Part Three -- 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.
Part Four -- Conspirituality
One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. – Carl Jung
Most conspiratorial thinking deliberately serves the interests of the rich and powerful. But, as I wrote above, we are now confronting something entirely new. Extreme right wingers are presenting aesthetic web presences with superficially progressive themes, but which, upon closer inspection, reveal pro-capitalist, reactionary and/or racist agendas. This phenomenon relies on two factors. The first is the major social media platforms and their algorithms that encourage rapid dissemination of unreliable information and the confirmation bias that results from seeing only what the viewer already believes in. Now, Q-followers rarely see what you see, and if they do, it is presented in a format that minimizes the moral consequences.
The second is that these platforms are deliberately designed to take advantage of millions of good-hearted, “spiritual but not religious” people who have – quite rightly, in my opinion – lost all trust in the mainstream media, but who seem to have also lost the ability to discriminate between progressive ideas and the language of hate. One writer refers to these folks as “DRH” for “Down the Rabbit Hole.” I prefer “New Age Conspiracists,” or NACs, and I’ll bet you know a few of them.
Such people often share certain personality traits such as distrust of authority and institutions, particularly in the fields of health and education; openness to unusual experiences; willingness to detect hidden patterns; deep longing for authentic community; and an attraction to alternative paradigms.
Many of these folks have long existed outside of conventional career paths, resonate with a libertarian, anarcho-capitalist entrepreneurial tone, are open to information that some psychics claim to have “channeled” from other, non-physical dimensions, and believe in the ability to manifest financial and romantic success and vibrant health through positive thinking, as taught by Rhonda Byrne’s best-selling book and film The Secret. In the film version, a series of self-help teachers promote positive thinking, primarily toward the goal of acquiring consumer goods and a great love life. This tradition extends back to the New Thought teachers of early 19th-century America. And let’s be really clear about this: the film ignores the values of community almost totally.
Mainstream media writers, who are primarily from the middle class, have never understood people who reject their values, demeaning the post-hippie culture as “bliss ninnies” of the “the love-and-light crowd.” Nor has the mainstream acknowledged how the counterculture actually birthed the high-tech world we all take for granted, as John Markoff relates in What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.
Among my 60s generation the characteristics that encourage artistic, religious and even scientific exploration, as well as a disdain for convention, usually produced liberal, anti-authoritarian attitudes on social issues and optimism about the future. But those same characteristics, encouraged by a lack of deep introspection, have a dark shadow. The term “conspirituality” was coined in 2011 – long before either Trumpus or QAnon. Charlotte Ward and David Voas write that
It offers a broad politico-spiritual philosophy based on two core convictions, the first traditional to conspiracy theory, the second rooted in the New Age: 1) a secret group covertly controls, or is trying to control, the political and social order, and 2) humanity is undergoing a ‘paradigm shift’ in consciousness. Proponents believe that the best strategy for dealing with the threat of a totalitarian ‘new world order’ is to act in accordance with an awakened ‘new paradigm’ worldview.
Jules Evans suggests how these two forms of experience can flow into one stream:
…. The first is a sort of extroverted euphoric mystical experience: “Everything is connected. I am synchronistically drawn to helpers and allies, the universe is carrying us forward to a wonderful climactic transformation (the Rapture, the Omega Point, the Paradigm Shift), and we are the divine warriors of light appointed by God / the Universe to manifest this glorious new phase shift in human history.” The second: “…Everything is connected, there is a secret order being revealed to me, but I am not part of it. It is an evil demonic order…perhaps I, and one or two others, can wake up to this Grand Plan, and expose it”…The first trip is a euphoric ego-expansion (I am God! I am the Cosmic Universe evolving!) and the second is paranoid ego-persecution (The Universe is controlled by Evil Demons…) In both, the individual awakens to this hidden reality. But in the first, they are a superpowered initiate in the hidden order and a catalyst for a Millenarian transformation, in the second they are a vulnerable and disempowered exposer of the powerful hidden order.
Both forms exemplify mystical or even schizoid thinking. In both, the ego is part of a grand cosmic drama. In one, it is the divine appointed catalyst for humanity’s rebirth. In the other, one is the heroic exposer of the Hidden Order. And it appears to be possible that one can switch between ecstatic, optimistic Millenarianism and paranoid persecutory conspiracy thinking, from “everything is connected and I’m a central part of this wonderful cosmic transformation!’’ to “everything is connected and I’m at risk from this global plot!”
