I first came across this column by Charles Krauthammer on September 11. I was, am, in perfect sympathy with its main argument, which is that Van Jones’s association with the 9/11 “Truth” movement should have disqualified him from membership in “polite society,” to say nothing of “a high-level job in the White House.” Krauthammer can’t get too exercised by the other major complaints about Jones (his use of indelicate language, his psuedo-communism, and so on), finding them more or less beside the point. “On the eighth anniversary of 9/11,” he writes, “. . . a decent respect for the memory of that day requires that truthers, who derangedly desecrate it, be asked politely to leave. By everyone.”

Few would argue with that, which is why it should have been made the centerpiece of the campaign against Jones. Yes, I’m relieved that this buffoon will not be working in the White House, but that really is a trivial matter next to our collective responsibility to keep the paranoid style at arm’s length. Having recently had the pleasure of reviewing Arthur Goldwag’s Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, I am more convinced than ever that conspiracy mania—irresponsible, contemptuous, and self-indulgent—will never go away. We can live with that, and laugh at it. But once this feverish cast of mind receives the tacit approval of those in power, we’ve got big problems, because what conspiracy theorists really want to do is pass the buck. Forgive me for quoting myself:

Goldwag’s expertly cross-referenced assemblage of strange theories, of the cults that hold them dear, and of the tenebrous groups and secret societies that are their bread and butter, holds the skeleton key: It’s fun. It’s fascinating. Above all, it’s easy. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it also often calls for hard work. If al Qaeda obliterated the WTC, something must be done about it—sacrifices must be made. If some unnameable and unknowable cabal is responsible, there’s little one can do but sip Mountain Dew at the keyboard and blog about it.

. . . [I]t’s worth asking whether an interest in conspiracy theories ever derives from guilt. The average theory uproots garden-variety badness—incompetence in high office, greed, cowardice, and so on—and replaces it with truly exotic, hothouse evil. Those who worship Mammon become those who literally worship Satan. A political figure who commits adultery becomes a practitioner of Illuminist sex magic involving children and animals. The problem, psychologically, seems to be that if those with power and influence aren’t several orders of magnitude worse than you or me, we all have just as much to answer for.

Conspiracy theorists like the 9/11 “Truthers” sell a fantasy of zero responsibility and zero accountability, disguised as radical patriotism. Excluding them from public discourse is a matter not only of good taste but also of reminding ourselves what planet we live on, and the hard work that entails.

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