History and Myth
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 discuss 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 that “reptile” 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 Hofstadter has his own critics, who have pointed out his tendency to conflate left-wing and right-wing populism and ignore significant differences between them. 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. What we do need is a deeper understanding of why and how we decide to be part of the gatekeeping process, how we reflexively reject what doesn’t appear to be “common sense” and 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. (Since they invariably express the anxiety of the Center, however, they cannot resist the temptation to falsely equate 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 is often a strong similarity to religious cults, as we’ll see below. 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. This makes them feel special, part of something important:
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.
Note Kay’s apparent acceptance of American mythology: “…losers have no one to blame but themselves.” But his observations do make sense to me, even if they are patronizing (using pop psychology to label and dismiss people is one of the most common gatekeeping tools. In mythological terms, this is Apollo the lone archer killing from afar, as opposed to the drunken Dionysus who lives among the common people). To patronize is to label oneself as an expert – smarter, better, more advanced than the other, and Kay excels in this tactic, peppering phrases such as “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.” Can we take this guy seriously? Can we identify his agenda?
Ultimately, this kind of analysis tells us more about the psychology of the “experts” than about their subjects. And it is precisely his style of east-coast, liberal, quasi-academic pontification and devaluing of flyover state values that drives millions of white working-class people either into reactionary politics or out of political engagement entirely.
So we find ourselves divided into perhaps five groups. First, there is a progressive, activist, young, mostly non-white, often non-binary community who question the fundamental aspects of the myth of American innocence. Second, we have a tiny but vastly influential class of media and academic gatekeepers (divided into true believers and others who are clearly in it only for the money) whose professional mandate is to maintain the illusion of innocence and rationality for (three) the great majority in the center, innocently consuming all the American myths.
Fourth, 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. Very many of them take a very selective “libertarian” stance, as the book Uncivil Liberties: Deconstructing Libertarianism explains. You can read the introductory essay (which I wrote), The Mythic Foundations of Libertarianism here. At the far end of this continuum we find the Q followers, many of whom apparently see no contradiction in, for example, their support of both Trumpus and the Black Lives Matter movement, or of both personal choice on vaccines and their hatred of abortion. Self-described “libertarians” who would ban abortion? Rand Paul is only one example.
And finally, we have some, children perhaps of the 1960s self-reliant, back-to-the-land movement, 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 progressive and from ultra-right sources, denouncing racism on the one hand and praising those who enforce it on the other.
Psychology gets us only so far. I prefer mythological and religious-historical perspectives. In Chapter Seven I identify a trend that developed early on in American Protestantism in which
Cooperation between northerners and southerners birthed a paradoxical mix of extreme religious and modern Enlightenment values. Man was fallen and sinful, yet he could become whatever he wanted. Indeed, in 1776 – for the first time in history – a nation proclaimed the pursuit of happiness as its prime value. Soon, Tocqueville observed of American preachers, “…it is often difficult to be sure when listening to them whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.”
Where else but in America would there exist a doctrine known as the “Prosperity Gospel”? QAnon may be propelled by paranoia and populism, but it is also propelled by religious faith, and it utilizes the language of evangelical, apocalyptic Christianity. Adrienne LaFrance writes:
In his classic 1957 book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, the historian Norman Cohn examined the emergence of apocalyptic thinking over many centuries. He found one common condition: This way of thinking consistently emerged in regions where rapid social and economic change was taking place – and at periods of time when displays of spectacular wealth were highly visible but unavailable to most people. This was true in Europe during the Crusades in the 11th century, and during the Black Death in the 14th century, and in the Rhine Valley in the 16th century…
Here are two essays on apocalyptic thinking, one by Michael Meade and one that I wrote, in which I argue that millenarians always mistaken the need for internal, symbolic change for literal end-of-days.
…we must step away from literalist thinking (whether New Age or fundamentalist) and accept that in biological, ecological, mythological or indigenous initiatory terms, to end is nothing other than to die. Only when death and decay are complete can they be understood as the necessary precursors to fermentation and potential new growth…
“End times” is also a metaphor for the archetypal cry for initiation. It is our own transformation – the death of who we have been – that we both fear and long for. The soul understands that there is no initiation into a new state of being unless we fully accept the necessary death of what came before…(but) when we can no longer imagine inner renewal, we see literal images elsewhere. We project our internal state onto the world and look for the signs of world changes “out there.”
The literalization of mythic images occurs everywhere that mythic thinking has broken down. But we know that a social or even political movement has elements of specifically American religiosity by the unmistakable smell of money. LaFrance continues:
The most prominent QAnon figures have a presence beyond the biggest social-media platforms and image boards. The Q universe encompasses numerous blogs, proprietary websites, and types of chat software, as well as alternative social-media platforms such as Gab, the site known for anti-Semitism and white nationalism, where many people banned from Twitter have congregated. Vloggers and bloggers promote their Patreon accounts, where people can pay them in monthly sums. There’s also money to be made from ads on YouTube. That seems to be the primary focus for (David) Hayes, whose videos have been viewed more than 33 million times altogether. His “Q for Beginners” video includes ads from companies such as the vacation-rental site Vrbo and from The Epoch Times, an international pro-Trump newspaper.
This notion of overwhelming influence, control and victimhood 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 both the Old Testament Jehovah and his demonic adversary and substituted the Illuminati, Bill Gates, the Clintons or George Soros. But it is still monotheistic thinking, and it expresses the Paranoid Imagination.
