Everybody is after that feeling: the flat-Earthers, the Q-Anon dopes who have got themselves so torqued up that the feebs are worried about them as a terrorism threat, the Bernie Sanders partisans whispering darkly about the “rigged” economy and the shadowy billionaires acting behind the scenes, who control the media, the corporations, the government . . . The social exclusion and isolation that comes from joining a mystery cult isn’t a terrible price to pay but one of the main benefits, the mechanism by which the cult imbues its members with a sense of new identity. They speak about flat-Earth belief as something that follows a conversion experience and sadly note the apostasy of one high-profile social-media advocate who recently left their community. Which is to say: One conspiracy theory is very like another.
Speaking of flat-Earthers, in Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, Alec Ryrie wrote about the intellectual character of skeptics in general:
To wonder nowadays whether the earth really is moving, and whether five centuries’ worth of accumulated astronomy is a hoax, you do not need to be a drunkard or a fool. You need to be suspicious: ready to believe you are being lied to. And it helps if you are not very well educated. If you are woven too tightly into our civilisation’s web of knowledge, you will not be able to kick against it. To see this at work, I recommend visiting the websites of modern flat-earther organisations which, in their stubborn refusal to be hoodwinked by the intellectual consensus of their age, are the closest thing our own world has to medieval atheists. Of course, whether you are a modern flat-earther or a medieval atheist, the lack of deep engagement with the dominant intellectual systems of your age which makes your doubts possible also blunts their power. You may have some slogans and some hunches, but you will be unable to refute astronomers who come at you with their orbits and laws of motion, or theologians wielding essences and ontologies. You can only reply with the perennial mulish wisdom of the sceptic who is told to admire the stitching on the emperors clothes: I just don’t see it.
My brother called me out of the blue on my birthday a couple months ago. To my additional surprise, he proceeded to talk my ear off for six hours. It was a good time, though slightly surreal, as we’ve never been particularly close as adults. Anyway, among the many topics that came up was conspiratorial thinking. He asked me what I thought about the JFK assassination. I said I really didn’t have an opinion about it. He pressed a bit as to whether I found the official story plausible. I replied that I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if someone produced definitive evidence tomorrow that it was all a gigantic cover-up, but that it was just one rabbit hole I had no interest in investigating. Life is too short to dabble in X-Files paranoia, there are too many enjoyable things to do, and what would I do with any conclusions I drew anyway? In general, I told him, I think the common denominator of conspiratorial thinking is that it overvalues intention and undervalues accidents, side effects, and unintended consequences. Events are too often assumed to have turned out precisely as they were planned, and I think humans can only dream of having that level of control over countless variables.
My mom has always had a propensity for accepting outlandish beliefs. Everything from JFK to alien abductions to “ancient astronauts” to miracle health quackery to New Age gobbledygook in general. I long ago decided that what she really loved was the thrill of believing and sharing the good word. It’s easy to speculate that, as a lapsed Catholic baby-boomer, she responded to the crisis of authority common to her generation by adopting a reflexive skepticism that “they” control everything and don’t want us to know the truth. She may not have that clichéd God-shaped hole in her heart, but she does seem to enjoy looking for something to believe in. I count myself lucky that I didn’t unthinkingly follow in her footsteps. I remember reading a book that claimed Kurt Cobain was murdered instead of committing suicide and finding it plausible enough to wonder about, but a few years later, when I was in my libertarian/anarchist phase, I was already rolling my eyes at those who insisted that the Oklahoma City bombing was some sort of set-up by the feds/Jews/Illuminati/whomever. I was convinced by the conclusion of an article I read following Princess Diana’s death, which suggested, in response to the speculation that she was murdered, that what all these conspiracies tended to have in common was a desperate need to believe that someone, somewhere, is in control of things. It would be far scarier, the author wrote, to accept that sometimes, maybe even often times, reality is what happens despite all our best-laid plans. Shortly after that, I saw the same arguments from Oklahoma City being recycled for the 9/11 attacks, and I nodded sagely: some people find it strangely comforting to imagine living under a tyrannical, omnipotent government or demiurge.
