Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it. – Andre Gide
As both American history and American mythology have shown us, it is always easier to blame others – dark-skinned people or dark-web conspiracies – for our troubles than it is to admit our own complicity. Chapters seven and ten of my book (Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence) offers a lengthy introduction to what I call the Paranoid Imagination, tracing it backwards to the roots of Christianity and forward to the very beginning of the American Republic and its original fascination with the Illuminati:
The paranoid imagination seeks itself: it constantly projects its fantasies outward onto the Other and then proceeds to demonize it. Therefore, it finds conspiracies everywhere. In 1798, ministers whipped up hysteria about a tiny Masonic group. Anticipating McCarthyism by 150 years, one minister ranted: “I have now in my possession…authenticated list of names.” In 1835, future President John Tyler blamed abolitionism on “a reptile who had crawled from some of the sinks of Europe…to sow the seeds of discord among us.”
The classic text on our unique willingness to search for conspiracies is Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), and most of our gatekeepers still quote it when pontificating about conspiracy theories. But critics of Hofstadter point out that “the tendency to conflate left-wing and right-wing populism, ignoring significant differences between the two, continues to be a significant long-term effect of Hofstadter’s work.” In other words, Hofstadter himself was a gatekeeper who encouraged the same kind of false equivalencies that I’ve been talking about.
We don’t need another study of conspiracy theories. We need a deeper understanding of who, why and how we or our institutions decide to be part of the gatekeeping process, and especially how we marginalize progressive thought. We also need to learn to discriminate. Indeed, we can learn much from some of the gatekeepers, some of whom offer brilliant analyses of right-wing conspiracism. (The problem is that, since they invariably express the anxiety of the Center, they cannot resist falsely equating right and left.) Steve Clarke and Brian Keeley offer a useful definition:
A theory that traces important events to a secret, nefarious cabal, and whose proponents consistently respond to contrary facts not by modifying their theory, but instead by insisting on the existence of ever-wider circles of high-level conspirators controlling most or all parts of society.
There may be a strong similarity to religious cults. Rachel Bernstein, a writer who specializes in recovery therapy, argues that there is no self-correction process within cults, since the self-reinforcing true believers are immune to fact-checking or conflicting opinions:
What a movement such as QAnon has going for it, and why it will catch on like wildfire, is that it makes people feel connected to something important that other people don’t yet know about…All cults will provide this feeling of being special…When people get involved in a movement, collectively, what they’re saying is they want to be connected to each other. They want to have exclusive access to secret information other people don’t have, information they believe the powers that be are keeping from the masses, because it makes them feel protected and empowered. They’re a step ahead of those in society who remain willfully blind. This creates a feeling similar to a drug—it’s its own high.
Jonathan Kay (Among the Truthers) writes:
In America…life’s losers have no one to blame but themselves. And so the conceit that they are up against some all-powerful corporate or governmental conspiracy comes as a relief: It removes the stigma of failure, and replaces it with the more psychologically manageable feeling of anger.
These observations make sense to me, even if they are quite patronizing. Using pop psychology to label and dismiss people from afar is one of the most common gatekeeping tools. To patronize is to set oneself up as an expert – smarter, better, more advanced than the other, and Kay excels in this tactic, peppering phrases such as “a sense of revitalization and adventure,” “quackery,” “satisfy his hunger for public attention,” “typing out manifestoes on basement card tables,” “something they fit in between video gaming and Facebook,” “college-educated Internet addicts,” “faculty-lounge guerillas,” and the almost comic false equivalency of “Glenn Beck and Michael Moore.”
Ultimately, such analysis tells us more about the experts than about their subjects.
So we find ourselves divided into perhaps four groups. First, there is an increasing, mostly progressive and activist, community who question many (but certainly not all, as willingness to consume the Russiagate narrative shows) of the fundamental aspects of the myth of American innocence. Then we have a tiny but vastly influential class of media gatekeepers (divided, I suppose, into the true believers and others who are clearly on the take) who still maintain the illusion of innocence and rationality for the great Center. Third, the true believers on the right who, despite their white privilege and evangelical fervor, consider themselves victims of the Center, which they equate with the Left.
And finally, we have some who dream of an Aquarian Age heaven on Earth if only everyone would think positive thoughts, but, because they cannot seem to perceive how they are manipulated, inhabit every zone of the margins without discriminating right from left, not to mention right from wrong. They are, truly, all over the map, like my Facebook friend who re-posts constantly, alternatingly from liberal and from ultra-right sources, denouncing Trump’s racism on the one hand and praising those who enforce it or profit from it on the other.
Psychology gets us only so far. I prefer a mythological or at least a religious-historical perspective.
This notion of overwhelming influence and control that is so characteristic of conspiracism is a form of literalistic thinking, an aspect of our de-mythologized world, in which the true believers have essentially eliminated the Old Testament Jehovah and substituted the Illuminati. But it is still monotheistic thinking.
The mythic figure who embodies this thinking is transcendent, distant, all-knowing, all-powerful and exclusively masculine. This thinking objectifies Nature and Woman. It invites misogyny, hierarchy and dogma. It rejects cyclical time for linear time, allowing for only a single creation myth and a single ending. It constricts the imagination, reducing mystery to simplistic dualisms such as ultimate good and ultimate evil or innocence and original sin.
Since it cannot include its opposite, it absolutely requires another mythic figure to do so, and therefore it is obsessed with both evil and temptation, and it leads inevitably to puritanism. Since it rejects paradox, diversity and ambiguity, it demands belief, which implies not merely a single set of truths but also the obligation to convert – or eliminate – those who question it.
