Sunday, January 23, 2022

Jackanory

I've been listening to a BBC radio series by Gabriel Gatehouse, The Coming Storm, about the origins of the QAnon conspiracy theory. It's riveting, superbly researched, and takes the movement seriously, both in its historical context and current significance. I urge you to listen to all the episodes, you won't regret it. 

The theme is how a particular narrative takes hold and spreads, even one that is completely divorced from reality. QAnon is the belief that America is being taken over by a satanic cabal of child-murdering paedophiles led by Hilary Clinton and that Donald Trump is leading the resistance to them. Adherents also believe that the 2020 election was stolen, and that Trump really won by a landslide. It's bonkers, of course, but its followers believe in it and mobilised to storm the Capitol in January last year. They are the bedrock for Trump's campaign for the 2024 Republican candidacy. The movement hasn't gone away.

Beliefs like this are a constant. People are attracted to them. Although they only break out from the fringe and become prominent in times of change and uncertainty. For example, the esoteric movements of the 19th century arose in the wake of the decline of orthodox religious authority in the late Industrial Revolution and gave us movements like Theosophy and Spiritualism. The explicitly political ones are usually conspiracy theories that deny the arbitrary and replace it with the deliberate, reject the ostensible in favour of the covert, and give simple answers to complex questions.

It's all to do with narratives. We interpret the world through stories. Once one is established in human minds it's difficult to shake, however absurd it is. We have a range of cognitive biases to keep it in place, while cognitive dissonance holds reality at bay. Believers aren't stupid, they are prisoners of the power of narrative. It's one of the paradoxes of humanity that the very thing that gives us literature can also bring genocide if the story is powerful enough. That said, reality exists. Truth exists. And it always wins over fantasy in the long run, but fantasy can do a lot of damage before it does.

Two more prosaic narratives concern me at the moment. They are less deranged because their targets are real, but what they say about them is empirically false. Let's take Brexit first. Commentators are often surprised by just how little Brexiters knew about how the EU worked and what it actually is. They offered leaving as a simple, universal panacea for indeterminate discontents and denied that there would be any adverse consequences – something that would change everything and nothing simultaneously. They portrayed the EU as a colonial master, rather than a voluntary association, and spun narratives of independence and 'global Britain' – the paradox of a country that is both great and a victim at the same time. This narrative has led its ideological proponents into some odd stances. We see advocates of free trade putting up trade barriers; libertarians celebrating the removal of rights; critics of the bureaucratic state increasing bureaucracy; while people who called for us to 'take back control' voluntarily give up the power to control the regulations that will continue to shape our economy. Those of us who must live with the reality are in despair.

The other is the left's dominant narrative on Israel/Palestine. It's now so embedded that it's unchallengeable. Again, the narrative is Manichean, with one victim and one perpetrator. And most of it is false. The conflict is real enough, as is the occupation, but the left's analysis leaves no room for complex realities. So, they valorise the Palestinian far right, while rejecting the Israeli left, and speak of peace, while ignoring genuine activist peace movements, such as One Voice, Zimam, and Standing Together. Given that the conflict is seen through the eyes of cultural tropes about Jews, this leads to some unsavoury alliances. It's not surprising that anti-Zionism can manifest itself as antisemitism at times. After all, antisemitism no longer jackboots openly down the street, it sneaks in the back door hiding behind a Palestinian flag, waiting for the chance to emerge. People can easily be drawn in, often unconsciously. The very best short critique of this narrative that I've read lately is this article from last October by Susie Linfield in The Atlantic. I really recommend reading it, it's excellent. Her conclusion:

The intent is not to make a political argument—to explain, to convince—but to elicit Pavlovian reactions of disgust, thereby bypassing actual thought.

These examples have their roots in something real, but we do have our fantasists too. The anti-vax movement, convinced that vaccination is a cover for reducing the population through a controlled genocide, is with us now. (By the way, I've never understood why they think any government would want to reduce the population.) Armed with misunderstood faux law and the Nuremberg Code, misquoting Magna Carta, and led by Piers Corbyn, they should be figures of fun. But the message of The Coming Storm is, don't ignore the crazy ones. They may matter more than you think. These movements can metastasize into something more sinister. I wouldn't be surprised if the rhetoric of the anti-vaxxers, parading nooses and talking of hanging medical staff for crimes against humanity, ends in murder.

They have to be confronted. It's no good looking for rational causes of the irrational. People retreat from reason because its more attractive to them. And that makes them impervious to armies of fact checkers, logic, and reasonable argument, though they remain our best tools for dissuading potential recruits. Our task is different, to tell better stories. It's time for politics to embrace literature.

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