September 24, 2010 | National Post
Inside The Mind of A Conspiracy Theorist
When the phrase “conspiracy theorist” is used, most people imagine an anti-social, mentally unstable nut, along the lines of Mel Gibson’s taxi-driving paranoiac in the 1997 movie Conspiracy Theory.
But having spent the last two years interviewing conspiracy theorists for a forthcoming book on the subject, I know that this stereotype doesn’t hold. Most of the conspiracy theorists I’ve met are high achievers. A typical specimen is Toronto scholar Michael Keefer, one of Canada’s leading 9/11 conspiracists, who also happens to be a world-renowned scholar of Shakespeare, Descartes and Marlowe. So it did not surprise me to learn, this week, that novelist Margaret Atwood entertains theories that the moon landing was faked, or that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believes the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could have been a U.S. plot to “save the Zionist regime.”
What drives these people to their delusions? There are different psychological factors at play. Some conspiracy theorists are undergoing mid-life crises, or have experienced life-changing medical tragedies. Others are web addicts who’ve lost the ability to discern legitimate news from internet flotsam.
But by far the biggest category of conspiracy theorist is what I call the “failed historian.” He is someone who views human history through a rigid and all-encompassing ideological template. Some are Marxists. Others are Islamists, or Chomskyites, or radical Tea Party conservatives, or white supremacists. Whatever the details of their belief system, they all have a shared need to reconcile inconvenient facts with their totalizing world view. A conspiracy theory is a tool that lets them do that: It allows them to eliminate the painful cognitive dissonance that inevitably arises between fact and theory.
The most obvious example here in Canada is the militant left-wing campus radical, whose ideology requires him to trace every species of evil in the world to Washington or Tel Aviv. For these extremists, 9/11 caused a significant psychic wound — since it was an act of horrific evil that plainly was the work of America’s enemies. Conspiracy theories alleging that America actually perpetrated 9/11 on itself act as a balm for these people: Having told this lie to themselves, they can sleep soundly, knowing that the world is as it should be, with America as the world’s monopolist on the creation of all human suffering, including its own.
Many left-wing JFK conspiracy theorists are motivated by similar inclinations. Lee Harvey Oswald was a socialist, and an admirer of the Soviet Union. For fellow travellers, it was far more comforting to imagine that the evil he performed could be laid at the feet of the CIA. Some left-wing conspiracy theorists are similarly drawn to the theory that U.S. astronauts never landed on the moon, since they instinctively reject any historical episode that serves to glorify America.
The same goes, on the other side of the political spectrum, for Holocaust deniers, who typically are admirers of the Nazi power cult and its associated doctrine of Aryan racial purity. By using conspiracy theories to wish away the Holocaust — the signature evil of the 20th century, and Hitler’s greatest crime — they subconsciously rehabilitate their precious Nazi ideology in their own damaged minds.
Because the engine of conspiracism is the psychic gulf between what is wished for and what is, conspiracy theories are especially prominent in Islamic societies such as Iran. This is because the Koran, the associated doctrines of Shariah, and the entire arc of early Islamic history have created the expectation that Muslims will rule over infidels as conquerors — and that Muslim societies, having been enlightened by the Seal of the Prophets, always would be more militarily successful and technologically advanced than infidel societies. But the real world that Muslims see in the Middle East and Central Asia is precisely the opposite: Their societies are poor and backward compared to those of the West. (Tiny, successful, infidel Israel epitomizes this reality, which helps explain why so many Muslims refuse to acknowledge its existence.)
For this reason, Muslims have created a rich trove of conspiracy theories (some of them borrowed from Europe, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion) to explain away this situation. In the telling of these theories, they are able to convince themselves that history has been diverted from its “true” and honourable course by the machinations of Jews (or, if you prefer, “Zionists” or “neo-cons”); and that once these plots are uncovered and reversed, the natural, Islamic, order of the universe will again assert itself. In the process, they are able to draw in many non-Muslim leftists, who offer common cause in any conspiracy theory that discredits the Great Satan.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comments in New York, shocking as they were to Western ears, are in fact entirely consistent with this conspiracist tradition. Deluded as his beliefs may be, they give us a crystal-clear view into the thinking that pervades much of the Muslim world.
– Jonathan Kay is the Managing Editor for comment at the National Post. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.