I read the Atlantic so I can rage at things on paper rather than a screen, to bring variety into my otherwise dull life. Montreal Lemmy sees me yell at a black plastic screen for most of the day, and I think it’s important that he also sees me yell at dead trees. These dead trees are more or less his only exposure to nature, and we can all agree that nature is important.
In addition to its now usual ‘Yes or No’ article (“Can Satire Save the Republic?”, “Can North Korea Be Stopped?”, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”—no, no, and no again) with the subtly entitled “How America Lost its Mind”, the Atlantic has taken on conspiracy theory, a topic near to my heart.
Growing up around leftists and artists, worried about CIA coups and military experiments since public school (thanks to Neil Aberle, z’’l) I was exposed to conspiracies at a tender age. Conspiracies, but not conspiracy theory: much of the Gwynn Dyer and Chomsky overlapped with the real world, and they traded more in specifics, and less in overarching narratives.
It was when I moved to Texas that I got a straight shot of the real thing. A dear friend of mine—who was no fool—was riddled with conspiracy theories, as was one of the department’s sharper professors. Their thinking was afflicted with full bore, non-falsifiable, impregnable to evidence, conspiracy theory. For them, the world was run by dark forces, demonic families who were relentlessly particular and yet globalist, powers that played with water and the air, pharmaceuticals, the banking system, who started wars, were behind 9/11, JFK, the elections, were prepared to deal with overpopulation by culling the herd, and so on.
What mystified me was that these two were incredibly intelligent: they spoke several languages, read texts with sensitivity, and knew far more history than I did (which is not difficult). And yet they seemed buried in this muck—and while open to challenge in theory, no amount of evidence, argument, or yelling, could dislodge this nonsense. They were stubborn, not like rocks, but water: alternately absorbing and ignoring, flowing around counter-positions, all the particulars open to change, but the general paranoid flow was unstoppable. I knew something was wrong, but my usual diagnoses weren’t working. These people were neither stupid nor cynical, philosophy of science meant nothing to them, they had no need to hew to the standards of normal conversation, and yet I didn’t want to dismiss either of them.
It felt ‘important’ that I figure out what the hell was going on. And so, with the help of Erik Davis and countless pints of discounted beer, I developed a series half baked ideas. These ideas are hardly ready to be read by others, but after reading this Atlantic article I am now motivated by my irritation to drag them, premature but hopefully not stillborn, onto this blog.
This post will consist of me yelling at the Atlantic, because I am lazy, and it is easier to kick down someone else’s barn than build your own. My next post will consists preliminary thoughts, or guesses, about how we should actually deal with conspiracy, because it’s easier to imagine what a barn would look like than it is to do any work. And I do loathe work.
The article, which like this blog-post, is far too long, makes three basic claims. They are interesting, if only because they are made so often, and are wrong.
- Conspiracy theory is distinctly American (individualism gone wild)
- Conspiracy theory is driven by Enlightenment inspired relativism (criticism gone wild)
- Conspiracy theory is currently driven by the Internet (communication gone wild)
Individualism Gone Wild
American exceptionalism takes many forms, but the most common in my circles is the belief that America is singularly crazy, or fucked up. This critique cloaks a compliment, because the reason for America’s especial fucked-up-ness is a kind of ‘individualism’—which we can all solemnly agree has ‘gone too far,’ but has glorious roots, roots that smell of cowboys, new beginnings, and space exploration.
How anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes in the mid-west can consider this place overly-individualist is beyond me. All the men wear cargo- or sweatpants, and have the same haircut: the sides and back are 1 cm long, with the top extending an additional half centimeter, to ensure distinction from a mere worker’s crew-cut. All the shirts are T-shirts with things written on them in sloppy American Gothic fonts. All the jeans sag. The chief danger in living here (other than being murdered) is that you can be soothed into falsely assuming you’re maintaining your style, because of the chasm between your dress and theirs. But the chasm narrows to a gap, which thins to a line, and one day you wake up in a sports Jersey, too polite to scream.
So, the exceptionalist hypothesis, that America individualism leads to conspiracy theory, is ungrounded. But it is remains true that in comparison with, say, Canada or Germany, the States has an awful lot of conspiracy per square inch.
To explain this, Anderson’s Atlantic article makes a cultural argument: America is the place of freedom, but freedom run amok. This, by the by, is one of the Atlantic’s more detestable leitmotifs: current problems are explicable by too much freedom, too much democracy, etc. That an American publication can write this without shame is perhaps more illustrative of the real problem.
Anderson writes (as many have before):
The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will.
To my ears, this sounds like the ‘self-critique’ of a drunk who’s knocked over your drink, “I’m sorry—I just party too hard”. More importantly, this self-congratulation-as-critique uses a psychological or cultural explanation where a material one is needed. Anderson almost gets this, a few pages later:
[O]ur drift toward credulity, toward doing our own thing, toward denying facts and having an altogether uncertain grip on reality, has overwhelmed our other exceptional national traits and turned us into a less developed country.
