“If you’re not paranoid, you’re not paying attention,” has been a common refrain from the political fringe for many years. These days it’s not even confined to the fringe: believers in the deep state, in QAnon, and in Satanic pedophile rings have formed a crucial bloc of the electorate in the United States and elsewhere (last year’s German coup plotters are said to have been motivated in part by the supposed revelations of QAnon). At the same time, the sheer outrageousness of these beliefs and their almost nihilistic rejection of any traditionally neutral authority or knowledge has left them dismissed by outside commentators as social pathologies from which nothing constructive can be gained. Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum’s 2019 book A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy summed up such outlooks as “conspiracy without the theory,” while anti-vaccination protesters or opponents of carbon taxes have been diagnosed as “denialists,” whose core principles are said to be rooted in psychological imbalance rather than freedom of thought. So where, exactly, does personal conviction shade over into paranoia, and can there even be a consensus on the dividing line?
I have written elsewhere that familiar conspiracy theories about JFK or 9/11 – milestone events that reverberate widely but which are originally localized in time and place – might be disproved by basic logic as much as by exposing any gaps in their specific premises. Why would the conspirators gamble that a single, very visible roll of the dice would play out precisely to their advantage? Why would they engineer such elaborate cover stories that depend on the complicity of so many potential whistleblowers? If they’re already capable of murdering a president and destroying two giant office towers anyway, why would they even need to swing popular support to their cause with a big lie? Other theorists see the organic hierarchies of everyday politics and commerce as evidence of a sprawling secret agenda. But unless we want to live in a state of universal hunter-gatherer anarchy, it’s inevitable that our lives will be in some ways be shaped by the choices and decisions of several billion distant, anonymous people, not all of them well informed, selfless, or particularly competent. Call that a conspiracy if you wish, or just call it modern society as it’s evolved for several hundred years. And some conspiracism is little more than escapist entertainment: we may swear that a cabal of string-pullers control the world, but meanwhile we’ll still do our weekly shopping run and still have confidence in the reliability of our Netflix subscriptions.
And yet much of the broader malaise of our era derives not from baseless suspicions that this or that item of news is deceptive, but from a free-floating cynicism that’s been borne out by verified facts. Future historians, if there are any, may designate this age as the Long Crisis, a period of global uncertainty rooted in the end of post-World War II prosperity in the 1970s and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Since those years we have seen the inexorable military and economic ascendancy of one-party China; bitterly divisive presidential elections in the United States; a conspicuously shrinking middle class battered by polarization and addiction in many countries; the rise of a neo-imperialist, post-Soviet kleptocracy in Russia and an apocalyptic worldwide Islamist militancy; the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq, driven by unfounded charges repeated in major media outlets; an international recession resulting from blatantly unethical insider financial practices; mass shootings and terrorist attacks in many places; Brexit; Donald Trump; a planetary pandemic and its aftermath. Given all that, the existence of some malign force steering the course of civilization isn’t so implausible.
Dig deeper and more evidence appears. Across western nations since 2020, a much-publicized “reckoning” against racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination has prompted a Year-Zero overthrow – sometimes literally – of historic standards. Statues have been dismantled, streets and buildings have been renamed, literary and artistic canons have been reconfigured, lexical rules have been changed, and educational curricula have been reformatted to emphasize a fixed victim-oppressor dynamic over the ages which is somehow only now being properly challenged. This movement, and others like it, has been enforced not through universal approval, much less a plurality of votes, but through the Oceania-has-always-been-at-war-with-Eastasia dictates of social and other media, policed by insular cadres of educators and journalists. A virtual pipeline between pop culture and politics means that sanctioned viewpoints on any number of issues are cycled from television talk shows, Facebook and Twitter feeds, advertisements, and actual news, all the way back to the governments and corporations that sponsor them. The blurring of official policy into show business leaves us with an uneasy sense that public opinion is orchestrated out of some source beyond the public mood.
It gets weirder. The post-9/11 War on Terror has led to a permanent regime of state surveillance that’s only become more entrenched since the spread of the coronavirus, and the revelations of Edward Snowden and Wikileaks have showed leaders and security agencies violating the very values they claim to uphold, including the protection of their citizens’ privacy. Trust in the fairness of law took another hit with the 2016 release of the Panama Papers, leaked documents that detailed the offshore tax strategies of wealthy and well-connected individuals around the world. Exclusive summits of entertainers, investors, philanthropists, and politicians in Davos Switzerland and elsewhere have reinforced the stereotype of a transcontinental elite who together decide on the fate of the earth without any input from the powerless masses. Indeed, some of the most important and recognized figures in many fields are spouses or children of success: George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, and a cozy aristocracy of supermodels and movie stars.
