I don’t do much with Halloween, never did, though I did dress my kids up as superman and Matt Dillon and Kitty and Batman from year to year. My street in Atlantic Highlands is always curiously quiet, only a few timid little ones knocking at the door with nervous parents standing back on the street. This year, of course, it has been even quieter. But it does seem an appropriate day to talk about something that really does scare me. It’s the spread of conspiracy theories. I will ramble here, go on too long, go nowhere, but that’s because it disorients me so much, because it really does terrify me, a lot more than those cute little skeletons dangling around my neighbors’ yards. Forgive me if I go on too long.
There’s a terrific and scary essay by James Meek in the latest London Review of Books, an essay that touched me on a nerve that has been much irritated during these last four years in particular, but that has always been peculiarly sensitive. It’s about a world out there in which none of the rules that we live on (even Gerhard lives on) governing discourse, argument, conversation, doubt, debate have any authority. It is the world of conspiracy theories. And it is not inhabited only by a few but is the province, more or less deep rooted, of more people than I like to think possible. During the Trump years, and now with QAnon, I have become increasingly nervous about these narratives that make sense of the world by connecting unconnected things, by burrowing deep into irrational prejudices, by satisfying our deep need to explain everything, to cast blame, find scapegoats, indulge a sense of knowledge superior to the common, to the naivete of people who think bad luck is just bad luck. I have always been nervous about it, and various horrifying stories about cults and deaths and the sort, scattered through our own memories of newspaper headlines, have kept me alert.
But were you aware how astonishingly widespread the phenomenon is? We’ve heard a lot about what goes on in social media. But I guess I didn’t have an adequate idea of how far even beyond the social media this peddling of what seem to be utterly mad stories is going on. I don’t know who James Meek is (LRB says he’s a novelist whose novels I never heard of), and of course, I have only his word for it, with the obvious sanction of the LRB, which I do trust. Meek begins by noting that “there have been arsonists, who have, in England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand, set fire to at least 100 5G masts because they believe that 5G has caused the pandemic.” All part of a vast conspiracy to enslave and dominate. We know that there are lots of crazy and crazier claims than that, many of them increasingly fed by the tensions caused by Covid and consequent lockdowns, but did you know that a recent survey shows that only about half of English adults were free of what researchers termed conspiracy thinking. “Three quarters of the population have doubts about the official explanation of the pandemic and most people think that there’s at least a chance that [Covid] was man made. Almost half think it may have been deliberately engineered by China against ‘the West.’ Between a fifth and a quarter are ready to blame Jews, Muslims, or Bill Gates, or give credence to the idea that ‘the elite have created the virus in order to establish a one-world government.’” And so on. “The latest survey by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation suggests that in Germany, as in Britain, as in the US, about half the population tends to the view that malign secret organisations are directing events.” Okay — that’s hardly evidence, and “tends to the view” is a wide open sort of claim, but I do accept the idea that the notion that everything that happens is more or less planned by some agent or other is very widespread. I can’t in geezerland go on at essay length, as I am deeply tempted to do, to talk about this phenomenon, the movement of fringe ideas to the mainstream, the likely consequences of the spread of such thinking. But let me throw out a few nervous ideas, perhaps by venting to calm the anxieties that I am feeling about the emergence in the center of our culture (as QAnon for example is now pretty much assured of representation in Congress) of ways of thinking and feeling that are armor against evidence, rationality, norms, and that are guaranteed to provoke tensions likely to explode not only in arson against 5G but in shootings and deaths and more. (When that drunk I talked about in a recent geezer post attacked me as a “fucking Democrat,” and my friend as a “fucking Independent,” he more or less explained: “You don’t know what’s really going on.” And remember that guy four years ago who came rifle in hand to release the children Hillary Clinton had sequestered in a MacDonald’s?)
