The Spirit of Modern Conspiracy Thinking

Posted on May 25, 2020

The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.

Steve Bannon, former chief strategist for Donald Trump

Twenty years ago, when I was scientific director of the Dutch Research School in Logic, I regularly received cranky letters with fake logical theories, would-be refutations of Kurt Gödel’s famous incompleteness theorems, and mad drawings illustrating alternative truths like “Atoms are really space ships.” Sometimes I wrote polite replies, motivated by a faint hope - one never knows - that fake logicians might be converted to the genuine thing.

Most group beliefs that sharply separate an in-group from the outside world used to be hidden from public scrutiny, kept in the closet. Rosecrucians, members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, Freemasons, occultists, sorcerer apprentices, pseudo-science amateurs: they knew from long experience that it was wise to keep their secrets and their alternative sense making to themselves. The old-school conspiracy theorists were smartasses, wise guys, smug guardians of their secret superior knowledge. They were content with spending a lifetime on finding ever more convincing arguments for their self-fabricated truths, but they took great care to exchange their views only within their well-guarded inner circle. They were essentially harmless.

Unfortunately, the new school of conspiracy thinking is different. More emotional: it is all about feeling. More volatile: the conspiracy beliefs shift with the day. More hysterical: othering the non-believers is part of their parcel. More paranoid: the enemy is perceived as all-powerful and omnipresent. Interestingly, the paranoid style that we see all around us now has a long tradition in the United States. Kurt Andersen has written its colourful history in Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire - A 500-Year History. More than 30 percent of Americans today believe that what they read in the Bible is literal truth; they are essentially tribal fundamentalists with a distrust in science and education. According to Andersen, non-conspiracy thinking has always been the exception in the US. There is also a long tradition of fabricating fake news. A bogus encyclical attributed to Leo XIII was circulated where American Catholics were instructed to exterminate all heretics on a certain date, in 1893 (see Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Harper’s magazine, 1964). This is the style and spirit that we also see today, and not only in the United States.

The mind of the modern conspiracy theorist is out there in the open, for all of us to inspect. Modern conspiracy thinkers are not interested in meaningful interaction with people who doubt their beliefs. They perceive any attempt at reasoning with them about their beliefs as malicious, hostile and arrogant. Theirs is a mind full of mistrust and suspicion, mixed with a secret sense of superiority. There is scant connection to evidence or factuality, although they use the language of evidence and research. But the only “evidence” they admit is evidence that confirms their views. And the “research” they do is confined to watching YouTube videos. They have lost all confidence and trust in government, science, learning, media, establishment. Their spirit is anti-government, anti-science, anti-learning, anti-media, anti-establishment, anti everything that is larger than themselves.

The modern conspiracist is not at all looking for a new order but revels and thrives in chaos. As was pointed out by Dutch essayist Bas Heijne (in a newspaper article in Dutch), this is the spirit of metaphysical nihilism. Its basic tenet is that objective reality does not exist, and that those who pretend to believe in an objective world are conspiring to humiliate and deceive those who know better.

This analysis is confirmed by my interactions on social media. Someone I know who is offering workshops on the Wheel of Consent posted a link to a highly dubious YouTube video, with a recommendation “Finally information about Corona that actually makes sense to me. I get a clear YES and TRUTH from all the cells in my body.” I tried to explain to her that that is not how science works. A clear YES and TRUTH from your body is fine for making a decision about having porridge or scrambled eggs for breakfast, or about having sex, not for deciding whether something is objectively true. So I tried to politely point out what was wrong with the video. That viruses are not born from “poisoned” cells but are the cause of diseases. That viruses had caused epidemics long before electricity or radio waves had been invented. Mind you, I was not the only one. Lots of other people chimed in and said similar things. She said that our conversation made no sense to her, because she was using a different frame of reference. And that her frame of reference told her that the information was correct, for her. And that she had developed a deep-rooted sense of trust that she was being guided in the direction that was right and true for her. And she demanded respect for her opinions.

And here our conversation derailed. For I told her that I do not believe all opinions deserve the same measure of respect. Opinions that are provably wrong, out of touch with reality, can be very harmful. We should not confuse opinions with facts. Not everything is an opinion. The statement that the earth is flat is not an opinion but a falsehood. Vaccines do not cause autism. Viruses cause diseases. These are not opinions but facts. People have a right to their own dreams and their own opinions, but not to their own facts. If people do not believe basic facts, such as “The holocaust occurred” or “Climate change is real and it is man-made”, that does not make these facts less true. But is was all to no avail. She exercised her inalienable right not to be lectured by me and she unfriended me.

Nothing is true, for there is no truth, or everybody has their own truth. This attitude was pioneered in American politics by Karl Rove, political advisor of George W. Bush, who held the view that the judicious study of discernible reality was obsolete, because those who hold the reigns of power are creating their own truth. This is the attitude of the autocrats and the narcissists and their advisors, who are flooding the zone with shit. As is observed in a recent article by David Atkins in Washington Monthly, this way of thinking is now endemic in the Republican Party, which has morphed into a conspiracy cult.

