A dark mirror shows features one would rather not see. You gaze at the repulsive visage in the picture frame, the caricature of everything despicable, only to realize with dawning horror that you are looking not at a portrait but at a mirror.
The political defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 election is a crossroads for the quasi-political movement grouped loosely around the QAnon conspiracy myth and, more broadly, around Trump himself. Because the man and the movement were a dark mirror for the whole of society, it is also a crossroads for society.
For those unfamiliar with it, the QAnon movement started early in the Trump administration when a mysterious person, calling himself Q and claiming to be an administration insider, began posting cryptic messages on internet message boards, particularly 8Chan. These consisted of hints and promises that Donald Trump was executing a masterly plan to vanquish his enemies, uproot the Deep State, and restore America to greatness. Their mantra, by which followers (call QAnons) kept the faith, was “Trust the plan.” However bad it looked for Trump, victory was just around the corner.
At the present writing (late November, 2020) it would seem that the QAnons would have no choice but to abandon the faith. Not so. In various corners of the right wing alternative media, one may still read desperate theories about how Trump’s apparent defeat is a ploy to set up his master stroke. Even after he is deposed, even if he goes to prison, the myth will only change shape, since it is merely an outcropping of a much larger, long-established mythos, driven by repressed social and psychological forces. The same holds for Trumpism generally. It is thus important to gaze into this dark mirror and see what has been hidden; otherwise we will face one of two grim possibilities, each worse than the other. (1) In a few years a new and more formidable demagogue will arise to channel the repressed forces toward a fascist coup. (2) A neoliberal corporatocracy, costumed in the garb of progressive values, will consolidate its already well-developed powers of surveillance, censorship, and control to establish a techno-totalitarian state that will attempt to repress those forces forever.
I would like to offer another alternative that becomes possible when we look into the mirror and meet the aforementioned repressed forces at their source. Healing, rather than victory, is its formative ideal. I call it the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.
A Comforting Mythology
It is understandable why so many people have celebrated the defeat of Trump, a man who presided over the deliberate separation of immigrant children from their parents, who needlessly provoked Russia and China, who gave free pass to some of the worst of American’s racist tendencies, who green-lighted new levels of environmental destruction, who pushed regime-change operations in Venezuela and Bolivia, and so on. Yet it is also true that the incoming Biden administration is rife with Wall Street insiders, neocon war hawks, intelligence agency officials, prison-industrial complex cheerleaders, and representatives of Big Pharma, Big Data, and pretty much Big Everything. Neither Joe Biden nor the Democratic Party has been a particularly effective champion of racial equity, environmental protection, economic fairness, or world peace for a very long time. Biden himself cavorted with overt racists in his early career, was a key architect of mass incarceration, has been a consistent supporter of America’s foreign wars, and has done numerous favors for Wall Street. An unpleasant surprise awaits anyone who thinks that much will improve now that the bad guys are out and the good guys are in.
It would be convenient if the problem with America were Donald Trump, bad people who worked with him, and ignoramuses and dupes who supported him. If so, we could breathe a sigh of relief that with the election a victory over evil has been won.
Ironically, the ideology of QAnon is an exaggerated version of this same basic thoughtform. It says that a group of diabolical people are responsible for the evil in the world, and that if they could be expunged, the world could be healed. In QAnon’s mythology, the locus of evil is the Deep State, an elite cabal interpenetrating government, corporations, banks, and other elite institutions, and the champion of Good is Donald Trump who, with superhuman subtlety, foresight, and skill, wages a 4D chess struggle against them.
The QAnon mythology offers three degrees of comfort. First, at a time of social and economic breakdown, it assuages the discomfort of uncertainty by making the world understandable. Second, it absolves its followers of complicity in the problem (in contrast to blaming reigning systems, which implicate pretty much everyone to some extent and admits no ready solution). Third, it offers a hero, a savior, a Good Father who will set things aright, and upon whom one might project one’s own unfulfilled expression of greatness.
It is so tempting to personify good and evil, to locate each in the person of whomever appears most conspicuously in the dramas offered for our consumption. One side holds Donald Trump in exactly the same way that the other holds George Soros and Bill Gates. Personifying evil offers the comfort of knowing at least in principle how to solve the world’s problems. There is someone to destroy, to expunge, to defeat, to cancel, or to silence. Problem solved. The standard Hollywood movie script is also the script for war and also, it seems, the script for a lot of today’s political discourse.
