Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. – W.B. Yeats
All that is solid melts into air. – Karl Marx
In a previous blog series I discussed how the gatekeepers of our culture exclude and demonize much progressive thought by associating it in the reader’s mind with bizarre right-wing claims, thereby delegitimizing both:
…countless websites and books devoted to narratives that marginalize anyone who questions the dominant paradigms of the culture. They typically do this by identifying “loony” theories from the perspective of the “rational center.” Such gatekeepers almost always lump all of the questioners together. Then with patronizing, pseudo-psychology they explore the unconscious motivations of conspiracy theorists, be they fascists or anarchists, Christians or Pagans, oligarchs or street people.
I’m talking about people who want us to forget about radical change because – they tell us – some of its adherents and some of their proposals are as laughably, preposterously unacceptable as are those on the other extreme.
The use of the term “conspiracy theory” is one of the main ways in which they banish any legitimate criticism of those in power to the realm of the truly illegitimate. The intent is insidious, even if often sincere. The only position that reasonable people could hold is the only one that remains, C – the consensual center that ranges between “not as crazy as A” to “not as crazy as B.” When they hear it often enough, people hold to that center so as to reaffirm their sense of American Innocence, and their identities.
I’ve read much by those who claim to objectively analyze conspiracy theories, and they all, left or right, serve that gatekeeping function. Even though most of what they say applies primarily to the right-wing loonies, they consistently associate the same faulty thinking with people further to the left.
But here is something new. In this age of fake news, “alternative facts”, high-resolution film and internet, when any image can be manipulated, some right wingers have become very skilled at offering theories with superficially progressive themes, but which, upon closer inspection, reveal reactionary agendas. They rely on the inability or unwillingness of countless good-hearted people who consume their well-funded rants and web posts to actually discriminate the former from the latter. One writer refers to these folks as “DRH” for “Down the Rabbit Hole.” I suggest another term: “New Age Conspiracists,” or NACs.
The wild popularity (seen by over 84 million people and translated into 27 languages) of the 2011 film Thrive is an example. Its creator Foster Gamble interviewed many progressive thinkers but hid his own libertarian views. Once they learned about those views, ten of the participants publicly denounced the film, claiming that Gamble had misrepresented himself. For more on that, see my blog, “The Mythic Foundations of Libertarianism” or Ben Boyce’s essay, in which he acknowledges “…how a skillfully edited documentary, backed with a big budget, can draw new adherents to a long-discredited political doctrine.” Later in this essay, I’ll describe how other “influencers” are manipulating thousands of people.
The pandemic year 2020 has seen massive resistance to social distancing and masking guidelines that have overlapped with vaccine skepticism. The great majority of it has emanated from right-wing and libertarian sources. But for now, I offer some confusing truths: quite a few left-wingers also favor personal choice on these matters – and the right is well aware of this. So we’re seeing slick, well-designed, “free-speech” websites such as Londonreal that, like Thrive, include articles by Noam Chomsky. But the further down one reads in their links, the more explicitly right-wing writings appear. This appears to be a deliberate strategy to influence young, anti-establishment, New Age readers.
Let’s get a few things straight. Of course, there are conspiracies in which powerful people or classes discuss their shared goals and strategies away from the public eye. After all, to con-spire is merely to “breathe together.” Call it the Committee of 300, the Illuminati, the British Royal Family, the Rothschilds or the Khazarian Mafia – or just call it late capitalism and neo-colonialism rationally pursuing its short-term goals. Such people would be crazy not to get together periodically to shape national policies and international trends in their interests. And for my money, in this kind of a world, Trumpus is a minor mob thug and a useful idiot, while George H.W. Bush was Capo di Tutti I Capi of the Deep State.
“Deep State” is a phrase that can mean anything to anyone, and it seems that NACs especially use it too loosely. So I’ll try to define it from three perspectives:
1 – From the Center: The Deep State is the entrenched status quo that (in public perception) gets nothing done, whose members, lazy career bureaucrats and unmotivated administrators, care only to protect their own positions and retirement benefits. From a slightly more charitable perspective, it is composed of areas of government, including regulatory agencies such as the (pre-Trumpus) EPA that exist permanently, keeping the whole thing going, regardless of periodic changes in the White House. For more, read here.
2 – From the Right: The Deep State is “Big Government,” ideologically devoted to piling up infinite numbers of regulations intended to crush personal initiative and redistribute the national wealth to the undeserving poor. As Ronald Reagan said, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Note the mythological assumptions: only in America, with its aggrandizement of radical individualism, is poverty considered the fault of the individual. Similarly, we celebrate people who claim to have accumulated vast wealth without the benefits of inheritance or the assistance of that same State. For more on this topic, see my essay, “Blaming the Victim,” and take note of how deeply this cruel belief system has penetrated the American religious psyche, especially in New Age thinking.
