retired politicians or retired foreign affairs ministers. These folks can’t control world events, I mean look at Libya. Libya is this tiny, crappy country in the Mediterranean, and all the major world powers, the United States, Canada, France, Britain, they decided they were going to get rid of Gaddafi and it took them like six months to do it. We live in an age when even the most powerful nations in the world are powerless to bring down the Taliban in Afghanistan, they’re powerless to bring true peace to Iraq. There are terrorists running around who’ve been around for decades because the U.S. government can’t find them. I don’t understand why 9/11 truthers and other conspiracy theorists can actually imagine that a group like the Bilderbergers or their members can control world events when they can barely predict what’s going to happen tomorrow. People just aren’t that smart, including the people who run the biggest countries in the world. And the Bilderbergers is a more a group of blowhards than they are folks who are controlling a New World Order.
CM: So in his quote, Rockefeller’s thanking the media for something they’re not doing?
JK: I’m not familiar with this speech Rockefeller gave; I have no idea if it’s genuine. He could say all kinds of things. I have no idea what he’s talking about or in what context he’s delivering those remarks. But the media itself has written all kinds of scathing things about the Rockefellers. If he’s giving gratitude, I’m not sure what he’s giving gratitude for, because we live in an age when the surest way for the media to write scathing things about you is to be old and rich. Look at the kinds of things that have been written about Conrad Black or George Soros. These guys get the most scathing treatment of any in the media. So if the media is on the side of these rich plutocrats, they’re doing a pretty good job of disguising it.
CM: Thank you.