I have been counseled to issue a public denunciation of QAnon, to which I reply that I am not in the business of denouncing anyone. In clarifying who is friend and who is foe, denunciation reduces the target to the status of enemy. I won’t take sides in the culture war, not because I think both sides are equal or that all viewpoints are equally true, but because (1) I believe that the blind spots both sides share are more significant, and more dangerous, than their disagreements, and (2) Beneath the conflict is a hidden unity that will emerge when all parties humbly try to understand the other.
QAnon has done considerable damage to people’s lives and to the body politic in the context of Trumpian neofascism and persistent systemic racism. Yet to reduce it and its followers entirely to those terms is to commit the same error – and derive much the same comfort – that QAnon itself does in its reduction of a complex situation to a drama of good versus evil. In doing that we sacrifice real understanding in favor of a narrative that divides the world into good guys and bad guys.
Daniel Schmactenberger puts it well when he says, “If you feel a combination of outraged, scared, emotional, and very certain with a strong enemy hypothesis, you have been captured by somebody’s narrative warfare, and you think it’s your own thinking.” Visit the enemy territory, he counsels, and see what the world looks like from there.
Who among their critics asks, “What hidden truth seeks expression in the QAnon phenomenon? What truth rides upon its myths?” In an essay last spring, I catalogued some truths that ride the New World Order conspiracy myth (of which QAnon is a variant); for example, that an inhuman power rules the world; that those we call leaders are its puppets; that established authority has betrayed our trust. In it I wrote:
The conspiracy myth embodies the realization of a profound disconnect between the public postures of our leaders and their true motivations and plans. It bespeaks a political culture that is opaque to the ordinary citizen, a world of secrecy, image, PR, spin, optics, talking points, perception management, narrative management, and information warfare. No wonder people suspect that there is another reality operating behind the curtains.
That QAnon is rife with Islamophobia, racism, and other flavors of bigotry does not erase the validity of these basic intuitions. It does, though, illustrate the tragic nature of the QAnon phenomenon, which diverts an authentic populist revolt onto vain dreams and ready divisions. This is also, in part, the tragedy of Donald Trump. Much of what I will say about QAnon applies to Trumpism in general.
The simplifying explanation for why so many people voted for Donald Trump is that he gives vent to their covert racism, hate, and fear. Certainly, the United States is home to many inveterate racists, and racism to this day exerts a baleful influence on American society. However, the caricature of the racist Trump voter resentful of his declining status relative to people of color and hoping to uphold his dominance and privilege against progressive social trends leaves out a lot. It does not explain why millions of Obama voters voted for Trump in 2016 and presumably 2020. It does not explain why Trump won a greater percentage of minority votes than any Republican candidate since 1960, while his support among white men declined from 2016 to 2020. Invoking racism to explain away the Trump phenomenon prevents us from looking at an anti-establishment sentiment so intense that 74 million people would vote for a man who so often gives the appearance of being coarse, boastful, ignorant, phony, vain, corrupt, and incompetent.
If we continue to leave out all these things, I fear that sooner or later we will be confronted with an aspiring fascist who is younger, smoother, more charismatic, and more competent than Donald Trump. If we don’t accurately understand and address the root cause of Trumpism, that is what will happen in 2024. If Trump could almost win in 2020, imagine what such a man or woman could accomplish if the repressed forces that elevated Trump intensify.
Addictions and Cults
Hungry for what? Obviously something much more nourishing than what Q’s stories provided. That is why QAnon and the mythology from which it draws is so addictive (anything can be addictive that temporarily quells the pain of an unmet need without actually meeting it). Thus, QAnons went down the proverbial rabbit hole, eagerly awaiting their next fix of a Q post, shedding friends, alienating family, losing sleep, squandering countless unproductive hours to get one hit after another of indignation, feelings of superiority, assurance that they are right, and the above-mentioned comfort. Friends and family speak of losing loved ones to QAnon just as they speak of losing them to an addiction or a cult.
