How not to get folks to believe your kooky conspiracy theory

(Note: This article was originally published in FrontPage Magazine May 10, 2005.)

My FrontPage Magazine article about Prof. Jane Christensen’s course at N.C. Wesleyan College using conspiracymongers’ websites to argue that the U.S. government attacked its own citizens Sept. 11 brought upon me the most extreme — and telling — denouncements imaginable from the professor, her websites and their denizens. They accused me of collaboration with the CIA or the administration, of communism, of Trotskyism, of being a “neocon,” of neo-Nazism, of Zionism, of deliberate lying, of buggery for hire, of treason, and even of going to hell. (When I had time, I blogged them as they came in — go here for one batch and links to the others.)

To be sure, not all my e-mail messages have been so vicious. A very few were supportive, and a very few disagreed with me respectfully. I hope they understand I’m not talking about them here. They were, however, a distinct minority, which not coincidentally didn’t include the professor herself.

Christensen now calls me a “neo-Nazi” on her website. That’s an interesting invective coming from someone who calls the Holocaust “the greatest hoax of all,” who blames world ills on “Zionism,” whose course readings includes a chapter by a man who was “a major influence on Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh,” and whose website urges people to “JOIN The International Solidarity Movement” and includes links to “Up Against Israel’s Apartheid Wall,” “Israeli Terrorism,” “Israeli Spies in US,” “Israelis Planning Targetted [sic] Kills in US,” “US Arms Israel with NUKES,” and a quotation supposedly by Ariel Sharon that “WE CONTROL AMERICA.” I’m almost tempted to think she means it as a compliment (if so, it would deeply wound me). When she originally changed her page to say it was “under constant surveillance by political extremists and neo-Nazis,” I had merely assumed the professor was highlighting her readership.

In an April 25 article in the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun, Christensen said criticism of her course was “a war by the extreme right wing motivated by the Zionists to quash academic freedom on campus.” She immediately suspected a Zionist conspiracy. To her way of thinking it certainly couldn’t be legitimate criticism from anyone concerned about academe. It’s “war.”

In her response to me, Christensen wrote from the same perspective as the others accusing me of “hiding the truth.” She wrote, “Why didn’t you mention the stuff about NORAD standing down? Or the article detailing the breakfast meeting in the Capitol between Porter Goss, Bob Graham, and Pakistan’s Chief of Intelligence who just happened to have delivered the money to Mohamed Atta? What about the Jews from JINSA article? Don’t you want you [sic] readers to know who’s calling [sic] the shots inside the Beltline?”

Sampling from each website wasn’t good enough for her — there had to be a Zionist-driven reason for every link on those sites I didn’t report on. (Well, two can play that game — what about the omitted links that she didn’t question me about? What could she be trying to hide in not wanting me to write about them?)

Like Christensen, my other correspondents tended to confirm rather than counter my charge of “kooky conspiracy-mongering.” It had seemed to me, upon viewing Christensen’s recommended sites, that reporting on Sept. 11 was being done enthymematically, with the unstated assumption being, All things related to Sept. 11 occurred because of the Bush administration/Zionists/Global elite’s quest for world domination. Take this unstated assumption A with any story B, and one arrives at conclusion C: B is related to Sept. 11; therefore, B is a part of the Bush administration/Zionists/Global elite’s quest for world domination.

Accusing me, as so many did, of willful collaboration with the CIA fit my initial impression of Christensen and her admirers. In reading my article, they started from the conclusion that I wrote it as part of the Bush administration/Zionists/Global elite’s quest for world domination.

Similarly, those asking me whether I knew I was helping the CIA or the powers that be seemed to be asking instead whether I knew the unstated premise above. Those accusing me of Trotskyism, being a neo-con, treason, etc. were essentially accusing me of collaboration, given their beliefs expressed on those websites and frequently in e-mail about those groups’ ties to Bush, the Zionists et al.

For some reason, others’ former or imagined communism seemed far more offensive to them than Christensen’s links to the Stalinist front group International A.N.S.W.E.R., her recommended daily reading of the World Socialist website, and her listing of “Marx (everything)” among her “Best Reads.”

Christensen and my vociferous correspondents proclaim they know the “truth” about Sept. 11. Surprisingly, however, their tack of making bizarre, unfounded accusations to me about myself has not persuaded me that they are in possession of the truth about anything. If they cannot reason their way to the truth about me, a subject upon which I am perhaps the world’s leading expert, but instead wind up 180 degrees out of phase with reality in that particular matter, then I am exceedingly doubtful they would be trustworthy at all as guides into any other subject matter.

