Those of us on the left find ourselves in a nasty bind these days – a bind characteristic of half a century of deterioration of left power and alternatives to neoliberalism (which, its name notwithstanding, is clearly an ideology of the right) – that makes it hard to critique the so-called center left, which is really well right of any reasonable definition of center, without immediately having to counter those from the far right who are critiquing the same center left positions/institutions/individuals through recourse to conspiracy theoretical, racist, and xenophobic tropes.
Case in point, Charles Koch though he may not be, Bill Gates is definitely not a friend to the aspirations of the global poor or left forces struggling for a more just and sane future. In response to a hagiographical New York Times profile of Gates, I wrote this piece over the weekend; however, no sooner did I publish it than I came across BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick’s article, “Bill Gates Conspiracy Theories Have Circulated For Years. It Took The Coronavirus Pandemic To Turn Him Into A Fake Villain.” I’ve followed – from the same distance I’ve followed the evolutions of the QAnon conspiracy theory – the news around Plandemic, and understand that a great many people (and perhaps even more bots) believe, at some level, that Gates, George Soros, and who knows which other “liberal” figures are conspiring to inject people with mind control devices, finally achieve world domination, etc.
I remember my own first frightening encounter with the deep well of YouTube conspiracy theories when, for about a week in the spring of 2008, I started to question if everything I knew about tap water and HIV/AIDS was horribly wrong. Thankfully, the red pilling didn’t take, but, in the process, I became deeply alarmed about what social media and online content were doing to people’s minds, my own included. (I encourage everyone to read Zeynep Tufecki’s excellent book, Twitter and Tear Gas, for a deep dive on strategies for and implications of use of social media for left organizing and social movements.) As with the geopolitics I wrote about yesterday, such “technosociology,” to use Tufecki’s term, is mind-bogglingly complex, and I won’t pretend to attempt a comprehensive analysis here. A key problem, though, has been the hysteria of liberals and centrists (see #Russiagate) around post-truth in the wake of the 2016 election. In fact, I’d venture that what post-racialism was to the media and pundit classes after Obama’s election in 2008, post-truthism has been to the last four years. We can hope that from Polyannaish thesis, to Chicken Little-esque antitheses, we may yet see a more nuanced and humble synthesis, but I’m not holding my breath.
Anyway, the problem, as my piece yesterday makes clear, is that this country’s elite military, political, and media institutions have been lying for centuries about our politics and history. Some might argue that the social media-fueled conspiracy-theoretical lies of both the hysterical center and white supremacist/fascist right are of a qualitatively different character than the lies of generations past, but in my view, such facile embrace of idiotic falsehoods – say of claims about Gates and Soros, or the “facts” outlined in the Steele Dossier – is not a new phenomenon when considered in view of the long history, in this country, of widespread belief of vicious lies. I’m thinking back to the witch trials; the noble savage-cannibal dichotomy; the whole constellation of racist myths about black people that were used to justify slavery; anti-Papist notions, the popularity of which accompanied rising rates of Irish migration to the United States; The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; a whole slate of Sinophobic and anti-Japanese stereotypes; and on to the contemporary stable of hateful inanities and false assertions that underpin much of our contemporary discourse around immigration (anti-Mexican), “defense” (Islamphobic), health (anti-Vaccine), etc., etc. (See “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”)
But we can certainly say, as did Childish Gambino, about our current era: Because the Internet, and while the lies themselves may not be qualitatively different than lies past, the medium is such that – the telling and spreading of lies being, arguably, in impact, a nonlinear phenomenon – with the unprecedented speed and scale of the propagation of conspiracy theories and the like, we are dealing with a new phenomenon, even if the lies themselves are essentially old hat.
Coming back to the handwringing around the deterioration of trusted institutions and a common idea of truth: One, I don’t think this idyllic past ever existed, and two, to the extent that such institutional actors – say in our political and media spheres – are interested in “restoring” trust, a great first step would be ceasing to tell lies, mislead people, and generally betray their trust. Just this morning, here’s the New York Times reporting on “The Price of a Virus Lockdown: Economic ‘Free Fall’ in California” – this, even though, there seems to be growing evidence that not the lockdowns, but the pandemic itself and its direct consequences are the key cause of the economic devastation. Go ahead, the Times headline seems to imply though, reopen the economy already. To end the “free fall.” I dare you.
It’s idiotic, but this is what we get from our paper of record every day. This gutless hedging. This inane both-sides-ism. My friend Emily reached out this morning distressed about the incident of “white weaponizing 911” captured in a viral video taken in Central Park yesterday in which a black male birdwatcher – having apparently asked a white female person to leash her dog (in an area where it is clearly marked forbidden to have your dog off leash) – has the police called on him by the dog owner, who goes on to report over the phone, in hysterical tones, that “an African American man” is threatening her life and her dog.
