Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Church of the Eternal Conspiracy Theory

Minutes before the most famous 20th Century conspiracy theory erupted

A sudden idea gained massive popularity on social media this week. It began when a previously unknown physicist, engineer, and professional blogger named Yonatan Zunger published a lengthy op-ed entitled Trial Balloon for a Coup? Zunger speculates that President Trump, whose massive (but not unprecedented) reshuffling of authority within the Executive Branch represents a theft of authority preparatory to declaring himself the final authority on everything in America.

That’s a pretty nonstandard definition of a “coup,” but whatever. It’s plausible, given Trump’s demonstrated unfamiliarity with the separation of powers and his authoritarian stamp. On first reading, I shared the link, on a “forewarned is forearmed” basis. On second reading, I realized it was pure speculative gibberish, free-wheeling enough to make Alex Jones look sober and introverted. Of course, that didn’t stop Michael Moore from spouting the same moon juice, or Jake Fuentes from paraphrasing it in less extreme language.

For the last eight years, progressives have mocked the political Right’s love of conspiracy theories. From old classics like “Obama is coming to take our guns,” to surprise hits like Jade Helm 15, conservatives have mustered all manner of bizarre theories to explain why society’s immense complexity is actually simple and comprehensible. From mainly harmless Kennedy Assassination weirdos to 9/11 Truthers, some actually harmful, theories have abounded.

But suddenly, similar conspiracies are emerging on the Left. The complaints about suspended civil liberties, unconstitutional overreach, and incipient dictatorship are remarkably similar, sometimes almost identical, only the proper nouns changed. Apparently people, regardless of political alignment, want to believe our entire society, with its population of hundreds of millions, behaves in manners essentially similar to small crowds—and in ways we mere mortals can comprehend.

Primitive man lived surrounded by forces incomprehensible, and then as now, sought explanations. Lightning, animal attacks, and illness happened with stunning regularity, and people could not accept that it was random. But they realized that they were finite and small against the vast forces of nature, so they concluded, not unreasonably, that a force similar to their own minds dominated all reality. Something much like themselves, but vast enough to encompass all creation.

From this explanation, we get the earliest forms of faith. The consistent cross-cultural similarity of pre-literate spiritualities, which imbue human-like reason to rivers and windstorms, suggests the innate human desire to project ourselves outward onto natural phenomena. Following that, we have the attempt to placate natural phenomena through language and offerings, the first simple religions. Supernaturalism represents human efforts to comprehend, and thus control, nature.

Comet Ping Pong: site of the most famous conspiracy theory of the last year

We see something similar happening with conspiracy theories. This may include everything from Shakespeare authorship to Pizzagate: if I can comprehend something so vast as how somebody created Shakespeare’s works, or who’s doing what at Comet Ping Pong, I can control it. Playwright David Mamet suggests that discovering who wrote Shakespeare makes one (putatively) smarter than Shakespeare, but that maybe goes too far. Most conspiracy theorists want only to control.

The repetition of important keywords furthers this interest. Whether it’s the joyous adjectives attributed to the gods in the Homeric Hymns, or words and phrases like “coup” and “consolidation of power” found in the anti-Trump theories, they serve the same liturgical purpose. The repeated language adjusts all worshipers’ mindsets so everybody thinks according to the same patterns, the patterns of the worshipful mass and, hopefully, those of the gods.

Conspiracy theories, then, are a form of totemic religion. They exist to coordinate believers onto shared and enforceable values, and better, they create a measurable definition of apostates and heretics. They delineate “us” and “them,” “true” and “false.” Thus anybody essentially idealogically aligned, but unwilling to get far enough ahead of facts to say “coup,” unambiguously positions themselves outside the fold, and can be shunned.

Strategic thinking certainly requires moving ahead of facts. Claims of purely naturalistic science notwithstanding, facts seldom explain anything. Only when positioned inside a framework do facts make sense. But the temptation, when explaining political movements or lightning bolts, is to attribute “facts” beyond measurement, to further an increasingly complex framework that, eventually, risks becoming counterfactual. This applies equally to river gods and “Ted Cruz’s dad shot Kennedy” bullshirt.

In politics or religion, a cooler head must prevail. Eventually Confucius, the Buddha, and Jesus arrived and warned people to control themselves before controlling the weather. Hopefully something similar will happen in politics. Don’t look to me for solutions, sadly; I lack insight. I can only warn True Believers that we mustn’t let beliefs get ahead of facts.

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