Given the confusions of our own cultures, not least their institutionalised saturation with the dogmas of multiculturalism, and the widespread post-modern rejection of authority, truth, and meaning, how exactly do rationalists project a single view of Western society’s values?…What do we do about the growing number of people who inhabit a virtual world where, as in TV’s X-Files, everything is a hidden conspiracy and where a three-month inquest has not comprehensively dispelled belief that MI6 murdered princess Diana? How do rational people counter a pervasive fascination with the irrational or such potent myths as the ‘Crusader-Zionist’ conspiracy against the global umma? Merely setting out the historical truth of the matter is clearly insufficient, just as it is for dedicated Holocaust deniers, a category which often overlaps with such circles.
What do you do when a good friend becomes an ardent Holocaust denier? Let me rephrase that: what do you do when someone you love begins saying things that – to you at least – are indistinguishable from the words of a crazy person? I only ask because this happened to me a while ago, and I’m not sure I handled it too well. I chose to unceremoniously end our friendship. What you must understand about this friend – who for the purpose of this enquiry we shall call Ian – is that he was not someone on the periphery of my life. This man meant a great deal to me. I was close to him for several years. He had taught me a lot, and in doing so, had informed my own mind and personality to a meaningful extent. I admired him greatly. He was not someone who I could therefore discard thoughtlessly and with little pain. Indeed, I fretted about the decision for days. I lost sleep. In fact, I don’t know what was the more painful, the realisation that Ian’s mind was an unravelling web of antisemitic delusion, or the decision to put our friendship on hold because if it, perhaps permanently. My brother, who originally introduced us, urged me to talk to him about it, but I found I couldn’t. This was something I felt in my bones, as it were. I simply cannot be friends with a Holocaust denier. There is a line, I explained, and Holocaust denial is – by some distance – on the other side of it.
This situation was rendered all the more traumatic for me by the fact that Ian and I had only just begun speaking again after many years incommunicado. I was tremendously excited when he found me via Facebook, and was looking forward to renewing our acquaintance. The Ian I remembered was, paradoxically, one of he most brilliantly original thinkers I had ever met. I was immediately attracted to his wild mind; the way he would question the world ceaselessly, and come at an idea from a new and unique angle. He also happened to be hilarious, and seemingly without an ounce of concern for what other people though of him – qualities I still admire. Though he was several years younger than myself, I couldn’t help but think of him as my intellectual equal, matching me thought-for-thought.
He was also, looking back, prone to erratic behaviour and bouts of extreme highs and gruelling lows. Though I don’t recall him being diagnosed with a specific mental illness, he was often receiving some form of psychiatric care in the shape of visits to clinics and medication. None of which seemed alarming at the time. We all knew Ian was troubled, but those symptoms seemed no more than an extension of the very things that drew us to him in the first place. If Ian was in hospital again, or had suddenly taken himself off to Edinburgh for a month without telling anyone, it was only because he followed his own internal logic; a logic that was, we took as a given, unavailable to the rest of us. So what if he was sleeping in bins while in Edinburgh or was in hospital for cutting himself again? Ian blazed his own trail; operated according to his own rules; followed no leader.
Before we began communicating again, I had been warned by a mutual friend that he had been, “getting into all that conspiracy theory stuff.” This rang some alarm bells, but I wasn’t unduly worried, as I was sure that Ian was far too smart to fall for the more obviously ludicrous end of conspiracy theorising. I remembered how he had, shortly before we lost contact, introduced me to the Disinformation website, an enterprise run by Russ Kick and dedicated to “things you’re not supposed to know”. Those ‘things’, though, were usually no more than curious historical nuggets that go against the grain of received wisdom – Churchill once wrote an anti-Semitic article, one third of lynching victims were white, etc. – and therefore well within the mental compass of anyone who has gotten past the Ladybird picture book of history. Disinformation, at least as far as I remember it, was not a repository for outlandish and improbable tales about Kennedy or the moon landings.
I was then told that Ian had listed Dundee as his home address, even though he lives with his parents in the south-west of Scotland, because he thought the CIA monitored Facebook. That was when I began to worry. Wasn’t that a little, well, paranoid? Even if the CIA did monitor Facebook, why on earth would they be interested in monitoring my friend Ian? And even if they were monitoring my friend Ian, did he really think they’d be fooled by such a feeble attempt to throw them off the scent?
