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Everyone in America is Totally Insane
Yes, You Too
First of all, sorry for long delay between newsletters and thanks very much for your patience. I was writing the introduction of my book, another big step towards completion. That’s now done and I’m hopefully much closer to publishing the damn thing. I’m very excited to share it with you all and will perhaps give paid subscribers a sneak peek soon or later.
When anyone starts going down the conspiracy hole you can pretty much count on the fact that sooner or later they will get into antisemitic territory. So, Democratic presidential candidate and anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. theorizing at a press dinner that COVID-19 was genetically engineered to target blacks and “caucasians” and spare Chinese and Ashkenazi Jews shouldn’t come as a big shock. It’s well known that RFK Jr’s grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., was not a big fan of the Jews, so perhaps this is a congenital disease that skips a generation. No doubt people will point to RFK Jr.’s Zionism as a mitigating factor here, but we should all be aware at this point that being a Zionist does not preclude you from being an antisemite.
A lot of political discussions get bogged down in trying to divine what people feel in their heart. What do they really think? Well, I happen to think for the most part people aren’t thinking very much at all. Usually, they are just talking: They are participating in discourses that have certain structural possibilities and inherent rules. RFK Jr. plays the language-game “conspiracy” and one available move in that game is “the Jews.”
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.
Someone recently asked me about contrarianism for the mailbag and something similar is going on there. A person with a tendency to go for provocative viewpoints for the sake of provocation will sooner or later go there. And they will often have a lot of fun doing it. Also, being merely contrary stands in for being a brilliant or daring thinker. This is quite ironic because most of the ideas of trotted out contrarians are well-worn: they pick them up somewhere and start repeating them. In the age of the internet there’s more discourse than ever: podcasts, message boards, social media, chat apps, newsletters, etc. Lots of people make a pretty good living doing it. There’s a huge market for crackpots and cranks of all types. You can trust me on that one.
Whatever It Is, I’m Against It
Paul Krugman recently wrote in the Times about the contrarian tendency among tech bros that accounts for their interest in RFK Jr.:
Tech bros appear to be especially susceptible to brain-rotting contrarianism. As I wrote in my newsletter, their financial success all too often convinces them that they’re uniquely brilliant, able to instantly master any subject, without any need to consult people who’ve actually worked hard to understand the issues. And in many cases they became wealthy by defying conventional wisdom, which predisposes them to believe that such defiance is justified across the board.
Add to this the fact that great wealth makes it all too easy to surround yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear, validating your belief in your own brilliance — a sort of intellectual version of the emperor’s new clothes.
I think this is true, but it goes a lot deeper. The sad fact is that reactionary tech bosses are not the only constituency for this stuff. There are many Americans who essentially have the same approach to thought. And there are millions of Americans who believe in one conspiracy theory or another. One of my theories of Trump’s success in 2016 was that he employed what I called the “any weird constituency” strategy: people stood up at his events and said stuff like, “I believe aliens are brainwashing us through the T.V,” and he replied, “Sure, why not.” You got a voter right there and probably hundreds more, if not thousands. McCain pointedly shot down a voter who said Obama was a secret Muslim. Trump didn’t do that kinda stuff. McCain lost. Trump won. He cobbled together a coalition of the wacky and weird. But being weird in America is kind of normal. It’s a very weird place. A lot of Americans belong to cults or odd religious sects, practice alternative medicine, participate in strange fandoms, wild fads, and peculiar enthusiasms. And with the decline of mass culture and the fragmentation of society, subcultures are now culture.
The Paranoid Style
Conspiracy-thinking is also very old tradition in American politics. You might be aware of Richard Hofstadter’s famous 1964 essay, The Paranoid Style In American Politics. Hofstadter believed people who are not well-represented in the political system were particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories:
The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery
This sounds plausible but RFK Jr. is a member of America’s highest elite: he’s a Kennedy. No doubt there are parts of the Kennedy family experience that might incline one to conspiratorial thought: namely all the assassinations and misfortunes. Surely, that might suggest a malign agency was pulling the strings. So too would actually growing up in a very clubby world of powerful and rich people. You’d start to think, “This is how things really happen in the world. It’s all small cliques.” Just having so many conspiracy theories associated with one’s family probably takes its toll, too.