“Please send the police, now!” she concludes. Something like that. All the while, the black birdwatcher does not move from where he stands, and his only words in the video are to ask her please not to come close to him, when she aggressively approaches, and then, at the video’s conclusions, a “Thank you,” which has now echoed around the country and the world.
To some stories, there are not two sides. Or, put differently, more or less every story is multi-faceted and multi-sided, but some perspectives and versions have more substance, merit, and veracity than others, and we should not engage in false equivalency in the face of divergent claims that can be objectively judged on their merits. When a white woman puts a black man’s life at risk by calling the police on him on false pretenses in a United States where black men have been lynched and murdered owing to just such false claims for centuries, this is not an instance of he-said-she-said. When people claim that this country is post-racial (which, strangely, they don’t so much anymore), that is not just an opinion. It is demonstratively false based on copious historical, journalistic, sociological, and economic evidence. When someone surreptitiously vaping on a bus flies into an unhinged rage at a stranger for asking him to stop vaping, that is not a simple disagreement between individuals, but reflects a profound ideological difference between valuation of public space and public goods, and devaluation of the same, and should be judged as such (though take this instance with a grain of salt, as I was the stranger).
Climate denialism and climate science are not two opinions on equal footing, and claims that drinking bleach will cure COVID-19 should not be covered with anything but derision.
And yet, the corporate media – including its must revered institutions – continue, on a daily basis, to engage in just the sort of obfuscation which lends undue credence to objectively meritless opinions/claims. More from the Times today: Headlines like “A Dozen States Show Uptick in Cases, as National Picture Improves” and one since revised that seemed to imply that the lack of data on employee illness, as meatpacking plants reopened, was not the responsibility of the meatpacking plants which are refusing to disclose the data.
Is it any wonder people doubt their ability to discern truth, or something approximating it, by reading such a paper?
But back to Gates and Koch for a moment. I wrote over the weekend that, although the two men, superficially, seem to be separated by significant ideological differences, both of them/their foundations have histories of donating to ALEC. Akela Lacy has this piece in The Intercept today which outlines that:
Senate Republicans’ top priority for the next coronavirus relief bill, which would protect employers that face lawsuits if their workers get sick or die of Covid-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — on the job, is the culmination of a decade-old effort by conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
This is the sort of underlying alignment if interests and priorities that unites billionaires, of superficially divergent political orientations, like Gates and Koch. Meanwhile, it’s being reported by The Wire that, in India, an 11-year-old boy pedaled a tricycle cart 600 kilometers to get his disabled parents safely home during the lockdown. Such is the obscenity of the world in which we live.
I’ll end by quoting at some length from Danny Sjursen’s latest piece for TomDispatch, “The Coming of a Social-Distancing Version of War: The Future of Forever War, American-Style,” by way of following up on yesterday’s piece:
Most disturbingly, American social-distancing ways of war will likely operate smoothly enough without suppressing terrorist groups any more successfully than the previous versions of forever war did, or solving local ethno-religious conflicts, or improving the lives of Africans or Arabs. Like their predecessors, future American wars in cold blood will fail, but with efficiency and, from the point of view of the military-industrial complex, lucratively.
Here, of course, is the deep and tragic paradox of it all. As the coronavirus should have reminded us, the true existential threats to the United States (and humanity) — disease pandemics, a potential nuclear Armageddon, and climate change — will be impervious to Washington’s usual military tools. No matter the number of warships, infantry and armored brigades, or commando teams, none of them will stand a chance against lethal viruses, rising tides, or nuclear fallout. As such, the Pentagon’s plethora of tanks, aircraft carriers (themselves petri-dishes for any virus around), and towers of cash (sorely needed elsewhere) will, in the future, be monuments to an era of American delusion.
Moving forward, policymakers and the public alike may treat war with the same degree of entitlement and abstraction as ordering items from Amazon (especially during a pandemic): Click a button, expect a package at the door posthaste, and pay scant thought to what that click-request set in motion or the sacrifice required to do the deed.
We could all do with a little less delusion these days. In her book, Tufecki argues that a key strategy employed by state and corporate actors to undermine social movements is flooding media channels with junk information. Sometimes, to undercut collective action, it is sufficient to simply sow confusion and discord. From confronting the pandemic, to confronting climate crisis, to working to address the long-standing structural injustices that so disfigure the lives of so many around the world today, we should be striving to overcome the lies that are meant to divide us and drive us ever further into petty hatreds and bad fantasies, striving to find common ground in the obscene objective realities of the world as it is, obscene objective realities which no speed or volume of lies can obscure.