This heritage is perhaps three thousand years old. Or, if we were to take a feminist perspective, we could say that its antecedents extend another three thousand years further back, to the origins of patriarchy itself. But by the beginning of the Christian era, it had solidified into the thinking that ultimately led to the mentality of the crusader. Norman Cohn, in his classic study The Pursuit of the Millennium, wrote:
The elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted and yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary…systematized misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque…ruthlessness directed towards…a total and final solution…The world is dominated by an evil, tyrannous power of boundless destructiveness – a power moreover which is imagined not simply as human but as demonic. The tyranny of that power will become more and more outrageous, the sufferings of its victims more and more intolerable until suddenly the hour will strike when the Saints of God are able to rise up and overthrow it. Then the saints themselves, the chosen, holy people who hitherto have groaned under the oppressor’s heel, shall in their turn inherit the earth. This will be the culmination of history; the kingdom of the saints will not only surpass in glory all previous kingdoms, it will have no successors.
But what happens when, after a thousand years, that narrative, that sense of meaning begins to break down? Or, as I’ve argued in my book, when an entire mythology – a metanarrative such as the myth of American innocence – collapses?
As we all know, religion as a system holding the mass of society together has been essentially dead since the early 19th century, when a new way of knowing, the scientific method, replaced it and modernity was born. Very quickly, by the middle of the century, a new meta-narrative, nationalism, arose. Germany, Italy and Japan, for example, did not constitute themselves as nation-states until the 1860s. And one could certainly argue that this was also true for the United States. This new thinking was ideological, and in the sense that people were willing to die for an idea, it had clear religious qualities. A meta-narrative, it gave people meaning in a world in which science had taken that meaning away from religion.
All nations certainly continued, and do continue to give lip service to religion, but in reality they utilized religion, as they had for centuries, to justify the new, nationalistic order. Modernity provided only two alternatives, the scientific method that had helped de-throne religion, and political ideology. By the late 20th century, science too had lost its capacity to provide meaning, as Huston Smith wrote:
I am thinking of frontier thinkers who chart the course that others follow. These thinkers have ceased to be modern because they have seen through the so-called scientific worldview, recognizing it to be not scientific but scientistic. They continue to honor science for what it tells us about nature, but as that is not all that exists, science cannot provide us with a worldview ― not a valid one. The most it can show us is half of the world, the half where normative and intrinsic values, existential and ultimate meanings, teleologies, qualities, immaterial realities, and beings that are superior to us do not appear…Where, then, do we now turn for an inclusive worldview? Postmodernism hasn’t a clue. And this is its deepest definition…“incredulity toward metanarratives”. Having deserted revelation for science, the West has now abandoned the scientific worldview as well, leaving it without replacement.
When myths that bind us together in worlds of meaning die, the soul – and the soul of the culture – search for substitutes. All political ideologies, like the religions they emerged from, are monotheistic, since they allow no alternative viewpoints. Ideologies force us to think the same idea, as Michael Meade has said, while myth invites us to have our own ideas about the same thing.
From what I can see, many NACs cling neither to conventional religion nor to any simplistic kind of nationalist ideology. What they do seem to cling to is the pseudo-community that characterizes the Internet, where they can freely share meta-narratives but can experience neither the risks nor the support of authentic community. What options has post-modernity offered them? Consumer culture, addiction, workaholism, vicarious intensity (see Chapter 10 of my book) – or, simply, the opportunity to connect the dots and explain everything, and in so doing, reduce their levels of anxiety?
Connecting the dots – finding alleged correlation and attributing direct causality – may well be a new way of countering the terror of finding oneself in an economy and a political system that is broken or a climate that is out of control, in which a god of evil seems to have replaced a god of good. It’s difficult to confront the possibility that this good god may not really be concerned with our welfare (a truly pagan perspective), or that he may never have existed at all. Americans still believe in that good god at much higher rates than Europeans – but 57% of American adults also believe in the existence of Satan, or in the hazy figure of the Antichrist.
Although he can’t resist throwing in a false equivalency, Kay accurately observes:
Conspiracism is attractive to the Doomsayer because it organizes all of the world’s menacing threats into one monolithic force – allowing him to reconcile the bewildering complexities of our secular world with the good-versus-evil narrative contained in the Book of Revelation and other religious texts…(he) vigilantly scans the news for signs that the world is moving toward some final apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil…so saturated is American culture with the imagery of Christian eschatology that it has been widely co-opted…Once you strip away their jargon, radicalized Marxists also can be classified as Evangelical Doomsayers…unfailingly compresses many random evils into a single, identifiable point-source of malign power…This psychic need to impute all evil to a lone, omnipotent source inevitably requires the conspiracist to create larger and larger meta-conspiracies that sweep together seemingly unconnected power centers.
…Both of them (conspiracism and millenarianism) go together: Both of them put the fact of human suffering at the center of the human condition. Conspiracism is a strategy for explaining the origin of that suffering. Millenarianism is a strategy for forging meaning from it…a generalized nostalgia for America’s past.
Let’s be clear about this: No one in our culture fully escapes this legacy, since, as James Hillman said, “We are each children of the Biblical God…(it is) the essential American fact.”
Here is a clue: if your people consider their story to be literally true and other people’s stories are “myths,” then you and your people are thinking mythically or literally. Other mono-words share the brittleness of one correct way: monopoly, monogamy, monolithic, monarchy, monotonous. If solutions to our great social and environmental crises emerge, they will originate outside of the monoculture’s arrogantly monocular view, from people on the edges, or at least those who can discriminate.
Part Three of this essay is here.