Even independently accomplished men (and they are all men) like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Jeff Bezos, the Koch brothers, George Soros and handful of others have taken on the status of nonfiction Bond villains, wielding real or imagined dominion over everything that happens everywhere – mad geniuses whose impulses may affect the survival of financial networks, democracy, and the human race itself. Their influence may be overstated, but their private fortunes and their tentacular holdings are not. An American college admissions scandal in 2019 brought corruption into sharper focus, when it turned out that some rich and famous parents had bribed and cheated in order to get their kids into prestigious universities. Finally, add the tawdry Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair of the 1990s, then the serious criminal cases against Jeffrey Epstein, Peter Nygard, the NXVIM organization and various parishes of the Catholic Church, all involving sexual exploitation of minors by the moneyed and the privileged, and those clandestine Satanic pedophile rings don’t seem quite as farfetched.
Since the 1964 publication of historian Richard Hofstadter’s essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” conspiracy theories are sometimes referred to as “paranoid fantasies.” The implication is that, as negative as they are, paranoid fantasists nevertheless find a kind of gratification in attributing dire social or political conditions to a select set of enemies rather than to the ordinary randomness of human experience. Tilting everything back to an equilibrium of peace and justice, they contend, requires only the elimination of their preferred bogey – Bush, Clinton, the bleeding-heart liberals, the greedy capitalists, the alt-right, the woke left, whoever – and everyone’s problems will be over. There’s some truth to this criticism, and in a few instances the conspiratorial scenarios are so egregious their claimants have had to retract them (e.g. the legal penalties imposed on American radio personality Alex Jones, who asserted that the 2012 Sandy Hook atrocity was a staged hoax devised to suspend the rights of gun owners).
On the other hand, after several decades of hard lessons and broken promises, a healthy distrust of politicians, the press, and business would seem to be perfectly sensible. Ross Douthat in the New York Times has ventured that the definition of this has merely switched sides, such that what were once staples of educated progressive belief (e.g. the “media bias” posited by Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent) have migrated down to the lumpen proletariat: “The populist right’s attitude toward American institutions has the flavor of the 1970s – skeptical, pessimistic, paranoid – while the mainstream, MSNBC-watching left has a strange new respect for the FBI and the CIA…The evolving attitudes of right and left reflect their evolving positions in American society, with cultural liberalism much more dominant in elite institutions than it was a generation ago and conservatism increasingly disreputable, representing downscale constituencies and outsider ideas.” In any case, opinions on just who to blame and just what ought to be done may vary widely in coherence and constructiveness, but blithe confidence in the integrity of the System and its administrators isn’t anybody’s obvious answer.
In my 2016 book Here’s to My Sweet Satan, I argued that the occult wave of the 1960s and 70s presaged the later rejection of institutions and expertise we face nowadays. Hit supernatural stories including Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen made witchcraft, demonic possession, and Biblical prophecy newly relevant in the contemporary world (and not incidentally placed children at the center of the horror), while manias for Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, and the “Ancient Astronaut” conjectures of Chariots of the Gods? undermined the authority of conventional science and history. Couple those with a run of real crimes in world capitals and on Wall Street, and little wonder that so many people have put two and two together to come up with 666. Sure, there are no devil-worshipping VIPs conducting ritual sacrifices in the basement of a Washington DC pizza parlor and there is no undisclosed location where five or ten billionaires determine the future of humanity, but such myths elaborate on confirmed data; they aren’t wholly hallucinated out of mere delusions. Writing in the New Yorker on the spread of false or manipulated messages, Joshua Yaffa concluded in 2020, “The real solution lies in crafting a society and a politics that are more responsive, credible, and just. Achieving that goal might require listening to those who are susceptible to disinformation rather than mocking them and writing them off.” For myself, sometimes I just have to disengage from all the rational or irrational fears that pervade this period of the Long Crisis. The most reasonable response to them, in the end, may be to ignore the signs that portend an imminent dark age of ignorance and dread, and to put things into perspective by relaxing with some timely, timeless music.