Dazed and Confused: Alternative Facts and Conspiracy in the Age of Stupid
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Community, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction […] and the distinction between true and false […] no longer exists.” – Hannah Arendt.
In a society riddled with anxiety, conspiracy and propaganda and dominated by new authoritarianism and the rise of the far-right, in a ‘post-fact’ world where everyone is supposedly ‘sick of experts’, in a pandemic world, this matters again. From day one of President Trump’s administration his own press secretary Sean Spicer provided his own ‘alternative facts’ about the attendance numbers of Trump’s inauguration. Very simple verifiable truths were beginning to be re-moulded. The political world was beginning to alter shape.
Hannah Arendt was born this week in 1906. She was a German Jew and a political philosopher trying to make sense of the experience of Nazi Germany. After completing her education in Berlin, she studied at the University of Marburg under Martin Heidegger, with whom she had a brief affair. She obtained her doctorate in philosophy writing on Love and Saint Augustine at the University of Heidelberg in 1929 under the existentialist philosopher, Karl Jaspers. She wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951, The Human Condition in 1958, as well as Eichmann in Jerusalem and On Revolution in 1963. One of her many legacies was to argue that totalitarianism can flourish where people systematically refuse to engage with reality, and are ready to replace reason with ideology and outright fiction.
I was remembering Arendt when reading about Judge Amy Coney Barret’s questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee in America. Over the three days of hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Barrett refused to answer a total of ninety-five questions posed to her by members of the committee. Here’s some of the questions she couldn’t/wouldn’t answer:
Was Roe v. Wade wrongly decided?
Can a sitting president delay an election?
Does the Constitution give LGBTQ individuals the right to marry?
Will you overturn the Affordable Care Act?
Do American citizens have the right to vote?
Is contraception a constitutional right?
Is separating children from their parents wrong?
Is climate change real?
Asked by Senator John Kennedy if she had “opinions” on climate change, Barrett hesitated.
“I’m certainly not a scientist,” she said. “I’ve read things about climate change. I would not say that I have firm opinions on it.”
Sen. Kamala Harris later pushed Barrett further on the issue of climate change.
“Do you believe that climate change is happening and it’s threatening the air we breathe and the water we drink?” asked Harris.
“I will not express a view on a matter of public policy, especially one that is controversial,” Barrett said.
Harris thanked Barrett, saying the nominee had made her position quite clear. The problem is not just that the appointment of Coney Barrett is a gross distortion of democracy, putting into place an un-elected ideological player that will distort social policy for years to come. The problem is not only the panoply of basic human rights she seems to be ignorant of. The problem is that the Supreme Court will be pivotal if Trump refuses to leave office.
Coney Barrett’s views are fractal. You can see them fanning out across America. But she is not stupid. She is studiously ignorant for ideological reasons. This is very different.
Climate change isn’t controversial. A refusal to state simple facts is. In fact, it’s deeply political.
This measured, clever ignorance can be seen closer to home. Here’s Alex Massie writing in the Spectator about the climate change and the 10:10 project which produced the climate film The Age of Stupid:
“Long-time and recent readers alike will have noticed that I almost never write about climate-change or global warming or whatever you want to call it. That’s because I think it an unusually tedious subject about which I lack both the ability and the interest to either care or make an informed judgement. Like many people, then, I take the view that it may well be a biggish problem but, as that wise man Mr Micawber nearly said, something may turn up to help us out of the jam. It is the Iran-Iraq War of policy debates in which one wishes that the most passionate advocates on either side could, well, just shut up.
Nevertheless, Nevertheless, it’s good to discover that Richard Curtis, long-time purveyor of smug, self-satisfied tripe, has produced this ad for something called the 10:10 campaign. Watch it and see if you don’t feel like starting your own oil company or burning anything you can just because you can…”
Not having “opinions” about climate change – whether you’re a prospective Supreme Court Judge, or a Spectator columnist isn’t an option anymore. In the midst of omnicide you can’t hide.
There’s a trajectory and a continuum from Sean Spicer and Coney Barrett – from “climate-change or global warming or whatever you want to call it” – to Pizzagate and “Truthers” (be they of the 9/11, 5G or chemtrails variety).
QAnon in Scotland
Last week a group of a few hundred people gathered outside Holyrood to ‘protest the virus’. It looked like a convergence of the dispossessed: libertarians, the far-fringes of the alt-nats, wild conspiracy theorists. An American kilted representative of the ‘Dundee Resistance’ quoted Wallace, (or Mel Gibson) and assured us that “they” would never take our freedom.
Placards with slogans of “The Media is the Virus” jostled with “the Flu World Order” and talk of “mask tyranny” and QAnon signs. One woman speaker said “The Corona Virus Act 2020 is akin to Germany’s Enabling Act 1933 and we all know how that ended!” to wild cheers.
It’s easy and tempting to mock, and it’s perhaps wrong to pathologise people’s politics. Some of the people who are drawn to these circles are doubtless suffering mental illness, but many are not. Many are suffering from years of political failure, decades of hyper-individualism, and the recent popularisation of right-wing libertarianism. Late capitalism, hyper-normalisation and covid has left many of us utterly dazed and confused. They’re not alone and they’re not to blame.
Exhausted, stressed and facing a torrent of information no generation has ever faced it’s easy to get confused. The world isn’t binary, deference doesn’t exist, the media isn’t your friend and politicians lie. Betrayal and kleptocracy is endemic. Political failure is routine. Faith in people’s conduct in public office has collapsed, and with good reason. In a world where you believe in nothing it’s easy to believe in anything.
Dear reader, I have a Confession. I am a conspiracy buff. Ok, more a geek than a buff. I know more about the grassy knoll, Badge Man, the Three Tramps and the sixth-floor of Dealey Plaza than is perhaps healthy. I used to write for an read conspiracy journals. So what makes my conspiracy valid and yours stupid? Has the secret state not existed for a long time? Has the state (all states) not covered things up and tried to spread lies and propaganda? They certainly have.
Have the stories of Colin Wallace or of Hilda Murrell, or of British secret state operations over a very long time not given enough ammunition for people to be very wary and very suspicious? They certainly have.
But what seems to have twisted and morphed from the 1970s to today is that ‘conspiracy theory’ has shifted from being a way of uncovering the powerful, of understanding the clandestine by research to a general state of alarm in which everything is a False Flag, no-one is acting in good faith and facts and basic rational thinking has just been dispensed with. In a post-ideological world – where no-one really believes anything any more – acute paranoia has become a badge of radicalism. Conspiracy theory used to punch-up and challenge the powerful, now it gets handed out by the President’s social media channel.
Rabid anti-vaxxers’s like Charisse Burchett celebrate the establishment in Berlin last weekend of the ‘World Doctors Alliance’ an organisation of COVID-sceptic doctors (and headed by – among others – Dr Dolores Cahill, chairperson of the anti-EU Irish Freedom Party). The convergence of the far-right with Conspiracy World is not a coincidence. What once was a phenomena that wanted to through light on the world and expose elite rule has become a disempowering movement and toxic brand of collective ignorance.
This is a milieu in which the distinction between left and right collapses (but always benefits the far right). This is a phenomenon in which the spectre of anti-semitism hovers in the background like a meta-theory hanging-it-all-together in the shadows. The world of Piers Corbyn and David Icke are inhabited by people for whom “the distinction between fact and fiction […] and the distinction between true and false […] no longer exists”.
You do not need to be a scientist to have a view on climate change. Facts exist. Reality exists. Climate change isn’t controversial.
Image credit: JPI Media/Lisa Ferguson