These worries were only compounded when I was informed that Ian was now a devout believer – there is no other phrase for it – in the 9/11 conspiracy theories. This came as a great shock, as the 9/11 conspiracies have always seemed to me to be self-evidently ridiculous. Indeed, when my brother first informed me of the then newly evolving conspiracy narrative – that the twin towers of the World Trade Centre were not bought down by the planes you and I saw flying into them, but by controlled demolition, and that the Pentagon was hit by a missile rather than American Airlines 77 – my only reaction was to laugh at the stupidity of man. That didn’t – still doesn’t – seem to me to be trying very hard to sound even remotely plausible. Like many, I saw Loose Change when it began making a fuss, but it seemed so obviously a disjointed rag-bag of distortion, half-truth, rumour, wild speculation, and outright lies – Fahrenheit 9/11 directed by Beavis & Butthead – that I wondered how anyone could take it seriously. I had always assumed (perhaps arrogantly) that only the young and the soft-headed could fall for it. Yet Ian wasn’t young and he wasn’t stupid. Far from it. That someone so smart could fall for something so dumb seemed to me to be the unfolding of a terrible tragedy.
I was barely through processing this shock when I learned something that really bought the walls down. I learned that Ian thought the Israelis were behind 9/11. The reason I found this so alarming was because it bought home to me the fact that Ian had gone further – much further – than the more mainstream end of the 9/11 conspiracy subculture, for whom the Bush administration was either pre-knowing or directly responsible. For me the associations were inescapable: the only people I knew who thought the Israelis guilty of 9/11 were certain forces of the fascist far-right and extremist elements within the Muslim world. The kinds of people who believe the crudely fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion not only contain historical veracity, but represents a snapshot of a larger truth that still has geopolitical explanatory power. The most viciously antisemitic forces on the planet, in other words. People like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as the violent fantasists who swarm a website like Stormfront, provide the obvious constituency for such virulent notions of Jewish perfidy. I consider such people the enemy. Surely, I thought, my friend Ian – who I had always considered a comrade in the fight against such forces – was not now amongst them? Amongst them he was. In truth, the worldview espoused by neo-Nazis, Islamic extremists, and, distressingly, my friend Ian, differ little. They all believe a country smaller than Britain, with a population less than London’s, is nonetheless able to marshal vast secret forces, and is capable of bending history to its nefarious will.
It is no coincidence that such Jew-hatred often goes hand in hand with the vicious taunt that the central wound in Jewish memory – the Shoah – never happened. When Ian made his rather proud and defiant declaration of Holocaust denial, the trap door in the pit of my stomach swung open. It confirmed everything I had most feared about the state of my friend’s mind. I felt deeply conflicted: I knew it would mean the end of our relationship, and though I found his views repulsive, I could also see he was deeply confused and suspected he was sick. I felt sorry for him and wanted to help him. He had, though, just rendered that prospect impossible. In Ian’s fevered readiness to travel to the furthest extremes of conspiracy culture, he had unwittingly written me out of his life. As if to underline the strange disconnect between his beliefs and their meaning, Ian vigorously insisted to me that he was in no way an antisemite. The really sad thing is, I think he believed it.
A distressing situation to be in, juggling feelings of loathing and pity towards a friend. It left my mind reeling. I had a hard time reconciling the Ian I knew with the Ian who would tell the world he doubted the historical fact of the Holocaust in as blasé a manner as others would tell you what they had for breakfast. I wanted to know how the intelligent and sensitive man I knew could possibly end up believing things that were, to my mind, plain foolish as well as morally grotesque. Though repelled by Ian’s beliefs, I came away determined to understand them. This, it seemed to me, was all I could salvage from the ruins of our friendship.
I decided to immerse myself in the world of conspiracy culture, to visit the forums and the websites, to watch the viral videos and presentations, that dominate the digital conversation about conspiracy, and that have clearly had such a magnetic pull on the imagination of my friend. Looking back now, it seems only too obvious that his interest in ‘things you weren’t supposed to know’ reached its apogee in his Holocaust denial. The wild-mind of the raging youth I knew had darkened and grown cold, closing in on itself by wrapping around a virtual jungle of paranoid hatreds, becoming bitter, and twisted out of all recognition, in the process. I cannot escape the conclusion that Ian is ill, and I believe his obsession with conspiracy theories to be a symptom of his illness; one that has fed off and inflamed its essentially paranoid quality. If I have learnt one thing from my friend it is this: those who go looking for secrets, will find secrets everywhere.