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Bowe Bergdahl. (Photo: theglobalpanorama/Flickr)

The Truth About Truthers

• June 19, 2014 • 6:00 AM

Bowe Bergdahl. (Photo: theglobalpanorama/Flickr)

While it’s turned into a disparaging term, being a “truther” once meant you were the opposite of a liar.

Because the Black Hawk helicopter was too loud, the young sergeant had to write his question on a paper plate. Two letters and a question mark: “SF?” Held captive for almost five years, the man cried when one of the Special Operations Forces team members responded, “Yes, we have been looking for you a long time.”

It seemed like something scripted for a movie, but within hours of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s tears following his release by the Taliban last month, the gossip, rumors, and conspiracy theories were already circulating. The nature of his disappearance and capture, the length of his father’s beard and the language spoken by the lips shaded by it, the terms and timing of his release: all were being questioned before the sun had set on Bergdahl’s return.

Truthers were found on both ends of the ideological spectrum. And how could they not?

There was, by the language of our pundits and those doing the questioning, a Truther Movement forming. A world without facts creates fictions, and in the absence of answers, the public, the media, even Congress began producing fiction. The Bergdahl Truthers joined a long line of American conspiracy theorists, which only recently became known as “truthers.”

The word seems to have gained prominence only after the September 11th attacks. Before that, you were a conspiracist or conspiracy theorist, just paranoid or part of the lunatic fringe, a crackpot or one of the lone gunmen. But in the years after the Twin Towers fell, those words have been replaced by a single noun.

In the New York Times Magazine, Leslie Savan wrote about the evolution of the term (“From Simple Noun to Handy Partisan Put-Down”), only as she observes “truther” was “self-chosen.” For years, it circulated on blogs and message boards. According to Savan, it was first used in 2004 by a 9/11 Truth activist who supported another activist who was being mocked by writing on his blog: “You’re a 9/11 Truther, don’t let them get to you.”

The blog post no longer exists, but two dictionaries offer a similar timeline. Peter Sokolowski, editor at large of Merriam-Webster, directed me to that dictionary’s user-submitted words, where “truther” was first submitted in August of 2007. Sokolowski described the entry as “intriguing,” explaining in an email that the user “seems to model the two-syllable ‘truther’ as the opposite of ‘liar’—though it’s impossible to tell if this represents some ideological defense of the movement or just an attempt at linguistic symmetry.” Almost two years later, in April of 2009, someone from Texas submitted the more familiar definition: “A member of the 9/11 Truth Movement.”

On Urban Dictionary, what Sokolowski calls the “linguistic symmetry” definition of truther appeared in 2004. “A person who tells the truth, as opposed to a liar,” wrote a user on the 22nd of February that year, and offered the following illustration: “That person is definitely not a liar. In fact, he is a truther.” It wasn’t until July of 2006 that another user offered the more political definition: “One who rejects the accepted explanation of the events of 9/11. Truthers generally believe the U.S. government committed the acts of terrorism against itself.”

It’s interesting that the word has such dichotomous definitions—that it’s used both as praise and pejorative. Conspiracy used to have a similar ambivalence, or at least neutrality. It wasn’t always a paranoid word, though by the time Christopher Hitchens wrote about them, they were “an ailment of democracy.” The prisoner exchange may be the latest ailment, but before it there was Benghazi and vaccines, Roswell and the Moon Landing, the Kennedy assassination, Pearl Harbor, and the Lusitania. There’s always been something the government wasn’t telling us, or that what they were told wasn’t true, so it’s hard to know if the number of truth movements is growing, although researchers argue the number of truthers definitely is.

Earlier this year, reviewing the data from four national surveys conducted between 2006 and 2011, University of Chicago researchers Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood found that half of all Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory.

Specifically, as Tom Jacobs explained here: “19 percent expressed the belief that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job, while 24 percent agreed that President Obama was not born in the United States” and “the most widely endorsed conspiracy theory was the one that said bankers intentionally created the financial crash,” which “was endorsed by 25 percent of participants, and only rejected by 37 percent.”

Truthers were found on both ends of the ideological spectrum. And how could they not? It was only last year that we learned the National Security Agency captures our emails and stores metadata about our phone usage. Not some people’s communications, but everyone’s; not the occasional text message, but every single call and email. Yes, the truth is often strange, but it was hard not to wonder if our fictions were not strange enough when the NSA programs were revealed.

So how could only half of us believe in a conspiracy? The truth is conspiratorial, and like Watergate or the Tuskegee experiments, conspiracies are sometimes true. It’s astounding how quickly the Bergdahl Truthers made themselves known, and perhaps what rungs of power and privilege they occupied, but not surprising that such a movement formed. There may be fewer conspiracies these days, but there are definitely more conspiracists. That’s why the old words won’t do: Truther, however much we long for it to be a partisan putdown, is actually softer than conspiracy theorist.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

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