Unfortunately, the modern Republican Party’s abdication of seriousness, good faith and reality-based communications or policy-making has stretched even the most open-minded analyst’s capacity for forced balance. Donald Trump’s own inability to string together coherent or consistent thoughts has led to a bizarre normalization of his statements in the traditional media, as journalists unconsciously try to fit his rambling, spontaneous utterances into a conventional framework. This has come at the cost of Americans seeing the full truth of the crisis of leadership in the Oval Office for what it is.

For sure, there is plenty of narcissism in modern conspiracy thinking. The only truth that still counts for the conspiracists is a truth grounded in subjective feeling. The feelings of the conspiracists are the feelings of being abused, humiliated and manipulated. The self-esteem of the conspiracists is brittle and their feelings are easily hurt. Their claim is that it is time now for those who have slighted them with their sarcasm and their arrogant disdain to shut up and to start listening.

From their point of view, they are the truth and they are the news. The smart thing for them to do is to blot out the “mainstream” news and to create their own. They see absolutely no need to listen to people who only have insults and disdain on offer. Why would you want to listen to those who consider you as deplorables? Because there is something for you to learn? That cannot be the case, since there is no truth.

In their denial of objectivity and truth, the modern conspiracists can be viewed as followers of a certain French style of post-modern deconstruction, irony, or post-structuralism. Think Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, philosophers who discern social oppression, ideology and cultural bias where their predecessors - and many people of common sense - were still hoping to find universality and objectivity.

Is there something we can learn by paying attention to the messages of the conspiracy thinkers? According to Charles Eisenstein in a long blog post called The Conspiracy Myth, modern conspiracy thinking has truth in it, but to access that truth we have to view it as myth rather than as an attempt at truthful description of how things are.

As it happens, I am an admirer of earlier work of Eisenstein - I enjoyed his book Sacred Economics - but this piece baffles me. I don’t understand how shifting to the mythical can save the obvious conspiracy nonsense. I suspect Eisenstein is making this move to avoid at all cost to pass judgement on what the conspiracists believe. And this I find strange. It is madness to balance the truth with a lie. And tilting the balance by calling the lie a myth does not remedy this. It is like saying that the Genesis story in the Bible is a myth, but at the same time refusing to accept the story of the Big Bang as truth, on the grounds that they are both just stories.

In the end, I still haven’t said whether I think the New World Order conspiracy myth is true or not. Well actually yes I have. I have said it is true as a myth, regardless of its correspondence to verifiable facts. But what about the facts? Come on, Charles, tell us, is there actually a conspiracy behind the Covid thing, or isn’t there? There must be an objective fact of the matter. Are chemtrails a thing? Was SARS-COV2 genetically engineered? Is microwave radiation from cellphone towers a factor? Are vaccines introducing viruses from animal cell cultures into people? Is Bill Gates masterminding a power grab in the form of medical martial law? Does a Luciferian elite rule the world? True or false? Yes or no?

To this question I would respond with another: Given that I am not an expert on any of these matters, why do you want to know what I think? Could it be to place me on one side or another of an information war? Then you will know whether it is OK to enjoy this essay, share it, or have me on your podcast. In an us-versus-them war mentality, the most important thing is to know which side someone is on, lest you render aid and comfort to the enemy.

This is poppycock. Admittedly, there are many questions about covid-19 and the coronavirus that even the best experts cannot answer, right now. But it is also true that there are many questions that have reasonable answers, answers that we can find by applying common sense or by looking at experts for illumination. If someone is peddling obvious nonsense about the disease or its possible cures - such as Donald Trump speculating about the use of bleach or light as a treatment - you don’t have to be an expert to be able to see that it is bullshit. A turd can be recognized by its sight and smell; no expert tasting ceremonies are needed. Charles, here are the answers to your questions:

See, Charles? I am not an expert on any of these subjects. Still, I am reasonably confident that my answers to your questions are essentially correct. The thing is, there are issues we do not have to doubt. And there are certain forms of doubt that are unhealthy, because they are paralyzing us. We do not have to keep an open mind about questions like the above, just like we do not have to keep an open mind to the possibility that the earth is flat. As Carl Sagan famously said, keeping an open mind is a virtue, but not so open that your brains fall out.

Modern style conspiracy theorizing is a form of magical thinking. In Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, the brilliant book by Ioan P. Couliano, it is stated that

magic is a means of control over the individual and the masses based on deep knowledge of personal and collective erotic impulses. We can observe in it not only the distant ancestor of psycho-analysis but also, first and foremost, that of applied psychosociology and mass psychology.

Magic is a thing, as Charles Eisenstein might say. And it works very well, all too well. Magic is the practice of changing consciousness, the consciousness of oneself and others. Trump and the other peddlers of conspiracy theories may be crappy thinkers but they are powerful magicians. And all those with a tendency to believe that wishing makes it so are easily brought under their dangerous spells.