July 19, 2023


Everyone in America is Totally Insane (JOHN GANZ, JUL 16, 2023, Unpopular Front)

If you consume a lot of conspiracy material you will brush up against antisemitic propaganda very fast. The fact that it is taboo makes it a tempting move in the discourse: the entire conspiracy game revolves around discovering forbidden knowledge, so the upset caused by mouthing off an antisemitic opinion seems to confirm that you landed on the right square: "Oh, so you're saying I can't say that, therefore it must be true." The more you object and get upset, the more it seems to confirm the correctness of the view. [...]

While Kennedy appears to be a liberal of a sort, he is really a type of reactionary populist of a sort: he represents the nostalgic desire to return to a more innocent time in America, when the middle class was strong and healthy and the Kennedys were in charge. His anti-vaxxism and even his environmentalism also implies a world of lost purity and poisoners.

Still, the "declining class" theory perhaps doesn't quite explain everything. Lots of socially successful people believe crazy things. As I suggested above, conspiracy theories have been a part of American political life since the beginning. In fact, there's a case to be made that they are the most characteristically American way of viewing politics. While Hofstadter's history of American paranoia only goes back to the anti-masonic scares, in his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn noted how a strong belief in a malign conspiracy on the part of the Crown formed one of the central pillars of the Colonial rebels' thinking. In fact, their preoccupation with conspiracy was so obsessive and pervasive that some historians have even suggested that the leaders of the American Revolution were mentally disturbed. But as Gordon Wood, Bailyn's student, writes in his essay "Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century" that the discourse of conspiracy was pervasive in 18th century thought in general:

Everywhere people sensed designs within designs, cabals within cabals; there were court conspiracies, backstairs conspiracies, ministerial conspiracies, factional conspiracies, aristocratic conspiracies, and by the last half of the eighteenth century even conspiracies of gigantic secret societies that cut across national boundaries and spanned the Atlantic. Revolutionary Americans may have been an especially jealous and suspicious people, but they were not unique in their fears of dark malevolent plots and plotters...In the Anglo-American world at the time of the Revolutionary crisis there was scarcely a major figure who did not tend to explain political events in these terms.

If this was the norm, surely they could not all be cracked. Instead, conspiratorial thought was the result of certain shared assumptions about the nature of human action. As Wood writes, "It presumes a world of autonomous, freely acting individuals who are capable of directly and deliberately bringing about events through their decisions and actions, and who thereby can be held morally responsible for what happens." This was not irrational, but in way it was too rational, it took everything in the world of politics to be the consequence of the decisions of rational actors. If something went wrong, if things happened that were not quite what their authors said they wanted, that's because they were lying about their real intentions: "The belief in plots was not a symptom of disturbed minds but a rational attempt to explain human phenomena in terms of human intentions and to maintain moral coherence in the affairs of men." Wood points out that conspiracy was the favored explanatory model of the most intelligent people just when such explanations no longer really made sense: "Human affairs were more complicated, more interdependent, and more impersonal than they had ever been in Western history...Yet at this very moment when the world was outrunning man's capacity to explain it in personal terms, in terms of the passions and schemes of individuals, the most enlightened of the age were priding themselves on their ability to do just that."

The Left/Right is, essentially, our cohort of Continental Europeans, believing in Reason.  And if Reason were true then it would require malign forces to prevent it working.  Liberalism/conservatism recognizes that the notion of Rational man is bunk.  It is what has always saved us from Utopianism.  

Posted by at July 19, 2023 12:00 AM