This is the libertarian perspective of many NACs, who perceive federal regulatory agencies as instruments of a massive conspiracy to deprive them of the right to choose for themselves, especially in matters of health. To be clear, I agree with them to an extent, but it is very much a matter of discrimination, as we will see below. This thinking can slide down a long continuum that posits secret groups that control even the Deep State itself. In the most extreme scenarios, they are composed of alien (or Jewish) pedophiles determined to impose and dominate a New World Order; there is little practical difference between Big Government and the shadowy figures who conspire to control everything and everyone.
Note the mythological assumption: It’s a dualistic world of extreme good vs. extreme evil. This thinking has its roots in ancient Zoroastrianism, became solidified in Medieval Catholicism and justified centuries of European barbarism that led directly to the Holocaust.
3 – From the Left: The Deep State is what we used to call the Military-Industrial Complex. Now we could describe it as the Military / National Security / Intelligence / Corporate / Petrochemical / Big Pharma / Big Banking / Big Agriculture Complex. From this perspective, government is not inherently bad, but it has been so utterly corrupted by capitalism that the State itself creates and maintains a culture of fear to generate a perpetual state of war. It crushes the imagination and redistributes the national wealth to the undeserving rich. Note another mythological assumption: nothing in our 400-year history has so deeply held our attention and limited our natural kindness as fear of the Other (the internal Other of race and the external Others of immigration, communism and terrorism). In this model, there is hardly any practical difference between Big Business and Big Government. When Defense Secretary Charles Wilson said, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America” in 1953, he was speaking quite literally.
Of course, more than one person conspired to kill John F. Kennedy. Even the U.S. Senate found this to be likely. Of course, elements within the government conspired to assassinate Martin Luther King, Jr. Indeed, a court determined that this is a legal fact. Obviously, elements of the Bush administration had some foreknowledge of the 9-11 attacks and did nothing to prevent them. And there are plenty of broader conspiracies to worry about.
But many people who have rejected the official narratives, who clearly understand that the mainstream media have shaped a false picture of the world (and possibly of American innocence) for decades, also seem to be getting caught up in some really wacky, paranoid, misogynistic and certainly racist claims. It appears that once you reject the center as illegitimate and the media as mendacious and locate yourself as a maverick out on the margins, you naturally become open to other marginalized opinions. From this perspective, when you entertain the possibility that everything we’ve been taught is wrong, then any alternatives may well be right.
Not long ago, most so-called conspiracy theories were clearly divided between right (Obama “Truthers”) and left (assassinations, CIA drug dealing). Gradually, many people have come to muddy the distinctions (if with very different conclusions), beginning with health issues such as fluoridation and the vaccine controversy, with the right mistrusting the government for intruding on their liberties and the left rightly criticizing Big Pharma’s perversion of the FDA. Meanwhile, the liberal, rational center – the abode of the gatekeepers – desperately holds to a naïve trust in objective and uncorruptible science, a working democracy, mainstream media who inform us (rather than selling us to their sponsors) and a foreign policy that protects freedom.
But then something new happened. The palpably obvious lie of the official 9-11 narrative brought individuals on both right and left together, if again with wildly different conclusions. Meanwhile, the mainstream media circled the wagons to marginalize all dissent in favor of unified military belligerence, just as they had done 84 years before to drag the nation into World War One, 60 years before to drag the nation into World War Two, 37 years before to drag the nation into Viet Nam, and only nine years before to drag the nation into Iraq.
People such as David Icke (one of the few people interviewed in Thrive who has not repudiated the film) have taken advantage of this really large segment of the public – remember, 100 million potential voters have opted out of the system – to posit a world in which powerful yet secret groups are striving to control the destiny of the entire world. This leads us to the QAnon phenomenon.
The essence of American politics is the manipulation of populism by elitism. – Christopher Hitchens
The QAnon narrative, as most of us know by now, explains how we are in a sinister and dimly visible global power struggle. On one side of the fight is a depraved group of pedophiles, secretly sowing chaos and strife to create a pretext for their rule. On the other side is the public, decent people who have been deceived by the power brokers and their collaborators in the press. But patriotic elements within the military recruited Trumpus, and he’s been working hard behind the scenes to defeat the evil ones.
Whoever Q is (or are), its millions of followers receive and re-post thousands of hints about its agenda, and Trumpus himself (who many believe to actually be Q) has taken full advantage of it, especially in terms of coronavirus skepticism. Q followers agree that a great awakening is approaching to bring salvation. A promise of foreknowledge seems to be part of Q’s appeal, as is the feeling of being part of a secret community, which is reinforced through the use of acronyms and ritual phrases such as “Nothing can stop what is coming” and “Trust the plan.”
