- Dan Connors
They Knew A Lot More Than They Ever Told Us
They Knew: How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent
Sarah Kendzior 2022
Which of the following is likely true and not a conspiracy theory?
- Mass shootings like Sandy Hook are false flag operations using crisis actors as a way to disarm the populace so they can be more easily controlled?
- The moon landing was faked?
- The Covid epidemic was either a Chinese bioweapon or a an attempt by nefarious cabals to inject us with mind-controlling computer chips in the vaccine?
- The world is controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who kill children and eat them to extend their own lives?
- Climate change denial is being financed by secretive oil companies intent on keeping the world hooked on carbon emissions that are rapidly warming the planet?
If you guessed the last one, there's hope for you yet. But inside of every conspiracy theory is always a tiny grain of truth- someone, somewhere is trying to pull something over on the rest of us. When bad things happen, we often turn to easy explanations and bad guys to blame, in order to help us feel some semblance of control over our lives. If the world is controlled by shadowy groups of evil, powerful characters, then it makes sense to latch onto conspiracy theories that unite an opposition as a defense mechanism. The problem is that there really are rich and powerful villains that don't have our interests at heart, and by falling into the fake conspiracy theories, we're letting the real bad guys off the hook.
They Knew is a book by Sarah Kendzior that talks about conspiracies, both fake and real, and how the fake ones are often propagated by those who want to distract us from the real crimes happening behind the scenes. The author is a journalist and podcast host who has been traveling down the rabbit holes ever since the emergence of Donald Trump. This is her third book, tying together scandals that she reported on in her first two books- Hiding in Plain Sight and The View From Flyover Country.
This book is a passionate wake-up call for a weary nation that is struggling to find out who it can and can't trust. According to Kendzior, the rise of globalization and multi-billionaires has led to stateless groups of rich criminals who use their money and influence to buy politicians, rig legal systems, and intimidate the news media to get their way. These people don't need the US or any country, and the author believes that their ultimate goal is to break up the United States into smaller pieces that can be controlled more easily. Who are they, and what did they know? The author doesn't point to any one specific group, but she does name a lot of names, most of whom knew secrets that they'd rather not tell us.
Kendzior devotes a lot of time in this book and others to the Jeffrey Epstein scandal. Epstein was a monster who lured underage girls to his private island and offered them to the rich and powerful. Did he use this as leverage against those he worked with? Who exactly were Epstein's clients? We'll never know, because he mysteriously died in prison under suspicious circumstances shortly after his arrest. But before his arrest and death, he was treated with kid gloves by the Justice Department, which makes you wonder. Thirty years before Epstein came on the scene, another man, Craig Spence, also boasted of linking celebrities, politicians and sex partners, only to die mysteriously in 1989. None of Epstein's clients has ever been indicted, and only his partner, Ghislain Maxwell, seems likely to see any jail time.
Was 9/11 an inside job? Many conspiracists believe that it was, without any solid proof. They Knew instead points to the many odd things that happened before and after 9/11 that prove the government dropped the ball and then tried to exploit the tragedy. There were many warnings about Al Queda preparing for an attack that went unheeded. Just months before the attack a television show depicted a hijacked airplane aimed at the World Trade Center, so protests of "who could have imagined such a thing?" ring hollow for the Bush Administration. Even worse, they capitalized on that tragedy to lead Americans to believe that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved to justify a disastrous and unnecessary war in Iraq. As I write this, the government has just released a 17-year old account of a meeting between Bush and the 9/11 commission in which he lies about the nature of the warnings that he was given before that tragedy. Was he incompetent? Or was he secretly hoping for an attack so that he could profit from the inevitable jump in popularity and national urgency that would allow him to get re-elected while plunging the nation into another war?
Was January 6th preventable? The evidence shows that Donald Trump and many others were planning something on that fateful day, and again the government was unprepared. In the aftermath of those attacks on the US Capitol, only the gullible foot soldiers have faced any kind of consequences, while Trump and his helpers still have yet to see any sort of rebuke. His disinformation campaign, which has faced little pushback in the media, has succeeded in raising serious doubts about the true winner of the 2020 presidential election, even though all evidence points to Trump losing. And it almost worked! But now, much of the tweets and evidence from that period is slowly disappearing as people try to get the country to move on and forget about it (even with televised hearings). Inconvenient facts are hidden in memory holes that try to change history, and our faulty brains easily forget things, especially those things we'd rather not think about.
Kendzior points to Normalcy Bias as a cognitive defect that keeps us from acting when bad actors like Trump enter the scene. This bias goes hand in hand with the Just World Fallacy and Savior Syndrome in believing that if something happens and nobody stops it, it must be okay. God, or the media, or the justice system would act if something irresponsible and destructive might happen, and if they don't then things will be probably be okay. The Holocaust is one example where that didn't happen on its own, and climate change is another one. Sitting by passively and hoping that things work out is what the people behind these conspiracies hope will happen. They know that our default is to trust authorities, even when they lie to us.
The book is not all gloom and doom, though it certainly comes close. There have been times in history when people stood up and demanded accountability from their leaders. Two examples the author points to are the 1950's when the Kefauver commission looked at organized crime in America and put the Mafia on trial. Then in the 1970's the Church committee looked at corruption inside the US government, especially within the CIA. That, added to the pushback from the Vietnam failures and Watergate scandal led to one of the most accountable times in US politics.
Much of that reform has been rolled back by the Reagan and later administrations, and the 2011 Citizens United Supreme Court Case opened the flood gates to dark money in US politics. Also, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 may have ridded the world of a communist threat, but it also unleashed the might of Russian oligarchs, powered by oil money, who have propped up Donald Trump and meddled in things all over the world. Saudi Arabia is another villain from this book, and the lack of pushback after most of the 9/11 hijackers came from there is concerning.
The book discusses something called preemptive narrative inversion, which is why conspiracy theories help the rich and powerful. Instead of pointing fingers at the real crimes, these manufactured stories accuse those who are trying to enforce accountability instead. Pizzagate is one example. Political operatives opposed to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign for president spread the story that she was at the center of a child sex ring being run out of a Washington DC pizza parlor. This was a narrative inversion because her opponent, Donald Trump, had actually been accused of having sex with a 14-year old girl through Jeffrey Epstein connections. This kind of preemptive strategy muddies the waters and confuses voters so that they don't know who they can trust.
This is a disturbing book, and not an easy read. It's hard to think about a world in which bad actors do bad things, and there's not much we can do about it sometimes. It's much easier to digest comfortable stories that reassure us that things are basically okay. That's never been the world we've lived in- there have always been dangers, some of them existential. We ignore them at our own risk. Kendzior ends the book with a plea for all of us to demand the truth- from politicians, from corporations, from the media, and from each other. We can't keep settling for feel-good conspiracy theories that hold us blameless and tie everything up in a neat little package.
The truth is sometimes confusing and uncomfortable, but would you rather live a comfortable lie or a messy truth? Truth wins out, every time. You just need to balance it out once in a while with love, kindness, humor, and a knowledge that things can get better and we deserve better.