Another way to look at it would be to think of Kennedy as a demagogue and charlatan, deliberately employing the conspiracy discourse to enhance his notoriety. Again this gets into the murky weeds of trying to figure out people’s true intentions. But one could add to that a “declining class” corollary to this theory: It makes sense that old families of waning public fortunes and reputations would turn to such views to explain their situation and ally themselves with other reactionary social forces. In Europe, antisemitism was a kind of “feudal socialism” that wedded a struggling petty-bourgeoisie to a declining aristocracy. Is it a coincidence that just as the Silicon Valley paradigm of American capitalism might be running out of steam and stagnating, these guys are all getting very paranoid and going reactionary? Maybe not.
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.
Nuts from the Beginning
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.”
We often hear a similar logic applied to explain conspiratorial thought today: the world is extremely complicated, outstripping people’s ability to comprehend it, so conspiracy theories offer a simplified picture that explains what’s going on. While the world is out of anybody’s control, but conspiracies at least posit the possibility of someone being in control and taking back a sense personal control and autonomy through symbolic acts of resistance, like say, not taking a vaccine. There’s also someone specific to blame, like say, the Jews or the Chinese. But today it’s usually no longer the “most enlightened” who think this way but cranks and crackpots. (Of course, they tend think they are way more enlightened than the sheep who go with the program.) You can sort of fit this back into the declining social class thesis: where once “conspiracy” was the thought process of the most socially advanced and revolutionary sectors of society, now it’s backwards and associated with social losers. Although it might be more concentrated in certain segments of society, I still don’t think you can quarantine paranoia and conspiracism in any one group.
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
Paranoia might just haunt the project of Enlightenment thought from the beginning, the dark obverse side of methodological skepticism. Descartes posited the possibility of universal deception of the senses and thought firm knowledge could only be grounded in the self-certainty of one’s own mind. In theory, everything observable by our senses could be the product of an “evil genius,” but not our mind thinking. Hobbes saw a world of self-interested individuals accruing gains. And perhaps the most characteristic Enlightenment idea is that of a conspiracy of priests to keep people mystified and under the rule of despotism. Like with our Revolutionary conspiracists above, this was the only possible explanation. If everyone was (at least potentially) a rational actor, but not everyone saw the truth, that’s because they were being deliberately deceived by evil people.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “I discover that in most of the operations of the mind, each American appeals to the individual exercise of his own understanding alone. America is therefore one of the countries in the world where philosophy is least studied, and where the precepts of Descartes are best applied.” Everyone here believes they can figure out everything for themselves, so we have an ever-growing panoply of nutty theories. Only luck and application divides the brilliant entrepreneur who comes up with a new invention by going against to conventional wisdom and the raving crackpot on the corner or the internet message board. We can still see a lot of these solipsistic and even paranoiac tendencies in American thought today, even among the putatively educated. For instance, the belief attested to among many tech bros that we’re living in a “simulation.” This again preserves an inherent rationality and design in the universe. All of the odd and incongruent things that crop up are given as signs of the existence of the simulation, just as in a conspiracy theory, disconfirming facts are just used as further evidence of how deep it really goes.
There’s also obviously a religious component to this. The literary critic Harold Bloom wrote that despite all of its varied sects and sub-sects there was one “American religion,” which he thought was a form of Gnosticism, the characteristic beliefs of which are that the empirical world was created and is sustained by a malevolent power but that there’s a supreme deity and reality behind it all that’s only accessible to the solitary individual self. Its controversial thesis, but it’s interesting how it lines up with Tocqueville’s observations about American Cartesianism.
There’s a lot more to remark about all of this, but this is now getting very long, so I’ll just say that I suppose every American, as a free individual, is entitled to live in his or her own private world of psychotic delusions. And what is freedom of association but the freedom to associate with other lunatics of a similar persuasion? People say our nation is in decline, but it seems to me like we are coming ever closer to making this part of the American dream come true.