QAnon indeed displays many features of a cult. It draws people into an alternate reality, estranges them from friends and family, and exploits their need to belong. It attaches them to an in-group of believers, membership in which is completely dependent on what one says and believes (rather than acceptance for who one is). However, to understand QAnon and cults in general as parasites on the social body risks ignoring the conditions that invite those parasites in to begin with. Do we want merely to suppress the current outbreak? What will it take to heal the social body on a deeper level?
Cults prey upon the vulnerable. What makes someone vulnerable? First, a disintegration of a belief system that told a person who she is, how the world works, and what is real. Second, an unmet need to belong. The perfect candidate for cult recruitment is someone whose world has fallen apart, leaving them lonely and confused. It isn’t weak and stupid people who fall into cults. Anyone who holds a sanctimonious attitude toward QAnons and “conspiracy theorists” is deluding themselves.
I say this to remedy any sense of superiority one might obtain from reading my description of the false comforts of the QAnon mythology. Does it feel good to diagnose others’ spiritual pathologies? If so, it could be because we ourselves suffer a version of the same hunger we see in the dark mirror of QAnon. But really, who among us today has not suffered a breakdown in meaning or an unmet need to belong?
Today, a majority of society are prime candidates for cult recruitment. Our societal meaning-generating stories are in disarray. Fifty years ago, a broad mainstream of Western society believed in the march of progress. The world was getting better year by year and generation by generation. Soon, technological progress, liberal democracy, free market capitalism, and the social sciences would eliminate the age-old scourges of humankind: poverty, oppression, disease, crime, and hunger. Within that story, we knew who we were and how to make sense of the world. Life made sense within a linear narrative of progress that told us where we came from and where we were going.
The mythology of progress, of which the United States of America was the foremost paragon, told us life was supposed to get better with each generation. Instead, the opposite has happened. The mythology of progress told us of an age of plenty, yet today we have extreme income inequality and persistent or growing poverty in the West. It told us we would be healthier with each passing generation; again, the opposite has happened, as chronic diseases now afflict all age groups at unprecedented levels. It told us that the onward march of reason and rule of law would bring an end to war, crime, and tyranny, but levels of hate and violence have not dropped in the 21st century. It told us of an age of leisure, yet the workweek and vacation time has stagnated since the mid-20th century. It promised us happiness, yet today rates of divorce, depression, suicide, and addiction rise with each passing year.
Adding to all of this an undeniable ecological crisis, it is hard now to fully embrace the mythology of progress as a source of meaning and identity. With its failure to deliver on its promises, the wellspring of meaning for modern society now runs dry.
The resulting crisis in sense, meaning, and identity doesn’t just push people into cults and conspiracy theories, it also makes mainstream belief systems more cult-like. To some degree, major news outlets and social media provide exactly what the QAnon addiction did (indignation, feelings of superiority, assurance that they are right…) They also tend to “draw people into an alternate reality, estrange them from friends and family, and exploit their need to belong.” How many family gatherings are ruined, how many family members are no longer on speaking terms, having dissociated into separate realities?
Indulge me for a moment in a little rhetorical exaggeration. In the United States, two dominant cults apply the tools of information warfare to vie for public loyalty: (1) the Democratic Party, New York Times, MSNBC, NPR, CNN cult, and (2) the Republican Party, Fox News, Breitbart cult. Each offers its followers the same comforts as Q: they offer a narrative that makes sense of the world in the midst of change; they offer a diagnosis of social problems that exculpates themselves, and they offer people to cheer for, champions for the cause of victory over evil. They also offer a sense of belonging. Have you ever felt a sense of homecoming when you tune into your favorite pundit or website?
Cults, armies, and police states depend on the control of information. As warring parties weaponize facts, we learn to discount all sources of information. We wonder what agenda lies behind a given “fact.” Knowing that narrative warriors select, distort, or invent facts, the canny citizen tends to ask “Who said it?” before asking “What did they say?” and then to disbelieve what they said if it serves a disagreeable party or purpose. In such circumstances, how is any conversation possible?
The routine mendacity of politicians over the last few decades has desolated the civic commons, once a rich domain of broad agreements about what is real, what is important, and what is legitimate. We can’t blame only the politicians of course. From corporate PR campaigns to intelligence agency psy-ops, from internet censorship to government secret programs, we are awash in lies, deception, secrets, half-truths, spin, fraud, and manipulation. No wonder we are so prone to believe in conspiracies. Their building blocks are everywhere.