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 reduces mystery to simplistic dualisms such as ultimate good and ultimate evil or innocence and original sin. However, since it cannot include its opposite, it requires another mythic figure to carry that role, and therefore it is obsessed with both evil and temptation, and it almost always leads 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 two 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. Here is more insight from Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium:
The elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted and yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary…ruthlessness directed towards…a total and final solution…The world is dominated by an evil, tyrannous power of boundless destructiveness. 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.
Cohn also repeatedly points out another characteristic of those times when the oppressed saints “rise up and overthrow.” In his examples from Northern Europe, they begin by attacking their rich overlords, but they quickly move on to massacring more traditional scapegoats, the Jews (if you haven’t noticed that much Q-related ranting is merely a recycling in 21st-century terms of Medieval anti-Semitism, you haven’t been paying attention).
But what happens when, after a thousand years, a grand narrative, that sense of meaning, begins to break down? Or, as I’ve argued in my book, when an entire mythology – such as the myth of American innocence – collapses? Religion as a system holding the mass of society together has been essentially dead since the mid-19th century, when a new way of knowing, the scientific method, replaced it and modernity was born. Very quickly, 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, in terms of the North-South reunification that occurred after the end of Reconstruction.
This new thinking was ideological, and in the sense that people were willing to die (and kill) for an idea, it had clear religious undertones. It gave people meaning in a world in which science had taken that meaning away from religion.
All nations certainly continued to give lip service to religion, but in reality, they utilized religion to justify the new national orders. Fundamentalism continues to motivate millions, but primarily as an adjunct to the state (as the consistently pro-war positions of nearly all televangelists show) or as its mirror-opposite (as in every socialist country).
The new literary and cultural movement of Modernism followed the universal disillusionment after World War One and attempted to make sense of what to do when we lose the certainties by which we define ourselves. But it offered only two alternatives for the non-artistic: the scientific method that had helped de-throne religion, and the political ideologies that led quickly to the second World War, the Holocaust and the Cold War. And, since neither of these belief systems addressed the soul’s longing for deeper meaning, faith in both began to collapse.
In the 1960s, Post-modernism identified this dislocation, celebrated the breakdown of structure and threw off the constraints of grand narratives. Individual identity, especially gender, was no longer fixed, but fluid and socially constructed. Postmodern individuals have no essential selfhood; they are constructed by webs of language and power relations. But very few of us can thrive in such a world, 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.
All this would be hugely magnified by technology, writes Alexander Beiner:
This is what identity is online. Fragmented, fluid, partial. Online, you can be anyone you want to be, and simultaneously, you are nobody. If this is where we gain our sense of self, we find ourselves adrift in a sea of language and relativistic narratives over which we have no control.
By the 1980s dissatisfaction with the trappings of post-modern culture – consumerism, the nuclear family, conventional religion, anti-communism and vicarious intensity (see Chapter 10 of my book) – was leading many Americans in one (or both) of two directions: the substance abuse that would eventually explode into mass death-by-opiates in the 2010s, and the retreat into fundamentalist religion.
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. Whereas myth once invited us to have our own ideas about the same thing, as Meade has said, ideologies force us to think the same idea.
From what I can see, many New Age Conspiracists cling neither to conventional religion nor to any nationalist ideology, but only to a simplistic and optimistic faith in “freedom.” They do seem to value the pseudo-community that characterizes the Internet, where they can freely share meta-narratives and experience neither the risks nor the support of authentic community, especially during the enforced isolation of the pandemic. And they do have one thing – the opportunity to connect the dots and explain everything, and in so doing, reduce their levels of anxiety.
Connecting the dots – finding some degree of correlation and attributing direct causality – may well be a new way of countering the terror of finding oneself in an economy, a pandemic and a political system that is broken and 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 (that would be 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 false equivalencies, 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 compressing 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…(in) 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.” Deep in the unconscious psyche of every American Yogi, Buddhist or New Age influencer is a three-thousand-year-old monotheist, and it has its own agenda to convert or eliminate its competition.
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, from people on the edges – or at least those who have learned to discriminate.
Once we become comfortable thinking in terms of myth – as stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – we can step out of own monocular thinking. We can acknowledge, as Charles Eisenstein writes, that a conspiracy narrative is “…after all, neither provable nor falsifiable,” and then take a clearer look at what it can illuminate.
Underneath its literalism, it conveys important information…First, it demonstrates the shocking extent of public alienation from institutions of authority…Second, (It) gives narrative form to an authentic intuition that an inhuman power governs the world…(it) locates that power in a group of malevolent human beings…Therein lies a certain psychological comfort, because now there is someone to blame…
Alternatively, we could locate the “inhuman power” in systems or ideologies, not a group of conspirators. That is less psychologically rewarding, because we can no longer easily identify as good fighting evil; after all, we ourselves participate in these systems, which pervade our entire society…Stamped from the same template, conspiracy theories tap into an unconscious orthodoxy. They emanate from the same mythic pantheon as the social ills they protest. We might call it…the mythology of Separation…matter separate from spirit, human separate from nature…Because we are (in this myth) separate from other people and from nature, we must dominate our competitors and master nature. Progress, therefore, consists in increasing our capacity to control the Other…
…Events are indeed orchestrated in the direction of more and more control, only the orchestrating power is itself a zeitgeist, an ideology…a myth. This deep ideology…is beyond anyone’s power to invent. The Illuminati, if they exist, are not its authors; it is more true to say that the mythology is their author. We do not create our myths; they create us.
Now I think we have enough background to try and understand what makes NACs tick.