My article, meanwhile, made its way to Christensen’s favorite websites for ritual denouncement.’s response included an illustration of me as a pen-chomping Trotsky. Alex Jones of and had several criticisms of my piece. For example, Jones wrote that did “not exactly” say that, as I wrote, “the election of 2004 was obviously ‘staged,’ because the U.S. is a “‘dictatorship’ where people are ‘slaves.'” Nevertheless, the site still hocks Jones’ documentary entitled “American Dictators: Documenting the Staged Election of 2004,” whose advertisement opens with “In a dictatorship there is no choice, the elections are controlled, the police are the military, fear equals control, speech is suppressed, the economy is looted, the people are slaves.” Considering that the title presumes a dictatorship and controlled elections, the implication that people are slaves is quite clear.

I understand Jones’ question of why I said Christensen was “dressed as a masked terrorist” on her website. When I wrote that comment, Christensen’s site had a picture of masked people in black holding guns, under which she had “Jane T. Christensen (on the left).” She has since removed the comment, but here is a screenshot of her page before the change. I told Jones about this, but to the best of my knowledge he has not acknowledged that change nor my defense.

To Jones’ apparent surprise, I accepted an invitation to defend my column on his radio show. Just before my introduction on the show, Jones made a crack about being “CIA funded, like some of these writers are.” While on the show I twice sought from Jones whether he had any problem with the factual matter of my column, and he had none other than my juxtaposition of his site with the other sites listed in Christensen’s syllabus. Jones accused me of trying to make his site look bad by lumping it in with the others. I tried unsuccessfully to explain to him that it was Christensen who had made the objectionable associations; I had reported only on what I found in her syllabus. Jones said I was using a typical mainstream media ploy against him, used by such outfits as Vanity Fair and several others — that is, lumping me in with them as part of a mainstream media conspiracy against him.

Despite my explanations that the main focus of the article obviously wasn’t him or his site, Jones continued to press the point that I was attempting to tar him by association with websites that write about fluoride and UFOs and the like. I did ask him why that day his site had an article headlined “Bigfoot caught on video?” to which he responded in a somewhat calmer tone that sometimes his site carries articles from the popular press (and this was from WorldNetDaily, I think).

Jones also struggled with a reference I made in my article to a character on “The Simpsons.” I compared Christensen’s syllabus’ comment that the course “is outside the scope of traditional ‘political science’ in many ways” and “is ‘unscientific’ in that it relies much on eyewitness accounts and speculation” to the character Brad Goodman’s comment in favor of his work as a self-help guru, “I don’t have any credentials — or training.” I saw a similarity between the Christensen and Goodman proclaiming their lack of professional standards as a badge of honor. Since the Simpsons’ charlatan had gone on to say “but I have a Ph.D. in pain,” I wrote that Christensen’s course “doesn’t have political science — or a scientific approach — but it has a Ph.D. in kooky conspiracymongering.”

Jones, however, presented the Simpsons reference to his listeners and readers as the only source I used in my article. Of course I had clearly presented my sources (Christensen’s web page, her syllabus, each individual site she listed and samples of what was viewable on them April 4, 2005, etc.). I couldn’t help wondering whether Zell Miller, who did such a bang-up job explaining metaphors to Chris Matthews, would be interested in telling Jones about references, or if that would do any good.

Jones was adamant about two points. The first was that everything his sites carry is from mainstream news outlets. As far as I know, apart from popular-press excursions into possible Bigfoot sightings, that is true. Again, however, each of those constitutes only one leg of the syllogism — the other, of course, being the assumed grand conspiracy.

The second was that he had the better argument. Almost from the start of the interview and continuing throughout, he declared unquestionable victory over me. He did this despite admitting not finding anything factually wrong with my article. Such chest-thumping played well with his audience, of course — much more so than my mentioning Ockham’s Razor, the limitations of post hoc reasoning, the well-known statistician’s caution that correlation isn’t necessarily causation, the ancient English concept of coincidence, the non sequitur, and other tools of healthy skepticism (I wish I had remembered to add the Procrustean bed). Those concepts were caviar to the general, and indeed Jones twisted my advocacy for skepticism into his charge that I was a sucker for the New World Order.

After all, skepticism would have to apply not only to government, media, etc., but also to grand conspiracy theories, and to Christensen, Jones et al. that would not do at all. Their worldview makes no allowance for initial misreporting in the confusion in the midst of a national disaster, none for simple human error, none for short-sighted human planning out of everyday self-interest rather than sensational plotting, none for the manifold obvious alternative interests striving for power in the halls of government that would publicize any scandalous behavior for their own gain, none for mere correlation, none for the possibility that some things could be unrelated, none for a person’s politics to change over time, and none for a skeptic to be intellectually honest. It certainly makes no allowance whatsoever for skepticism toward what would have to be history’s greatest coordination of governments, individual government actors, media, militaries, opposition parties, citizens, and even nominal enemies. They see only sensational plot-hatching — all conspiracy, all the time.

For Christensen, Jones, and their ilk, it seems, you’re either with them or against them. Either you believe without question that there’s a grand conspiracy of global domination as manifested by the massive, U.S.- and Israel-orchestrated hoax called 9/11 — or you’re part of it. And if you’re not with them, some will even say you’re a gay Trotskyite traitor who’s gonna burn, burn, burn!