Here is the dark mirror. The rise in conspiracy theories reflects a power establishment shrouded in lies and secrets, which viciously persecutes anyone who, like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, pulls aside the veil.
This crisis in communication and sense-making has been long in the making. The attempt to bend truth to serve other ends has harmed the soul of language, diverting the creative power of word toward the maintenance of illusions. Consequently, our society as a whole is helpless to change its course. That would require agreement, the building blocks of which have turned to sand. I have watched this paralysis intensify for 20 years now. In 2007 I wrote an essay called The Ubiquitous Matrix of Lies, in which I said, “As we acclimate to a ubiquitous matrix of lies, words mean less and less to us, and we don’t believe anything any more. As well we shouldn’t! We are facing a crisis of language that underlies and mirrors all the other converging crises of the modern age.”
Our main engines of knowledge production – science, journalism, and the arts – once enjoyed robust, near-universal social legitimacy. Now each cult gleans through the stubble of the knowledge commons for grains of still-agreed upon fact to add to its army’s granary. The warring parties swiftly requisition any new crops the independent scientist, journalist, or philosopher might sow. If they resist, their crop is burned to the ground. Thus it is that the best journalists today are all independent or contribute to marginal publications: Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Diana Johnstone, Seymour Hersch…. They defy both cults’ narrative (Right and Left) and therefore, because they disabuse us of the caricature taped over the mirror, give us a chance to see some dark truths.
When Hate Hijacks Anger
The crisis in meaning has direct economic causes. It is hard to believe in the social project when one is economically insecure, politically disenfranchised, stripped of dignity, and cut off from participation in society as a full member. This has long been the condition of African-American and other brown people in America, along with women and those who deviated from social norms. Today, the same economic forces that required their oppression and profited from it have turned toward the white middle class. The Machine that once depended on white racism to maintain a brown underclass now devours its own, chewing up vasts swaths of middle America and spitting the gristle and bones onto the trash heap of disenfranchised irrelevancy.
Do I hear the reader protest at my drawing an equivalency between oppressed minorities, who have only external circumstances to blame for their poverty and despair, and the mostly white QAnons who, despite having so much more privilege, wallow in their white fragility, blaming everyone but themselves for their dead end lives, their involuntary celibacy, and their video game addictions? This kind of sanctimonious assessment, which is common in left-leaning social media comment threads, mirrors exactly standard racist canards about lazy, irresponsible black people who blame the system and refuse to take personal responsibility. Both refuse to look at the conditions that generate the choices they condemn.
The relevant question here is not who has suffered more, who is the biggest victim, who is the most oppressed and therefore the most deserving of compassion. The question is rather, What are the conditions that gave rise to Trumpism, and how do we change those? We must ask this question, unless our strategy is to be endless war against those we deem irremediably evil.
Watching an interview with the extremely penitent founder of 8chan (QAnon’s main forum), Frederick Brennan, I was moved by his description of typical 8chan users, particularly the “Incels” and those who’ve swallowed the “black pill.” The former term refers to men who are involuntarily celibate; the latter refers to nihilism. These by no means define the entire QAnon movement, but they offer a window to some of the social traumas driving it.
Displaying varying degrees of misogyny, the Incels draw a lot of condemnation. They are denounced for believing themselves “entitled to sex,” and reviled for displacing blame for their own failings onto women. We can denounce them and fight them online, call them out and cancel them, but can we see them as human? Can we see their frustrated yearning to love a woman, to raise a family, to contribute meaningfully to life? Frustrated desire naturally turns to violence, directed at others or oneself or both.
Again I hear a protest, “Fine for you as a straight white male to call for compassion for these perpetrators and their avatar, the perpetrator-in-chief Donald Trump, but what about compassion for the victims? They need it even more.” To that I say: as a matter of sheer practicality, it is precisely compassion for the victims that requires compassion for the perpetrators. Compassion enables us to quell the violence at its source. Compassion isn’t the same as giving someone a free pass or allowing them to continue harming others. Compassion is the understanding of another being’s inner and outer condition. With this understanding, one can effectively change the conditions that generate harm. It is precisely the same logic that leftists use when talking about crime. Instead of waging an endless war on criminals, let’s look at the conditions that breed crime. What makes someone a drug dealer, a robber, a gang member? What conditions of trauma and poverty? Following the trail of these questions, one may arrive at root-level responses.