It’s always been about waking up – being “woke.” For my children’s generation, the “red pill” moment of the 1999 film The Matrix became the central metaphor that connected these two forms of mystical thinking. On the left, being red-pilled implies awareness of social justice issues.
Rightists, however, have adopted the metaphor to represent an awakening from their perceived conditioned trance of soft, inappropriately liberal concern for the poor – those whom our American mythologies have labelled as unworthy. And any institutions that interfere with this libertarian focus on the individual are simply impediments to a narcissistic preoccupation with self-fulfillment. Then we enter the slippery slope in which the ability to discriminate diminishes in favor of an intuitive knowing and an essentially religious disdain for science and conventional sources of authority.
As I’ve said, much of that disdain is regularly justified by revelations of massive corporate corruption, especially in the fields of nutrition and wellness so treasured by NACs. The danger, however, is that they can become vulnerable to fake news that encourages that magical thinking. (Before we slide into simplistic demonization of “anti-vaxxers,” however, let’s remember that many others on the progressive Left who have retained that precious ability to discriminate are vaccine skeptics not because they disregard science, but because they reject the capitalist corruption of science.)
American history, especially the history of health care, is replete with good-hearted, naïve “holy fools” – and the con-men, from P.T. Barnum to the grifters already lining up to replace Trumpus – who have always been willing to steal our watches and sell them back to us. For more, read my series “The Con Man: An American Archetype.”
The devaluing of intellectual checks and balances combined with exclusive emphasis on positivity and the inability to grieve (another American religious characteristic) can result in “spiritual bypass” – the use of metaphysical beliefs to deny, distort, or reframe legitimate human suffering, both personal and social, and it can attract really decent and idealistic people toward cults and ideologies, whether spiritual, political or consumeristic.
After the Dionysian explosion of the sixties, the meeting with Eastern religion, psychedelics and indigenous spirituality introduced healthier lifestyles that have benefited millions. But the phrase “human potential movement” entered the lexicon carrying the seeds of its own destruction wherever its proponents refused to address the fullness of the psyche. In late capitalist America, a society lead by uninitiated men and sociopathic narcissists long before Trumpus, they encountered institutions – work, church, media, politics, education, the police and the military, and perhaps most of all, the family – designed expressly to elicit their darkest potentials, much of which were channeled into fundamentalism, toxic masculinity, addictions and the vicarious fascination with brutal militarism.
Chapter Five of my book describes James Hillman’s Depth Psychological insight into the excessive identification with the dry values of “spirit” as opposed to the wet values we associate with “soul.” In mythological terms, this is the opposition between Apollo and Dionysus taken to its extreme. Julian Walker writes that for spiritual people,
…we end up engaging in a practice that, rather than shaping outside reality, as is often claimed in media like The Secret, instead burns a distorted operating system and perceptual lens into our neuroplastic brains…It’s the practice of thinking facts and evidence are relative, mutable, and can be made to mean whatever we want via the narcissism-enabling belief in absolute subjectivity — the divine “I” that alone creates reality and stands all-powerful within it…For spiritual folks the threshold into the overlap is crossed…into just the exact shadow reflection of the light-and-love delusion. It is the positive, synchronistic all-is-perfect obsessive pattern-seeking confirmation bias turned on its head and set on fire — and that fire fantastically fueled by the explosive emotional gasoline kept buried until now by spiritual bypass.
Walker is one of many voices writing from within the Human Potential Movement. He describes several “worldview weaknesses” held by many NACs:
1 – Over-privileging of the individual over the collective.
2 – Denying the validity of other points of view, over-equalizing opinion and undermining of respect for expertise, all of which can lead to bigger sales and more followers. “Real scientists are always open to being wrong. Real scientists know the current hypothesis is only as good as the next batch of data. Real scientists are careful.” I would add: real scientists refuse to allow corporate toadies to corrupt their data to show quarterly profits.
3 – “Esoteric knowledge ego inflation:” rejecting virtually anything that can be called mainstream as a means of subtly bolstering one’s sense of having esoteric insights into reality.
4 – A sanitized, overly rosy spirituality that ignores the shadow “creates a bubble of positivity” that, when faced with actual suffering, can twist into its opposite and perceive its polarized antithesis in the form of evil elites. This can fuel messianic zealots who “can become compelling and charismatic leaders because they are rock solid in their convictions.”
