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Some of Kay’s most illuminating passages center not on what conspiracy theorists believe — even to dignify it with the word “theory” is probably to grant them more legitimacy than they deserve — but on why they are attracted to such tedious rubbish in the first place. He divides them into different camps, including the “cranks” and the “firebrands.” Cranks are often reacting to male midlife crises — combating conspiracies, Kay says, offers a new sense of mission. Cranks, he adds, are frequently math teachers, computer scientists or investigative journalists.
Once upon a time such people would most likely have operated in relative anonymity. But with the emergence of the Internet, Kay says, they have established their own cult followings, along with the sense of superiority that is created by seeming to enjoy direct access to what actually makes the world tick. Kay writes: “Many true conspiracy theorists I’ve met don’t even bother with Web surfing anymore. . . . From the very instant they first boot up their computer in the morning, their in-boxes comprise an unbroken catalog of outrage stories ideologically tailored to their pre-existing obsessions.” As Kay sees it, the Enlightenment is itself at stake. His verdict could hardly be more categorical: “It is the mark of an intellectually pathologized society that intellectuals and politicians will reject their opponents’ realities.”