Whether we are talking about the inner city youth growing up in extreme trauma and deprivation, or the white Incel living in his parents’ basement with only his despair, his student debt, and his video games for company, we must be careful not to impute helplessness onto these victims of circumstance. There is no circumstance too oppressive for the human being to transcend. There is a place for messages like “Stop being a victim. Take ownership of your life. Stop asking for charity.” Crucially though, these messages will be useless, counterproductive even, if they come from a place of superiority or disgust. It cannot be, for example, the privileged white person telling the ghetto dweller to get his act together. Such messages have to come from a full appreciation of the anguish and misery of the oppressed condition, and a genuine vision of the greatness of those in it. Yes, greatness. It is hypocritical and pointless to call someone to greatness without believing in their greatness. And this belief cannot be a mere spiritual ideology. For these reasons, usually it is only other black people who can effectively exhort African-Americans to take responsibility for raising themselves up, and it is usually other men who can do the same for the Incels. I know people who say their lives were saved from addiction and despair by this kind of “tough love.” We just have to keep in mind both words of that phrase: the love as well as the toughness. If you secretly despise those you are trying to help with your tough love, you will hinder not help. To transcend one’s conditions requires courage. It is a lot easier to be brave when someone knows you are brave.
One of my favorite quotes, by Viktor Frankl, will help illustrate these points: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” One can feel truth ringing through these words. Yet obviously, their application would not be to visit a concentration camp, quote it to the prisoners, and then walk away. The right application is to one’s own circumstances. The words ring the bell of bravery; having acted from it, one may then ring it for others who may be in similar circumstances.
Let’s be clear that compassion is not the absence of anger. I am not asking the abused or the oppressed not to be angry. Quite the contrary – anger is a sacred force. It arises in response to confinement, violation, or threat (to oneself or in witness to another). It is key to social change, because it supplies the energy and courage to break free of familiar holding patterns.
Hate is the result of a narrative hijacking anger and channeling it onto convenient enemies. Hate preserves the status quo. Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.”
Once anger becomes hate, one no longer has an accurate understanding of the situation. Hate interposes a projection in front of an adversary, making them appear both more terrible and more contemptible than they actually are. Therefore, hate is an obstacle to victory in a fight. To win, one must be in reality, accurately understanding the opponent. With that understanding, the fight may no longer be necessary – another response may present itself. Or not. Sometimes forceful intervention is necessary to prevent harm. Sometimes the abused, the persecuted, the oppressed need to fight back, go to court, run away, or enforce a boundary. Sometimes they need allies in doing that. Sometimes abusers need to be physically restrained so that they do no further harm. But when it comes from hate rather than anger, the goal of force undergoes a subtle shift. It becomes no longer to stop harm, but to inflict harm – to avenge, to punish, to dominate – in the name of stopping harm. To quote Dr. King once again, “Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.” Please meditate on these words. It looks to me like such a cancer is spreading in America, with precisely the effects on its national “personality” that King predicted.
In the end, the formula for “saving the world” cannot be victory in an epic battle of Good versus Evil. (That in fact is QAnon’s formula.) Since the two sides appear, from the close election, to be nearly equal, if it comes to war then Good, in order to overcome Evil, must become better at war than Evil – better at violence, better at manipulation, better at propaganda, better at deception. In other words, it must cease to be Good. How many times have we seen this play out in history, when the people’s liberation movement becomes the new tyranny?
Already it is happening. In my youth it was the conservatives who were the main instigators of censorship, burning Beatles albums, removing evolution from science textbooks, suppressing sexuality in literature. They were also the main manufacturers of consent, manipulating the media to maintain a state of constant war. Now it is the “left” who has most enthusiastically taken up the weapons of information warfare, with its deplatforming campaigns, cancel culture, and suppression of dissent. I put “left” in quotation marks because the actual left was the first victim of the new censorship, which began with the demotion of socialist and anti-war websites in Google search and social media. Facebook and Google still suppress this type of website by giving weight in their algorithms to “authoritative sources”; that is, the voice of the authorities. Now the ranks of the censored expand to include alternative medicine sites, vaccine skeptics, critics of 5G technology, and dissenters from Covid-19 public health policy.