The year 2020 has added another dimension to the conspiracy mongering. Many people on both the right and the left who have legitimate concerns about corporate corruption of federal regulatory agencies, specifically on the question of vaccines, are finding it easier to question some aspects of the consensus on the Covid pandemic. And the Q people have skillfully taken advantage of this skepticism to convince them that the evil cabal of insiders deliberately created the pandemic or is at least ruthlessly exploiting it to frighten the public into accepting a totalitarian world government under permanent medical martial law. William Stranger writes:
The QAnon conspiracy represents nothing less than the chickens coming home to roost for the massive loss of public trust created by the plethora of outlandishly uninvestigated, under-investigated, and even fraudulently investigated marquee crimes in American history…
But we need to realize that QAnon is well-situated in a long and racialized American tradition in which people who feel threatened by evil cabals are in fact relatively well-off. It’s a story about victimhood (as I write in Chapters Seven and Eight of my book) and an excuse for violence, real or vicarious, that we’ve been telling ourselves ever since the first massacre of Indians in the early seventeenth century. But in this new version, the savior is the President himself, who is arguably the most powerful person in the world already, and his people are already in charge. It’s a story that seems to have been designed to cope with the cognitive dissonance caused by the gap between Trumpus as his fans imagine him and Trumpus as he is. Here are some articles I’ve found useful:
How to know what’s true? Or, as Caitlin Johnstone asks, How You Can Be 100% Certain That QAnon Is Bullshit:
1. It always excuses Trump’s facilitation of corporate agendas.
2. It always refuses to prove the validity of its position.
3. It’s made countless bogus claims and inaccurate predictions.
I would add a fourth point, as a question: How many people who claim to be victims of the deep state are people of color? Or are they in fact people who are generally quite privileged and almost universally white?
But we mythologists cannot afford to wallow in our own form of patronizing self-deception. This is a mass phenomenon, and besides, plenty of its adherents are armed to the teeth. More critically, we have to acknowledge that at its core, it represents a legitimate, if misdirected anger at a secular state (and its media) that in their (and my) mind is no longer legitimate. Johnstone continues:
…it’s an obvious propaganda construct designed to manufacture support for the status quo among people who otherwise would not support it. It presents itself as an exciting movement where the little guy is finally rising up and throwing off the chains of the tyrannical forces which have been exploiting and oppressing us, yet in reality all it’s doing is telling a discontented sector of the population to relax and “trust the plan” and put all their faith in the leader of the US government.
And that’s exactly what makes QAnon so uniquely toxic. It’s not just that it gets people believing false things which confuse and alienate them, it’s that it’s a fake, decoy imitation of what a healthy revolutionary impulse would look like. It sells people on important truths that they already intuitively know on some level…It takes those vital, truthful, healthy revolutionary impulses, then twists them around into support for the…president and the agendas of the Republican Party.
The Anti-Fascist Network places Q and its strategies squarely within an old tradition:
Part of the fascist strategy is to misguide people into thinking the centrist neoliberal policies that trouble them are leftist policies. The far-right then pretend to be rebels against capitalism, whilst in fact standing for an even more extreme and brutal form of capitalism.
To simply dismiss these people, however, is to ignore the implications of two of the basic ideas I’ll be speaking about further on. The first is that even a broken clock is right twice a day.Q followers and progressives agree that the mainstream media and mainstream political parties can’t be trusted, and some of the things that Q people say may well sound superficially attractive. But – and here is the second – we all need to learn how to discriminate, to notice when the clock really is broken, why it’s been broken and who broke it.
The issue is immensely complicated by technology – despite those few points of agreement, Q followers no longer share a common language with progressives. Indeed, the documentary The Social Dilemma reveals that the major social media sites have deliberately ensured that these people don’t ever read or hear the same news that we do.
Still, we must acknowledge that the worst lies can effective if they contain a core of truth. The great majority of Americans are suffering from a brutally unequal economic system and behind that, a soul-killing mythology, and the one thing all but the happy ten percent agree on is the need for change. Again: Q is “a fake, decoy imitation of what a healthy revolutionary impulse would look like.” That said, I’m interested not so much in its Tea-Party, libertarian or evangelical followers, most of whom identified with racist, misogynist, Republican politics long before Q arose, and will return to their roots when it disappears.
I’m more interested in figuring out what makes the NACs tick, and why so many of them have fallen for this con. It has been suggested that such people are particularly susceptible to being manipulated because they are perceived as high on empathy and low on boundaries. Also, it appears that one of the far right’s current strategies is to actively rebrand themselves as spiritual teachers or “new paradigm influencers.”
But we first we have to detour through American history and myth.