Following is an excerpt from Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground by Jonathan Kay
At 9:40 on the morning of November 1, 1755, Portugal was rocked by the most deadly earthquake in the recorded history of Europe. In Lisbon alone, more than thirty thousand people perished. Many victims were entombed in their churches, which collapsed around them as they celebrated All Saints.
The scene that emerged when the earth stopped shaking was one of Last Days. A tsunami swallowed the city’s harbor, killing many of the survivors who’d assembled on the shore. A fire at the Royal Hospital roasted hundreds of patients alive. Gallows sprouted up on the city’s hilltops, from which were hanged the desperate looters trying to survive amidst the ruins.
In purely quantitative terms, death on this scale was not uncommon in eighteenth-century Europe, which often was ravaged by wars and plagues. But the sudden, spectacular nature of the Great Lisbon Earthquake filled Europeans with a special kind of terror. Indeed, the impact of this horrific event on European though and culture has sometimes been compared to that of the Holocaust. Most significant, perhaps, was the space that opened up for radical challenges to the authority of the Church, as Enlightenment philosophers asked how the benevolent God of the Christian Bible could permit such a catastrophe.
One of those men was François-Marie Arouet, better known by his pen name, Voltaire. In his 1756 “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster,” he pronounced his despair — “Oh unhappy mortals! Oh wretched earth! Oh dreadful gathering of so many dead!” —but also his anger, aimed at contemporaries who depicted the event as just another mysterious subplot in God’s master plan:
To that appalling spectacle of woe,
Will ye reply: “You do but illustrate
The Iron laws that chain the will of God”?
Three years later, in Candide, Voltaire satirized this superstitious attitude through the character of Pangloss, a philosopher who greets every unspeakable tragedy — including the Great Lisbon Earthquake itself — with fatuous syllogisms aimed at proving ours to be “the best of all possible worlds.” Throughout their shared adventures, Candide holds Pangloss in awe. Only in the book’s final pages, as the two men find themselves tending a subsistence farm in an obscure corner of the Ottoman Empire, does a skeptical Candide glimpse the truth that life can be cruel and random, and that the best course is simply to muddle through, using our wits as well as practically possible.
Or as Candide put it in the book’s last line, in response to one of Pangloss’ particularly ambitious flourishes: “Excellently observed. But let us cultivate our garden.”
In the two and a half centuries since Voltaire helped usher in the Enlightenment, Western societies gradually, fitfully have come to embrace rationalism and skepticism. We have separated church and state, enshrined science, questioned God, elevated materialism over piety, swept aside the divine right of kings, and otherwise followed the skeptics’ claim that our world is shaped by human agency, in all its cruel imperfection, not some grand blueprint imposed from on high. America itself, founded by rational deists, has long been considered the crown jewel of the Enlightenment.
Yet there are risks inherent in the rationalist project, as the philosophers themselves sometimes acknowledged. A little learning is a dangerous thing, wrote Alexander Pope—a reminder to those who embraced the ideal of universal enlightenment that human reason remains an imperfect tool and that skepticism can be a two-edged sword. Even now, the intellectual edifice we’ve built on these foundations occasionally teeters, shaken by the tectonic social forces set in motion by depression, war, and terrorism. “Let us cultivate our garden” may be persuasive advice in normal times. But when skyscrapers crumble, when great powers are laid low, we demand a grander narrative than mere chaos, and grander villains than mere criminals and lunatics. In France after the French Revolution, on America’s Great Plains following the depressions of the late nineteenth century, in Germany after World War I, and across the Western world in the shadow of Cold War hysteria, JFK’s death, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the rise of 1960s counterculture—these have been the moments when shrieking prophets found their followers. Americans now are living through another such moment, one that began with the collapse of the Twin Towers, and has continued through the aftershocks emanating from Afghanistan, Iraq, the 2008 financial crisis, and the crippling recession that followed it.
On the op-ed pages of the New York Times and on the airwaves of NPR, America’s respectable intellectuals reassure one another that we are merely passing through a transient phase—a rekindling of populist agitation that comes and goes with the political tides. It’s just a matter of waiting it out. But the evidence suggests that America’s state of intellectual agitation in the aftermath of 9/11 isn’t a temporary phenomenon. Like the Lisbon Earthquake, it has had far-reaching social, political, and psychological consequences that have yet to be fully absorbed or understood.
The reason for this goes in part to the nature of terrorism itself, which—after eliciting a brief spasm of patriotism and national solidarity—inevitably shrinks a society’s common political center. Since 9/11, America has been implicitly divided between those who believe the country had provoked its enemies, and those who don’t; between those who believe America needs to retreat from the world stage, and those who want to project freedom and democracy more aggressively than ever; and, in the purely domestic arena, between those who embrace the romantic project of returning America to its original “pure” libertarian social contract, and those who see its future in the image of the modern, multilaterally encumbered European welfare state. Like an earthquake, 9/11 produced a great fissure through the heart of America’s political center—with two increasingly polarized ideological camps snipping at one another on radio, cable TV, and blogs from either side of the divide.
Barack Obama “Birthers,” 9/11 “Truthers” and Osama Bin Laden “Deathers” are creatures of this fractured age, and the subject of this book. In normal times, mainstream authors and publishing houses have shunned conspiracy theorists. To provide them with any sort of media platform, the theory goes, is to “dignify” their position as respectable — the “other side” in a debate we should not even be having. But having spent the last three years interviewing conspiracy-mongers, I’ve come to a different conclusion. Their notions may be nonsense, but the disturbing habits of mind underlying them—a nihilistic distrust in government, total alienation from conventional politics, a need to reduce the world’s complexity to good-versus-evil fables, the melding of secular politics with apocalyptic End-Is-Nigh religiosity, and a rejection of the basic tools of logic and rational discourse—have become threats all across our intellectual landscape.
You can’t defeat the Enlightenment’s enemies unless you understand them. And that is the project I ask my readers to embark on as they read the chapters that follow.
Excerpted from Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground by Jonathan Kay copyright 2011 courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.