Surely, some of those censored are purveying false information; just as surely, not all of it is false. True or false, the suppressed viewpoints have one thing in common – they clash with the narratives and interests of established corporate and political powers. Properly speaking, opposition to those powers defines the left, not the right. It is as if we are approaching a political pole reversal. As with reversal of earth’s magnetic poles, considerable chaos precedes such a realignment. It hasn’t happened yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years the Republican Party becomes the party of the poor and working class, while the Democratic Party becomes the chief representative of the elites, Wall Street, large corporations, and the military-industrial complex. Judging by Joe Biden’s cabinet picks, this process is well underway. That would be a welcome change from the situation of the past 30 years, in which both parties give lip service to the people while serving the interests of the corporate-financial-military elite.
Redeeming the Black Pill
Earlier I used the term the “Black Pill.” Nihilism, of course, is no mere philosophical position, but the intellectual window-dressing on a psychological state of despair. In fact, this despair is always latent in modern society, because (1) Its reigning reductionism renders the universe into a meaningless scribble of atoms and void; (2) Its reigning theory of life tells us we are here to survive and reproduce; (3) Its reigning economics directs our creative energies toward unfulfilling work and mindless consumption, and (4) Its dominant social patterns cut us off from nature, community, place, and the experience of belonging. For a while, rapid increases in wealth and dazzling technical achievements kept the despair at bay. But it was there all long, a gnawing void at the heart of the ideology of progress. It was there all along, an inner poverty mirroring the destitution progress had wreaked upon other cultures and non-human beings. It was there all along, our own shadow that followed us as we raced toward a Utopia ever just at the horizon. Now as the glamour of progress dissolves, as our exhaustion mounts, and as we face the sobering realization that the horizon grows no closer no matter how fast we run, despair overtakes us at last.
Nihilism is a natural response to the shoddy and tired myths offered to us as sources of meaning. How many of us have had experiences directly contradicting what our main epistemic authority (science) tells us is possible? How many of us sequester narrative-busting data points in a separate mental compartment, living more or less in official reality but unable to wholeheartedly believe in it?
One reason that cults and conspiracy theories are so compelling is that they gather threads snipped away from official reality and weave them into another fabric. Some of those threads may have been snipped because they are simply untrue, and have no place in anyone’s reality. Others may have been snipped because they clash with the color scheme of the main fabric; that is, they disturb reigning institutions and paradigms. These are the threads we must weave into any tapestry of meaning that could be a satisfying successor to today’s dominant political narratives.
What I am saying is that some of the claims that weave through the conspiracy narrative merit attention. The delusional nature of the narrative does not invalidate all of its threads, and we should not dismiss everything conspiracy theorists say just because they said it – especially when our information gatekeepers malign and suppress genuine dissent as conspiracy theories, disinformation, and Russian propaganda.
Starting in 2017, the US government issued a series of disclosures of numerous UFO sightings by trained military observers, sometimes accompanied by video. Basically, it confirmed a theory that it and the mainstream media had for decades vigorously ridiculed as the province of cranks, crackpots, and conspiracy theorists. This revelation joins numerous other publicly acknowledged government and corporate conspiracies: COINTELPRO, Operation Paperclip, Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Iran-Contra, the CIA’s running of drugs into American inner cities, the FBI’s sabotage of civil rights groups, and many more. Despite this record, the media and government pretend all this is in the past and they are not today deceiving the public in service to their own power. Come on, people. Can we exercise a bit of skepticism when it comes to the narratives of established power?
When the meaning offered us excludes obvious facts, direct experience, and our hearts’ recognition of truth, no wonder so many of us lapse into nihilism, thinking that life and the universe itself is meaningless. That nihilism and the latent despair that drives it was QAnon’s spawning ground. The same ground spawns mindless consumerism, technology fetishism, the hypnotic myth of progress, and the spectacular psuedo-dramas of politics, sports, and entertainment. These are the spawn and also the ground, comprised within what Guy Debord named “The Society of the Spectacle.” Any edifice of meaning collapses around the hollow core of its fundamental inauthenticity.
The hunger for the real that gnaws at the Spectacle’s subjects cannot be met from within the Spectacle itself. Online experiences may assuage the nihilism and despair, but they cannot fully meet it. Only direct, sensory, multi-dimensional relationship can. Ultimately this, and not intellect, is the source of meaning.
