As we hurtle towards an election my mind is consumed with thoughts of the historic division in America. As luck would have it, two related videos about conspiracy theories appeared on Kottke’s website that intensely appealed to my interests. It’s frightening to look at fringe culture, but I think it’s important to explore the extremes of how culture can mutate, or else we’ll be caught off guard when its radioactive waste seeps into the mainstream.
Darmok on the ocean
The first was a video called Trump, QAnon and the Return of Magic from Kirby Ferguson’s new project This is Not a Conspiracy Theory. Ferguson is the acclaimed creator of the Everything is a Remix series explaining how most of popular culture is borrowed and remixed, truly there is nothing new under the sun.
As usual, Ferguson expertly digs into a single cultural phenomenon and makes a convincing argument; there are Science People and there are Magic (Religious) People and they will never understand each other. In some ways, this is a feud as old as time. A new era of “Unenlightenment” is framing modern day politics, birthing dangerous conspiracy theories, and being used as a weapon in disinformation campaigns. We’re watching this play out in the national theater in realtime, dramatically impacting our effectiveness at dealing with scientific realities like climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.
The video is thought-provoking and it feels less foolish to be on Team Science, but ultimately the binary assertion that conservatives are the faith-based Magic People and liberals are the fact-based Science People falls short for me. I know plenty of self-identified liberals who are anti-vaxxers, think essential oils clear out unspecified “toxins”, and that you can cure cancer by doing yoga and eating more organic. Too many people don’t fit in this dichotomy for me. The simpler explanation here is maybe not some grand dichotomy, but rather that people are irrational and tend to believe things that they perceive benefits themselves or their in-group, no matter how irrational or nonsensical it may seem. Our brains often work backwards from the outcome we want to believe.
Speaking of belief, I also don’t think it’s a crime to explore the metaphysical. Stories of gods and miracles are threads that exist through time and culture. True, there have been terrible and unforgiveable injustices at the hand of religion, but maybe there’s something worthwhile beyond what we can see, and maybe it’s a tie that binds us together in the same way it can divide us.
Regardless of my nuanced disagreements, I think the dichotomy is a useful tool amidst the political conversation. Religion and magical beliefs are having an impact on our cultural fabric, our laws, and conspiracy theories are a huge exploitable national security vector.
Jalad on the ocean
Ferguson’s video was underscored by a video from Dan Olson called In Search of Flat Earth. Flat Earth Theory is so wild to me because it seems so easily debunked, and that’s what Olson sets out to do.
In the first half of this digital essay, Olson documents his attempt to replicate flat-earther “evidence” and, in doing so, actually proves the earth is curved. After gathering evidence and posting his findings on flat-earth message boards, he is told that he must have done it wrong and that he should “pray and try it again.”
The threat of apostasy is a strong manipulative tactic used by abusive pastors and televangelists. God can’t be wrong and God told me this, so I can’t be wrong, so therefore you are wrong and offending God with demonic untruths, your salvation is at risk if you disagree with me. This was the most horrifying part of the entire video. A revealing statement after watching The Return of Magic.
The second half is an explanation of why the Flat Earth movement has mostly dissipated and gone for greener pastures, specifically QAnon. It’s fascinating to see how these two conspiracies relate. Some amount of gullibility, but a lot of preying on people’s natural sensibilities (e.g. child pornography is vile), then weaponizing that belief over time (e.g. Hillary is bad and operates a demonic child sex cult out of the basement of a pizza restaurant). Ironically, your conviction that predators are bad allows you to become the victim of a cult-like predator.
The core premise of both these videos is this: There’s no convincing people with data. It’s utterly worthless to try and use “facts” because people will simply believe or invent their own. Thanks to the Internet, facts are now relative. We are post-fact.
Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.
Celebrating 29 years since its original airing, I recently re-watched S5 E02 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, an episode titled Darmok. During a diplomatic engagement with a non-federation race, Captain Picard is suddenly teleported against his will to the planet below. There he is forced to meet with the knife-weilding Tamarian captain, Dathon, but the catch is that the Tamarians don’t speak as you and I do, they speak entirely in metaphor.
At its core, Darmok is itself a metaphor for miscommunication. The entire episode is centered around two parties misunderstanding each other, an obscure premise yet it somehow leaves you on the edge of your seat wondering how the tension will resolve. You, the viewer, have no frame of reference for Tamarian lore, their culture, their history, and are left with an anxiety about their true intentions.
If there was ever a more apt metaphor, I’m not sure I could dream of one.
The beast at Tanagra.
Right at the point where I think I’m over-drawing conclusions about all this, on my Twitter feed I see Trump warning people at his rally that Biden “will listen to the scientists.” He is establishing himself as the anti-science candidate. Pair this with the magical belief that the coronavirus will “just disappear” like magic. The dichotomy feels alive and well.
One video I always come back to in election season is Jonathan Haidt’s 2008 TED talk “The moral roots of liberals and conservatives.” It aims to provide a meta-framework for understanding our political differences.
I find a lot of solace in the idea that humanity’s differences are different sides of the same moral foundation. We care about the same things, but our interpretation and lived experiences alter our perspective. This has been a helpful tool for me in understanding internal motivations.
Similar to the magic vs. science dichotomy, I’m not sure this completely sums up the causes of our division either. Race is an obvious recurring flash point of division. Gender as well. I personally think a lot about the urban and rural divide in America. Could we find ways to make sure all laws and programs (roads, welfare, education, etc) are designed to provide some consideration of all these known division points to provide better equity?
It’s an interesting time for America and the world. I’m anxious about the next week, the next month, peaceful transitions of power, and the years to come. I only hope it is not spoken of as…
Shaka. When the walls fell.