Our pandemic of unreason

Conspiracy theories stalk the west on both sides of the political divide

As has often been remarked, we are living in an era of conspiracy theories. Many plausible reasons are given for this, chief amongst which is the fact that, in times of cultural cataclysm or crisis, people try to explain the otherwise terrifyingly incomprehensible by alighting upon an explanation which seems to make sense according to its own internal logic. 

Such conspiracy theorists also point the finger at supposed instigators whose alleged culpability also reduces the terror by bringing the otherwise nightmarishly intangible and even seemingly supernatural down to recognisable factors. After all, if the crisis is all the fault of the Bilderberg group/Bill Gates/deep state/Satanic padeophiles/the Jews all in league with each other, then it can be resolved by getting rid of the Bilderberg group/Bill Gates/deep state/Satanic paedophiles/the Jews. And then everything would presumably be absolutely fine.

These paranoid fantasies have been greatly fuelled over the past two years by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has sent many of those already convinced of a conspiracy against their interests by the Bilderberg group/Bill Gates/deep state/Satanic paedophiles/the Jews into a frenzy that these groups and individuals — even including that notorious dictator-in-disguise Boris Johnson — are using the Covid crisis to steal their liberties and impose a fascist dictatorship of the left, deliberately destroy their livelihoods and poison their bodies through compulsory vaccination.

This is all vastly complicated by the fact that, while conspiracy theories are dystopian fantasies, real conspiracies do exist. There was a real conspiracy, between elements in the Democratic party and US law enforcement and the intelligence world, to lever US President Donald Trump out of office. There was a real conspiracy by the Chinese communist party to cover up the early spread of, and probably the actual origins of, the Covid-19 pandemic.  There is a real conspiracy by the Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate and conquer the west, as evidenced  by documents unearthed by the Swiss in 2001 and in the Holy Land Foundation trial in America in 2007.

Such conspiracies involving the left or its protected causes are vehemently denied by the left, who smear those drawing attention to them as conspiracy theorist nut-jobs or phobes of various kinds. At the same time, the left seize upon the real conspiracy theorists on the far-right as evidence that the right are the sole source of evil in the world in a supposedly unbroken line of fascism from the Nazi party to Covid denialists via populists, patriots and of course Donald J Trump.

The truth, however, is more complex than this cartoonish sectarian demonisation. A refreshingly perceptive article by Eva Wiseman in yesterday’s Observer pointed out how the “wellness” industry and alternative lifestyles on the left have effectively melded with the conspiracy theories on the other side of the political spectrum to create a veritable pandemic of unreason.  As she writes: 

In 2011, sociologists Charlotte Ward and David Voas coined the term “conspirituality”. Ward defined it as “a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fuelled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews”. It describes the sticky intersection of two worlds: the world of yoga and juice cleanses with that of New Age thinking and online theories about secret groups, covertly controlling the universe. It’s a place where you might typically see a vegan influencer imploring their followers to stick to a water fast rather than getting vaccinated, or a meditation instructor reminding her clients of the dangers of 5G, or read an Instagram comment explaining that vaccines are hiding tracking devices.

While the overlap of left-wing, magazine-friendly wellness and far-right conspiracy theories might initially sound surprising, the similarities in cultures, in ways of thinking — the questioning of authority, of alternative medicines, the distrust of institutions — are clear. But something is happening, accelerated by the pandemic — the former is becoming a mainstream entry point into the latter. An entry point that can be found everywhere from a community garden to the beauty aisle at a big Tesco. Part of what makes a successful influencer is the ability to compel their followers to trust them, and they do that by sharing their lives, their homes, their diets, their concerns. It’s become clear, both by the products they buy and the choices they make, that many people trust their influencers more than their own doctor.