The Black Pill is the distillation of cultural despair. It spreads from one dispossessed person to another, leaching its poison into the body politic. The frustrated desire of the Incels morphs easily into racial hatred and sexual violence. The nihilism of the Black Pills finds relief in grandiose fascist stories of past and future greatness.
The situation is closely analogous, as Chris Hedges describes it, to 1930s Germany, where just as today “…the spiritually and politically alienated, those cast aside by the society, [were] prime recruits for a politics centered around violence, cultural hatreds and personal resentments.” Their rage, he observes, then as now, was directed in particular at the liberal political intellectuals who had abdicated their proper role within capitalism, which is to soften its rough edges, mitigate its worst tendencies, and wrest a fair share of its wealth for the working class. American liberals performed that role admirably from the 1930s through the 1960s and even into the 1980s, before, as Hedges puts it, they “retreated into the universities to preach the moral absolutism of identity politics and multiculturalism while turning their backs on the economic warfare being waged on the working class and the unrelenting assault on civil liberties.” In the 1990s the Democratic Party (like Labour in the UK and various social democratic parties in Europe) began to romance Wall Street and the transnational corporations. They consummated their marriage in the Obama era and bore a child called totalitarian corporatism, which vies with its rival, Trumpian neofascism, for our future.
The closeness of the election shows that these two futures hang in near perfect balance. Is there a third option? There is, but it depends on building bridges across the most forbidding fault lines of our fragmenting social landscape.
The Incels, Black Pills, and QAnons show us in magnified form the dispossession of a vast swath of middle America (dispossessed of hope, meaning, and belonging, and increasingly economically dispossessed as well). They join the traditionally dispossessed racial and ethnic minorities, but not, tragically, as their allies. Instead they turn their rage on each other, leaving little energy to resist the continued plunder of the commons. The two main cults each offer their followers a proxy target – a caricature of the other side – for their rage.
In light of this tacit collusion, one wonders if both are not two arms of the same monster.
The Tide of our Times
For any of this to change, we must be willing to see past the caricatures. Caricatures are not without truth, but they tend to exaggerate what is superficial and unflattering while ignoring what is beautiful and subtle. Social media, as described in Netflix’s documentary The Social Dilemma, tends to do the same, chiefly by herding users into reality-proof echo chambers and keeping them on-platform by hijacking their limbic systems. They are part of the apparatus that channels popular rage – a precious resource – into populist hate. QAnons and Black Lives Matter protesters actually have a lot in common, starting with a profound alienation from mainstream politics and loss of faith in the system, but having been maneuvered into false opposition they cancel each other out. That is why compassion – seeing the human beneath the judgments, categories, and projections – is the only way out of the social dilemma.
Compassion is the tide of our times. Perhaps that is why increasingly furious attempts to sow hatred are required to maintain the psychic conditions for a control-based society. It takes more and more propaganda to keep us divided. A person in the online community I host described her stint going door to door in Iowa as an Andrew Yang campaign worker. Her strongest impression was of an intense desire among these common folks for unity, an end to the strife. Maybe we are closer to social healing than online behavior, with its vitriol and venom, would indicate. Hate is usually louder than love – in society and within ourselves. What will happen if we listen to the quieter voices?
Underneath the distorted and betrayed hopes of the QAnons lies the authentic hope that had to be there in order to be betrayed and distorted in the first place. It is the same hope that came out with Obama’s election: change, a new beginning. It is the same hope that Trump invoked: Make America great again. Today the same perennial hopefulness rises again among Biden voters.
How can the same hope animate forces that seem diametrically opposed? It is because the distorting lens of us-them thinking diffracts it into two, making us think that change will come through defeat of the enemy presented us. Dehumanization is a primary weapon of war (making the enemy despicable), just as it is the template of racism, sexism, and the reduction of all that is sacred. It is precisely the opposite of what is needed if we are ever to pull together.
For cliches about solidarity, unity, coherence, and reconciliation to become real, we have to look into the dark mirror of all we judge. We have to learn to draw meaning from a new story that isn’t about triumph over the Other. We have to put down the lenses of judgment and ideology, to see with new eyes the people and information our stories had banished. That is how we will forge an unstoppable populism. Let the unlearning begin.