5 – Belief in the “Law of Attraction,” which teaches that people create their own realities. This idea does have a core of truth. But it reinforces detachment from collective political action, radical individualism – that most fundamental American myth – and New Age promises of “instant gratification mental changes.” And, I would add, by ignoring its own deeply Calvinist roots, it leads to moral condemnation of those who don’t think positive thoughts. This is another specifically American story, as I describe in “Blaming the victim.”
Another person writing from within this community is Martin Winiecki, who offers “Six Reasons so Many Spiritual People Have Been Fooled by QAnon”, and I extrapolate:
1 – Lack of Structural Analysis: The culture of radical individualism sees both heroes and villains in particular individuals or small, hidden groups. But when we don’t address the systemic nature of our condition (whether spiritual or material), this kind of thinking merely reinforces the system itself.
2 – Overly simplistic, binary thinking: Suppressing “negativity” encourages the shadow to take on a life of its own, “which will terrorize and subconsciously dominate them…” Jung concluded from his study of world mythology that when suppressed aspects of the psyche finally emerge – as they always do – they tend to be angry.
3 – Implicit Racial Bias: Stories about Soros’ control of social movements clearly reflect old-school, anti-Semitic prejudice about all-powerful Jews, while New Age fear of introspection leads to the unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of white privilege. Repetition of claims that Black Lives Matter is “a tool of the liberal elites” reveals the belief that black people aren’t able to speak for themselves. “Not seeing color” insults actual people of color who live their entire lives identifying exactly as they are.
4 – To denounce conventional reality as illusion can lead to the inability to realize that one’s own political views reflect ideology and thus believe everything and nothing at once. “According to the great political philosopher Hannah Arendt, this is precisely the psychological state of people who follow totalitarian ideologies.”
5 – The post-modern experience that the left has lost its appeal due to intellectual elitism, moral and ideological rigidity and rejection of non-material realities leads to the unconscious search for another ideology as a replacement.
6 – The natural desire for community is corrupted by its shadow of radical individualism and the profit motive. This results in people with no previous connection to each other fusing together in an illusionary sense of shared identity. Why are so many wellness practitioners in particular falling for the onslaught of QAnon claims? Although the global wellness industry is reportedly worth $4.5 trillion, its more controversial elements continue to suffer disparagement not only from Big Pharma but from countless self-appointed, individual gatekeepers of the status quo (do you, reader, giggle when a friend offers a treatment with healing crystals?) Now in this current state of emergency – where defeating the pandemic requires universal social acquiescence – many purveyors of these views see their paranoia being confirmed. In a form of what Brigid Delaney calls “trauma bonding,” this strengthens their connections with figures such as Alex Jones who appear to favor individual rights, and like that broken clock, may well be right twice a day.
I would add a seventh factor:
7 – The natural desire to attain self-awareness and mystical realization is corrupted by those same factors. People often realize the deeper unity of beings and the need for a truly planetary frame of reference, at least briefly, through the experience of psychedelic plant medicines. However, as Daniel Pinchbeck writes,
The problem is that they need a cultural / initiatory context or container which supports them in fully integrating the influx of new knowledge and wisdom. Otherwise, the ego structure finds ways to distort these revelations for its own purposes, in a variety of subtle ways. This is how the Neo-spiritual and psychedelic movement have gone off track…Fascism is a kind of low-grade occultism: It satisfies the ego mind’s desire for a simplistic unity and gets rid of all the nagging paradoxes and contradictions of reality.
For more insight into conspirituality, there’s an entire website, www.Conspirituality.net, which describes itself as “a weekly study of converging right-wing conspiracy theories and faux-progressive wellness utopianism.” One of its pages lists over thirty wellness “influencers” that have posted, shared, or explicitly created QAnon-related content, even though many have recently scrubbed direct reference to Q itself.
Let’s be clear about this: we need to integrate the mystical and self-realization visions with indigenous initiation wisdom and roll it all into a perspective that reveals the systemic sources of racism, misogyny and political alienation that impact us all. Indeed, the idea of “spiritually awakening” to our true nature long ago predated the current idea of “woke.” But without the ability to discriminate, to understand the mythic narratives that drive our willingness to innocently embody and enact them, we remain “bliss ninnies” at best and crusaders for fascism at worst.