As the pandemic took hold around the world, there was a shift in tone. Melissa Rein Lively is an “influencer” whose interests include “wellness, natural health, organic food, yoga, ayurvedic healing, meditation”. Wiseman writes:

One night, Melissa Rein Lively saw a meme: an image of Polish Jews being put on a train in 1939, edited so they were wearing face masks. The caption said: “First they put you in the masks, then they put you in the box cars.” The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, she says, “It was the most disturbing image I think I have ever seen. Everything I was learning and everything I have ever been afraid of connected in a way that convinced me that at least some semblance of what I was reading was true.” She was becoming convinced that nothing was really what it seemed; that there was a carefully constructed narrative being told, which was designed to control society. “I was willing to expand my thinking and consider a completely alternative theory, especially during a time of unprecedented chaos. What if nothing was what it seemed?” It was shocking, she says, and horrifying, and also, “Oddly comforting. What I had felt I knew was true, and others knew the same thing. The ‘truth’ as I saw it, was infuriating and I felt compelled to help others ‘awaken’ .” Which is when she went to Target and started shouting.  

Research conducted during the pandemic suggests a link between Covid-related uncertainty, anxiety and depression and an increased likelihood of believing conspiracy theories. A report from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate showed the most-followed social media accounts held by anti-vaxxers increased their followers by more than 7.8m in 2020. They have used the anxiety around Covid vaccines, the speed with which they were authorised, the politics that surrounded them and the systemic racism that led to communities of colour losing trust in the medical establishment, to spread their message. We are living in odd and untested times, when influencers and Facebook algorithms draw vulnerable people underground through the tunnels of the internet.

The links between alternative lifestyles, distrust of modernity and fascism are by no means new. In my 2010 book The World Turned Upside Down: the Global Battle over God, Truth and Power, I charted how Enlightenment reason unravelled through the 19th century German Romantic movement, which gave rise to a plethora of irrational movements with the “philosophers of nature” at their core. I wrote: 

As JW Burrow has recorded, the search for new myths that transcended existence and sought to take it onto a higher plane through self-purification erupted in the 19th century in movements such as vegetarianism, teetotalism, sexual liberation, mysticism and Monism — the religion of nature-worship propounded by the founder of ecology and proto-fascist Ernst Haeckel, who believed that all matter was alive and possessed mental attributes. This brought together hostility to Christianity and propaganda for the scientific method in Darwinism; the German Romantic cult of nature; optimistic evolutionism; and theories of hygiene and selective breeding. 

…This eruption of irrationality around ecology, “organic” wholeness, mysticism and paganism was the progenitor of all the racial theories prominent in the 20th century. Holistic or “gestalt” theory gave pseudo-scientific credibility to the mystical and pagan Dionysian idea of “primal unity” that was so prominent in fascist thinking. 

Today’s world was witnessing a development of these same trends in an eruption of profound and widespread irrationality with a range of bizarre beliefs, behaviours and cults. I wrote:

What previously belonged to the province of the quack and the charlatan have become mainstream treatments and therapies, including faith healers, psychic mediums, astrologers, “angel therapists” and “aura photographers.” “Wicca”—or witchcraft—and paganism constitute the fastest-growing religious category in America, with between 500,000 and 5 million adherents. If “New Age spirituality” is included, the number reaches 20 million and growing. 

…Along with such beliefs has grown the use of mediums, psychics, séances, telepathy and other aspects of the paranormal. Undoubtedly, for many people these practices amount to little more than playful whims or amusements rather than serious beliefs. Nevertheless, thousands of cults combine irrational beliefs with sinister programs to control people’s minds and behaviour, which have made inroads into the religious and medical worlds and the prison system. 

…Such cults often promote bizarre theories about conspiracies by agents of the modern world or by extraterrestrial forces. These theories cross political divides, linking neofascist, New Age, Islamist and green groups. Millions of people — including many who wouldn’t have anything to do with any cult —now appear only too eager to believe that the world is controlled by dark conspiracies of covert forces for which there is not one shred of evidence. Once, such theories would have been seen as indications of extreme eccentricity. Now, growing numbers of people treat them as legitimate subjects for debate, creating an infectious kind of public hysteria. 

…The post-religious western world is struggling to adjust to a profound loss of moral and philosophical moorings. A consequence of this radical discombobulation is widespread moral, emotional and intellectual chaos, resulting in shattered and lonely lives, emotional incontinence and gullibility to fraud and charlatanry. There is an increasing tendency to live in a fantasy world where irrational beliefs in myths are thought to restore order to chaotic lives, and where psychological projection creates the comforting illusion of control. 

And so we are where we are.

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