Max Weber, in his essay, “Science as a vocation,” formally introduced the idea of “disenchantment” into our cultural vocabulary. It’s a translation of “Entzauberung,” literally, removing the magic. Science does that, he claims, not because it has answered every question, but because it is a mode that promises to be able to answer every question. If there are no more mysteries, the implication is, the world loses its magic, its charm. The relevance of these ideas to what’s going on now is clear. It is no accident that the conspiracy theorists reject the “science,” as virtually every newscast will tell you. In the face of facts, conspiracy theories see not evidence but manipulation by malevolent forces; if they were to believe the facts, they would lose much of their power. Science threatens with the facts and is itself an instrument of malevolence. Perhaps paradoxically, for many people the loss of “enchantment” amounts to a serious loss of meaning, for much of what our cultures have taken to be the “meaning” of life is bound up in non-scientific stories, like those, say, of the bible or the great myths. In current conspiracy theories, the power is bound up in the secrecy with which the “conspirators” do their work, conspiring so that the mass of us don’t see how we are being manipulated, but only the prophets (the evangelical radio ministers or the leaders of cults or a guy that Meek discusses, leader of a very real major British conspiracy group, David Icke, who has convinced hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people who probably didn’t need much persuading, that Covid is the culmination of a conspiracy brewed out of the invasion millennia ago of a reptilian race planning the enslavement of humanity to be carried out by a tiny elite). Conspiracy theories gather their power precisely by seeing mysteries everywhere. The world is not describable in scientific, empirical terms because there are mysterious forces behind the world’s doing, forces that are driven by recognizably human desires of dominance, power, control. The world only makes sense when it is understood to be as irrational as we are.
There are very few people I know, outside of that aberrant sliver of humanity to which we geezers who “bullshit” all the time, who don’t believe, or incline to believe, as Monty Python has explored it, in The Meaning of Life. “Meaning” in this context invariably implies some extra-material agency that makes the mess of our living make sense. I am not talking about those like us, who, for example, believe as Terry Eagleton claims to believe in his fascinating little book, THE MEANING OF LIFE: “What we need is a form of life which is completely pointless…Rather than serve some utilitarian purpose or earnest metaphysical end, it is a delight in itself. It needs no justification beyond its own existence. In this sense, the meaning of life is interestingly close to meaningless.” This is the faith of a very very few. I do mean, in fact, those who think life only “makes sense” because there is a plan, an ultimate order, an ultimate sorting out of justice, and an agency who controls, plans, orders, who is to be thanked when things go well and excused because there is a larger if still mysterious that we poor mortals can’t on our own understand when things go bad. That is to say, religion itself is a form of conspiracy theory, variously refined by different cultures. It depends on accepting the “mystery” that cannot explain what seems unjust or evil in the name of some ultimate faith in some ultimate justice — which would make sense. That religion has so universal a hold on virtually all human cultures is the strongest testimony possible that few if any of us don’t feel a strong need to ask, “Why?” and then to find someone, something to blame so that we can act and do something about it. We all do, even we geezers. No? When I walk into a door I feel the adrenalin rush and an instinct to hit back. It takes an act of what I would like to think is rationality to calm myself. It’s only an accident. The door isn’t to blame. And anyway, I can’t hurt it. When we’re hurt, when we’re wounded, it’s likely that we will want to find someone to blame, to hit back, to DO something about it.
So, one cannot provide evidence to talk someone out of a religious faith. No evidence will do. This is true even more fully for arguing with a conspiracy theorist. One cannot argue rationally that, for example, 5G is harmless, and it has been proved, because there are always ways that the ingenuity of the human mind can find to double back, even do a little “both/and”, to show that behind what evidence we might put forth there is a manipulator almost as ingenious in hiding the real truth. We geezers overvalue the rational (except when we don’t, of course). But as we geezers always also recognize, the world doesn’t value the rational nearly as much; everyone is ultimately driven by forces that have little to do with reason, evidence, empirical validation. Desire, love, hate, fear, anger, need — these trump (pardon the word) mere evidence.
And as the structures that have kept the fragile frameworks of rationality and evidence are increasingly threatened, the power of conspiracy theory, extended from religion itself down to cults and nuts (as we might think them), which are only coarse forms of the “enchantment” Weber claims we have lost, we have a right to be scared out of our pants and panties.
George Levine is a geezer emeritus of Rutgers University. Among his books: The Realistic Imagination, Darwin and the Novelists, Darwin Loves You, Darwin the Writer, Dying to Know, Realism, Ethics and Secularism, Reading Thomas Hardy. Much to his surprise, still alive, he has recently published “The Sound of Silence” in the latest Raritan, He scribbles daily for a geezer blog available through firstname.lastname@example.org