In their most recent conversation, Glenn Loury and John McWhorter talked about a new book/film which claims that the official narrative surrounding the Trayvon Martin case of 2012 is a hoax. Loury and McWhorter are, while open to correction, fairly convinced that there is something to it, despite the filmmaker’s disreputability. (He has previously claimed that Barack Obama’s real father is someone other than who it’s purported to be, a claim which neither Loury or McWhorter are inclined to accept.) As with most such cultural events, I don’t know and largely don’t care. Only two people know for certain what happened that night, and one of them is dead. There is no certainty, only varying degrees of plausibility, and again, what am I, one of the Hardy Boys or the Three Investigators? (Tell me at least some of you remember those books.) What use is there in me pretending to be an amateur sleuth and getting invested in this sort of thing?
No, what I found fascinating are the meta-issues surrounding the topic, the epistemology. How do we know what we know? How much of what we know is just an official narrative put forth to serve an agenda of which we’re unaware? How much are we interested in truth for truth’s sake, and how much are we simply looking to signal by our declarations of belief where we stand in relation to our peers and how much they can trust and depend on us? As individuals, most of us barely know anything. The division of labor and our systematized structures of cumulative knowledge have simply made it easier for us to know where to look for an answer if needed. My lamps and vacuum cleaner might as well be magic for all I know, but if forced to, I could figure out how to ask the questions to get the information I need to explain how they actually work. Much of our knowledge, in practice, exists in common. As Burke said, our private stocks of reason are small, and we do better to avail ourselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages. When you start passing around intellectual greenbacks like “Trayvon Martin’s lawyer perpetrated a hoax,” or “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams,” people look upon that as unkindly as they would upon counterfeiting or stock swindling. You’re devaluing the currency that we all depend on. Without that trust, we have nothing. We can live with untruths, but we can’t live without something approaching a general consensus about fundamental aspects of reality. Besides, even if you’re right, it’s not like anyone is going to thank you for exposing their deceit or correcting their ignorance. How many of us care enough about truth to risk our reputations on a lonely crusade? How many of us could be persuaded with minimal effort to lie for the sake of a “higher” truth?
And in this particular case, as Loury and McWhorter wonder, what does it mean if it’s true that the official narrative was a lie? Where were the investigative journalists? Were they all just woke cheerleaders? Why didn’t the defense attorneys catch any of these discrepancies? How can it be that we have to get the truth of the matter from a suspiciously partisan source? If the integrity of all the official authorities is compromised and we have to depend on a Cretan liar for information, how can we know anything reliably? “Whenever I hear a fact reported and my first question is, ‘Well, who’s saying that before I’m prepared to believe that it’s true?’ rather than ‘What’s the evidence for that?’, it feels to me like we’re in trouble!” Loury is correct, but I have no idea what the solution is. I can feel my own intellectual horizons contracting somewhat, as I’m forced to live in something like Keats’s negative capability, surrounded by uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, with facts and reason out of reach. It’s a humbling discipline to refrain from the innate urge to follow a logical scent like a bloodhound, to run certainty to ground, and instead, just shrug and attempt to maintain a sanguine equilibrium despite the constant fluctuations in the intellectual weather.
Funny enough, I’ve long held postmodern philosophers like Foucault responsible for the ad-hominem style of argument that Loury bemoans. Keith Windschuttle offered what seemed to me to be the definitive criticism of Foucault’s “genealogical” method of investigation, in which “any question about the facts of a statement is ignored and the focus is directed to the way what is said reflects the prevailing ‘discursive formation’ or how it is a form of knowledge that serves the power of the authorities concerned.” But recently, Alan Jacobs distinguished between intellectual archaeologists and genealogists, suggesting that the former are the ones who are interested in tracing the origin of ideas in order to find a source to blame, whereas the genealogists are interested in tracing the descent of an idea, its ramifications and modifications throughout history, to understand it more completely. Well, that seems…plausible. Is it true? Have I been unfair to Foucault? Does he deserve a closer look? But…it’s so satisfying to hate him! Can’t I just substitute a different reason to hate him and keep on going? Is Jacobs in the pocket of Big French Pseudo-Philosophy? He is bald, just like Foucault. You know, I never did entirely trust him, come to think of it…
Sigh. Negative capability is a real bitch.