You don’t need to be a Marxist to see that this is putting the cart before the horse: conspiracy theories haven’t ‘turned’ the States into a ‘less developed’ country; the order is reversed. Here’s a wild hypothesis: as economic inequality increases, conspiracy follows. It’s not the American penchant to “do your own thing” that’s at issue, but the belief that they can no longer do anything at all. I haven’t been many places, but I’ve noticed that when people feel trapped, conspiracy theory becomes common currency. In Canada, where most people pretty comfortable, conspiracy is the refuge of the stoner and the under-sexed. In the Middle East, it was standard practice. That America is closer to the Mid-East than it is to Canada has nothing to do with a derring-do attitude, and probably more to do with rising inequality, and the fact that, right or wrong, many Americans feel trapped.
Criticism Gone Wild
This point is an extension of the first: American individualism led American professors to spout social construction, which in turn has brought us here. The error, as a properly American error, is traced to the Founding Fathers: Jefferson and company provided too much freedom, in particular, freedom to follow your own individual path; this individualism leads to a breakdown of collective norms; Foucault and other theorists step into the breach, offering relativism and social constructivism as the new truth to replace old social norms; the new wine bursts the old wine-skins, and a space is opened for an anything-goes conspiracy theory. In short: once Foucault, Baudrillard, Peter Berger [yes, he seriously blames Peter Berger], have had their way with the American people, Conspiracy Theory pops out its wooden head.
Key to this argument is the claim that Enlightenment has two halves: on one side an individualist impulse (Sapere aude), on the other a slowly developing scientific machine. America has tilted towards the pleasures of individual skeptical relativism, and as a result, the scientific edifice is collapsing. Proper Enlightenment is about balancing the two halves. I will be forgiven for thinking that this is an Enlightenment where the machine is the Truth, and critique an accessory.
Here the article indulges in one of my favourite rhetorical moves: ‘no one is talking about x,’ which is the slightly more respectable cousin of ‘you’re not allowed to talk about x’:
Neither side has noticed, but large factions of the elite left and the populist right have been on the same team.
Neither side may have ‘noticed’, but it seems like I read about little fucking else these days. I cannot count the number of histrionic articles that have blamed critical theory for the rise of Trump, the alt-right, climate change denial, and so on. My more leftist friends will note (correctly) that none of these articles bother with a material analysis, and that the deep pockets of oil producers have facilitated more global warming stupidity than literature professors have.
But that kind of analysis takes work, and so I’m not going to do it. I’m happy to just point out that none of these ‘American postmodernism leads to darkness’ pieces bother to compare the situation here with anywhere else. If French critical theory leads to conspiracy, then one would expect the hotbed of conspiracy to be France, no? That this is not the case does not deter: “[P]ostmodern intellectuals—post-positivists, poststructuralists, social constructivists, post-empiricists, epistemic relativists, cognitive relativists, descriptive relativists” have enabled “gun-rights hysteria, black-helicopter conspiracism, climate-change denial, and more.” I would suggest that there is a relationship between conspiracy theory and critical theory, but it is not one of causation.
But it is nice to think so, because then we have a cure: get Enlightenment back into balance, push back on the individual freedoms, and strengthen the scientific machine. Neil de-Grasse Tyson, David Frum, and Jordan Peterson, acting in concert, can destroy the evil that Peter Berger has uleashed. And we can do it all without addressing any economic or political concerns, all the repair done on the level of ‘culture’, and in the way we love best: restricting critique.
Conspiracy Theory is Communication Gone Wild
No, it isn’t. Conspiracy theory is older than the internet, and wider than America. The internet has many costs, from the middle class to my free-time, but most internet-explanations are shallow, and dissipate with the slightest comparative analysis. The Atlantic article has many virtues, in particular, it gestures towards the link between certain forms of religiosity and conspiracy, and does end with a call to engage conspiracy in the public square, but this reads as an afterthought. It is blinded by both American myth and the banal desire to blame everything on the latest communication technology. The stupidity of Fox News and CNN is not conspiracy theory, even where they drink from the same glass. The fear of freemasons, illuminatus, and the denial of modernity, are all much older than the internet. Many contemporary conspiracies, and the communities that sustain them, have their roots in anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism is slightly older than Google. Note that articles which claim that ‘the internet has engendered conspiracy theory’ or entrenchment, while often presenting interesting data about how such conspiracies are distributed now, fail to show that the distribution and depth of such theorizing reaches any deeper than, say, the belief that ‘Jews control international finance’ reached in the 30s. In other words, the claim that this is new has yet to grapple with the old.
Summary of Complaints
Creatures, I am sorry for going on and on. Clearly, in taking a break from writing, I have lost what little grasp I had on concision. My next will be much shorter.
What’s the chief issue here? The problem with this analysis, and the many like it, is that they view conspiracy as a disease that must be extirpated, root and branch.
If this is the problem, the solution writes itself: eliminate the conditions under which conspiracy is created. And the easiest conditions to identify are skepticism, intellectual freedom, and forms of communication. But, what if conspiracy is best not treated as something to be uprooted? What if it has a certain value, or is perhaps just incomplete?
What if the conspiracy theorist who has misused Enlightenment is more your friend than someone who wants to clamp down on the conditions of Enlightenment?