quarta-feira, 12 de abril de 2017

Conspiracy theories used to be a fringe obsession. Now they're mainstream

Conspiracy theories used to be a fringe obsession. Now they're mainstream
Jason Wilson
From wind farm sickness to #pizzagate to halal funding terrorism, conspiracy theories abound, and the methods of defeating them no longer seem adequate

Thursday 13 April 2017 03.35 BST Last modified on Thursday 13 April 2017 03.39 BST

Just over 50 years ago, when historian Richard Hofstadter initiated the scholarly study of conspiracy theory, he claimed that the mentality that nurtured it affected just “a modest minority of the population”. Only occasionally, in moments of crisis and catastrophe, would this state of mind catch on to the extent that it could be “built into mass movements or political parties”.

Hofstadter looked at McCarthyism, the Goldwater campaign, and the anticommunist John Birch Society as examples of what he called the “paranoid style”. The “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” of the 1960s right connected them with earlier anti-Masonic, anti-Catholic, and nativist movements.

Hofstadter was a staunch, cold war centrist liberal. His work, Mark Fester writes, was a “means to offer and enforce a normative definition of political belief and practice”. In other words, he wasn’t just offering disinterested description. He thought that fringe conspiracists should be contrasted with a “normal” politics which encompassed major parties, the liberal-democratic state, and the liberal press. Interest groups that negotiated within these institutions were healthy; groups exhibiting the paranoid style were a disease.

Times have changed. Conspiracy thinking and paranoia are highly visible, durable and institutionally sanctified in a range of liberal democracies, not least in Australia. Hofstadter’s distinctions between mainstream and fringe thinking are more and more difficult to maintain. Conspiracy thinking is increasingly “normal”.

In recent years, Australia’s Senate has held inquiries which in part considered the phantasmatic connections between Halal food certification and terrorism, and between wind turbines and human health. (In the latter instance, they concluded that bodies like the NHMRC “have been too quick to judge” on the issue given the “considerable anecdotal evidence” – evidence that flies in the face of every study conducted).

Entire parties – with considerable negotiating power within Australia’s political system – have been erected on the basis of conspiracy beliefs. One Nation’s policy positions encompass the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory and the idea – apparently derived from the fringes of the US Christian right – that Islam is not really a religion. Recently their senator, Malcolm Roberts, claimed on Four Corners, that the ABC itself used techniques of “Nazi-style mind control” on the issue of global warming.

The Australian newspaper – with help from ABC journalists – has done much to popularise an idea originating on the far right: that western values are being undermined by a “cultural Marxist” conspiracy launched by Frankfurt School philosophers in the middle of the last century.

In the wondrous global public square of the internet, conspiracism can be top down or bottom up. The US president first became a properly political figure by using Twitter to promote a conspiracy theory about his predecessor’s birth. More recently, he infamously tweeted that the Obama administration wiretapped him.

Other conspiracies are propagated more democratically, and frequently have a partisan dimension. The right on Twitter have #pizzagate, echoes ideas about elite pedophile rings trafficked by newly-powerful conspiracist celebrities like Alex Jones. Liberals have #Russiagate, which has inspired Medium posts and MEGATHREADS offering the straight dope on Trump’s looming impeachment, and, oddly, to Louise Mensch being enthroned as a Russia expert.

Conspiracism now is a constant background hum, but its focus can shift. In the last week, the greatest magnet for conspiratorial stories has been Syria. The nationalist “alt right” (and more than a few on the left) have been insisting that the sarin attack on Khan Sheikoun was a false flag to draw the US further into Middle Eastern wars. A few liberals have been arguing that Trump’s strike was mere “kabuki theatre”, and the fruit of a complex plot with Putin to divert attention from the administration’s Russia connections.

If we want to go looking for reasons for why conspiracy theory has become so central, we can pick from a menu. The liberal media institutions which mid-century cultural modernists looked to as guarantors of public truth have been weakened, and in some eyes, discredited. Because of social media, but even more because of the fracturing media landscape, we all increasingly inhabit partisan informational bubbles. In our polarised state, we are less inclined to the give-and-take that Hofstadter saw as an antidote to conspiracism, and its view of political opponents as avatars of pure evil.

Governments have not only lied to us about important things, they no longer seem geared to serve our interests. In the absence of a strong left which might voice a structural critique of capitalism or the state, conspiracism flourishes as popular politics.

But perhaps, in a backwards way, Hofstadter offered the best reason back in 1964.

“The paranoid spokesman”, he wrote, “sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms – he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilisation. He constantly lives at a turning point.”

The birth and death of political orders, existential threats, turning points – something in our present moment of environmental catastrophe, galloping inequality, massed refugees, and our cycle of political stasis and meltdown answers to Hofstadter’s description.

In turn, something in his prescription – patient engagement, trade-offs, institutional faith, and rational discourse – no longer seems adequate to our situation.

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